Yesterday the draft recommendations of the ‘All-Island Strategy Rail Review’ were published by the Department of Infrastructure, alongside opening a consultation on those recommendations.
The draft report sets out 30 recommendations in total, with many focused on Northern Ireland. They include a new line from Londonderry to Portadown, reopening the Spur between Lisburn and Antrim, to open Belfast International Airport to rail passengers, and a new line from Portadown to Armagh as well as Lisburn to Newry. These proposals would see rail return to towns such as Strabane, Omagh, Dungannon and Banbridge.
The proposals however do not come without costs and the uncertainty of ‘experience over hope’. The estimated costs to Northern Ireland are in the region of £7.7Bn over 25 years. That is substantially more than Northern Ireland would expect to spend on Road building over a similar time frame. Added to a history of not fulfilling grand visions for infrastructure in the past, whilst these recommendations are welcomed the appetite to implement needs to be locked in at every level of governance in Northern Ireland from Westminster down.
And beyond this report, there are further opportunities to improve Northern Ireland’s rail infrastructure as improvements to commuter services were out of scope for this report and changing population densities may present opportunities to include Enniskillen.
Barry Hetherington, Deputy Chair of the Northern Ireland Conservatives said “As Conservatives, choice is a core tenant of our philosophy and giving the public and businesses choice of transport is part of that. For too long Northern Ireland has been corralled down a single choice road and that creates dependences and risks on motoring infrastructure and driving up costs for road users and the public at large.
“Improving the existing rail lines and adding new lines will give us choice and that is good for consumers. It is better for congestion too and there is therefore a knock-on benefit to our environment. It will create jobs and support industries in the construction process too.
“But let's be clear, this is a vision which comes with complex challenges on the engineering and construction sides as well as large costs. Experience tells us that the Northern Ireland Executive do not have the determination to follow through with tough choices.
“They have wasted time and money on deciding not to transform our Health System. They continue to waste money by not reforming our divided Education System or our woefully slow Justice System. Of course, they have also failed miserably on Infrastructure to date.
“This report was kicked off my Nicola Mallon as Infrastructure Minister, who famously could not Pedestrianize a short street in Belfast, and who dithered on both the York Street Interchange and Bangor Sea Front, harming our economy.
“If this vision is to ever see a spade in the ground, we are going to need different leadership in Northern Ireland. Parties who aren’t either trying to crash the economy deliberately to serve their single interest politics or through ignorant identity politics.”