A group that has lobbied for better railway infrastructure west of the Bann has expressed ‘shock’ after news of further days.
Rail campaign group ‘Into The West’ said it is ‘surprised and disappointed’ with the announcement that ‘yet another feasibility study’ is now required before the third and final phase of work to modernise the Derry-Coleraine railway line can progress.
On June 10, Infrastructure Minister Nichola announced that she wants to get phase 3 of the project ‘back on track’.
SDLP MLA for Foyle Mark H Durkan welcomed news of a ‘feasibility study’.
However, Into the West believe another feasibility study to be unnecessary and have demanded answers from the Infrastructure minister.
The group said the return of Stormont in January gave renewed hope that this ‘vital project’ for the north-west would be put back on track again.
“The Phase 3 work will cost £30m – a relatively small sum in infrastructure terms - and expectations were raised that it would be included in this year’s DFI budget,” Into The West Co-Chair Steve Bradley said.
“It therefore came as a shock and disappointment to rail campaigners when today’s budget announcement gave no indication of when the Phase 3 work would take place at all, and instead called for yet another feasibility study into it.”
Phase 3 work involves replacing the track between Downhill and Eglinton, and installing a new ‘passing loop’ for trains.
According to Into the West, once complete it will shave up to 10 minutes off the existing journey time - and more importantly double capacity on the line.
That would enable the introduction of a half-hourly service to Belfast, and the possibility of express trains to Belfast with journey times below 90mins.
The passing loop also creates the opportunity to locate it strategically to enable a new station at City of Derry Airport or Ballykelly – either now or in the future.
Into The West Co-Chair Steve Bradley commented: “Phase 3 is the key to improving rail in the north-west, reversing decades of east-west transport disparity here, and equipping our region to tackle congestion and climate change.
“The Minister has spoken repeatedly about improving public transport, enabling greener choices and addressing Northern Ireland’s regional imbalance – all of which gave us hope that this essential work would finally be funded. To be told instead that the only thing happening is yet another feasibility study is unacceptable.
“What has changed regarding the scope of this project to warrant another study? And why has the need for one never been mentioned before now?
“The conclusion to draw from this is that there is a risk Phase 3 may never happen at all now. Which would leave Derry with a lower standard of rail service than every town and village east of the Bann receives on the same line.”
‘KICKING THE CAN’
Into The West is ‘grateful’ that Minister Mallon has mentioned Phase 3 in her budget and understands the tough choices she has to make with restricted resources.
But they also fear this is ‘just another delaying tactic from DfI which declared its opposition’ to Phase 3 by cancelling the work when Stormont was suspended.
“We had hoped a new Minister would appreciate the significance of this project to the north-west and stand up to Civil Service negativity about it. In the absence of a credible explanation for why a new study is required, we must conclude that it is just kicking the can down the road.
“It feels like the rail equivalent of seeking endless business cases for Magee expansion, without ever actually delivering on it”.
Prior to this announcement Into The West had a meeting scheduled with the Minster for next week to discuss a range of rail issues facing the north-west.
The organisation says it will use that opportunity to seek an explanation for the new feasibility study, and to continue to press the case for Phase 3 to happen as soon as possible.
“The Derry-Belfast railway line is the busiest single track route in the UK and Ireland – carrying over three million passengers a year. It is unacceptable to leave such a popular route with life-expired track so degraded that it requires multiple speed restrictions and continual monitoring of its condition.
“The entire North-west is united in support of the Phase 3 works. Derry and Strabane Council has policy demanding it, the cross-border North West Regional Development Group have endorsed it, and thousands of people have signed a petition calling for it. Because nothing can be improved for rail in the west until this work is completed.
“We will therefore be demanding answers from the Minister as to why this long-delayed project now needs to jump through yet more hoops, and when it will finally take place.
“It is not enough to simply talk about climate change, increasing public transport and addressing regional imbalance – you have to take the decisions that will actually deliver for it beyond Belfast,” Mr Bradley concluded.
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