The Department for Infrastructure has dismissed claims made by a local councillor that proposed upgrades to the Derry railway line have been delayed until 2022.
Phase 3 work on the line involves replacing the track between Downhill and Eglinton, and installing a new ‘passing loop’ for trains.
Once completed it will shave up to 10 minutes off the existing journey time and, more importantly campaigners say, double capacity on the line.
It would enable the introduction of a half-hourly service to Belfast, and the possibility of express trains to Belfast with journey times below 90 minutes.
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.
Until the Phase 3 works are completed, no significant improvements will be possible to rail in the west, and the east-west disparity in services will continue, rail campaign group Into the West has said.
Speaking at a meeting of Derry City and Strabane District Council's Environment and Regeneration Committee last Wednesday, People Before Profit councillor Eamonn McCann said he had been told that the planned railway work was to be postponed.
“I don’t want to be depressing anybody but I think we’re going to find out in the next few days that the upgrading of our rail network is going to be delayed even further,” he said.
“My source for this is workers and trade unionists on the railway and I’ve spoken to some of them at length over the past couple of days.
“I’d be very surprised if we don’t hear an announcement over the next seven days that the commencement of Phase 3 upgrades from Downhill to Eglinton is going to be pushed back to mid-late 2022.
“If that is postponed I’d have very serious concerns about whether we will ever see it at all.
“If we don’t see it then kiss goodbye to the idea of being able to take a train to Strabane and onwards through Omagh, the old Derry Road line and then the other direction to Letterkenny.
“I have no doubt at all that there is going to be an announcement.”
He asked for the council to ‘put a stamp on it’ by writing to the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) to say it won’t accept any further delays as Phase 3 has been talked about for years.
However, when contacted by the Derry News, a spokesperson for the Department of Infrastructure described Cllr McCann's claims in relation to the postponement of the railway work until 2022 as ‘inaccurate’.
The spokesperson said: “The previous Minister’s position on Phase 3 was that it was not planned within the next budget period (ending March 2021).
“However, Minister Mallon recently announced a commitment within her budget to get Phase 3 of the Derry – Coleraine rail line back on track.
“While an updated feasibility study is necessary after almost 10 years of delay, the Minister is fully committed to getting this work done at pace and to making progress for the people of the North West, who have waited too long for action to address regional imbalance and better connect communities.”
She continued: “To expedite this work, the Minister has asked that her Departmental officials engage with representatives from Into the West to discuss and update the terms of reference for this project to ensure that this project is developed in partnership with the local community.
“Once the terms of reference have been set, officials within the Department and Translink will seek to progress the development of the feasibility study and required business cases with a view to bringing forward proposals as quickly as possible.
“Minister Mallon has asked for the terms of reference to be set quickly to ensure that the updated study is completed at pace and is keen that progress is made during her current tenure.”
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