Thanks to last week’s Autumn Statement, Northern Ireland’s politicians have an extra £250million to spend on infrastructure over the next four years. In deciding where best to spend this cash, they might want to take a look at Northern Ireland’s railway network.
By some measures our railways are a success. Passenger numbers rose by 96% between 2001 and 2013 and are projected to continue growing well into the next decade. New trains and the refurbishment of the Enterprise service have helped and the Executive has already committed money to a number of upgrades and refurbishments that are making journeys quicker and easier.
The Executive’s current strategy for Northern Ireland’s railways was outlined in 2014 when the Department for Regional Development, now the Department for Infrastructure, published its Railway Investment Prioritisation Strategy (RIPS).
As our neighbours across the Irish Sea have shown, railways are a cost-effective way to create jobs, reduce congestion and help the environment.
The strategy, which covers the years 2015-2035, doesn’t make for inspiring reading. This isn’t much of a surprise when one considers that the capital grant for Northern Ireland’s railways has averaged only £44million per annum in recent years.
With the maintenance of the current network and rolling stock fleet projected to cost some £620million over the next twenty years, this left the department little room for manoeuvre. Consequently, much needed projects such as the dualling of the Dargan bridge were put on the back burner and expansions of the network were mere aspirations.
This is a shame. As our neighbours across the Irish Sea have shown, railways are a cost-effective way to create jobs, reduce congestion and help the environment. Since devolution, Scottish governments have built or rebuilt five railway lines including, most famously, the Borders Railway which now stretches 35 miles from Edinburgh to Tweedbank.
These new lines have helped take commuters and tourists off the roads through providing a competitive alternative to the car. At a time when Belfast is suffering from some of the worst congestion in Europe, shouldn’t that cause us to stop and think?
More lanes and bus lanes have so far failed to ease the pain.
You might want to consider this next time you are stuck in traffic on the Newtownards Road, or the Saintfield Road or any of the major roads into town. These roads are some of the most congested in our city with major delays every day of the week. Yet for those of us who live in Saintfield, Comber, Downpatrick and Newtownards, these roads are the only way for commuters, students and shoppers to travel into Belfast. More lanes and bus lanes have so far failed to ease the pain.
One solution might be to look at rebuilding part of the old Belfast and County Down Railway. The route – perhaps better known today as the Comber Greenway – is largely still intact and could serve Connswater, Knock, Stormont and Dundonald, giving thousands of East Belfast’s residents a fast link into the centre of the city.
Better still, if the route was continued out towards Comber or Newtownards this railway could potentially take hundreds if not thousands of cars a day off the Newtownards Road. Further extensions to Ballygowan, Saintfield or Downpatrick could also be considered in due course.
Even before the Autumn statement Scotland, England and Wales were pressing ahead visionary road and rail projects.
The cost of such a scheme should not be prohibitively high. The Scottish government spent £10million per mile of the Borders railway, a scheme that shares many similarities to the one highlighted above. At this price the 10 mile stretch of line from Titanic Quarter to Comber at £100million would leave plenty of money to be spent on the York Street Interchange for instance
It would be a project that would deliver on reducing congestion, creating jobs and protecting the environment and which, if the Scottish experience is anything to go by, would deliver strong returns for Translink.
In all of this perhaps the Executive needs to have a proper rethink about its priorities. Even before the Autumn statement Scotland, England and Wales were pressing ahead visionary road and rail projects including HS2 and the Scottish Government’s new crossing across the Firth of Forth.
To date Northern Ireland’s leaders have failed to grasp the potential of big infrastructure projects and have been content to tinker about with the existing network. They should use this cash to change that.