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D-Day is approaching for Western Rail Corridor

Western People - 26th January 2005


The proposed re-opening of the Western Rail Corridor has been discussed ad nauseum during the past ten years. But D-day is fast approaching, writes Christy Loftus.

The month of March is 'D' for decision time for the proposed re-introduction of the Western Rail Corridor connecting Sligo to Limerick and the south east.

In March it is expected that an expert working group under Mr Pat McCann, the chairman of the Jurys Doyle Hotel group, will deliver their findings relating to the feasibility of re-opening the line.

A measure of success has already been achieved with the re-introduction of rail services between Limerick and Ennis, a service that is performing ahead of expectations.

Yesterday, Mr McCann confirmed that the government appointed working group which includes representatives of West on Track and the western inter-county rail committee is on target to deliver their report to the Minister.

"We have a meeting scheduled for the end of February and I expect report will be available in draft form. We will have a final meeting to tidy up any loose ends before completing our task,' he said.

Mr McCann, a native of Ballymote in Co Sligo, declined to comment on the recommendations until such time as the Minister has been given the report. However it is understood that the report will be "positive" in relation to the development of the line.

The campaign for the re-opening of the line to Limerick is more than twenty years old and has been sustained, among others, by veteran campaigner Fr Micheál MacGréil. While the ultimate objective has not been achieved there has been some success in the re-opening of the Limerick/ Ennis stretch and a major achievement has been to retain the line intact.

According to Fr MacGréil the line from Sligo to Ennis has a value at least in the region of ¤500m. "It is not worth that to sell it but, at a minimum, it is worth that if one had to go out to buy the line,' he said. "With the trend in Britain and Europe towards more rail, the state and the people can be thankful that this asset has been retained and is available to be used."

The line of the track from Sligo runs through Collooney, Tubbercurry, Charlestown, Swinford, Kiltimagh, Claremorris, Ballindine, Milltown, Tuam, Ballyglunin, Athenry, Craughwell, Ardrahan, Gort and Ennis to Limerick which connects with Waterford and the south east.

The Western Rail Corridor campaign committee is seeking a government commitment to re-open the entire corridor from Sligo to Limerick within a specified time frame for both freight and passenger traffic; they want a commitment to specify the incremental phases against a specific timeframe; an instruction to Iarnród Eireann to programme the work within the current National Development Plan (NDP), and the establishment of a framework for local participation in overseeing the operation of services on the Corridor.

According to Mr Frank Dawson, Director of Services, Galway Community and Enterprise Unit, research has indicated that there is sufficient population in the catchment area to sustain the line on an economic basis.

The West on Track report of January, 2004, shows the Corridor serving fourteen towns, including three Gateway and Four Hub towns (as designated under the National Spatial Strategy).

There is presently a population of 480,000 and this is predicted to grow to 620,000 by 2016 and they claim that the entire cost of re-establishing the line is ¤310 million which compares with the cost of three miles of the Metro in Dublin or five miles of the Luas.

Under the NDP a sum of ¤477m was set aside for public transport in the BMW region while a sum of ¤2,574 was allocated for the East and South. The underspend on transport infrastructure in the BMW stands at E267m … almost sufficient to rebuild the line

When the social and environmental benefits are factored into the equation, the case for the re-introduction of the service is unanswerable.

Dawson argues that the funding of the railway need not interfere with spending on the planned road development under the NDP.

There is also an unanswerable case to the need to divert traffic and freight off the roads and onto the railways.

The N-17 (Galway to Sligo road) has 25,000 car users a day, making it the busiest single carriagway in the West of Ireland.

Every year, from Mayo and Sligo 105,000 tonnes of pulp wood is hauled by road to Waterford. A similar amount of pulp wood is hauled by road from Galway and Clare. A one person train operation could carry 780 tonnes, taking the equivalent of 20 lorry loads a day off the roads.

Dawson points out that there is need for a joint community/local authority/Iarnrod Eireann partnership to manage any new service on the Western Corridor and sees the need for innovative approaches in the management operation. The Local Government Act (2001) allows for this type of partnership approach under the County Development Board process and can facilitate the integration of the rail system into community based public transport solutions.

Recently a campaign has commenced to re-open the Navan-Dublin railway line. The integrity of this line has not been kept intact and would cost an enormous amount of money to bring back into service. This is not a worry for Fr MacGréil who claims that the Navan line should be re-opened, along with the line from Mullingar through Moate to Athlone. "These lines are needed to cater to the needs of commuters and to protect out investment in the roads and the environment.

"It is up to us, to the people and the public representatives to ensure that the Western Corridor does not lose its place in the queue to these other projects." Fr MacGréil said the people who "spend the money" were not giving sufficient share to the West and there was an attitude among economists and civil servants that the West should be "gentrified" rather than developed.

The economists always make the argument about the need for "critical mass." Their view is that if the critical mass does not exist then you can't have it (railway). "We look at it differently. We look to development for the future. The services should be provided before the 'critical mass' becomes the problem, as happened in Dublin.

"We (railway campaigners) look to the future. We see a growing population and we believe transport services should be provided ahead of that population expansion. Rail is an obvious way to cater for the future transport needs," he said.

He agreed that community involvement and commitment would be an essential part of the development of the Corridor and that the public and Chambers of Commerce would have to come in behind and use the rail. He also argued that special incentives should be put in place to attract new industry to the catchment area along the corridor.

"Our roads are over-used now. The situation will get worse but with a Western Rail Corridor crossing the existing lines radiating from Dublin (Sligo-Dublin; Westport, Galway, Limerick and Cork-Tralee the entire country will be opened up to rail users. This is not a pipe dream, we are not sentimentalists yearning for a return to steam engines."

"We are looking to a future where the railway will play a key role, where we can look to railway holidays, to an International Railway at Charlestown (commuting with Knock Airport) and at Limerick (connecting to Shannon) and visitors arriving in Waterford and Cork by boat having the entire West of Ireland opened up to them by rail."

Fr MacGréil said he was confident the report of the Expert Working Group would be positive and he understood there was a commitment that the recommendations would be put before the cabinet for early consideration. And he was positive about the outcome of the cabinet discussions. "If the cabinet response is not what we want, then the campaign goes on. The Western Corridor may become an election issue, but I hope it won't come to that.

"The campaign has been across Parties and I am confident the report will be excellent and will command support. This is the people's railway. Iarnród Eireann and the government only hold it in trust. The local community and the local authorities will have a role.

The day is coming when people will have no comfort driving their cars unless there is a railway running side by side with the road."

And he sounded a warning for any civil servants who might incline to put the report in the MAD file.

"Mons James Horan alerted me to the MAD file," said Fr MacGréil. "It is the Maximum Administrative Delay file.

"I want to see this Corridor opened before I die. And while that is not the most important thing, I don't have the time now to be dealing with MAD files."








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