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Restored Western Rail Corridor will reinvigorate west

Irish Times -21st May 2005

Martin Mansergh

In recent years, greater financial latitude has made possible the selective restoration of abandoned transport infrastructure, including engineering feats of the 18th and 19th centuries.

One hundred and eighty years ago, it was possible to take the night boat along the Royal Canal from Mullingar to Dublin. Canal barges carried goods, up to 50 years ago. The restoration of the Ballinamore-Ballyconnell Canal, now the Shannon-Erne Waterway, for leisure purposes, to a state far more satisfactory than in its short-lived original period of operation, has had a tremendous impact on rural parts of counties Leitrim and Cavan. The Ulster Canal is a future project of Waterways Ireland, going beyond care and maintenance, that must await the decision of a restored Northern Executive.

The most notable rail restoration has been the reinstatement of the Harcourt Street line in Dublin as a modern tramway. It is good to see the Milltown viaduct in use again after 45 years.

All over the country, the rail network is undergoing renewal. Yet, waiting at Limerick Junction, one can still look down and see ironwork from the Belfast shipyard securing the rails, marked H & W 1903, and muse at all that has passed over it since. Old stations at Drumcondra, Foxford and Monasterevin have been reopened.

The part of the western rail corridor between Ballina and Limerick that was down to a solitary train in each direction before closure in 1976 now has, as a pilot project, a successful, well-used commuter service of eight trains a day in each direction between Ennis and Limerick. The Cork-Youghal line, closed to seaside excursion in 1981, is to be restored, initially to Midleton, as part of integrated strategic planning for the greater Cork area.

Communities up and down the west coast are determined to see the whole line between Limerick and Sligo restored. For over 20 years, the respected sociologist Fr Micheal Mac Greil SJ cut a forlorn figure in arguing this vision. He was even served with a bill by CIE for his legal action to prevent the track being lifted, but won the backing on this point of Seamus Brennan in his first term as transport minister in 1992.

Restoring an overgrown track and crumbling stations has the great advantage of no site acquisition costs attached or cumbersome planning procedures to go through. A conference in Castlebar on Friday of last week on "The Western Rail Corridor: A Regional Transport Initiative" was told that the restored line was a linchpin of the national spatial strategy in the west, connecting hubs and gateways, and four airports at Sligo, Knock, Galway and Shannon. The present estimated cost of euro350 million would be less than the individual cost of most big Dublin infrastructural projects. Sensible people see the necessity of easing acute development pressures on Dublin, by creating other poles of attraction.

There is a superficial case for focusing only on restoring the Limerick-Claremorris section. But that would only reinforce the disparity between Galway and the north-west, large parts of which have seen population decline by more than 50 per cent since 1926. In the case of motorways between Dublin and Dundalk and between Naas and Portlaoise, much extra benefit came when the separate sections were joined up.

Tourists are advised by guidebooks that there are only limited rail services in Ireland. If the western rail corridor (and the Athlone-Moate-Mullingar link) was restored, the whole system would be reconnected, and touring Ireland by rail (supplemented by bus) would be feasible again. Regional tourism growth, over concentrated in Dublin, needs rebalancing. This will help.

The conference was told that 8,000 containers from Mayo pass through Waterford port annually, and that two firms alone in Ballina and Castlebar despatch 11,000 containers. The opportunity would be there to do a lot more of this business by rail, in a way that would by-pass more congested routes round Dublin.

The running down of freight by CIE, while it may make commercial sense to them, is not in the public interest. Few lines are overloaded, especially at night. Scotland, a country the same size and with a similar population of 5 million to Ireland, has allocated euro44 million over a three-year period to support rail freight.

All the main political parties were present in force in Castlebar to lend their support to the project, including Government Ministers Martin Cullen and Eamon O Cuiv, Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny, and Labour's Michael D Higgins, with a good quorum from the Seanad.

It is a public transport project which will complement the modernised radial lines to the west from Dublin. A positive decision to rebuild the whole line, in consecutive phases, is now confidently expected from the Government within months, particularly since there has been a significant underspend so far in the public transport allocation for the BMW region under the current National Development Plan.

If parts of the country far from Dublin are given the infrastructural improvements at relatively modest cost that will make all the difference to people's lives, they will not begrudge the heavy investment that is required in and around the capital. There is often as much satisfaction in restoring something abandoned as building something entirely new.

The late John Healy wrote a book on the closure of the railway line as a metaphor for the abandonment of Charlestown and the north-west, based on Irish Times articles entitled "No one shouted stop". Just as Knock airport is a monument to the memory of Mgr Horan, the restored western rail corridor will be a testament to visionaries like John Healy and Fr Mac Greil, to the energy of the West-on-Track organisation and the Western Development Commission, the elected members and officials of all adjacent local authorities, and the Government that will have approved it.








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