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West=On=Track -News

Let's put the west back on track

Irish Times June 12th 2006

We need a well integrated and connected transport network to counter the concentrated economic activity on the east coast, writes Lisa McAllister.

Last Wednesday's Irish Times article by Frank McDonald argued: "The Government ignored doubts over the Western Rail Corridor" and implied there was no case for its reinstatement or that its potential viability had not been properly scrutinised.

This is simply not true - in fact, the opposite is the case. Nor is it the case that money earmarked for the corridor should be spent on the roads. Quite simply it is not either/or - the western region badly needs both.

Putting the region in context, there is a population of 742,877 in the seven counties served by the Western Rail Corridor (Census 2002) mostly in the immediate catchment area.

Add to this the Central Statistics Office's population projections which indicate that the west will be the second fastest-growing region, increasing its population by 35 per cent by 2021. The border population is expected to rise by 26 per cent and that of the midwest is expected to rise by 20 per cent by 2021. If these people are not catered for, they could always add to the gridlock in Dublin.

The Government set up an expert group that was independently chaired by former chief executive of Jurys Hotel Group Pat McCann.

Its task was to examine the case for reopening the Western Rail Corridor and this group recommended its immediate reopening on a phased basis.

As part of this group, the Western Development Commission agrees that investment in the corridor makes economic sense. Unlike many major capital investment programmes, the basic infrastructure for the Western Rail Corridor is already in place - the land is in public ownership and there are no planning issues.

Iarnród Éireann was a full member of the expert group that asked internationally respected consultants FaberMaunsell to study the capital cost estimates and the potential demand for the line. FaberMaunsell put the capital costs of restoring the line from Sligo to Ennis at euro365.7 million, or just 1 per cent of the total budget of the transport investment programme - Transport 21.

Phase one - from Ennis to Claremorris - would cost euro168.3 million, less than half of 1 per cent of Transport 21's total budget.

Public transport spending in the Border, Midland, West (BMW) Region under the National Development Plan was just over half of that forecast for 2000-2005.

This compares with a 7 per cent overspend in the South and East region. Phase one of the Western Rail Corridor could be completed for a fraction of the euro2.5 billion-plus underspend in the BMW region at the end of 2005 and it could be completed in 18 months unlike many other measures proposed under Transport 21.

Services on the corridor will link existing rail lines emanating from Dublin, improving rail connections and integrating the rail network more comprehensively.

We believe this will generate additional demand with many new commuting services possible.

Also the Western Rail Corridor would provide much needed improved connections to Knock airport, the only international airport in the BMW region. This airport is growing rapidly with passenger numbers rising 42 per cent in 2004-2005. The rail corridor will also provide improved access to Shannon International Airport.

As well as having thousands of small and medium enterprises, the region also has major clusters of big international businesses ranging from medical devices to IT.

To compete globally these firms need a serious upgrade of the region's transport infrastructure as the movement of people and knowledge is essential to them.

Also, tourism, an important element in the region's economy - where the trend is to shorter more frequent holidays, needs much better transport access to and within the region.

There are two million bus passengers and over seven million cars travelling the Sligo-Limerick route annually. The N17 route at Claregalway is one of State's busiest. Providing a rail service will in itself generate demand. This has been the experience with the opening of the Limerick-Ennis line. Passenger numbers in the first year of operation exceeded all expectations.

Currently there are no plans for the reintroduction of services as far as Sligo, which is experiencing exceptional growth, and will be the only gateway town whose rail link to other gateways is via Dublin.

This strategic rail line, when reopened, will link Limerick, Galway, and Sligo, with onward connections to Cork and Waterford. It will also link these cities to Ennis, Tuam, Castlebar and Ballina via a public transport network as advocated in the National Spatial Strategy.

Furthermore, in linking Sligo to Limerick, 14 smaller and medium towns along the route will reap direct and almost instantaneous benefits. The reopening of the Western Rail Corridor is stated Government policy.

A well integrated and connected transport network is what the country needs to grow in a more sustainable regionally balanced manner, providing a counter attraction to the concentration of economic activity on the east coast.

Improved accessibility will help the region to capitalise on the advantages of living and working in the west - as does the the message of the Western Development Commission's Look West campaign that encourages people to move there.

Lisa McAllister is chief executive of the Western Development Commission.

© The Irish Times 12/06/06








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