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West=On=Track -News

Local groups demand railway revolution

Sunday Business Post 17th September 2006 

By Ken Griffin

It has been almost 20 years since the last passenger trains passed through Moate, Co Westmeath, but local publican William Allen is confident they will soon return. Allen is chairman of the Midland Railway Action Group, which is campaigning for the re-opening of the Mullingar-to-Athlone railway. He is hopeful about its prospects for success after several meetings with the Minister for Transport Martin Cullen, which were organised by former minister and potential general election candidate Mary O'Rourke.

''At our most recent meeting, the minister was impressed by our submission and agreed to examine it over the next four to six months,'' Allen said. ''It's not part of Transport 21 [the government's euro34 billion transport plan] but, as the minister said to us: 'Everything's not in and everything's not out.' He opened the door slightly for us." http://www.adireland.com/adclick.php?n=aab33c66

Things look less positive for Meath On Track, which is campaigning for the re-opening of that county's closed railways. According to its public relations officer, Proinsias Mac Fhearghusa, the group's only encounter with Cullen was at a stormy public meeting in January.

''There was a slight altercation between the minister and the public during which he told us: 'You can't just demand a railway,'" said Mac Fhearghusa.

He said the difference in the minister's attitude towards the Westmeath and the Meath campaigners could be explained easily. ''It's down to the constituencies. The government is confident of the return of two Fianna Fail TDs in Meath West and Meath East so they don't feel threatened," he said.

As a result, the group hopes to make rail re-opening into a major political issue in Meath in the run-up to the general election. Its plans are mirrored by similar rail campaign groups across the country. They hope that next year's general election will be the first where rail transport is a significant campaign issue as they seek to highlight the role of politics in Irish rail transport. The decision to open or close railway lines rests with Martin Cullen.

The re-opening of a railway is thus perceived as a political decision, something that was recognised as early as the 1970s when councillors in the west of Ireland formed the Western Intercounty Railway Committee to campaign for the reopening of the Western Rail Corridor (WRC). That campaign was seen as fitful and based on electoral considerations and was also reluctant to criticise the government.

Since the last election, however, businessmen and commuters have emerged as the driving forces behind the railway re-opening campaigns. The latest WRC campaign, West On Track, which was founded in 2003, plans to launch an aggressive political campaign.

''We think it's unacceptable that there was no time-frame given for the re-opening of the Sligo section of the railway in Transport 21," said a spokesman for the group. In an bid to counter such campaigns, the government has attempted to win the support of local transport activists.

In July, a report from the Midland Railway Action Group was received in person by Cullen. Cullen also has regular meetings with South East On Track, a group headed by Fianna Fail candidate Sean Connick.

It is campaigning for the re-opening of the New Ross line.

Meanwhile, construction work on the WRC looks set to start this year.

In Meath, government candidates are expected to play up Transport 21's promise to deliver the Navan to Clonsilla railway line by 2015, despite increasing anger from local campaigners.

''At this stage, it's wheeled out every election and then it's delayed," said Mac Fhearghusa.

After the last election, the hopes of Meath's rail campaigners were dashed when local TD and then minister for the environment Noel Dempsey allowed Meath County Council to lay a sewerage scheme along the Clonsilla line. Relocating the sewer is now a major obstacle to the reopening of the line.

Meath On Track is also angry that the existing freight railway between Navan and Drogheda has not been converted for passenger use.

''This is the temporary solution to the commuting problems of Meath," said Mac Fhearghusa. "At the moment, it takes two-and-a-half hours to drive to Dublin in the morning; you could do it in 65minutes on the Navan to Drogheda line. It would have a huge benefit for people's lives."

However, a spokesman for Irish Rail said it would be unsustainable to spend euro70 mill ion to euro100 million on upgrading the line as the Clonsilla line was contained in Transport 21.

Although Meath On Track claims that its campaigns have been hindered by a lack of government support, West On Track plays down claims that its success has been due to political lobbying. It is particularly angry about media claims that just 750 passengers a day would use the WRC.

''We have made our case successfully based on the facts that the west is the second fastest growing area of the country outside Dublin and that the line will link the third and fourth largest cities in the country," said a spokesman. The West On Track spokesman said the success of the Limerick to Ennis line showed how well the WRC would do.

Closed in the 1970s, the Ennis line, which was reopened in 1983, now carries 150,000 passengers a year. An Irish Rail spokesman said the services on the WRC would be operated by commuter railcars rather than Intercity trains. In fact, the only line being campaigned for which could see the use of Intercity carriages is the Athlone-to-Mullingar line, which was once part of the main line to Galway.

While local campaigners have focused on the line's potential as a commuter route, some believe it could cut half an hour from rail journeys between Galway and Dublin. Although the 2003 strategic rail review found that restoring the line would cost euro154 million, this estimate has since been cut to euro84million.

''It could be restored as a high-speed line. The track has excellent foundations. It would bring speedier access to the city," said Allen. The difficulty that all the groups face is demonstrating that the lines will be viable.

The physical presence of a railway line is no guarantee it will be used. For instance, the Limerick to Waterford line was almost shut in 2002 due to low passenger numbers and today just six services a day use the line.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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