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Government Thinking on Railways now on Right Track

The Irish Times 18th September 2006 


Mícheál Mac Gréil, S.J.

Recent indications point to Cabinet approval for the phased restoration of the Western Rail Corridor from Limerick/Ennis to Collooney/Sligo. This is a major victory for common sense and democracy, which grants a modicum of fair play to the West of Ireland and is a concrete example of balanced regional development.

This rail corridor will link Sligo to the major towns and cities of the West, Mid-West, South-West and South of Ireland, as well as connecting all the radial mainline railways in and out of Dublin (apart from the Dublin-Belfast line).

From a social and economic perspective the reopening of the railway from Ennis to Collooney will involve the provision of a major piece of transport infrastructure. By generating development and facilitating commuters and regular travellers, it will be both "front-loading" infrastructure and responding to growing 'critical mass'.

The Western Rail Corridor has significant freight potential, particularly in relation to timber and export-import liner trains from the West and North-West to the major seaport of Waterford. The line also links the three international airports of Ireland-West Knock, Shannon and Cork.

When the environmental benefits of the greater use of railways are added to the points already mentioned, the wisdom of the Government's decision (supported by the opposition parties) becomes crystal clear to any objective observer.

The current developments have come about after a long and arduous campaign, spearheaded by the Western Inter-County Railway Committee, which focused in the first instance, on preventing the removal of the track and preserving the thoroughfare in public ownership. The section from Claremorris to Collooney was not saved from abandonment until a decision in the early '90s by the then Minister for Transport, Mr. Séamus Brennan T.D. He gave an assurance that the line would be preserved until the Government reached a decision on its future, which it did in November 2005 with the announcement of Transport 21.

By the late 1990s a new approach to railways was becoming apparent. In Ireland, the Government invested in track renewal, the upgrading of the main lines and the re-introduction of light-rail transport in Dublin city. It is worth noting that Iarnród Éireann's engineers and permanent way division managed to deliver the renewal programme on time and under budget, an unprecedented achievement at the time.

The folly and short sightedness of the closures and abandonment of previous decades were now exposed. The decision makers failed to take the longer view at the time. Two well-argued reports produced for our committee in 1981 and in 1992 were never taken seriously. In the context of Transport 21 they make interesting reading today!

The evolution of the WRC's case over the past four years was boosted by the establishment in 2003 of the West on Track community campaign, which came about as a direct result of the negative conclusions of the Strategic Rail Review in relation to the Western Rail Corridor, and the apparent lack of support for the WRC in CIÉ and Iarnród Éireann. From the beginning the West on Track campaign was strongly supported by statutory bodies such as local and regional authorities, County Development Boards, the BMW Regional Assembly and the Western Development Commission.

West on Track and the Western Inter-County Railway Committee worked closely together and succeeded in bringing about the establishment by Minister Séamus Brennan of an Expert Working Group under the Chairmanship of Pat McCann. Both organisations were represented on the Working Group.

The McCann Report (2005) formed part of the basis on which the Government made its decision to re-open the Western Rail Corridor in two phases i.e. Ennis to Claremorris and Claremorris to Collooney.

It should be noted that the McCann Report stated that the entire Ennis Claremorris section could be re-opened as a single viable project were the case in regard to the existence of rail freight traffic to be established. However, since the report was published a new freight service has been introduced between Ballina and Waterford, carrying high-value freight cargoes for export. Every week these four trains, together with eight Coillte pulpwood trains, are required to travel through the greater Dublin area. Opening the WRC will allow these freight services to grow by taking a more direct and less congested route.

In conjunction with the first phase of the re-opening of the railway from Ennis to Claremorris, the Government has decided to clean, drain and fence the track bed from Claremorris to Collooney. This work is due to commence this Autumn, in preparation for an expected decision in 2008 to re-open this section.

I believe that the re-opening of the railway at Charlestown should be prioritised in view of the rapid growth and development in the adjacent Ireland West Knock International Airport.

It is important to view the coming development of the Western Rail Corridor in the context of the ambitious national plan to develop railways throughout the country. All parts of Ireland have urgent transport needs but they must never be seen to be competing against one another. Indeed, the development of overland transport infrastructure should be bi-modal i.e. rail and road. By developing the WRC we are putting in place another important piece of national infrastructure, one which will ultimately prove to be of enormous benefit to all our citizens.

Dr. Mac Gréil is a former Senior Lecturer in Sociology (NUI Maynooth) and author of the 1981 report on the restoration of the Sligo-Limerick rail service. He edited Monsignor James Horan's memoirs. He is Joint-Secretary of the Western Inter-County Railway Committee and Patron of West on Track.








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