'If You Build It, They
Sunday Tribune 20th July
by Shane Coleman, Political Correspondent
"If you build it, they will come".
The route of the Western Rail Corridor passes through
Ballyglunin, one of the picturesque locations for the much
loved 1952 film 'The Quiet Man'. But spending a day in the
company of the 'West=On=Track' group, lobbying for the
re-introduction of a rail service along the line, it's
another movie, 'Field of Dreams', that seems more
In that film, the central character - responding to the
urgings of a whispered voice that if he builds it, people
will come - takes a seemingly crazy notion and decides to
build a major league size baseball diamond in the middle of
an Iowa cornfield. In the closing scene, the night sky is
lit up by the headlights of hundreds of cars coming to
witness this wonder - a triumph of optimism over pragmatism.
He built it and, indeed, they came.
Critics of the proposal have argued that, given the
extremely low population densities along the Western Rail
Corridor, it would be about as useful as building a railway
through an Iowa cornfield.
But this view is given short shift by both Colman O
Raghallaigh and Martin Cunniffe. Both are from the
prosperous looking County Mayo town of Claremorris that has
emerged as hub of the campaign to re-open the line that last
carried passengers in the mid-1970s.
There may not be a voice in their ears whispering, 'if
you build it, they will come', but the message from O
Raghallaigh, Cunniffe and - it seems - every local community
from Sligo to Limerick is remarkably similar. Not only will
the existing population use the railway, they argue, but
like in the American wild west over a century ago, it will
act as a catalyst for the re-generation of the entire
region, potentially attracting tens of thousands of new
residents and helping balance development away from the
congested eastern sea-board.
While there are legitimate questions that linger about
the viability of the rail line (see panel opposite) it would
be wrong to portray O Raghallaigh and Cunniffe as dreamy
idealists, a la Kevin Costner's character in 'Field of
Dreams'. "We are not fuddy duddies - remember that,"
O'Raghallaigh - a primary school teacher who also writes
children's books as gaeilge - states defiantly.
He and Cunniffe, who is a local businessman, are quick to
stress that they are not trainspotters and that the campaign
is grounded in reality. The rail line is only one aspect of
the required infrastructure in the west, they say. But they
point out that road congestion is not confined to the Dublin
and that it would only require 5% of the commuters switching
to rail to fill the trains on the western corridor.
The campaign is as pure an example of community activism
that one is likely to come across. Although founded in
Claremorris, West=On=Track is the steering committee for
dozens of communities through Connaught and north-west
Munster. The stickers in shop and car windows show it's
clearly a huge issue in the West.
Everybody involved in the campaign is passionate - almost
fanatically so - about the proposal. At one point, O
Raghallaigh even proclaims that "it is a civil rights
issue". But the passion and emotion is undeniably backed up
with knowledge, research and meticulous planning.
The preparation that has already gone into the campaign -
which was only established a couple of months ago - is
impressive. There is a website (www.westontrack.com) and an
1890 telephone number. Petition sheets with capacity for
250,000 signatures have been printed, as have almost 30,000
car stickers and 40,000 postcards addressed to the Minister
expressing support for the proposal.
And, in the clearest demonstration of the seriousness of
their intent, they have painstakingly drawn up a timetable
outlining how five separate two or three-car 'arrow' style
trains could be utilised to daily provide three return
services between Sligo and Galway; four return services
between Galway-Limerick; a commuter service between Athlone
and Galway; a commuter service from Oranmore into nearby
Galway and a south Sligo commuter service, incorporating
Longford and Ballymote.
Frank Dawson, director of community and enterprise at
Galway County Council argues that the campaign's demands are
For starters, of the 146 miles between Sligo and
Limerick, 32 miles is already restored and for the rest,
it's just a matter of upgrading the track - which is in
varying stages of decay - as the thorough fare still exists.
Dawson notes there are 154 Dart carriages serving Dublin and
144 'Arrow' carriages serving the greater Dublin area. "All
we want is 15 dedicated carriages for the west. That's 15
for 700,000 people," he says.
To emphasise the value-for-money point, he adds that the
Dublin metro is forecast to cost euro100m a mile; the Luas
euro50m a mile, but the cost of re-instating the western
rail corridor - based on the recent Booz Allen Hamilton
report to Government - would only be euro2m a mile.
Despite the emphasis that what is good for the West is
also good for Dublin, scratch the surface and there is an
obvious underlying resentment at what is seen as the
enormous amounts of money being spent on infrastructure in
the eastern half of the country.
If the National Spatial Strategy is to be more than an
aspiration that will have to change, they say. For every
man, woman and child in Dublin, Meath and Kildare, between
euro10,000 and euro15,000 is being spent on
All the West wants, they say, is one tenth of that
The campaign's specially commissioned video notes that
the euro215m capital expenditure required to restore the
Sligo-Limerick rail-line is euro40m less than was spent by
the state building 21km of motorway by passing Drogheda on
However, this ignores the fact that every day between
15,000 and 20,000 cars will drive that stretch of road
compared to the several hundred people who would travel
daily on a western rail line. And therein lies the main
weakness in the campaign. Excluding Galway and Limerick, the
populations of the towns dotted along the route map are
relatively small, despite the campaign's claim that 500,000
people live within 15 miles of a proposed station.
West=On=Track admits that it has no figures for how much
it cost to run the service but stresses that virtually no
rail service in Europe makes money. However, economists
argue that nowhere in the world are rail-lines being built
through areas of such low population densities. A suggestion
to a room filled with representatives of the campaign from
Sligo, Mayo and Galway, that in order to create the
densities to make the line viable, it might require a
definite end to the practice of one-off-housing, is far from
being unanimously accepted.
However, the response is spirited. "You build critical
mass around the railway, not the other way around," they
argue. If you build it, they will come. O Raghallaigh -
never short of a colourful phrase - pleads: "Don't ask us to
live horse and get grass".
A few miles up along the western rail corridor from
Claremorris, lies the small town of Kiltimagh, where the
local population decided a decade or so ago they wouldn't
wait to 'get grass'.
The story of the turnaround in the town's fortunes is an
example, theWest=On=Track campaign says, of what the rail
corridor could help inspire. It's undoubtedly a strong
argument. In the late 1980s, Kiltimagh was what one
campaigner describes as "an a**ehole of a place in the
middle of nowhere with nothing going on". Unemployment was
high. Emigration among the young was running at 75% and an
incredible two thirds of the buildings in the town were
either derelict or for sale.
But some of the town's residents, led by Brian Mooney,
came together and to paraphrase John Healy - who was from
nearby Charlestown - shouted stop. They set up a community
enterprise company that has been the catalyst for the area's
transformation, helping to attract in investment and
re-generate the town.
Today, Kiltimagh is unrecognisable from its former status
as the most depressed town in Mayo. Not only is there no
derelict buildings, but everywhere is tidy and freshly
painted in the manner of towns in the heart of middle
England. Economic activity has risen at rates that make the
Celtic Tiger seem tame. Employment and the population has
The sense of pride in the locality is palpable. "We
expect people in this town doing anything to go that extra
mile," says Joe Kelly, chief executive of the enterprise
company, I.R.D. Kiltimagh.
The train station, previously run down, has been restored
and all that is missing are the trains. Colman O Raghallaigh
believes Kiltimagh shows that it is possible to make the
seemingly unviable, viable. "Nil anseo ach an tus. The
western rail corridor would be like an IRD for the West; It
would be like planting a massive seed. You can't foresee the
benefits," he says.
Kelly warms to theme, arguing that the re-establishment
of the rail service would be better than putting an Intel
They are hugely confident that the government will see
the merits of their argument. But as with all projects -
Luas being the obvious example - politics rather than
socio-economics will probably decide the day. If the
campaign does succeed in getting 100,000 signatures - and
based on the current huge level of interest in the west,
that's looks highly possible - Transport Minister Seamus
Brennan may suddenly decide that the logic for re-opening at
least part of the western rail corridor is particularly
With the local and European elections only a year away, a
little voice may well be whispering in Brennan's ear 'If you
build it, the votes will come'. If they don't build it that
whisper is likely to turn into a cumulative roar from west
of the Shannon.