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West=On=Track - News

'If You Build It, They Will Come'

Sunday Tribune 20th July 2003

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 relevant.

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 extremely reasonable.

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 infrastructure.

All the West wants, they say, is one tenth of that amount.

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 the M1.

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 grown steadily.

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 into Mayo.

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 compelling.

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.








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