The Armagh to Portadown rail link is no longer a ‘could do’ but ‘ must do’ project after confirmation of its inclusion in a recommended blueprint for the future of rail services across Ireland over the next 25 years.
While this is a draft report, the final Review will be published before the end of the year and those who support the re-opening are being widely urged to email their views and play their part in bringing it back.
Calculations drawn up to deliver six key elements identified – one of which is to bring rail travel back to Armagh – shows that the goal certainly is achievable if paid for over that time timeframe.
Local politicians are already lining up and declaring it a real game-changer, not just for Armagh but the whole of Northern Ireland and beyond.
But with streets, roads and a health service crumbling down around us – not forgetting the threat of turning off the lights this winter – is this multi-billion project really feasible.
Or does the restoration of the rail network act as a catalyst for economic prosperity. It would, after all, open the doors to Armagh…
The costs are eye-watering. In today’s prices, for Northern Ireland, if the Review’s recommendations are implemented in full, the total capital cost estimate is £7.7 billion, which is approximately £0.31 billion per annum over a 25-year period.
For the Republic of Ireland, based on 2023 currency levels, the estimated cost there is £23 billion.
If this investment was split evenly across 25 years in 2023 prices, then it would amount to capital investment in the rail system of £0.92 billion per annum over and above existing plans.
This is roughly equivalent to peak annual investment in the motorway network in the Republic in the late 2000s.
The Review was launched in April 2021 by Eamon Ryan, Minister for Transport Ireland, and Nichola Mallon, then Minister at the Department for Infrastructure, Northern Ireland. It is now being published alongside the associated Strategic Environmental Assessment for consultation and is expected to be finalised by the end of this year.
The recommendations, if all proceeded with, would see an additional 405 miles of new low-carbon, faster rail lines. This would increase the network length from 1,440 to 1,845.
A series of ‘new regional connections’ are listed among the key recommendations.
And of particular welcome locally will be a move to “develop the railway to boost connectivity in the North Midlands, from Mullingar to Cavan, Monaghan, Armagh and Portadown”.
Other recommendations are to extend the railway into Tyrone (from Portadown to Dungannon, Omagh, Strabane) Derry- Londonderry, and onto Donegal (Letterkenny); reinstate the Western Rail Corridor between Claremorris and Athenry; reinstate the South Wexford Railway, connecting to Waterford; and increase regional and rural lines speeds to at least 120 km/h.
There are also recommendations to upgrade the core intercity railway network – Dublin, Belfast, Cork, Limerick, Galway, Waterford – to top speeds of 200km/h ensuring that train journeys are faster than the car, and to upgrade the cross-country rail network to a dual-track railway – and four-track in places – and increase intercity service frequencies to hourly between the main city pairs.
Green goals include the decarbonisation of the rail network, including an electrified intercity network as well as hybrid, hydrogen and electric rolling stock.
Air passengers would also be catered for with better connections. It has been recommended that Dublin, Belfast International and Shannon Airports be connected to the railway and improvements made to existing rail-airport connections.
Other benefits for passengers on the cards are efforts to improve service quality, provide on-board catering, ‘clock-face’ timetable, better integration with other transport options, and cross-border structures to streamline travel north and south.
According to the Department for Infrastructure, the Review’s recommendations provide policy makers and Ministers in both jurisdictions with an “evidence-based framework to inform future investment decisions”, while “more detailed work will be needed to test the feasibility and affordability of many of the recommendations to inform decision making”.
Among those pushing to see the plans fully implemented is Newry and Armagh MLA Justin McNulty.
He said: “We are looking at a once in a generation opportunity to restore rail infrastructure and provide investment into areas that have long been neglected.
“What we need to see now is the return of the Assembly and the restoration of the Executive to harness the full potential contained within this report.”
Mr McNulty added: “Securing the first detailed review of rail infrastructure across Ireland was one of the SDLP’s significant achievements in the last term of government.
“Commissioning the review in cooperation with the Irish Government, we understood the immense practical and environmental benefits that investing in rail will have for people in the North and across our island.
“We now have a £30bn rail restoration plan that will provide a complete overhaul of rail infrastructure, and I am particularly glad that the restoration of Armagh City’s rail link is a key recommendation of the review, something that I advocated strongly for during the consultation process.
“The decades-long erosion of rail services outside of the greater Belfast area has significantly disadvantaged communities across the North.
“Substantial investment is required to correct that, and I am fully committed to ensuring that the investment signalled in this report is followed through to delivery.”
Upper Bann MLA John O’Dowd was also enthusiastic and hailed the draft report as a “step in the right direction”.
The Sinn Féin representative said: “The recommendation to have a new rail station in Craigavon is an acknowledgement of the benefits this proposal would bring to the area.
“Sinn Fein have lobbied for this investment for many years and the campaign has now taken a huge leap forward. The proposed new railway line between Portadown and Derry will also be a significant investment opportunity for the area .
“When part of an integrated plan railways bring investment and jobs.
“We need to develop our rail network in the north, to unlock economic opportunities and ensure workers and families have better public transport.
“But ultimately, we need an Executive formed now to ensure this rail review doesn’t end up being another missed opportunity.”
Interested parties can now make submissions by email to email@example.com by 11:59pm on Friday, September 29.
Following the consultation period, the Minister for Transport and Government in Ireland as well as Minister for Infrastructure in Northern Ireland, will be asked to approve the final Review, incorporating any changes as a result of the SEA consultation process.
It is anticipated, subject to those approvals, that the final Review will be published around the end of the year.
Should there continue to be an absence of Ministers in the NI Executive, approval will be considered taking into account the relevant legislation in place at the time.