Future NI rail developments

The NI Government’s recently published Railway Investment Strategy attracted a lot of publicity due to the inclusion of potential extensions to the NI Railways network. More of those later. What got my attention was the less publicised parts of the strategy. These areas address many of the issues with the railway as it currently operates and if implemented will provide major improvements to passenger journeys and pave the way for electrification.

The strategy has three priorities:

  1. Maintaining and improving the existing rail network
  2. Removing bottlenecks on the TEN-T Core network
  3. Enhancing the TEN-T Comprehensive network

Under priority 1, the Coleraine to Derry line will be relaid. Already a passing loop is under construction at Bellarena. Once the loop is in place and all track relaid NI Railways will be able to run hourly trains from Belfast to Derry. Certainly since the line improvements have been commissioned there has been a significant increase in passenger numbers from Derry – a testament to the fact that if the service is improved, as it has been, passenger numbers will increase. If NI Railways can get the journey time by rail down to and below the bus journey time passenger numbers will increase further. Additionally under priority 1, the DRD intend to order 60 extra carriages to increase train lengths and therefore NI Railways will need to set up a further “new trains” procurement cycle. The existing De Dietrich Enterprise trains require refurbishment but ultimately new trains for the Enterprise will be needed when the De Dietrich stock is life expired.

Priority 2 concerns the TEN-T Core network, which in NI consists of the Belfast-Newry-Border section of the Belfast-Dublin line. A key issue for the line has been the slower speeds approaching Belfast as Enterprise trains share track with NI Railways suburban services. Great Victoria Street will become the Translink transport hub for Belfast, with extended platforms that will allow Enterprise trains to terminate. Third roads between Adelaide/Great Victoria St  and Lagan Junction/Great Victoria St are also proposed to eliminate bottlenecks on the network. Furthermore the line on the Dargan Bridge between Belfast Central and Yorkgate is currently single; this line will need to be doubled. Dualling of the Belfast-Bleach Green line would give further capacity on the line to Derry and Coleraine, and the Antrim-Lisburn line, currently in use only for relief services would be brought back into use. Possible services to Belfast International Airport are suggested, however it is understood that NI Railways senior management are not enthusiastic about this idea as they believe the existing bus service is adequate and an Airport service would take away resources needed elsewhere.

Priority 3 has been the most widely commented upon priority. There has been a sustained campaign in Armagh and Dungannon to extend the railway and the campaigners can take full credit for getting their proposals this far. Reading the report however, what is on offer are only feasibility studies on the proposed Portadown-Armagh, Portadown-Dungannon and Antrim-Castledawson lines. Much of the proposed route for the Castledawson service is on an existing Greenway and as seen on the Comber Greenway there may well be significant and organised opposition from Sustrans and the Cycling lobby for this particular line. 

In conclusion, the strategy document is to be welcomed. It makes far more sense for the Enterprise to terminate at Great Victoria Street, and for the proposed increases in capacity for the rail network. Thinking ahead it is no longer a question of “if” but “when” the Dublin-Belfast line is electrified and this report paves the way for that eventuality. 

The whole report can be downloaded at this link: https://applications.drdni.gov.uk/publications/document.asp?docid=28994