At present the railway network in Northern Ireland consists of the following routes – all passenger only:
- Belfast, Great Victoria Street – Belfast Central – via Bleach Green Junction – Antrim – Ballymena – Coleraine – Londonderry. Double track from Belfast to beyond Bleach Green Junction then single track for the remainder. Alternating Belfast- Londonderry and Belfast – Portrush services. The junction is at Coleraine. Some shorter services.
- Coleraine – Portrush. Single track branch line. Belfast – Portrush services (see above).
- Belfast, Great Victoria Street – Belfast Central – via Bleach Green Junction – Carrickfergus – Whitehead – Larne Harbour. Shares the double track route from Belfast as far as Bleach Green Junction before branching off as double track to Carrickfergus. Single track from Carrickfergus to Larne Harbour. Frequent stopping and semi-fast suburban services.
- Bangor – Belfast Central – Belfast (Great Victoria Street) – Lisburn – Portadown – Newry. Double track throughout. Trains must reverse direction at Great Victoria Street which forms the apex of a triangle. Frequent stopping and semi-fast suburban services between Bangor and Portadown. Sparse rush-hour only local service between Portadown and Newry.
- Belfast Central – Portadown – Newry – International Boundary. Shares the same double track route as above between Belfast Central and Newry but avoids Great Victoria Street using the third side of the triangle. Double track continues from Newry to the Frontier where it makes an end on junction with the Irish Rail line to Dundalk and Dublin. Mainly used by Belfast – Dublin intercity expresses. These trains serve Portadown and Newry, supplementing the sparse suburban service to the latter.
- Lisburn – Crumlin – Antrim. Single line throughout. Passes close to Belfast International Airport. The line is currently out of use for scheduled services but takes the occasional emergency or excursion working.
The present services on the existing network provide a good service but probably need more investment in rolling stock to ease overcrowding. There is one improvement that can be made, once extra stock is available, using the present network:
IMPROVEMENT TO PRESENT NETWORK SERVICES
Apart from a sparse service to Belfast in the morning rush hour and an equally sparse return service in the evening, Newry a populous city, is served only as a glorified halt on the Belfast Dublin line. The two intermediate stations between Portadown and Newry, Scarva and Poyntzpass, only get the sparse rush hour service. In contrast nearby Portadown has an off-peak weekday frequency of trains to Belfast and Bangor of two per hour. As soon as practicable the Belfast suburban service should be fully extended to Newry and intermediate stations. Another adjustment between Belfast and Newry should be the prioritisation when possible of local and commuter services over late running Cross Border services.
EXTENSIONS TO NETWORK.
There are two long closed rail routes which should be subject to independent feasibility studies as whether they can be reinstated.
The long defunct Portadown-Armagh line. Armagh has been ignored both by the rail system and the motorway network. The city generates heavy commuter traffic to Belfast by car and bus with a proportion of both types of travellers changing to rail services at Portadown. The latter town is heavily congested with road travellers from the Armagh direction to Belfast having to negotiate the full length of the town in each direction. Parking facilities exist mainly in the town which ties up local parking during the day. A restoration of the rail-link with a large Park and Ride facilities near Richhill and Loughgall should be studied for feasibility.
A huge opportunity to improve traffic flows and the environment of East Belfast was missed a few years ago when most of the idle course of the former Belfast & Co. Down Railway between inner Belfast and Comber was converted to a walking/cycling path called the Comber Greenway. East Belfast is heavily congested, especially along the A20 Belfast – Newtownards route which has not had any meaningful improvements to its infrastructure West of Dundonald since the tramlines and trolley bus wires were removed between 1954 and 1968. To add Green insult to injury, two lanes of this four lane (in places) single carriageway trunk road are now bus lanes in preparation for the East Belfast “Rapid” Transit Scheme which will see totally unsuitable bendy buses thrown into the mêlée. All of this with a corridor the width of a double track railway line paralleling the A20 a short distance away. This latter corridor is, of course, the Comber Greenway, used by dog walkers, joggers and cyclists, in an area already well supplied with public green areas. It is time to bite the bullet about the Comber Greenway and, ignoring the howls of protest from the Green Party and “Environmental” groups, build a proper route of light or heavy railway from Comber to join the present Rail Network near Titanic Quarter Station. It’s about time the people of East Belfast were reunited with their City Centre. Even a guided busway along the B&CDR route would ease the situation. Park and ride provisions from Dundonald onwards and an extension to Newtownards should be seriously considered.
THE ROMANTIC WEST ?
There has been much discussion of rail links from Londonderry to Co Donegal, in the Republic of Ireland, even as far as Sligo. These aspirations owe more to Irish romanticism than to any sound economic need or benefit.
WHO OPERATES THE RAILWAY SYSTEM?
Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom to still have state operated train services. The operating company, Translink, also operates nearly all bus services in the region, Ulsterbus, Goldline, and Metro. The rail aspect of Translink’s operations, Northern Ireland Railways, roughly combines the functions that Network Rail and the various private Rail Operating Companies perform in Great Britain. Cross Border services are operated by a joint subsidiary of Translink and Irish Rail. There is also a privately-operated luxury top end tourist train which tours both Translink and Irish Rail networks. Occasional preserved steam specials also use both networks.
There is little scope for proper privatisation of the Translink system. Rail operating companies in Great Britain may be reluctant to take up franchises complicated by operating on Irish 1600mm gauge as opposed to Standard 1435mm which covers most of Europe. There would also be great resistance to Network Rail taking over the infrastructure.
However, the present system where Translink has its funding filtered through the Northern Ireland Devolved Government does not work well. As with most publicly funded bodies, Translink rail network finds itself in uncertain times as regards future finance and at the whim of Infrastructure Ministers with changing priorities. With the future of devolution in doubt now is a good time to transfer Translink to direct funding from the Westminster Government and to look at 10 year budgeting.