Mention underinvestment in the North West and we are invariably told that we need to get our priorities right and they are presented as being mutually exclusive. The irony is that those suggesting this are the same people who have no difficulty in accepting that similar proposals for numerous developments in Belfast are in fact, complementary.
I have just read a document from the Department for Social Development (DSD) and Translink, titled, “Belfast – Creating a World Class Transport Hub” proposing a huge investment to create a multi-transport hub to link the Europa bus terminal and the Gt Victoria St rail station, bringing the Dublin trains into the city centre. A truly ambitious proposal and I wish Belfast every success. Derry and the greater North West need to be similarly ambitious and visionary in what we want for this region.
It is a given that the North west needs a modern roads network fit for the 21st century. We need to see progress on the A5 and A6 dual carriageways to Belfast and Dublin if we are to realise the economic potential of this part of the island. But a sustainable and comprehensive transport strategy is not just about roads.
While our local economy remains under stress and most focus is on road infrastructure, it would be easy to fall into the trap of ignoring the essential contribution that a modern rail link can make to regeneration.
What is required is a multi-faceted transport strategy for the region and rail has a major role to play in formulating that strategy.
While major investment in roads is required to attract Foreign Direct Investment, companies also look at the variety and dependability of other modes of transport to ensure security of access.
Properly marketed, Rail can play a pivotal role, along with the exceptional scenery, in expanding our tourism offer and reducing congestion on the roads thereby assisting us to achieve our EU requirements on carbon emissions. Even the short 3 coach versions of the new trains now in service can accommodate 212 passengers. The potential reduction in road traffic is obvious.
All of these elements will collectively contribute to building our economy and capacity to attract the investment needed for job creation.
Despite frequent reference to ‘the rail network’ the fact is we have a single railway line to Belfast which is in a pitiful state due to historic under investment – we don’t have access to a ‘rail network’. But we should have a long-term strategic vision of creating a ‘network’ linking up to the rest of the country via Donegal, Sligo, Galway etc.
Currently it takes some 2 hours and 20 minutes to travel from Derry to Belfast by train. However to cut this journey time (at least at peak hours) would not require huge investment.
The proposed passing loop, allowing trains to pass each other, will provide capacity for increased frequency of journeys immediately. The introduction of a limited-stop express service to and from Derry at peak times would increase attractiveness of rail travel by reducing journey times even further.
Improvements currently planned to signalling will allow for higher speeds bringing express service times into line with other modes of travel. At that point it becomes attractive to people travelling to or from Belfast for business, work or education as well as to tourists. A relaxed journey with space to move about and facilities for operation of lap tops etc. would be attractive to travellers. Come on! Let’s get Derry back on track!