A REVIEW OF Ireland’s rail system is set to recommend reopening a number of regional lines, including some that had been earmarked for greenways.
If implemented it would see long-dormant lines in the west and southeast brought back into use while there are also plans to improve frequency and links between Ireland’s cities.
A review of the island’s rail network was jointly commissioned by governments north and south in 2021.
It has been examining the future of the system, how to improve connectivity for major cities and regions, while boosting connections between the island’s ports. Dutch engineering firm Arup has undertaken the review.
Rail is the among the public transport options to benefit from the introduction of half-price tickets for students and young people and a 20% reduction for all other adults last year.
The Journal understands the review, which is in draft form at present, will propose a disused rail line in Co Wexford linking towns along the east coast of the country be brought back into use, connecting Dublin, Rosslare and Waterford.
In the west, a line linking the towns of Athenry in Galway and Claremorris in Mayo will also return to use under the draft proposal. This will initially be for freight with the potential to introduce passengers services if successful.
Campaign groups and some politicians have pointed to a likely high cost involved with building new rail lines from scratch and have called for existing lines to be used.
But these proposals mark a change in policy as both lines were set to be converted into greenway cycle routes, until a concerted push by Western Rail Corridor and other local campaigners to keep the tracks for their former purpose.
Transport Minister Eamon Ryan indicated his own support for these regional links, telling the Dáil late last month that Wexford “will have to be developed” given Rosslare Europort’s growing importance for shipping and wind industries.
The Limerick-Foynes line is already being redeveloped and a spokesperson for Ryan told The Journal that the “next part of the jigsaw” is the Athenry-Claremorris rail line.
“This would mean that we would have a rail line from Ballina to Wexford with connectivity to key ports – for people, for freight and for the development of our offshore wind capacity,” the spokesperson said.
Any projects that receive approval would need to then be put forward for funding from the National Transport Authority.
Improving the west’s rail network has been an issue for decades with locals, including Colman Ó Raghallaigh, of the Western Rail Corridor group, lobbying hard for the return to rail.
He pointed to the growth in passenger numbers in the Galway to Limerick intercity rail service as a sign of demand after it had its busiest period last year since it re-opened in 2010.
Passenger numbers grew by 14% compared with the last pre-pandemic year of 2019.
He said the group had campaigned to prevent the closure of the railway line from Athenry to Claremorris, and hopes that its reopening would enhance the case for bringing back the line northwards into Sligo.
Other plans under consideration in the rail review include “high speed connectivity” between Belfast, Dublin and Cork, but it is expected that this will be a longer-term aim.
A line between Letterkenny and Derry has also been strongly mooted, although the line would need to be built from scratch as it was taken up generations ago.
“If we were to lose any of these railway lines and wanted to try bring them back, it can cost you millions if not billions,” Ó Raghallaigh said.
“The land-take of most railways would be the width of a modern road, so you’d be looking at a very expensive land purchase and a long, drawn out, expensive construction process if you wanted to do a 40km-long track for example. That’s why we can’t lose them.”
Greenway or rail?
A greenway connection in the southeast stretching to a total length of over 70km has been in the works for several years in the region, but the draft proposal could see rail take priority over the track running through south Wexford.
Waterford Green Party TD Marc Ó Cathasaigh said “one option doesn’t need to cancel out the other ” when deciding the use of a track, and believes the proposed South East Greenway should continue using a “differently aligned” route.
However, he said there have been examples of disused rail routes being torn up for cycle routes which he disagreed with, singling out the Youghal-Middleton line in Co Cork.
“If that was returned as a rail track it would have taken a lot of pressure off the N25 corridor from west Waterford and surrounding parts, allowing people to drive as far as Youghal and take the train,” he said.
“That was an instance where we went down the greenway route where we might have been better served to invest in rail.”
However, the publishing of the review may be some time away yet, as the Department of Transport has confirmed it will be published “once it has received appropriate Ministerial approval from both jurisdictions”, which will not be possible as long as Stormont continues not to sit for business.