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Railwatch 070 - December 1996
Ireland's new rail age
By Tony Smale
There's a magnificent welcome at Great Victoria Street - trains are back again in the heart of Belfast!
A new station has risen from the ashes of the former Great Northern railway terminus, the site of terrorist attacks, neglect and vacillating urban planning.
Passengers arriving at one of four platforms now walk into a bustling, modern concourse where the bus/rail interchange facilities, information desks and cafeterias would be a credit to any city in Europe.
In the immediate post-war period, Belfast had three terminus stations, the other two being Queen's Quay at the end of the line from Bangor, and York Road for Larne. A cross-city route (via Central) had fallen into disuse. Operations were inconvenient and there was even talk of complete closure of all lines in the province.
Reprieve came with the Benson Report, which recommended retention of existing lines and reopening of the cross-city route. This enabled the original Great Victoria Street station to be closed along with the former Bangor & County Down terminus at Queen's Quay.
With problems of housing and health high on the agenda, there was little public money for transport. Indeed, it is said that over a 25-year period, the rail authority purchased not a single mile of replacement track, instead making do with rails recovered from closed rural branches.
The cross-border service to Dublin continued to operate under difficult circumstances, but other routes which crossed the national frontier (notably, the direct line south from Londonderry) were abandoned.
Bus services escaped deregulation in the mid 1980s, but were expected to enter into vigorous competition with rail.
In 1992, the Touche-Ross Report recommended that any scheme to privatise the railway should preserve the network as a single vertically integrated entity, but that the timescale should follow on from privatisation in the rest of the UK.
To date there is still no policy decision to transfer control from public ownership. The policy makers' pendulum has swung once again. In January 1995, the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland (responsible for transport planning) announced new initiatives for enticing people out of cars, developing public transport and, yes, integrating bus and rail services.
Link-Line bus time-tables for services to strategic rail stations is evidence of this new policy at work.
As in the Irish Republic, schemes based on European Regional Development Funding are much in evidence in Northern Ireland. Great Victoria Street would not have been built without it, nor would the much-publicised construction of the two-kilometre line over the River Lagan, which for the first time ever has enabled trains from Larne to interconnect with other services in the city.
Existing maintenance workshops at Queen's Quay stood in the way of a new motorway interchange so these were cleared and York Road station was demolished to provide the railway with state-of-the-art depot facilities.
To compensate, Yorkgate station was built nearby on the embankment leading up to the new Lagan bridge.
Services between Dublin and Belfast are operated jointly by Northern Ireland Railways and Irish Rail.
An ambitious project nearing completion is the complete upgrade of the route, parts of which have severe speed restrictions. New track and signalling are being installed, and new trainsets are on order from a French supplier. Journey time will be reduced to under two hours, at roughly hourly intervals. Next year, work is to begin on the reopening of the disused line between Antrim and Bleach Green junction on the Larne route, giving a saving of around 20 minutes on journeys to Londonderry and the north coast. Currently, the line is an enthusiast's delight, with traincrew-operated level crossing gates and relics of semaphore signalling. The track will be upgraded for 70 mph running and a new station will serve a growing northern suburb of Belfast.
This project, like the cross-border route to Dublin, is made possible with 75% funding from Europe.
If political tensions relax, there may be scope for further reopenings - particularly where lines cross the border.
Freight on Northern Ireland Railways consists principally of cement, agricultural products and a trainload of Guinness which the inhabitants of Belfast drink their way through every day!
RDS is keen to strengthen ties with the province. User groups and enthusiasts do exist in the region. No doubt they would benefit from the support of a national organisation in their efforts to keep alive the impressive Northern Ireland Railway renaissance.
A new book in the Railway Data series provides comprehensive details of the rail network in Ireland, north and south, including narrow gauge.
Mileages and trackside features along all passenger, freight and independent lines are included in the 24-page All Ireland, compiled by Michael Oakley and published by Sword Press at £2.50
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