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The credibility of the Government's transport policy is seriously in doubt after it has let it be known it may allow virtually the entire Northern Ireland rail network to close. It has refused to come up with £183million over a 10-year period after it was warned that lack of investment for years had allowed the system to deteriorate into a potentially unsafe condition.
But despite telling us repeatedly that safety is paramount, the Government announced a review in which total closure was an option. That would leave rail passengers to travel by road, inherently much more dangerous than rail. Yet Northern Ireland Economy Minister Adam Ingram said: "There has to be a real question mark over the priority which exenditure on this scale should have against the many other pressing demands on public expenditure."
He failed to mention the many millions which have been squandered - and continue to be squandered - on roads. The annual cost of road accidents in Northern Ireland is £450million. That money would pay for the railway upgrade three times over.
Mr Ingram's lacklustre comments were in response to a safety review commissioned by the NI rail operator Translink. This sensibly called for funding for new trains, track upgrades and expenditure on train safety equipment. It pointed out that at present the system was safe.
Translink urged the Government to provide the £183million to ensure safe operation over the next 10 years. Instead of giving an immediate assurance that the money would be forthcoming, Mr Ingram's response was to set up a task force to produce an "options paper" for the railway's future.
People have only until 30 June to make representations to the task force. The crisis however was created by the Government itself by squeezing the rail network for years, said General Consumer Council director Maeve Bell.
Ulster Unionist Lord Laird has also accused the Government of under-funding the railways. "People in many parts of the province have lived to regret short-term decisions by previous governments to axe their local railway line," he said.
Almost half the network needs track relaid, including the Bangor, Larne and Coleraine-Portrush lines, six bridges need rebuilding, and 19 new train sets are required. There are many permanent speed restrictions where trains are forced to slow down to 15mph.
The European Union has agreed to meet 75% of the £14million cost of one project, relaying the Belfast-Bangor line, but the Government refuses to approve the scheme. The EU has also agreed to fund 75% of the £4million plan to upgrade Belfast Central station.
"We received approval for EU funding last year, but we are still waiting for the Government to provide the remaining 25%," said Translink managing director Ted Hesketh. "The terms of the EU grant are that all the work has to be completed by the end of 2001. We are frustrated at the lack of action in addressing these issues. Decisions to close lines are irrevocable and there are many communities which now regret they are without a rail connection. Railways have a key role to play."
Unfortunately Translink does not have enough trains to run a proper service on the Belfast to Antrim line which is expected to reopen next year. It is hoping to lease trains in a bid to spread the cost over several years.
The only line which has been given adequate funding, Belfast-Dublin, has seen passenger numbers soaring. More sensible policies are being implemented in the Republic of Ireland where the railways have seen a recent £500million upgrade. Just closing Bangor-Belfast would put 1,000 cars a day on to the roads at peak periods.
Translink representatives travelled to London on 17 May in an attempt to alert MPs on the Northern Ireland Affairs committee to the dangers. The task force is expected to report back in the summer.
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