Connecting the North West of Ireland

Derry and Donegal are not only marginalised by their geographic position on the periphery of the island of Ireland, but they are also very badly served by the transport infrastructure. They are not alone in this: there are also complaints from Sligo, Fermanagh and elsewhere in the West expressing similar concerns.

After a long campaign, parts of the A6 road between Derry and Belfast have been upgraded – though it is still not a dual carriageway between Dungiven and Castledawson. It was back in the 1960s that there were government plans to provide a motorway link from Belfast to Derry – which has still not happened and probably now never will.

Much of the immediate concern today is focused on the A5 road, between Derry and Dublin. In particular, the very high number of accidents and deaths along this road. It has been described as the most dangerous in Ireland, with 47 people killed in road accidents since plans were announced in 2007 to significantly upgrade it.

This is just one element of the transport infrastructure weakness in the North West region. Another can be seen clearly by looking at a map of the rail system. Derry is the end of the line, despite at one point in the city’s history having four stations and lines emerging out from the city. Neighbouring towns to the West and the South such as Letterkenny, Strabane and Omagh no longer have any rail connectivity.

Plans recently announced by the two administrations of the Republic and Northern Ireland indicate a possible partial reversal of past decisions closing rail lines. The all-island rail review was launched in 2021 by the South’s transport minister and Green Party leader Eamonn Ryan along with the then NI infrastructure minister Nichola Mallon. The results of that review were published last month.

For Derry, the proposals include one of great significance. This would be an additional rail connection to Belfast, achieved by reopening the rail link through Portadown, with the route travelling via Strabane, Omagh, Portadown and then through Lisburn into Belfast. Passengers could also connect on to Dublin via Portadown, with the Belfast to Dublin route potentially being upgraded for faster journey times.

Other elements of the plan include a spur from the Derry to Portadown line heading into Letterkenny and the possibility of a new rail connection between Derry and Limavady. And there will be further work undertaken into cross-Dublin mainline connectivity, which would potentially lead to a Belfast to Cork service, without the need to divert to local services between the two major Dublin stations of Connolly and Heuston.

A core element of the plan is the electrification of mainline rail across the island as part of the strategy to decarbonise our economy and transport system. Broader aspirations of the plan include cutting traffic-related air pollution, congestion and also the desire in the South to spread housing demand, achieved through improved public transport connectivity.

None of this is cheap. The entire programme outlined is costed at around €32bn, or £27bn. And before anyone gets too excited, even after – or maybe if – there is political agreement behind it, the plan would take a quarter of a century to deliver. And there is not even unanimous support within government in the Republic behind it, nor, of course, is there any sort of government in the North to either object or endorse it.

It is significant that the consultation that accompanied the review had a disproportionately large response from residents in the North, especially the North West. This illustrates how important transport connectivity is for Derry and the rest of the region.

The latest Holywell Trust Conversations podcast considers this transport infrastructure deficit in the North West and specifically the proposals contained in the all island rail review. These would substantially improve rail connectivity for Derry, Tyrone and parts of Donegal.

‘Into the West’ successfully campaigned against the possible closure of the rail line into Derry and is lobbying for renewed rail links in the North West. Steve Bradley of the group tells the podcast that while he welcomes the proposals contained in the review, it has not recommended everything the group is seeking.

The podcast also hears from Northern Ireland roads expert Wesley Johnston, who considers what could be learnt from the overspends on the road construction programme in terms of the likely actual cost of such an ambitious programme of work on our rail system.

This and earlier Holywell Conversations podcasts can be listened to through the Holywell Trust website.

Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.

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