Western Railway Corridor

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The Western Railway Corridor (WRC), or Conair Iarnróid an Iarthair (CII), is a recent term for a partly disused railway line running through the west of Ireland. Currently two sections of the line, from Limerick via Ennis to Galway (as of 17 August 2012) and Collooney to Sligo, see regular services, with other sections either closed or technically classed as open.[1][2][3][4]

Map of the West of Ireland.
Western Rail Corridor ex-GSWR line south of Limerick in green,
other ex-MGWR lines are in red.

Context[edit]

West on Track[edit]

West on Track was established in 2003 with the aim of reopening the western rail corridor line, for the use of passenger and freight traffic. Its aim was to preserve the infrastructure already in place and to seek funding for the reopening of the railway line. People involved in West on Track include the sociologist Fr. Micheál MacGréil SJ.

Expert Working Group[edit]

In 2005 an Expert Working Group reported on the prospects for reopening all or part of the corridor. In September 2006 the preservation and reclamation from encroachment of the northern section began and the Government then announced funding to begin Phase 1 (Ennis-Athenry) of the re-opening of the corridor. The reopening of these sections was included in the Transport 21 infrastructural plan, and the National Development Plan 2007–2013 "Transforming Ireland – A Better Quality of Life for All". Transport 21 was the plan name given to long term public transport planning by the Irish government which fell from office in 2011. The plan was dropped by the new Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar in 2011 and is no longer the blueprint for transport planning in Ireland. Minister Varadkar is on record as stating that the Irish Government has no plans to re-open any more sections of the Western Rail Corridor.[citation needed]

Route and services[edit]

Western Rail Corridor
Sligo Mac Diarmada
Ballysadare
Collooney
Dublin–Sligo line
Tubbercurry
Charlestown
Swinford
Kiltimagh
Dublin–Westport Line (to Westport/Ballina)
Claremorris
Dublin–Westport Line (to Athlone/Dublin)
Ballindine
Milltown
Tuam
Ballyglunin
Phase 1/Phase 2 boundary
Dublin–Galway line (to Galway)
Athenry
Dublin–Galway line (to Athlone/Dublin)
Craughwell
Ardrahan
Gort
Crusheen
Ennis
Sixmilebridge
Dublin, Ballybrophy and Rosslare lines
Limerick Colbert


The Western Rail Corridor encompasses a series of railways built by various companies throughout the late 19th century, forming a south-north line from Limerick to Sligo. Towns along the WRC include Ennis, Gort, Athenry, Tuam and Claremorris. The route crosses the DublinGalway line at Athenry, the DublinWestport/Ballina line at Claremorris and joins the DublinSligo line at Collooney. The route largely parallels the corridor served by the N17 and N18 roads.

Passenger services between Claremorris and Collooney ended in 1963, with the section being closed completely in 1975 (the track was left in situ but severed at Collooney). Passenger services between Limerick and Claremorris ceased in 1976, though freight services continued for some time afterwards.

In 1988, a new passenger service started between Limerick and Ennis operating on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This was expanded to Fridays and Saturdays in February 1993 and a six-day service in May 1994. In December 2003, a new seven train a day service started between Limerick and Ennis (connecting or continuing to/from Dublin or Limerick Junction). This has since been upgraded to up to 9 trains per day.

The number of passengers using the new service between Ennis and Athenry has been well below forecast/expectations leading to some speculation that even this newly opened section of track may be closed again.[citation needed]

Rail Freight Services[edit]

Freight services ran regularly on the Limerick to Claremorris section until the mid-1990s. However with the closure of the Asahi factory near Ballina, regular freight services north of Athenry ceased in 1997. Fertiliser trains from Foynes continued to use the line as far as Athenry until 2000 and bulk cement trains from the Irish Cements Ltd Castlemungret factory near Limerick until 2001, when the line ceased to have any regular traffic. Container freight from Mayo has returned to the railway since 2006. Coillte, together with Mayo Industries Group export several thousand container loads via Waterford port (Ireland's best rail-connected port).

Debate on the need for the Corridor[edit]

Overview[edit]

The reopening of the Western Rail Corridor has raised debate in Ireland, with opinion divided on the benefits of the scheme.

Arguments in favour of reopening the corridor:

Arguments in favour are generally advocating a balanced development of the regions vis à vis Dublin and the importance of infrastructure in so doing . The lobby group WestOnTrack is leading the campaign to reopen the corridor.

  • The Western Rail Corridor has been supported by all the main political parties and by the local and regional authorities of the counties through which it passes.
  • Environmental benefits from reduced car usage including lower air pollution and smaller carbon footprint

Arguments against reopening the Corridor

Arguments against the reopening are based on the cost of the restoration work and the annual subvention required post capital expenditure and some advocate using trackbed as a cycle path or Greenway instead.

  • Questions have been raised about its viability in an editorial in the Irish Times,[13] by an article in the Irish Independent,[14] by the lobby group, Platform 11,[15] and by the Strategic Rail Review, 2003.
  • In 2009, the Bord Snip Nua report controversially recommending cancelling future sections of the project and closing the Ballina-Manulla rail line, the section carrying Ireland's most valuable rail freight exports.[16]
  • Critics say that southern sections of the scheme are more viable than those closer to Sligo. The idea of a greenway on any parts of the route which may become surplus after a railway order process is undetraken for the Claremorris-Collooney Section was suggested by Minister Eamon O'Cuiv at a West on Track conference in May 2009 in response to lobbying for this idea from Enniscrone resident Brendan Quinn and his colleague John Mulligan.[17]

Social benefits[edit]

The presumed social benefits of restoring this rail service have been presented as an argument in favour of the project. The argument is that even if the line is not profitable, it will provide a vital social service for a poorly served region of the country.

Project opponents argue that social benefits will only be gained if the service is popular and return to their predictions of low passenger numbers (see above) and that the funding would be better used in other projects that would benefit more people. Some also argue with the assumption that the West is receiving less than its fair share of government capital spending. This argument has been accepted following the public transport underspend in the Western BMW Region under the 2000-2006 programme.

Report on transport budget underspend in the West of Ireland[edit]

A mid-term evaluation of the Irish government's National Development Plan by the consultants INDECON, is cited by some parties as a reason to build the Western Rail Corridor.[1], [2]
The report stated that only half the forecast NDP transport investment in the BMW region for the period 2000–2006 was spent or committed to be spent by 2002, a shortfall of €364 million. As Transport projects have long lead times this report indicated that the relative shortfall in transport expenditure would be maintained over the course of the planning period to 2006.

Detailed Statistics breaking out the INDECON data were prepared by Mr Frank Dawson who is now the Roscommon County Manager

Reliability of the McCann Expert Working Group report[edit]

Lobbyists for the project point to the recommendations of this report commissioned by the minister for transport as evidence that the project is justified.

The report stated that if the Mayo Rail Freight could be proven, it would add to the case for rebuilding Athenry-Claremorris as one section. Many commentators stated that Ireland is too small for rail freight, but contrary to what these commentators said, Mayo rail freight has been growing at such a fast pace, that it is considered viable to reopen the Athenry-Tuam-Claremorris section on that basis on its own.

Frank McDonald in an article in the Irish Times,[18] based on information released under the Freedom of Information Act indicated that the report was rewritten to exclude any negative assessment of the viability of the project including a forecast that it would 'attract only 750 passengers per day and could require an annual subvention of up to €10 million'. Passenger numbers for the first section of the line between Ennis-Limerick were reported at 600 a day in March 2008.[19]

Criticisms of the McCann Report have included the reliance on anecdotal testimony regarding freight demand and the absence of costings for rolling stock and operating expenses.[20]

A cost-benefit analysis report prepared by Goodbody Economic Consultants for the Department of Transport in 2006 stated that passenger numbers on the soon to be opened Ennis-Athenry section of the WRC would be in the order of 200,000, requiring an annual subvention of €2.4m, with a negative Net Present Value of -€137m. The report concluded that even a doubling of patronage would not make the project viable on cost-benefit grounds, while the regional development benefits from the re-opening were viewed as 'unlikely to be significant'[21]

The effect of freight[edit]

The McCann Report suggests that the Ennis Claremorris Section could divert and grow Mayo to Waterford freight traffic via the Western Rail Corridor. [3]

Opponents argue that rail freight volumes in the country have dropped near to zero in recent years and that indirect freight routes already exist from most large towns in the region.[22] As of August 2013 5 trains serve this freight route in each direction each week [23]

Predicted results of the project[edit]

Supporters predict environmental and economic benefits will flow from increased tourism and industry following the line's successful restoration.

Opponents predict that, following a failure of the line to attract significant passenger numbers, future rail projects will have difficulty gaining funding in Ireland.

Infrastructure before development[edit]

Advocates of the project argue that key transport infrastructure should be built prior to development and may actually encourage development to take place. Land use and settlement strategies are in place in all of the counties along the route of the WRC as a result of direct initiatives by the County Development Boards and County Councils concerned. In addition the WRC is specified as a key infrastructural objective in the County Development Plans of Clare, Galway, Mayo and Sligo as well as the Regional Planning Guidelines of the West Regional Authority [4].

Project opponents, however, argue that the local councils are not following land use policies that would create centres of population density around the railway stations along this route, but instead are continuing to permit isolated rural housing.

Timeline for the reopening of the corridor[edit]

Expert Working Group Report[edit]

An Expert Working Group, headed by Pat McCann, CEO of Jurys Doyle Hotels, reported to the Minister for Transport regarding the prospects for reopening some or all of the route. The group was set up by Minister Séamus Brennan at the urging of West-on-Track in June 2004 and delivered its report to Minister Martin Cullen in May 2005.

The report recommended the reopening of most of the Corridor in three phases and the deferral of the reopening of the northernmost section:[24]

Phase 1: Ennis to Athenry
58 km / 36 miles (€74.7 million)

Phase 2: Athenry to Tuam
25 km / 15.5 miles (€34.7 million)

Phase 3: Tuam to Claremorris
(subject to study of rail freight demand or in conjunction with phase 2)
27 km / 17 miles (€58.9 million)

Phase 4: Collooney to Claremorris
(subject to further feasibility studies and possibly justifiable on the grounds of balanced regional development)
74.43 km / 46.25 miles (€197.4 million)

Transport 21[edit]

On 1 November 2005 the Transport 21 plan was launched committing government expenditure of €34 billion between 2006 and 2015 on road, rail and light rail projects. The Western Railway Corridor commitments under this plan were largely those recommended by the McCann Report:

  • 2009 – Opening of Ennis-Athenry section
  • 2011 – Opening of Athenry-Tuam section
  • 2014 – Opening of Tuam-Claremorris section

Minister for Transport Martin Cullen also announced the undertaking of a feasibility study into a rail link for Shannon International Airport in his speech at the launch. This study, undertaken by MVA Consultants, estimated the proposed link would cost €700m, while an Irish Rail manager stated that 'the costs of the construction of the rail link are out of proportion to the benefits to be gained'.[25]

Transport 21 also states the section of line from Claremorris to Collooney, the northern section known as Section Four in the McCann Report should be subject to protection of the alignment.

Transport 21 is has been shelved by the current Irish Government administration. There are no plans to re-open any more sections of the Western Rail Corridor. Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar is on record as saying the Government has no plans to re-open any further sections of the Western Rail corridor.[citation needed]

TEN-T Transport policy[edit]

In November 2013 the European (EU) Parliament approved European TEN-T Transport policy. In the most radical overhaul of EU infrastructure policy since its inception in the 1980s, the European Parliament on 19th November 2013 gave final approval to new maps showing the nine major corridors which will act as a backbone for transportation in Europe's single market and revolutionise East–West connections. To match this level of ambition, Parliament also voted to triple EU financing for transport infrastructure.

On the island of Ireland, the only rail route corridor that is included in the TEN-T Core network is the route Cork-Dublin-Belfast. The Limerick-Athenry section of the Western Rail Corridor is included in the TEN-T Comprehensive network. [26]

Progress of works[edit]

Following preliminary works in late 2005 and early 2006, official clearance work on the northern section of the line (Claremorris to Collooney) began on 18 September 2006. Renewal of track commenced in 2007 on the line between Ennis and Athenry and was completed in 2009. After a gap of more than thirty years, train services between the cities of Galway and Limerick commenced on Tuesday the 30 March 2010, on budget at a cost of €106.5m. The service provides five trains per day between Galway and Limerick. It serves existing stations at Limerick, Ennis, Athenry and Galway, as well as new stations at Sixmilebridge, Gort, Ardrahan and Craughwell. The Limerick to Galway service also feeds into expanded intercity services between Limerick and Dublin and between Galway and Dublin. Irish Rail planned for both routes to gain hourly services at peak and two hourly off-peak, however recession has resulted in delay, with some services withdrawn.

The middle section of the western rail corridor, Athenry – Claremorris, has been programmed but not funded under Transport 21 while the Colooney – Claremorris northern section has not been programmed or funded bar some line clearance work in 2006.

Patronage[edit]

On 8 July 2013, The Irish Examiner reported that patronage on the Ennis to Athenry sector had fallen to 34,200 in 2012 from the 34,461 reported in 2011.[34] and that passengers on that sector in the first 5 months of 2013 were 11,900. However, The Irish Examiner noted that total passengers on the line from Limerick to Galway had grown in 2012 from 224,000 to 235,000.

Nearly 4 years after the opening of the route online booking was finally introduced in December 2013.

On Feb 3rd 2014 Iarnród Éireann reported that following the introduction of online booking and new adult fares of €5.99 each way passenger numbers travelling between the two cities or to and from stations on the new section of line had increased by over 38% since the start of December, when compared to the same period 12 months previously and that the increase was being maintained and accelerating into the New Year. The service was also being promoted through free car parking at Gort, Ardrahan and Craughwell; promotion of Taxsaver tickets, giving commuters full tax relief on the cost of monthly and annual season tickets purchased through employers and group travel promotions, including schools.

Collooney Claremorris Section as a Greenway[edit]

This idea has been advocated by the campaign group Sligo-Mayo Greenway, who argue that the funding for a Greenway on this section would be minimal in infrastructural terms and would not hinder the eventual reinstatement of the Railway should the funding for that ever become available, unlike the closure of the Foyle Valley Railway by Derry City Council after the parallel installation of a cycleway. The campaign for the Greenway on this section of the track, point to the success of the recently opened Great Western Greenway.

In August 2011 this proposal was ruled out by the Western Regional Authority[27] but the proposal continues to be discussed. During 2013 the idea twice failed to get a seconder at Galway and Mayo Co. Councils and was also defeated (16-3) at Roscommon Co Council. The Co Managers’ reports in respect of the new Co Development Plans for both Galway and Mayo pointed to the strategic importance of protecting the railway infrastructure and to having proposed walking and cycling routes located elsewhere.

Supporters of the greenway claim that use of a greenway will protect the trackbed from adverse possession claims and will not preclude reinstatement of the disused sections of line as a working railway in the future. However, the recent case of the Comber railway in Belfast shows that once a rail line is converted into a walking or cycling path it is practically impossible to get it back.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Image of Disconnected Athenry - Tuam line in Athenry, image acquired by Bing May 2012
  2. ^ Image of Disconnected Claremorris - Collooney line in Claremorris, image acquired by Bing May 2012
  3. ^ Image of Disconnected Claremorris - Athenry line in Claremorris, image acquired by Bing May 2012
  4. ^ Image of Disconnected Claremorris - Collooney line in Claremorris, image acquired by Bing May 2012
  5. ^ Restored Western Rail Corridor will reinvigorate west Irish Times, 21 May 2005
  6. ^ Let's put the west back on track Irish Times, 12 June 2006
  7. ^ Decentralisation, the WRC and Regional Development Irish Times 19 June 2006
  8. ^ 'Lack of road and rail links' killing tourism in west Sunday Independent, 14 August 2005
  9. ^ Plans for Increased Regional Access Vital for Tourism Spread throughout Ireland IHF Galway branch press release, 13 Feb 2006
  10. ^ Gridlock in Galway City Irish Independent (Letters), 14 August 2006
  11. ^ Students call for Western Rail Corridor to re-open Western People, 6 Sep 2006
  12. ^ Opinion Poll Findings show Significant Passenger Demand for Western Rail Corridor MRBI/TG4 Press Release, 31 October 2006
  13. ^ Editorial in the Irish Times 9 June 2006 (subscription required)
  14. ^ 'Ladybird' WRC report a one-track journey into madness Irish Independent, 16 May 2005
  15. ^ Platform 11's Position on the Western Rail Corridor
  16. ^ An Bord Snip Nua Report 2009
  17. ^ The Merits of a Cycleway Not A Railway Western People Letters Quoting Minister O Cuiv speech , 20 May 2009
  18. ^ Government Ignored Doubts over Western Rail Corridor
  19. ^ "RTÉ Report On Closure of Ennis Limerick Railway Line March 2008". RTÉ News. 12 March 2008. Retrieved 13 July 2009. 
  20. ^ "Transparency essential for PPPs". Retrieved 24 May 2006. [dead link]
  21. ^ "Goodbody Economic Consultants: Audit of the Business Case for the Reintroduction of Passenger Rail Services between Ennis and Athenry". Retrieved 14 May 2009. 
  22. ^ "Trinity College Student Economic Review 2006: An Economic Analysis of the Western Rail Corridor".  (PDF)
  23. ^ Iannrod Eireann Freight Services August 2013
  24. ^ McCann, Pat. "Report to the Minister for Transport from the Chairman of the Expert Working Group on the Western Rail Corridor" (PDF). Retrieved 24 May 2006. 
  25. ^ "Limerick Rail Link to Airport ruled out in Study". The Irish Times. 10 October 2007. 
  26. ^ http://ec.europa.eu/transport/themes/infrastructure/doc/com%282011%29_650_final_2_annex_i_part07.pdf
  27. ^ Cross-party consensus rules out greenway for western rail corridor

External links[edit]