Irish freight struggles to make case for Western Rail Corridor
The case for reopening a rail route along the west coast of Ireland is poor, despite interest in mixed traffic. The prospect of freight traffic along a reopened section of line has not been proven, according to reports commissioned by the Irish rail authority. However, local groups claim the reports had too narrow a remit, and did not consider the wider network advantages of completing a reopening programme along the whole west coast of Ireland.
The 60km railway gap, between Athenry in the south and Claremorris in the north, is the last link in a complete ‘Western Rail Corridor’ between the towns of Sligo and Galway in the north, and the international ports of Cork and Rosslare in the south of Ireland. However, despite a history of growing road congestion, two reviews have returned negative predictions on the viability for passenger and freight traffic. That is a blow for campaigners who had hoped to see economic and environmental benefits.
Celtic Tiger roared
On the island of Ireland, railway services have traditionally radiated from the major population centres of Dublin and Belfast. Both cities lie on the east coast, and it is well known that the western provinces have a much lower population density. However, the west coast did have a unified railway, directly connecting many outlying communities. Much of the so-called ‘Western Rail Corridor’ closed during rationalisations in the twentieth century.
Ireland’s ‘Celtic Tiger’ economic revival in the early years of this century saw much of the route reopened. However, a section remains closed, in the least populous area between Athenry and Claremorris. That gap has precluded effective freight services, since investment in roads offer a much more direct and cost-effective route for Ireland’s modest freight tonnages.
Freight almost eradicated
Campaigners are disappointed that two reports have concluded that reopening the line would not be economically viable, even if freight were taken into account. Pressure group WestOnTrack.com has long called for more freight on Irish rails. They say that the tonnage carried throughout Ireland has been in significant decline since the 1990s.
According to West on Track figures, thirty years ago, Irish railways carried 3.3 million tonnes of goods. In little over a decade that had contracted to less than one million tonnes. During that period almost all container terminals were closed to rail traffic, including facilities at Claremorris and Sligo. In Northern Ireland, the part of the UK on the island of Ireland, there is no rail freight traffic at all. The last terminal, Adelaide in Belfast, closed in the late 1990s and has since been redeveloped, partly as a maintenance depot. However, the possibility of connection from the north is being examined in the UK Union Connectivity Review, which could provide a new trade route from Scotland.
Reinvigorate all Irish freight
Despite enthusiasm from campaigners, there is only moderate political support. “The case for extending the Western Rail Corridor from Athenry to Claremorris is weak”, said Eamon Ryan, the leader of the Green Party in Ireland, and the country’s Minister for Transport. However, Ryan has also said that he wants the Corridor examined in a wider review, looking at the strategic advantages for the entire economy of the west of Ireland.
Speaking to the Times newspaper in Ireland, Ryan said he would like to see a rail review that looked at the potential for the line in the context of the overall Irish rail network in the region. He also citied the existing connection at Limerick to Waterford. A mothballed 20km section from Waterford to Wexford would reconnect the whole west of Ireland to the Rosslare Europort, with potential for reinvigorating the entire freight sector in Ireland.
The Celtic Tiger may not have given up entirely on rail freight just yet.