Bringing rail back to Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland may commission a feasibility study into the long-held ambition to restore rail services to the community of Armagh. That would involve a rebuilt connection to Portadown on the main line between the provincial capital of Belfast and the republic of Ireland’s capital of Dublin.

Bringing rail services back to a neglected area of Northern Ireland has been the ambition of the Portadown and Armagh Railway Society, which seeks to restore the service axed in 1957, and revive what they see as economic stagnation. They say the link would environmentally improve the region’s communication links with the rest of Ireland and the UK.

Integration of light logistics

Observers, in both Northern Ireland and in the republic of Ireland, have been closely watching the developments on the other side of the Irish Sea – particularly light logistics by rail, which may well be ideally suited to the smaller overall market on the island of Ireland.

Rail freight forms part of this joint study by the UK government in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland government in Dublin

That would play into the hands of any reopened line between Portadown and Armagh. Translink, the integrated transport agency for Northern Ireland, which would operate any restored service, is exclusively a passenger operation, but integration of light logistics would not necessarily involve any significant additional infrastructure, and would add to potential revenues.

Brexit element

The debate over rail freight in Northern Ireland has been raised again recently, with environmental concerns and the UK government’s commitment to a net zero carbon economy bringing new arguments to the table. There have been no rail freight operations in Northern Ireland for several decades, but with rail development under joint review in Belfast and Dublin, options for new flows are being examined.

Brexit has played a part in this argument. The Republic of Ireland has a small but growing rail freight sector, and with EU customers less willing to use the so-called ‘land bridge’ via Great Britain, there is growing marine traffic landing at Irish ports – principally Dublin, but also south coast terminals, where Rosslare, Wexford, Waterford and Cork all have existing or potential rail freight capacity.

Local authority and TV interest

The Armagh to Portadown route would be a viable prospect for consideration under the UK government’s ‘restoring your railway fund’ – however that 500 million pound (555 million euros) fund is restricted to projects in England and Wales. Transport matters in Northern Ireland are a devolved matter, under the Belfast government’s Department for Infrastructure.

Popular TV printer Rob Bell examines the Armagh – Portadown route in an upcoming edition of “Walking Britain’s Lost Railways, although campaigners would be happy for his route to be occupied by tracks and trains (Image: Channel 5 / Rumpus Media / Motion Content Group)

The local authority in the Armagh region, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council, has already expressed interest and estimated that the eleven mile (17.6 km) route would cost around one hundred million pounds (112 million euros) to complete. The line features in the new series of the popular British TV series, Walking Britain’s Lost Railways with Rob Bell, which airs this month.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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