5 May 2005 Edition
Putting the West back on track
The right to have the Western Rail Corridor re-opened is only the first step toward re-addressing years of regional inequality, writes NOEL CAMPBELL
'Tá an Traein ag Teacht', or so the signs along major roads flanking the route of the sleeping Western Rail Corridor would have us believe. Excuse me for being cautious, but until I sit on a direct train journey from Sligo to Limerick, the upbeat tone of the signs is lost on me. So, what exactly is the Western Rail Corridor (WRC)?
The WRC is a 180-kilometre stretch of rail running from Collooney, County Sligo, to Ennis, County Clare. Lying idle since 1976, the WRC is not only intact but is also in public ownership and is estimated to be worth €450 million.
Sinn Féin has constantly cited the re-opening of the corridor as an essential prerequisite to any meaningful attempt by central government to address regional imbalance in the 26 Counties. Its re-opening cannot be underestimated.
The ability of the IDA and Enterprise Ireland to convince industry to commit to the Border Midlands and West (BMW) region would be greatly facilitated by the opening of the corridor. It can also be argued that the true tourism potential of the west of Ireland will not be realised until access to the western counties' tourist spots is made less demanding on tourists. This be done in a way that takes full advantage of the 500,000 passengers estimated to be using Knock Airport from 2005 on.
By opening the railway to freight, 30,000 Heavy Goods Vehicles could be removed immediately from the roads of Sligo, Mayo, Galway, Clare and Limerick. This will have immeasurable safety and environmental benefits, while easing the congestion caused by the 27,000 cars daily that pass through towns like Claregalway and other points on the N17 and N18.
Furthermore, the National Disability Authority states that rail offers the only practical option at present for interurban travel by people with mobility and sensory impairments.
The opening up of the corridor is part of Sinn Féin's campaign to create a rail circuit of Ireland linking the WRC with Donegal's rail network and on through Derry into the North, bringing enormous tourism and economic benefits to the whole island. This approach by the party is essential if equality for the regions is to be established.
The campaign to re-open the WRC is as old as the closure of the corridor itself. Anyone following this and previous governments' handling of the public's demand for a modern western rail network will be well aware of the plethora of viability reports, surveys and the Strategic Rail Review thrown at the campaign to buy the respective governments some time.
More recently, the West on Track group, supported by Sinn Féin, which is committed to the re-opening of the track, has been successful in moving the campaign further. The government's latest working group, set up last year under the chairmanship of Pat McCann, is due to deliver its final report to the Minister for Transport in the next few weeks.
Sligo Sinn Féin Councillor Chris MacManus has argued that "the McCann Report must ensure An Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, commits the adequate resources needed to see the entire corridor re-opened; anything less is a retrograde step for the campaign. There is no substitute for adequate funding."
The West on Track group estimates that the stations, track, trains and signalling required for the WRC will amount to €350 million. Most of the infrastructure is already in place.
Earlier this year, the Taoiseach committed himself to funding the WRC. You would be forgiven for taking such announcements from the FF/PD government with spoonfuls of caution. The people of the West cannot be content with what amounts to words and words only and, of course, the temptation is there for the government to use the promised sectioned opening of the track as an election gimmick in the run up to the next general election.
Sinn Féin's elected representatives in the BMW region are insisting that in the event of funding being secured, Iarnród Éireann must engage with the communities involved in order to deliver the range of services which are essential for the business and social needs of the region.
Mayo Fianna Fáil TD John Carty boasted last month that the reopening of the WRC would be the "final piece in the jigsaw towards making the National Spatial Strategy an economic and social success in the BMW region". Far from being the 'final piece', our right to have the WRC re-opened is only the first step toward re-addressing years of regional inequality.