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30 August 2007 Edition

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The Mitchel McLaughlin Column

All-Ireland rail network the way of the future

Irish politicians in Ireland continuously talk about investment in the rail ‘network’ as if such a network actually exists.  It doesn’t.  A century ago, Ireland had one of the most comprehensive rail networks in Western Europe. Since then cars and lorries have replaced rail as the preferred mode of transport.
We need to accept that we do not have a ‘rail network’ but we need one. What we have is a ‘line’ connecting Belfast to Dublin, a link to Larne and what passes for a link between Belfast and Derry which is so sub-standard trains are restricted to 30 mph and commuters will not use it. Donegal, Sligo and much west of Shannon are no better served.
What is required is collaboration between Belfast and Dublin on a strategic plan, driven and co-coordinated at Ministerial level to create a proper all-island rail network. This would include a comprehensive reassessment of how we move freight as well as passengers. The use of an all-island rail passenger/freight network would reduce road traffic congestion and protect the environment by reducing toxic emissions.
We need to connect the Southern system with the lines in the North to establish a proper all-Ireland network. The economic benefits of of this should not be underestimated. It would address infrastructural deficiencies often cited as the main factors for failure to attract sustainable investment to regions outside the Dublin/Belfast axis.
‘Strategic transport planning’ is one of the areas listed for co-operation and implementation under the All-Ireland Ministerial Council. It could lead the way in implementing a visionary transportation plan.
A lack of imaginative thinking in transport policy is apparent in the lack of train connections to airports at City of Derry and Belfast International despite the rail lines passing within a mile from the terminals.
The Ministerial Council has the potential to effect fundamental and positive change for the benefit of all the people on this island. The re-establishment of the rail link from Derry joining with the Belfast to Dublin line at Newry, the extension of the Belfast/Derry link to Letterkenny/Sligo and beyond and the associated new investment would transform the economic fortunes of the North West and strengthen the economic fabric of the entire island.
Sinn Féin is under no illusion about the massive financial investment a regeneration programme of this nature would involve. However the solution to problems such as under-development, damage to the environment, vandalism of our cultural heritage etc. lies in the development and implementation of long-term transportation strategies. The Centre for Cross Border Studies should be tasked to produce a cost analysis of such a project.
Some visionaries recently unveiled plans for an under-sea tunnel rail connection to Scotland at a projected cost of £3billion. Great idea, but wouldn’t such a budget go a long way towards establishing a modern all-Ireland rail network?
Such a network would surely attract EU support. The Executive and the Irish government could develop joint proposals for the deployment of EU Structural Funds for such an ecologically protective and economically productive venture. The EU in its concern about the disastrous consequences of climate change is already discussing radical proposals to reinstate rail as the preferred option for freight and passenger traffic in the future.

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