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Northern Ireland Railways: Europe’s untold success story

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The success of Northern Ireland Railways is one of Europe’s best kept secrets. Writes Tim Casterton

Skirting the edge of Europe, the popular and scenic railway has seen passenger numbers and receipts rising and new trains bolstering the fleet. A new depot and a European business award testify to an expanded railway deserving sustained investment

Translink, which runs Northern Ireland Railways, expects to achieve the best passenger numbers in the company’s history in the year ending March 2013. In the quarter year from July to September 2012 passenger numbers were up by 5.2% and amazingly, this despite the Coleraine-Londonderry line being closed for upgrade works for two of the three months.

During the last quarter of 2012 the trend continued with the actual passenger numbers increasing by 7.1% over the same period of the preceding year. Mal McGreevy, General Manager of NIR said, ‘Making appropriate adjustments for passenger losses due to line closures, our underlying growth across the network is closer to 8%.’

He went on to say, ‘Our financial year April 2012 to March 2013 is on track to be our best ever for passenger numbers and I expect the trend to continue into 2013/14.’ To put this into context, it is a 70% passenger growth since 2002.

UK City of Culture

The line closure of the Coleraine – Londonderry line was planned from 29 July 2012 with passenger services due to recommence 23 March 2013. Work on renewing ballast, new track, embankment stabilisation, bridge repairs, including the lifting of the bridge over the River Bann, and track replacement have progressed well.

Driver retraining trains were set to operate again during February. Mal McGreevy told RailStaff that NIR, ‘Has been operating a bus substitution service but unfortunately has lost over 50% of normal passenger numbers on that section of track. We remain confident however that passengers will return when the line reopens and in fact should get a significant boost from Londonderry’s UK City of Culture.’IMG_6952 [online]

The works currently being carried out on the infrastructure will secure services for the next 30 years and will result in reduced future maintenance costs.

CAF Class 4000 trains

New trains are being readily taken to heart by the travelling public. NIR’s new Class 4000 diesel multiple unit trains were built by CAF in Spain. This allowed all of the old Class 80 and Class 450 (Castle Class) trains to be withdrawn from service.

These older trains were affectionately known as ‘Thumper Units’ due to the distinctive sound of the English Electric diesel engines that powered them. A couple of the older Class 80 trains have been retained in departmental service for seasonal railhead treatment duties.

The new trains together with the Class 3000 trains which were brought into service a few years ago have allowed frequency and capacity increases in services. ‘We have followed that with the introduction of a new timetable from 6 January 2013 which sees a 70% increase in the number of trains from Belfast to Coleraine and a 30% increase in the number of trains operating between Belfast and Whitehead’ said Mal. There is also an aspiration to eventually run an hourly service between Londonderry, Coleraine and Belfast.

New Adelaide depot

Northern Ireland Transport Minister, Danny Kennedy, opened NIR’s new Adelaide Depot on 12 December. The new £28m state of the art depot was built on the site of the former Adelaide freight yard to maintain the 20 Class 4000 DMUs and brings 14 new skilled jobs to the area. These were delivered from March 2011 onwards and introduced into passenger service from September 2011.

Facilities at the new depot include an engineering depot, a refuelling facility, train wash, stabling sidings, material storage site and staff accommodation. The hydraulic lifting jacks in the engineering depot are able to lift an entire 3-car train off its bogies without the need to uncouple the carriages. ‘Green’ environmental features included in the depot are grey water harvesting, water recycling systems, solar panels and modern energy efficient lighting.

The Transport Minister said that the depot was just one of the components of the ‘New Trains Two’ programme in which the Department for Regional Development and the Executive had invested some £150m.

The other components include the new trains and many platform extensions. To mark the historic occasion, the 90 guests were brought to the opening from Belfast Central station by the RPSI’s 133 year old steam locomotive No. 186.

UK Champion – NIR

In November 2012 Northern Ireland Railways was selected as UK Champion in the European ‘Ruban d’Honneur’ Customer Focus category from a short list of 32 companies. NIR went forward in December for consideration for the award in London during December.

In March 2013 the company will present its ‘Customer Focus’ submission to a judging panel in Dusseldorf with the hope and aim of being announced as overall category winner during April.

Mal McGreevy said, ‘It’s a huge honour to be recognised at this level alongside well-known European companies such as Aer Lingus, The Cambridge Satchel Company, IKEA Retail, Kraft Foods (Bulgaria) and Volkswagon (Slovakia).’ The award was made for the revolution in the company’s customer service offering on rail services over the last decade.

Consultation paper

Looking ahead, the Department for Regional Development in Northern Ireland has invited the public to respond to a consultation paper which sets out investment options for railways in the North until 2030. The priced options cover a wide spectrum from maintaining the current railway system right through to electrification and infrastructure enhancements.

The paper even looks at the economics of re- opening lines in Counties Tyrone and Fermanagh that closed in the 1950s and 1960s. Another option includes building a new railway into County Donegal. The paper estimates that to maintain the current network to a high standard over the 20 year period between 2015/6 and 2034/5 will cost £620m.

Package 2 in the paper provides modest capacity enhancements with the provision of new stations, park & ride facilities and additional rolling stock. This comes priced at £600m in addition to maintaining the current network.

Package 3 looks at the removal of some of the current bottlenecks and includes the widening of the ‘Dargan Bridge’ to allow double track, the laying of a third line between Great Victoria Street station and Belfast Central station and further north, the doubling of track between Bleach Green and Ballymena.

The electrification of the Cross-Border route to Dublin is examined in Package 4, however this would require the co-operation of Iarnród Éireann, the operator of services in the Irish Republic. At the present time, IÉ do not support this option so it is unlikely to happen.


The 5th Package requires considerable investment to gain longer term savings – the electrification of the whole of the NIR network between 2030 and 2035 at a cost of £350m. Routes such as the Bangor Line with its closely situated stations would gain most from this proposal with faster journey times, whilst all would benefit from more environmentally friendly energy supply.

This option would need to be phased to coincide with the need to replace the current diesel fleet, the latest of which have only just been introduced.IMG_8431 [online]

Belfast International Airport is sited adjacent to the railway that runs between Knockmore Junction (Lisburn) and Antrim. This line at present has no regular train service, but is still maintained by NIR as a diversionary route and for driver training.

The airport terminal is on the opposite side of the airport to the railway, so a short spur is included in the £50.5m cost of Package 6 as is the refurbishment and re-opening of the stations at Ballinderry, Crumlin and Glenavy.

These three stations, having been re-opened in 1974 following a period of disuse, were closed again in 2003 after all Belfast to Antrim / Londonderry services were diverted to the shorter route via Whitehead / Bleach Green. Package 6 also suggests that the provision of a quality bus service to the airport is an alternative option.

Reinstatement of routes

The biggest surprise in the consultation comes in Package 7. Here the possibility of reinstatement of the railway routes into counties Tyrone and Fermanagh are examined. These routes all radiate west from Portadown and include to Dungannon at a cost of £187m, Omagh at £473m and Enniskillen at £638m (although oddly Armagh is not included).

These railway lines were all axed in the savage cuts welded by the UTA in the 1950s and 1960s which left two of the six counties completely devoid of railways. The proposal notes that the option will require increased Government subvention and also that an alternative scheme could be quality express ‘Goldline’ bus routes.

Quoted at a cost of £11m per mile (excluding stations, bridges and rolling stock), the price is possibly open to question as it appears more akin to that of ‘new railway’ rather than the refurbishment of a currently abandoned route.

The paper notes that land would also require purchase as if this was unique to railways whereas this would of course be relevant to any form of land based linear transport.

County Donegal link

Finally, Package 8 briefly mentions construction of a new railway into Donegal, but shoots it down almost in the same sentence! Much of the route in this area would be in the Republic of Ireland and Iarnród Éireann, having looked at the issues a couple of years back, concluded that it wasn’t economically viable to construct. The full consultation document can be found on the DRD website www.drdni.gov.uk and responses are required by 12 April 2013.

Mal McGreevy appears to be justifiably proud of the achievements of Northern Ireland Railways with significant investment already bearing the fruits of increased passenger numbers.

The future looks bright for Northern Ireland Railways. If any of the consultation packages over and above ‘Package 1’ are agreed for funding, the success of the network will continue to grow. Railway staff and rail users share Mal McGreevy’s optimism.

Railways in Northern Ireland are a success story and derive serious and sustained investment.


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