A rail link to Belfast International Airport is to be considered after the Transport Minister revealed it was among a number of feasibility studies forming part of a review into the future of the the Northern Ireland railway network.
Danny Kennedy today set out his vision for the future of railway investment over the next 20 years and beyond.
The Railway Investment Prioritisation Strategy published by Mr Kennedy signals the potential for the first major extensions to the railway network in Northern Ireland since the closing of lines in the sixties.
The minister’s announcement follows a public consultation inviting views on the future priorities for investment in the railways network. This attracted a wide variety of informed responses which the minister developed into the Strategy which sets out his strategic direction and priority areas for future railways investment.
“This ambitious Strategy allows for a significant enhancement of existing rail capacity, preparation for the future electrification of the network and the first major extensions to the railway since the closing of lines following the Benson Report in 1963,” Mr Kennedy said.
He added: “I am particularly keen to extend the option of rail travel to commuters from mid-Ulster and to the populations in the south and west within the catchments of Armagh and Dungannon. Although the speed of progress will depend on the amount of funding that can be made available from the Executive’s budget and, where possible, from the European Programmes, I am committed to exploring all funding opportunities and making this happen.”
The minister highlighted that in the last few years, there has been a significant upturn in rail passenger growth in Northern Ireland, almost doubling in numbers since 2002.
“Within the broader transportation network our railway service is rapidly increasing as a travel mode of choice,” he added.
Setting out his priorities Mr Kennedy said: “It will be important, in the present period of public expenditure restraint to use available resources to sustain and make best use of the current railway system and to develop it where there is the greatest potential for further passenger growth. However, my ambition for rail goes much further, and I am absolutely committed to seeking opportunities to further enhance or extend the network.”
The Department for Regional Development’s Strategy identifies three priority themes to be pursued in bidding for future railways investment funding up to 2035.
Mr Kennedy said over the period of his Strategy, priority would be given to a number of projects including the completion of the Coleraine to Londonderry track relay; track relays between Coleraine and Antrim and at Lurgan station; refurbishment of the Enterprise rolling stock; refurbishing stations and halts including Adelaide, Ballymena, Londonderry and Lurgan; purchase of up to 60 extra carriages; and a programme of new Park and Ride facilities amongst other projects.
In looking at possible network extensions, Mr Kennedy said: “Projects that will be considered include the enhancement of the Northern Line between Bleach Green and Antrim.
“Other feasibility studies into longer term will propose extensions along the A6 corridor between Antrim and Castledawson; along the M1/A4 and the A3/A29 corridors towards Dungannon/Armagh; and a route to serve Belfast International Airport.
“I believe rail travel offers a safe, comfortable and efficient option, particularly for commuters and inter-city passengers. As and when additional resources become available, we must be ready to develop our rail network and this Strategy sets out how we can make that happen.”