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Wednesday 1 February 2023 Dublin: 6°C
# The Beaten Track
Railway, greenway, or disused line? The tangled, uncertain future of the Western Rail Corridor
The government is at a crossroads on the future of the disused track which could link counties in the west of Ireland.

ALONG THE WEST of Ireland is a stretch of railway line spanning from Athenry in Galway through to Claremorris in Mayo.

It crosses 52km – more than the length of Dublin’s two Luas lines combined – of towns, villages, and rural land but has been out of use for decades.

The section of track, which is part of the 240km, mostly-disused Western Rail Corridor running from Limerick to Sligo, stopped carrying scheduled passenger trains in 1976, aside from a few exceptions that ceased in the 1990s. 

Many say the line should be revived as a railway and some suggest it be converted to a greenway for cyclists and pedestrians – but a report commissioned by the government last year argued that a “do nothing” approach would be the best financial choice.

Now, the government is at a crossroads on the future of the corridor, which, for its supporters, has become emblematic of the fight for regional development in the west of Ireland as it lies unused. 

The Western Railway Corridor

In its entirety, the Western Railway Corridor runs from Limerick as far north as Collooney in Sligo.

The line is mostly disused, which means that a trip from Athenry to Castlebar, for instance, requires taking a train along the Galway-Dublin line to Athlone and changing to the Dublin-Westport line instead of a direct link between the towns.

Campaigners have long called for the return of trains to the track – or, if not of trains, then for the repurposing of the line for cyclists.

In 2010, a section of the track was reopened between Limerick and Athenry, dubbed phase one of the project.

The next development that is being considered, which would be phases two and three, would see the connection from Athenry to Claremorris revived.

A fourth proposed phase, which wasn’t under the scope of recent reports, would reconnect Claremorris to Collooney in Sligo. 

Rail network WOT West On Track The Western Rail Corridor and the proposed redevelopment stages West On Track

However, a report by EY said that the costs of reviving the line between Athenry and Claremorris would be greater than the financial benefits and that the “‘do nothing’ option of leaving the line inactive” would be preferable.

After an analysis of the costs and benefits, the report said that the “reactivation of the WRC is not considered value for money under a reasonable range of demand and pricing assumptions”. 

It concluded that there would be no positive return on investment in the line – that is, that restoring it as a railway would lose more money than it would generate.

The EY report was reviewed by JASPERS, an EU agency, which said that EY’s findings are “not unreasonable” and that the “project in its current form is likely to present a very weak justification for investment”.

JASPERS said that a “fundamental review of the basis for the project and the regional context” and a “more detailed assessment of the ability to support climate objectives” should be taken before any financing of the project.

But local campaigners and politicians say the line would bring acutely-needed connections and development to the west of Ireland and want the government to embed the corridor in the next National Development Plan.

Mayo TD Rose Conway-Walsh told The Journal that opening the corridor is “the key step to addressing regional imbalance in the west of Ireland”.

She said that the corridor “must be included in the National Development Plan” if the government is “serious” about balanced regional development and employment in the west.

Since the publication of the EY and JASPERS reports, a separate report by a campaign group has suggested that there is a strong business case for reopening the line between Galway and Mayo, which the TD said the government “cannot ignore”.

An alternative look

In the wake of the EY report, campaign group West on Track, which has been petitioning for the revival of the Western Rail Corridor since 2003, commissioned an alternative appraisal of the line.

Dr John Bradley, a former research professor at the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) involved with the campaign group, authored the report and concluded that there was a “strong business case” to move forward with the project.

Speaking to The Journal, Dr Bradley said that the West on Track report arrived at a significantly different finding from EY’s.

Dr Bradley said the EY report put the track at a much highere cost than the phase one project which reopened the line between Ennis and Athenry. The WOT report looked at the costs of the earlier phase, which he said has “almost identical” characteristics to the proposed link between Athenry and Claremorris, and upgraded those for inflation and enhanced security and safety standards.

“We had assistance from rail experts within Ireland. We came up with a capital cost less than half of what EY had come up with,” he said.

“The bottom line of the EY report was the benefit-cost ratio was .21:1, which would mean that for every euro the government would invest, they would get back 21 cent. That’s a no-no, you don’t go ahead with a project like that.”

But the change in calculating the capital cost shifted the benefit in the benefit-cost ratio to about 0.9.

Next, the WOT report looked at the prospective benefits of restoring the line.

“When you compare cars, buses and rail, the key benefits come from which is the speediest,” Dr Bradley said.

“We found that EY, for travel from Claremorris to Athenry and onwards to Galway, had imposed a lengthy delay at Athenry where you would get off the train and wait 20 mins for another to arrive. The whole design of route would be that it would be through traffic, you would get on a train in Westport and travel to Claremorris, turn south to Athenry and to Galway – you don’t break the journey at any stage,” he said.

“In the EY report, rail was the least speedy, it was the slowest of the three modes of transport, and what that meant was very few people would shift from cars or buses to rail.

“We redid the capital costs and benefits and came up with a benefit-costs ratio of about 1.04, which is above 1, which means it’s in the category of projects that are economically feasible, even by these narrow conditions.”

The group wrote to Iarnród Eireann and the Department of Transport to request access to background information that was provided to EY, but did not receive those details, which meant there were additional potential benefits they could not account for in their calculations, Dr Bradley said.

One benefit that wasn’t accounted for was that the link would open up connections to towns like Castlebar, Westport and Ballina in addition to the link between Claremorris and Athenry.

“We felt we couldn’t include those because when EY did their point-to-point travel analysis, they had access to the model that the National Transport Authority had given them access to and we didn’t have that access,” Dr Bradley said.

“We couldn’t include an enhanced passenger travel which would have driven the benefit-cost ratio even higher. We had our hands tied.”

“When it came to the issues around the role of the rail line in enhancing regional development and connectivity, once again, we couldn’t monetise those benefits because we wouldn’t have access to official data.”

EY declined to give a comment to The Journal.

Additionally, Dr Bradley said the “real climate change benefit of switching to rail is that it will cut down car journeys, which at the moment and for foreseeable future are going to be driven by fossil fuels, but massively, it will cut down road freight, because that’s where the heavy pollution comes from”.

Greenway

Many of Ireland’s existing greenways – routes set aside for cyclists and pedestrians that aren’t accessible to cars – were built along disused railway lines, like the the Great Southern Trail from west Limerick to north Kerry and the Old Rail Trail from Mullingar to Athlone.

With trains long absent from the Western Rail Corridor, some say that the most valuable option for the region would be to convert the track into a greenway.

In Sligo, Councillor and former mayor Marie Casserly says a greenway along the corridor line could connect to other greenways that are planned for the county and ultimately join up with a national cycle route.

“There are two different greenway projects that we’re working on. There’s the SLNCR [Sligo Leitrim Northern Counties Railway greenway] which goes from Enniskillen to Collooney on the old railway line and the Sligo greenway that goes from Collooney to Ballahy on the Mayo border,” Casserly told The Journal.

“That’s a lot of greenway that we can link up to the proposed greenway from Claremorris to Athenry,” she said.

“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle – ultimately the aim is to put all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together to have a national greenway that you can cycle throughout the whole country of Ireland.”

Casserly said that the economic value for greenways is “absolutely massive”, but that a railway might not provide the same benefit.

“Nobody is anti-railway, but you have to be pragmatic and realistic,” she said.

“We can hardly keep the potholes filled in our roads, so I don’t know where we would get the money to sustain a new railway line.”

A better investment for rail, she said, would be in the existing Sligo to Dublin line to make it faster. 

If the Western Rail Corridor was restored in the future, building a greenway in the short-term could help preserve the line in the interim, the councillor said.

“What would happen is the line is kept intact and it prevents further encroachment,” Casserly said.

“Should there be funding and a population available to make a railway sustainable, then that line is still intact,” she said.

The greenway preserves the line and my argument would be that in the meantime, since it’s decades since there was a train on the track, until it becomes economically feasible to have a railway line, why not have a greenway so we can benefit like they’re benefiting in other counties?”

Casserly said it would be “a huge prize for Sligo and for the northwest if you could start in Collooney, go through Mayo, cycle on to Galway, to Athenry, cycle across to Dublin and up to Belfast, to Enniskillen and back home to Sligo – that’s the ten-year vision I would have”.

“This is a perfect opportunity to reinvigorate the north west and bring tourists, bring jobs, and create an environment where people want to live,” she said.

“Greenways aren’t only for tourists either, they can run between schools, between villages, and you’re cutting down on traffic that way.”

What happens now?

Ireland and Northern Ireland have recently commissioned a joint review of railways across the island.

In a statement to The Journal, a spokesperson for the Department of Transport said that the government has “noted the conclusions of both the EY Report and the JASPERS Review in December 2020 and have also noted Minister [Eamon] Ryan’s plan to conduct a Strategic Rail Review of the rail network on an all-island basis”.

The spokesperson said the review will examine the “potential scope for improved rail services and infrastructure along the various existing, or future potential, corridors of the network, including disused and closed lines such as the Western Rail Corridor”.

The department has awarded the tender for conducting the review to ARUP, with the study due to begin in September and be completed within a year.

However, West on Track is concerned that the review could impede on the potential inclusion of the corridor in the National Development Plan.

“On the one hand, we’re delighted that they’re actually doing a strategic review, but on other hand, it delays everything,” Dr Bradley said.

“If they started tomorrow, it [Athenry to Claremorris] could be operating in two or two and half years.

“There’s nothing West on Track would like better than for the Western Rail Corridor link from Athenry to Claremorris to be put into the NDP which they’re revising at the moment. They’ll wrap it up probably in September, and this is the decade-long implementation of the longer projects in the 2040 strategy,” he said.

“They’re having a look at it and putting extra projects into it and we would like them to put the WRC in and get phase two and three going. We fear that they will not because they will have a perfect excuse – ‘we can’t do until the all-island SRR is carried out’.”

Dr Bradley said that campaigners are afraid the review will focus largely on intercity connections and “gloss over the rail corridor issues that connect the western regions on a north-south axis”, that “not only will Galway-Mayo-Sligo region suffer, but Donegal won’t even be on the table – that’s our worry”.

“If an area hasn’t had a rail line for decades, people don’t think about trains anymore,” he said.

“There’s a mind shift needed, and until it comes, people will say ‘oh rail, it’s just for intercity city stuff where there’s big numbers, for urban commuting’ – no, it’s not! But it’s an uphill struggle to persuade people.”

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here

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