Development of the Rail Network
Private Members’ Business
Francie Molloy (Sinn Féin)
The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one and a half hours for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to speak and 10 minutes to make the winding-up speech — [Interruption.]
Order. All other speakers will have five minutes. Two amendments have been received and are published on the Marshalled List. If amendment No 1 is made, amendment No 2 will fall. The proposers of the amendments will each have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to make their winding-up speeches.
I beg to move
That this Assembly calls upon the Department for Regional Development to bring forward their plans for upgrading the rail network to provide attractive inter-city services between the principal centres of population within Northern Ireland and onwards to the Republic of Ireland.
I am grateful for the opportunity to bring the motion before the House. It is some time since the previous Assembly found the money to invest in the new train sets that now serve the public in a style that was not previously possible. The public response to that investment has been encouraging, with the number of passengers using the Belfast to Derry line having doubled from half a million to one million a year. On other lines, business has increased by 30% or more, clearly indicating that when the level and reliability of rail transport improves, the public responds positively.
However, it would be a gross exaggeration to suggest that anything close to a proper intercity service that is capable of attracting a huge number of passengers away from road to rail transport has been achieved.
Since those new trains were introduced, interest in rail transport has increased to a new level in both parts of the island. Indeed, as the election campaign heats up in the Republic, it is clear that rail transport has become a major green issue — in the environmental sense, of course. Pipe dreams about extending rail facilities beyond Derry to Letterkenny and Sligo, thereby opening up the west, have become a possibility; indeed, dare I say, a reality.
That is good news for the whole island. Rail transport functions best when the network is comprehensive.
I acknowledge the co-operation of the councils served by the Belfast-Derry line, including Derry City Council and the Limavady, Coleraine, Ballymoney, Ballymena and Antrim borough councils, which encompass all the political parties.
Ken Robinson (UUP)
On a point of order, Mr speaker is in charge of proceedings of the House of Commons in..." class="glossary">Deputy Speaker. I think that Newtownabbey Borough Council should also be included in that grouping.
I gladly acknowledge Newtownabbey Borough Council’s contribution to the work.
By working together, the councils played a significant role in ensuring that plans to cut the line at Ballymena were not carried through, and some additional money was made available to carry out modest improvements — although not on the scale required to create a frequent, high-speed service. Translink is conducting an internal review, but that will not generate the kind of new money that is required to deliver what we now know will attract big numbers of commuters out of their cars, away from the roads and onto the railways.
In the future, unlike the past, the rail transport infrastructure must not be forced to compete with the day-to-day running expenses of the Assembly. The serious deficit will not be solved in the short or long term if it has to compete day and daily with, for instance, education and health. That is what happened in the past. Money for infrastructure — be it road, rail, sea or air — must come from separate ring-fenced resources, otherwise we will repeat the mistakes of the past and the deterioration will continue.
The motion is not only about the Belfast-Derry line, where, as I have said, there are huge opportunities for creating a new joined-up network in the west of Ireland that would bring about not only a positive contribution to the environment and a meaningful reduction in road fatalities, but an enormous boost to our tourism industry. The rail network tangibly symbolises a new economic revival; it is a public statement of new confidence in the future. Let us use it to tell the world that we are on the move — advancing — and leaving behind the shackles of the past that prevented investment and encouraged decay.
A man once told me that there will be those who will be remembered for what they built, and there will be those who will be forgotten for what they neglected or destroyed. Let the Assembly belong to the former category.
The reopening of the mothballed Antrim to Lisburn line must be high on the agenda. We must insist that the Department for Regional Development takes phrases such as “non-core lines” and “lesser-used lines” out of its vocabulary, and we must encourage its officials to accept that the entire network is critical to the future of public transport. The same applies to Belfast’s rail network, and for that reason the SDLP will have no difficulty in accepting the amendment proposed by Mr Beggs.
We have recently received renewed offers of financial help from the European Union. We must put concrete proposals for the renewing of the Belfast to Dublin Enterprise service before the European Union as a trans-European project, and in so doing emphasise that the eastern corridor is not the only route to the Republic and that the western corridor must not be ignored.
In the past, we have encouraged both Governments to work together to ensure that our relationships with the European Union are maximised to the mutual benefit of both parts of the island. We are now in a strong position to ensure that that happens.
Reviews and appraisals are a necessary part of any new venture, but this part of the Assembly’s business must not be unnecessarily held up by bureaucracy and red tape.
Sammy Wilson (DUP)
I take the Member’s point about reviews and appraisals, but assessing the costs of a proposal is part and parcel of any decision-making process. Is the Member aware of the possible costs of his proposals, and, if not, does he believe that it will be necessary to have an appraisal of any investment project like this?
Of course, I am aware of the need for appraisals. I wish that the appraisal of the refurbishment of the Belfast to Bangor line, on which there was an overspend of £20 million, had been done better. I am sure that that is of concern to the Member.
If the Assembly has confidence in its ability to make this part of the world economically viable, the £500 million investment that is needed in the north-west could be recovered within 10 years. In the past, the Assembly has encouraged both Governments to work together to ensure that relationships with the European Union are maximised to the mutual benefit of both parts of the island. It is now in a strong position to do that.
I am sorry to repeat myself, but reviews and appraisals are necessary. However, my point is that we must not get bogged down in so much red tape that nothing happens. The campaign for renewal began long ago: the arguments were made and were won. Action is now needed to demonstrate that the Assembly has the will and the determination to begin the march towards a new confidence and to acknowledge that the past failed us all and must, therefore, be addressed in a positive and practical way.
Rebuilding the infrastructure is vital. However, it must be immediate and decisive. That infrastructure will attract inward investment, international tourism and, in particular, the confidence of the people whom we serve. In the past, the need to maintain the railways was not fully understood. They were ripped up all over the island of Ireland. In Britain, the railways were systematically destroyed after the Beeching Report. The price that is now being paid for that is choked motorways everywhere.
At present, railways in the Republic are reopening, particularly in the west, where there is an acknowledge-ment that the issue of public transport infrastructure is not just about the existing volume of use but the need to deliver equality and target social need in those areas that have been disadvantaged in the past. That is particularly true in the north; hence the need to end the use of discriminatory terms such as “non-core” and “lesser-used” as criteria for investment.
I hope that the debate provides the opportunity for those who take part to support the motion and send a clear message to both the British and Irish Governments, and especially to the European Union, to acknowledge the deficits of the past and to participate in building anew in everyone’s common interests, offering no threat to anyone.
Finally, I would have liked to embrace both amendments. Unfortunately, the partitionist philosophy is still present. I have no doubt, however, that, in time, now that we have realised that we belong to a global village, and that people in Europe can move from one part to another without hindrance or regard for political borders, we will have the confidence to follow suit.
Lord Morrow (DUP)
I beg to move amendment No 1: Leave out all after “Assembly” and insert
“notes the positive impact that a devolved Minister was able to have on rail previously, including the acquisition of new stock and the provision of free transport for senior citizens; and calls upon the Department for Regional Development to bring forward its plans for upgrading the existing rail network and further development of the network throughout Northern Ireland.”
I have listened intently to Mr Dallat’s speech. It was a good speech until it reached the last paragraph or two, which is regrettable. Even on issues such as that which is being debated, there are those who seem compelled to politicise everything. I can see Mr Dallat smiling because he knows that what I have just said is the perfect truth. He has been caught offside. However, that will be dealt with at another time.
It is fitting that the debate should take place at the early stages of the new Assembly. Transport is a key issue for the future well-being of Northern Ireland. I acknowledge that in the past — even under the failed Belfast Agreement — considerable progress was made in that field. The previous Minister for Regional Development Peter Robinson took strident steps to enhance the rail network throughout Northern Ireland. However, much still needs to be done. We look forward to that progress.
Northern Ireland’s railway network plays a key role in transportation. New trains that were purchased during the first mandate are now in use on key routes. Senior citizens are able to travel for free, not only on railways, but on other modes of public transport. It is important that that is acknowledged.
Members should examine the possibilities for developing the railway network, but our view should be holistic in the wider context that a huge area of Northern Ireland does not have access to the railway. The road network is the main transport system in those areas and, unfortunately, is likely to remain so. Nevertheless, I hope that, in any review, the Minister will take a wider view than simply examining the existing railway structure.
Those who come from the west must travel a considerable distance to even see a train, never mind receive the services to which they are entitled. In the part of the world that I come from, the last railway system was known as the Clogher Valley railway — and that is long departed. It cannot be right that a large geographical area of Northern Ireland should never be considered for a railway network.
It is important that the Assembly takes those points seriously when it considers the way forward on this important matter.
William McCrea (DUP)
Does the hon Member agree that areas that were previously mothballed, such as the Lisburn and Antrim lines, must be put into operation again? Furthermore, it cannot be acceptable that there is no link between the international airport and the city of Belfast. That must be addressed.
Lord Morrow (DUP)
He is a wee bit like that. Mr Dallat thinks that the Members on this side of the House shrivel up every time the Irish Republic is mentioned. There may be good reason for doing that, but the DUP comprises forward-looking people. My party believes that there should be a proper and workable rail infrastructure that links Northern Ireland, for which Members are responsible, and the rest of the island. I suspect that Mr Dallat is surprised to hear me say that. The DUP has good reasons to put up a Great Wall of China, and it does not forget how the Republic of Ireland allowed its territory to be used to house and offer security to those who committed all sorts of crimes. However, Members must make an honest effort to establish a rail network that will be fit for purpose.
With the restoration of the devolved Assembly, Members are told that tourists will flock in by the planeload, trainload and any other means that will convey them. Members will all say “Hear, hear”, because that is the way that it should be. It is only with a proper rail network and transport system that those issues can be taken forward.
I hope that the House will support the amendment that is tabled in my name, because it does not take anything away, but adds to what Members are trying to achieve in Northern Ireland — a proper, functional, fit-for-purpose railway infrastructure. I hope that Mr Dallat and his colleagues will see the wisdom of that and, when they think it through, will resoundingly support the amendment.
Rail travel should be developed and enhanced — but in conjunction with the other transport links in Northern Ireland, to provide a truly integrated system. That is the challenge for the new Minister, who I hope will soon give us plans that will benefit all travellers right across Northern Ireland. That can only create an enhancing spin-off for the whole of Northern Ireland.
Roy Beggs (UUP)
I beg to move amendment No 2: Leave out all after “attractive” and insert
“commuting options and also intercity services between the principal centres of population and the neighbouring regions.”
I thank Mr Dallat for indicating his support for this amendment. I propose it because some of the language in the motion causes me some concern. “Intercity services” and “principal centres of population” are not clearly defined. “Intercity” could mean narrow benefit to only the long-distance traveller, for example, someone travelling from Londonderry to Belfast or from Belfast to Dublin. It is important that commuters throughout Northern Ireland benefit from improvements to the service. I want local commuting options to be included.
While it is important that there be good regional transport networks throughout Europe — and that means transport links from Belfast to Dublin — there are also important transport links on the Trans-European Network, and from Belfast to Larne and Stranraer and on to other European destinations. It is also important that everyone is considered when encouraging investment in railways. The student who needs to travel to college and who values rail transport where it is available needs to be included, along with the tourist and the business traveller.
Senior citizens also value the service, but there must be accessible points where they can enter the network. That is why local railway stations are important and need to be upgraded. We must improve our park-and-ride facilities, and walking and cycling access to stations, so that as many people as possible can be included in the regional transport plan that was presented to the previous Assembly to try to encourage a modal shift from road to rail.
There is another reason why I thought that it was important to widen the scope of the motion, and many Members will be unaware of this. Northern Ireland got 23 new train sets; everyone said “Hurrah”. None of them came to east Antrim or the Larne line. We still have all the old sets.
So there is an issue of rail equality in Northern Ireland. Why do the east Antrim commuters have to be second-class citizens? The new trains are much more disabled-friendly, and therefore the use of rail could be widened to a much bigger community. At present, east Antrim and Larne do not have those disabled-friendly facilities, so it is important that further rail investment should allow other parts of the rail network to experience the uplift in rail transport that results from the introduction of these new, quality services. If we really want a modal shift —
Sammy Wilson (DUP)
Does the Member accept that the issue is not just the quality of the trains, or whether they are disabled-friendly, but the fact that these trains, being so old, break down on a regular basis? Therefore, people will not use them, because they cannot be sure of getting to work on time or getting back from work.
Roy Beggs (UUP)
I agree that punctuality is one of the biggest issues, and I am thankful that punctuality has been improving on the east Antrim line. It is important that we do not scare rail commuters away, because the Member’s prophecy could become self-fulfilling. We must recognise that punctuality has improved. Even the older trains that on occasion were cold and damp have been improving. Recent surveys of passenger numbers in the area have indicated that that is the case.
However, the number of passengers using the service could increase greatly if new trains were provided. It is unfair that one section of railway in Northern Ireland does not have these new high-quality trains; and it is that very section that is part of the Trans-European Network. Tourists coming to Northern Ireland by train, or wishing to travel onwards from Belfast to Scotland must think that we are part of a Third World economy, since we use these ancient trains that are not of a quality expected by modern travellers.
I hope that all Members are able to appreciate the wording of my amendment, which does not rule anything out, but seeks to improve the travel of local commuters, to improve opportunities and to promote improvements in regional travel throughout the United Kingdom and onwards to Dublin.
Raymond McCartney (Sinn Féin)
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an rún agus tacaíocht a thabhairt dó. Phléigh an Tionól an t-ábhar seo cheana féin, agus tá a fhios agam go bhfuil an-suim ag an Chomhalta John Dallat sa cheist seo agus go bhfuil cuid mhór oibre déanta aige uirthi. Ba mhaith liom a aithint go bhfuil an tAire Conchúr Ó Murchú inár measc inniu. I welcome and support the motion proposed by the Member for East Derry. He has consistently raised this subject in the Assembly and elsewhere. I acknowledge the presence of Conor Murphy, the relevant Minister.
Sinn Féin remains committed to building an Ireland of equals. I emphasise the word “building”, since we must build the physical transport infrastructure to deliver that Ireland towards which we strive.
The project that lies ahead is developing rail travel with all its associated benefits, putting in place a fully-integrated, accessible and multi-modal transport strategy. That is the task that we have set ourselves.
Today’s debate serves as a timely reminder of how much we have been deprived in the past of the ability to develop, socially and economically. It is not my intention to concentrate on the past; Sinn Féin looks forward in the coming months and years with optimism to delivering, with all the parties, what we have set out to do.
As many Members know, in travelling to carry out public responsibilities, there is an over-reliance on the car, and that that has now reached breaking-point. The status and overemphasis that we place on the car is incompatible with the approach of our European neighbours. As was once said, one cannot build one’s way out of congestion by building roads.
Ós rud é gurb as Doire mé, tá a fhios agam nach bhfuil an córas iarnróid sásta ag daoine atá ina gcónaí sa chathair agus sna ceantair máguaird. Bhí mé ar chruinniú i dTír Chonaill an tseachtain seo chaite — contae ina raibh dhá chéad míle iarnróid tráth ach nach bhfuil oiread agus míle amháin aici anois. As I am from Derry, I am only too familiar with the poor rail connections of our city. Last week I attended a discussion in Donegal town. At the beginning of the last century, County Donegal had some 200 miles of rail network, with four rail operators. Today, it has not a single rail track. That meeting accepted that the argument for rail in Donegal is enhanced by the retention and upgrading of the line to Derry and that Derry should be linked to Sligo and so on. The motion represents a real opportunity for these institutions to work with our friends and neighbours in border counties.
In recent times Donegal County Council has commissioned a feasibility study on the development of railway systems and links to Derry and beyond. Working with the Irish Government, and exploiting the European Union platform, to establish this, should not be viewed as cross-border or all-Ireland infrastructure; but we should be seeking the establishment of an internationally recognised rail route from Derry to Kerry, and from Dublin to Belfast, in a loop. The amendments, as tabled, seek only to reduce the scope of the problem.
Kieran Deeny (Independent)
I thank the Member for giving way. I ask him and the Member who moved the motion whether they refer to the counties of Tyrone and Fermanagh, mentioned by Lord Morrow? There is huge tourist potential there. In Tyrone there are the Sperrins and the Ulster Amercian Folk Park; in Fermanagh there are the lakes. In addition to that, from Omagh alone some 250 cars travel to Belfast daily, and a similar number travel from Fermanagh.
Raymond McCartney (Sinn Féin)
Absolutely not. My reference to the western corridor includes those border counties as well as Cavan, Monaghan and elsewhere.
Inserting partitionism into the debate is wrong. It was said at last week’s meeting in Donegal town that stopping the Derry line would undermine the need for other networks. The result of confining rail development to the Six Northern Counties would be that we would have a railway only in and around Belfast. We all agree that that should not happen.
There are obvious environmental, social and economic benefits in having a proper rail network. The deaths on our roads over the weekend highlight the undoubted safety of rail travel, and that should not be lost on our policy-makers and decision-makers.
The previous Assembly brought forward several options; in particular, the viability of the Derry to Belfast line. As regards Dr Deeny’s point, if the Derry to Belfast line were lost, there would be no possibility of extending the rail network to Tyrone and Fermanagh. It is important — and this is not from a parochial standpoint — that when it comes to promoting new rail networks, we ensure that the existing network is upgraded in order to protect any addition.
I, and my party, support the motion. Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.
David Ford (Alliance)
I welcome the debate, and I thank Mr Dallat for initiating it. I also welcome the near unanimity among all Members who have spoken, and I look forward to hearing what the new Minister will say on the matter. It is time for him to establish that his Department has ceased to be the Department for roads development and that it actually does a bit of rail development as part of its functions.
However, Lord Morrow’s self-congratulatory speech about his party was out of line with the near unanimity achieved. I remember some of the issues he mentioned — in particular, the day that Mr Campbell, the then Minister for Regional Development, came to Crumlin to announce that the Knockmore line was to remain in operation for a year. I also remember that he did not show his face in south Antrim a year later when he closed the line.
If we hope to increase our rail infrastructure, we must ensure that we do so completely and in all places. While we should celebrate the success of the Assembly, in its first guise, in maintaining any kind of railway system — without the Assembly, we probably would have been reduced to having the Enterprise line and nothing else — we should not be too self-congratulatory, as a lot needs to be done.
It has been highlighted that the Bangor to Portadown line is providing a service and attracting passengers but at a considerable cost overrun. If the Assembly is to ensure that it gets best value for money, it must ensure that that does not happen again.
Mr Beggs highlighted a particular issue, and I know that Sean Neeson would not forgive me if I did not mention the failure to provide new rolling stock on the Larne line and that the decision to order 23 train sets was inadequate for the needs of the existing rail lines. There is also a need to improve timetables because they are a major disincentive to people to use trains. They are difficult to read when compared with bus timetables, which tend to be much simpler on some key routes. In retrospect, the decision to purchase 23 new train sets represented not nearly enough investment. Another 18 to 20 sets should have been ordered.
The lack of railway infrastructure north of Ballymena was highlighted — John Dallat is keenly interested in that matter. That must be addressed if the Assembly hopes to link the main population centres.
I welcome the fact that the amendment proposed by Mr Beggs refers to some significant key areas in respect of rail use — for example, commuter services into Belfast. That is why it is so unfortunate that the DUP, in a past life, closed the Knockmore line and thereby made it more difficult to reinstate services that could have linked to Belfast International Airport, which Dr McCrea, as the local MP, spoke about enthusiastically. Perhaps, rather than addressing the rest of us, he should speak with Mr Campbell and link up the inconsistencies in the DUP’s position on that point.
We need to develop those commuter services to ensure that people in places such as Crumlin and Antrim — which has a growing population — Mossley and Ballyclare get a decent transport service. We must follow through on Translink’s plans — which have not yet been funded by the DRD — to get a rail and bus interchange beside the M2 at Templepatrick. Implementing those plans would do far more to decrease congestion at Sandyknowes than any plans to widen the motorway.
If development of the rail network is to be taken seriously, then it must be at the heart of DRD policy. The Department must establish the circumstances in which trains can begin to substitute for use of the private car. The Alliance Party is not sure that that point has been reached.
When discussing option appraisals and research, it is easy to look at the financial factors involved. However, factors such as social inclusion — mentioned in the debate in relation to who has access to private vehicles — have not yet been taken into account. Other factors include the growing environmental problem that is now recognised across the world. Only public transport will solve our problems in commuting on the current mass scale, and commuting into Belfast in particular.
The motion and the amendment highlight some key issues that must be addressed. However, many problems will not be solved without a significant and serious input. There is no way that the Assembly will be able to resolve the environmental problems around Belfast if it continues to allow the private car to eat up 60% of the investment in transport. If the motion is to mean anything then Members must accept that the rail network is a key part of our transport infrastructure and not just as an option for a few extra visitors.
If I may digress into your own county, Mr speaker is in charge of proceedings of the House of Commons in..." class="glossary">Deputy Speaker, I believe that Mr McCartney and his colleagues will have to determine what the key development in the west of the Province will be. They will have to decide whether a railway line through Donegal will be better than one through west Tyrone, which I used on my summer holidays and look forward to using again.
Jim Wells (DUP)
Mention has already been made of the successes of previous devolved Ministers in delivering free transport for the elderly and improvements to rolling stock. Of course, those previous Ministers were Mr Peter Robinson and Mr Gregory Campbell.
Roy Beggs (UUP)
Does the Member accept that the previous Ministers for Regional Development made those successful changes with funding approved by the Executive, and that it was the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister that provided funding for free transport?
Jim Wells (DUP)
Yes, but the two Ministers made very wise use of that money, and I am far from confident that other Ministers would have had the ability to do so.
Before any strategy is examined, Members must remember that rail travel is not accessible by everyone in Northern Ireland. People living in west Tyrone, Fermanagh or indeed large parts of south Down, have no access to rail transport unless they are prepared to travel considerable distances by private car. However, the Assembly should be doing all that it can to ensure that those who do have access to a railway line are encouraged to use it.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair.)
Encouraging greater use of the rail network would reduce congestion — an increasing problem in Belfast and across many parts of the Province — and there would be environmental benefits. Financial costs must always be included in any assessment, but environmental impact is becoming more important. Northern Ireland has to meet the targets set down in the Kyoto protocol, and the draft Climate Change Bill is putting strict limits on carbon dioxide emissions. One way of reducing those emissions is to move people off private transport and onto trains and buses.
Northern Ireland’s transport policy is built on the regional transport strategy. Older Members will remember that in 2002 the strategy was passed in the Chamber unanimously. However, there is some way to go before implementation will be completed.
A start must be made on improving the rail experience of passengers in Northern Ireland. Ministers began the process by purchasing new C3K trains, but there is much room for improvement. Obviously those trains are used on the busiest lines, but Northern Ireland Railways still has a high percentage of rolling stock that could not be described as modern. As a student at Queen’s University in 1980, I cleaned trains at the old station at Sydenham — 27 years ago. The sad reality is that some of the trains that I cleaned all that time ago are still being used to convey passengers.
David Cairns, the former Minister for Regional Development, in a reply to my colleague Iris Robinson, who was showing a concern for public transportation through a parliamentary question, stated that a number of C3K trains were used on the main lines, that there were nine Class 400 units which were between 19 and 21-years old, six MK2 coaches that were 33 years-old and three Class 80 trains that were between 28 and 32 years-old — obviously those were some of those that I cleaned in Sydenham. Obviously trains that are approaching 30 years-old do not provide the best experience for passengers.
It is important that an attempt is made to increase the number of people making use of our railways and that passengers have the most pleasurable journey possible. The main purpose is not to drive people off the road but to entice them on to the trains, because public transport is so much better — a more enjoyable journey to and from work. Certainly some of the trains that are in service at the moment would not entice anyone to use them.
The biggest single feature of a journey is the train on which people are travelling. It is obviously backed up by making sure that services run on time and do not break down en route, and I know that this is a big problem with the Larne line.
I hope that the Minister will bring forward plans to improve rail travel for passengers in Northern Ireland. However, there is no doubt that he will realise that if one searched the Ulsterbus and Northern Ireland Railways website for an example of travel time from Belfast to Londonderry, it would be evident that it takes longer to travel by train than by bus. I hope that there are going to be further improvements in areas such as Dungiven that will make it faster to travel by bus from Londonderry to Belfast. This will also deter folk from travelling by train.
I look forward to hearing what the Minister intends to introduce to improve this situation. An integrated public transport system in Northern Ireland that offers a first-class service to the travelling public should obviously be one of his priorities. It is important that this is done in the most efficient manner possible. However, that will still leave many thousands of people in Northern Ireland without access to trains, and we must also, commensurate with that decision, improve our bus service as well.
Gregory Campbell (DUP)
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I join with others in congratulating you on the elevation to your new position.
I also congratulate Mr Dallat on bringing this motion before the Assembly on a matter that both he and I and many others have shared concern about for some considerable time. There is no doubt that this debate will ensure that there is quite a bit of expansion of contributions and, hopefully, of the rail network as well. However, it also appears to have allowed for some expansion of revisionism by Mr Ford from South Antrim who, as I recall, when I was faced with the imminent closure of the Knockmore line, courtesy of the statistics that he referred to, congratulated me on keeping the line open for a year. I notice that the congratulations have now evaporated.
Gregory Campbell (DUP)
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I want to get to the substance of the matter. It is clear from the statistics, which I hope we are all in possession of, that car ownership is growing at the rate of 4% a year. This Assembly comes into being now in 2007. In approximately ten years, if there is not a development of the rail network, there will be approximately 50% more car usage in Northern Ireland than there currently is. Therefore, all the problems that we hear about every morning on ‘Good Morning Ulster’, the congestion at Sandyknowes, on the M1 and on all the other bottlenecks, will be 50% worse in ten years’ time if action is not taken. It is blatantly obvious to everyone that provision should be made for expanding the rail network and that an attempt should be made to try to deploy whatever resources we can in order to ensure that people see that transport by rail is economical, advantageous environmentally, affordable and comfortable.
If people are faced with such an option, they will be more likely to forsake their love affair with the private car. However, if they are not faced with such an option, they will not forsake the car. That is blatantly obvious.
Let us consider Europe, where the expansion of the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) network in France is an obvious consequence of governmental attempts to ensure that investment and resources are ploughed into the development of the rail network. They have seen, and continue to see, the results of those extra resources. It will be the same in Northern Ireland; if the rail network is starved of resources, passenger figures will stagnate. Mr Dallat and one or two other Members mentioned the increase in patronage on the lines where development has occurred. Mr Wells mentioned my introduction of free travel for the elderly. That measure resulted in increased rail usage — it would be difficult to see how it would not.
Those Members from north of Ballymena will be aware that, without a passing loop at Ballykelly, one is restricted to one train from Ballymena through Coleraine and onwards to Londonderry, and one train back. However, if there were a passing loop, there would immediately be the potential to double the number of people who use that line. Departmental officials have informed me through answers to parliamentary questions that I have tabled that a passing loop could cost several million pounds; they said that it would cost almost £10 million. I would like to see a business case made for that. I hesitate to say that I do not think that it would cost that much, but I do not think that it would cost that much. However, that it what they tell us. The passing loop is absolutely essential for the possibility of doubling the number of people who use the Londonderry line.
Mr Dallat referred to travel beyond Northern Ireland. I am sure that we can address that issue, but let us get this country’s rail network sorted out before we take advantage of another.
Ken Robinson (UUP)
I welcome the fact that this debate comes so early in the life of this Assembly. I shall resist the temptation to ask Members when they last travelled by train. I have already written to the Minister for Regional Development to ask him to address urgently the problems currently encountered by passengers who use the Londonderry and Larne lines.
My interest in the possibilities presented by rail travel goes back to my early days as a newly elected member of Newtownabbey Borough Council, as far back as 1985. Since then, I have continued to lobby consistently for the reinstatement of the Bleach Green to Antrim line, and I am glad that we have achieved that. I also lobbied for the modernisation of the trans-European network route to Larne Harbour, which has been only partially achieved. We have witnessed a slow but steady realisation that rail travel represents an eco-friendly alternative form of transport for those who are fortunate enough to live along the few remaining rail corridors in Northern Ireland.
The first Northern Ireland Assembly had the foresight to set aside money for 23 new trains, a complete relaying of track on the Bangor line and an upgrade of the routes between Belfast and Whitehead, and between Belfast and Ballymena. Together with a modernised signalling system, those measures enabled sufficient improvements to persuade a loyal section of the travelling public to continue to let the train take the strain. However, as evidenced by the frequent bulletins on local radio, in some instances the reliability of the service left much to be desired. In fact, sometimes, there were shades of ‘Are Ye Right There, Michael?’ on the West Clare Railway.
On the Larne line, I, like many other passengers, have sat on a train, almost willing it to start up again and make it to the next station. That is no way to run a railway. I must, however, pay tribute to the engineering staff of Northern Ireland Railways, who have managed to keep those antiquated trains running over the past number of years. As Members have said, some of those trains are up to 30 years old. It is incredible that we still tolerate that situation in this day and age.
It is now a matter of urgency that the Minister for Regional Development completes the process begun by the Assembly. The Northern Ireland travelling public have proved on the line between Bangor and Portadown, and on the cross-border line to Dublin, that a modern railway system can compete with, and reduce, the carbon footprint of the motor car. I call on the Minister to enter discussions with his colleagues in the Executive and with Northern Ireland Railways officials to bring forward a scheme to purchase and introduce new rolling stock so that the long-suffering rail travellers on the Larne and Londonderry lines can experience the benefits in speed, comfort and improved frequency that the Bangor to Portadown passengers have enjoyed for some time.
I simply refer Members to the timetables, where the graphic differences between the different sections of Northern Ireland Railways’ system can be seen.
The House can fully appreciate the environmental benefits of expanding the park-and-ride provision along those rail corridors, thereby reducing many needless car journeys through already congested towns and cities — the Sandyknowes roundabout was referred to, just as it is unfortunately referred to in traffic bulletins every morning.
I urge the Minister to bring forward at the earliest opportunity a comprehensive package designed to increase the intercity potential between Londonderry and Belfast, maximising the benefits of the new track and signalling that will enable the rolling stock to travel at speeds of up to 90 miles an hour over greater stretches of the track on the commuter line north of Ballymena.
I urge him to build upon the increasing passenger numbers on the Larne line by encouraging a greater willingness between various Departments to transfer land. For example, in Carrickfergus one Department holds a piece of land that would enable the creation of another 80 park-and-ride spaces, but for years there has been a difficulty in transferring that land to the relevant Department. I ask the Minister to consider such simple matters to allow the expansion of the successful park-and-ride schemes.
The possibility of 30-minute train frequency between Larne Harbour and Belfast should also be explored, together with a reduction in the journey time, which currently stands at approximately one hour and seven minutes between Larne and Belfast. Likewise, the current journey time of two hours and 15 minutes between Londonderry and Belfast is not acceptable in this day and age.
Faster, frequent and passenger-friendly trains have proved successful on the Bangor to Portadown commuter corridor and on the Enterprise service between the two capital cities on this island. Those benefits must be made available to a wider section of potential rail travellers than is currently the case.
I urge the House to use its influence to ensure that our internal rail system is further developed and that commuters on the Larne and Londonderry routes share equally in the benefits of the new rolling stock and enhanced track engineering. I also support efforts to enhance the service between our two major cities and onwards to the neighbouring state.
Mr Speaker, I congratulate you on your appointment. It is well deserved, Willie, and I wish you good luck.
I support John Dallat in his call for the Department for Regional Development to bring forward detailed plans for the modernisation of the rail network in Northern Ireland. In conjunction with the Irish Government, let us work together for all the people of this island to provide a public service that we can all be proud of. It can be achieved, and such an all-island network makes sense on social, economic and environmental grounds. For my constituency and the surrounding area, it would give a tremendous boost to the north-west, which has been starved of regeneration money for years.
Three years ago, there was a major campaign, which was successful to a certain degree, where the Department for Regional Development was forced to give £24 million to upgrade the track between Derry and Ballymena. However, we have not yet seen that in action. The Minister must investigate that in order to find out whether the money has been spent on that stretch of rail track.
The campaign must take on a more serious and sustainable case for a continuous welded track to be laid. In simple terms, we want, and demand, the same action as the lines between Belfast and Dublin and Belfast and Bangor received. John Dallat commented on core and non-core lines. There must be an end to such terminology; it is nonsense, and it is degrading to the sub-regions.
At present, the standards of service are poor to such a degree that few people use the service, although I agree that the new trains have led to an increase in passenger numbers. However, I ask the Minister to visit the terminal in Derry. We have a terminal in Derry, but he will not be able to get a cup of tea or to buy a newspaper in it. Indeed, at times, he will need an umbrella to protect himself from the rain — it is that bad. How can we expect people to use the railway in such sub-standard conditions?
When the Belfast to Dublin line was improved and the Enterprise service was introduced, passenger numbers doubled.
If our railway network were modernised and a decent service were provided, particularly between Derry and Ballymena, there would be a similar or greater increase. An upgraded rail service in the north-west would increase tourists’ use of trains, and a rail service that met commuters’ standards would also create an economic boost. At present, businesspeople, professionals and commuters are not willing to use the trains, but say that they would be more inclined to do so if the service were fast, reliable, and relaxed — free from the risk of delays and traffic jams.
Raymond McCartney said that there had been discussions in Donegal about bringing back the Derry to Sligo railway line. If that were the case, there would be immense encouragement, if not financial help, from the Irish Government to advance that matter.
There is evidence of a link between poverty and social exclusion, and access to transport. The upgrading and modernisation of the railway network must therefore be viewed as one of many elements with which to combat poverty and social exclusion in the north-west. As roads become overcrowded and car ownership increases, the likelihood of traffic jams rises considerably. A journey by train is safer and healthier than by road and, according to the Railways Task Force, 162 more people will die on the roads by 2010 if there is no improvement on Northern Ireland Railways lines. Trains cause less air pollution than cars and other forms of transport. Fuel emissions from road vehicles seriously damage the health of those living nearby. If existing railway lines are not modernised and upgraded, the cost will be great to our health, our economy, our environment, our region, and society in general.
Jim Shannon (DUP)
Ivery yeer Translink Bus an Rael tak heer an ther 75 million trevellers, they hae £100 million turniver an provide tae the Province iver 3,500 joabs.
We hae no sae lang ago haud improvements tae tha Benger line alang wi Bilfast – Antrim Bleach Green line which is bein re-apened tae provide journeys intae oor capitol.
Thees figures speek weel o’ tha system but they dinnae paint aa richt pictur o- whut we hae richt noo. Hense tha amendment an they daenae pit fort what shud be ther an whut cud be in place.
Every year, 75 million passengers use Translink services. That company has a £100 million turnover and provides the Province with 3,500 jobs. Recently, improvements were made to the Bangor line, and the Belfast to Antrim line was opened to provide quicker journeys to our capital. Those statistics speak well of the system, but they do not paint an accurate picture of the current situation, hence the amendment. Long before I came into this world, there was a very active railway line in Comber and Donaghadee. I would not say that Comber was ever the Swindon of Northern Ireland — far from it — but it formed an integral part of the railway system. Something similar is now required. Due to people’s moving to Strangford, we need a system of transport to take them from their homes to the capital, where they work.
The importance of the rail network is underestimated in Northern Ireland. Try driving from Bangor to Belfast in the mornings to get to work: it will take over an hour of stopping and starting, revving and losing one’s patience, as traffic lights ensure that only three cars get through any green light. On the flip side, there is a service whereby one can take a seat, read the morning paper, have a cup of coffee, and look out the window and think about the day, without the stress of travelling by car. That service is provided by Translink. It takes less than half the time and helps the environment — there has been great talk about carbon footprints. There are regular trains to suit most schedules, but there are gaps in the system, as my colleague Lord Morrow and other Members have said.
One needs to look objectively at the two options. There seems to be no contest, yet of the millions of commute journeys made by workers, morning and evening, only a small percentage makes use of the rail network. We must ask why that is the case. The main reason is that people recognise that in their own cars — while they are still at the mercy of other road users — they have more control. In the event of unexpected delay, they can choose to turn around or to take a different route; they cannot do that if they use the rail service. On the train, they do not have the same measure of control; rather they are at the mercy of the driver and the system. To be frank, the majority of people in Northern Ireland do not have the trust in the rail service that would allow them to use it. They hear too many horror stories and prefer to drive their own destiny, in their own cars.
Much has been made, rightly, of the £80 million investment in 23 new trains. Some Members talked about 23 train sets — I had a train set when I was five years old — but those are new trains, which were approved by the former Assembly in 2000. Those trains are built for comfort, can reach speeds up to 90 mph and can carry 200 passengers. However, they are not always full. What is the reason for that? It may have something to do with the fact that three out of the four lines do not meet the punctuality targets set by the Consumer Council. Small matters such as that make people think that — although it would be better for the environment if they took the train and they would get more exercise by walking from the station to work — if they are going to be late anyway, they would prefer the independence, and sometimes the solitude, of their own cars.
The cost of a month’s travel between Portadown and Belfast is £145 and between Bangor and Belfast it is £120·50. However, it is possible to travel from London to 26 European countries for £292 a month. Travel between Londonderry and Belfast costs about half that amount. Therefore, cost is an important factor, and I ask the Minister to look at that matter as well.
I ask Members to support Lord Morrow’s amendment.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am pleased to have the opportunity to make my first speech in the Assembly on an important matter for North Antrim. As a new Member, I would like to add to the congratulations that have been extended to you on your appointment as Speaker.
I am honoured to have been elected to represent North Antrim, particularly at this time of promise for all of us. I want to say a few words in tribute to my predecessor as the SDLP representative in North Antrim, Dr Seán Farren, who is known to many, probably all, in this House. Seán Farren gave great service to his constituents, including on the matter under discussion today, and to the Assembly, including two periods as a Minister. History will record his massive contribution, often behind the scenes, to political progress here over a period of many years.
Turning to the motion, I wish to refer in particular to the line from Ballymena to Derry, although as has been rightly pointed out by many Members, the system has to be examined as a whole. However, there is real concern over the threat to that section of line, which makes a very important social and economic contribution to North Antrim. Rail provision depends for success on frequency of service and journey time. The new rolling stock, as has been pointed out, is capable of reaching 90 mph. If that rolling stock were able to express its own concerns and emotions, there would be much frustration at the line on which it has to operate, which does not allow it to operate at the speed of which it is capable. Massive investment is required, and a business case must be established for that. There will be many competing interests in this Assembly. I agree with Sammy Wilson that economic appraisal is an important factor.
I want to make three points about the business case. First, the social benefits must be fully reflected, which can be difficult to do in economic appraisals. Secondly, it must be acknowledged that usage increases when services improve — a point that has been made by other Members. Thirdly, and particularly importantly, we must remember that we are planning for the future. I think that all Assembly Members would agree that future plans must include a huge enhancement of our private-sector economic activity, which will involve a greater movement of goods and people. That will have significant implications for any economic appraisal.
I end with a general point. Any discussion of major physical infrastructure issues can be held only on all-island basis. I am aware of the protocol that a maiden speech should not be controversial — and perhaps there has already been a little controversy in maiden speeches today. However, if we look behind people’s words — or even if we look directly at them — there is common ground on the need to consider the whole island. I welcome Lord Morrow’s remarks about that, although I qualify what he said when he referred to two systems that could be linked. We need look beyond that: the entire system must be planned as one system. We have to consider all the economic activity and all the social use. We must also consider not only where we are and where we have been but where we want to go. We can all agree on the need to take that perspective.
I congratulate John Dallat on this important motion. I support him fully.
Conor Murphy (Sinn Féin)
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I congratulate you, Mr Speaker, and wish you well in your job. I noticed that some Members were trying to curry favour with you earlier. If it will be of any benefit to me, I point out that my grandfather was from Letterkenny. I look forward to suitable favours in future.
Ar dtús, ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a thabhairt do John Dallat as an rún seo a chur chun tosaigh. I thank John Dallat for tabling today’s motion. I am pleased to have the opportunity to hear Members’ views on this important public transport issue so early in the Assembly’s restored existence. I have been encouraged by the passion with which Members intend to support any budgetary applications that my Department will make in relation to public transport. I hope that the support will extend into the Budget debates.
John Dallat has been an enthusiastic supporter of the railway network. I have listened carefully to his points and to the points that other Members added. There were so many that to answer them all would eat into my time allocation so much that I would not be able to make any general points. However, some of the points were of great interest.
John Dallat spoke about ring-fencing money for infrastructure. The idea might be very attractive, but the Minister of Finance and Personnel — notwithstanding his previous experience at the Department for Regional Development — might have something to say about it.
Mr Dallat also spoke about the terminology used to distinguish between lines; he spoke about non-core and lesser-used lines. Of course, with roads, we talk about motorways, A-class roads and B-class roads. I appreciate that terming lines as “non-core” or “lesser-used” can suggest that the lines are less valued, but it is inevitable in any system that some lines are more important than others and must take priority. However, I welcome any suggestions that Mr Dallat or others might make on how to improve the language and to arrive at an agreed terminology.
Maurice Morrow made a number of points. I agree that any review of public transport and the rail network will have to look beyond what exists and consider what is possible. All Members expressed their support for improvements and offered clear opinions on what is wrong and on what they desire. As we all know, improvements require substantial investment. As I have suggested, I look forward to Budget debates this year and in future years.
Regarding William McCrea’s intervention when Maurice Morrow spoke about the rail link to Belfast International Airport at Aldergrove, it is anticipated that the airport needs a throughput of 10 million people a year for such a connection to be considered. Unfortunately, throughput at Belfast International Airport falls far short of that, but I am willing to listen to any argument concerning the matter.
Maurice Morrow, and several other Members, mentioned the need for integration in the transport system, such as park-and-ride facilities, to ensure that the networks can be linked. Translink is developing a programme to improve both the number and capacity of park-and-ride facilities attached to railway stations, so I hope that we will see some improvements in that regard.
Roy Beggs and others — and I shall return to the issue of the stock on the Larne line —referred to a major modal shift, which is the sort of terminology that we will have to consider in order to bring the debate forward. Other Members, including Gregory Campbell, mentioned the increase in car usage. This debate is not merely about the existing stock or improvements to timetables, but about changing the way that society moves around. David Ford mentioned bringing the Lisburn to Antrim line back into use, and that is being assessed as part of the current review.
Gregory Campbell, who is not present, made a case for the passing loop on the Derry line. I am told that a large proportion of the cost involved is not the track itself, but the charges incurred as a result of changes to the signalling system.
I hope to address in writing some of the other points that Members made. I apologise for those that I miss, but I will endeavour to answer them after reading Hansard.
I shall outline the current position in relation to railways and the steps that we intend to take. During the last period of devolution, the Assembly endorsed two important strategies: the regional development strategy (RDS), and, flowing from that, the regional transportation strategy. The RDS recognised that quality, mobility and accessibility for people and goods were basic, everyday needs for successful regions in the twenty-first century. The regional transportation strategy developed that approach into a vision, which was:
“to have a modern, sustainable, safe transportation system which benefits society, and the environment and which actively contributes to social inclusion and everyone’s quality of life.”
A good public transport infrastructure is therefore important for the promotion of competitiveness and sustainable development. It is critical that the workforce has access to a reliable and efficient means of public transport for the economy to function at its optimum level. A good public transport system also assists the delivery of an environmentally sustainable economy. The growth in population and employment in tandem with the environmental imperative to reduce carbon emissions means that a major modal shift in passenger transport from private car to bus and rail is required.
In the area of public transport, railways comprise a substantial asset for the region by connecting people with jobs and providing accessibility for communities and services. In addition, the rail network represents a means of reducing harmful emissions from transport, which is of increasing importance as concerns grow about the prospect and impact of climate change, and as more people subscribe to the need for sustainability to be a key consideration in decision-making.
The regional transportation strategy set out two main targets for rail. The first was that all current trains would be replaced by new ones, with the exception of those providing the Enterprise service between Belfast and Dublin. Secondly, services were to be retained on single-track sections of the network, north of Whitehead and north-west of Ballymena, subject to successful results from the introduction of new trains and improvements to the infrastructure on the rest of the network. That review was to take place in 2007.
In 2004, the then Minister with responsibility for transport, John Spellar, held a public consultation on the extent of funding to be put into the railway network in advance of the 2007 review. Three options were put forward, with the 2004 budget subsequently allocating funding to the option that involved maintaining services on the single-track sections and maintaining the lines at the current standard. The funding offered little scope for improvement on those sections in relation to the quality of the infrastructure.
There have been positive developments. There has been major capital investment in improving sections of track on other lines. In addition, thanks to the funding decisions made by the Assembly and the previous Ministers, NIR has been able to procure 23 new train sets to replace 70% of its fleet.
That cost £76·7 million and allowed the oldest and least reliable trains to be withdrawn from service. All of the new trains are in service and operate successfully. They have transformed the travelling experience of passengers, providing them with more comfortable and reliable journeys, a point made by several Members. Some of the older trains have been retained and extensively upgraded at a cost of £3·5 million.
The use of new trains is not limited to the core commuter network. They are also used for services to Coleraine and Derry. Given the amount of single-track running on the line to Derry, it is important to use the most reliable trains. The older trains have only one engine; should that fail, the line effectively closes and all other services suffer extensive delays. Each new train has three engines, so that if one fails the others allow the train to continue its journey, albeit at a reduced speed.
Roy Beggs made the point — and I am aware that travellers are disappointed — that new trains are not in regular use on the Larne line. However, the trains are needed on the line to Derry for operational reasons. The Derry line is single track, with passing loops; therefore overall punctuality is particularly sensitive to the need for each train to keep exactly to time. The deployment of the new trains on the Bangor, Belfast and Portadown corridor permits maximum use of the 90 mph track sections and works well with the higher speed Enterprise services. Moreover, the class 450 trains that operate on the Larne line have been refurbished to a high standard. In due course, it will be necessary to replace them. That need has been factored into current work to assess future investment needs.
Danny Kennedy (UUP)
I thank the Minister. I appreciate that he has outlined improvements to tracks and other measures. Will he comment on stations, particularly Newry railway station, about which he knows much? Perhaps he will advise me at some stage — even in writing, after the debate — on the current plans to upgrade that station. In addition to the network of tracks, and the trains themselves, there is the important issue of upgrading stations.
Conor Murphy (Sinn Féin)
One would think, from the length of time that I have known Danny Kennedy, that I would not have let him cut into my time in a debate.
I was minded that my experience, and Mr Kennedy’s, of Newry station is similar to that of Pat Ramsey, when he talked about the Derry railway station. No one can buy a cup of tea or a newspaper. There are plans to improve and upgrade Newry station, and I shall speak to officials and advise Mr Kennedy in more detail.
NIR has introduced new timetables, and the frequency on much of its network has increased. Changes to both the quality and frequency of the service have led to an impressive increase in the number of journeys made by rail. In 2005-06, the overall number of passenger journeys by rail was almost 20% higher than in 2001-02. Last year alone, patronage on the Bangor, Belfast and Portadown line rose by approximately 16%.
Since the introduction of the new trains and the refurbishment of the class 450 trains, NIR’s performance has markedly improved across the network in punctuality and reliability, as well as in general passenger satisfaction, which reached historically high levels. I appreciate, from the comments of others, that there is further work to be done in that regard.
I referred to capital investment in the railway network in recent years. Railways are costly to provide, maintain and operate, and that is the case in every country in the world. Our railway already receives substantial funding. In 2005-06 NIR had a capital allocation of £36·2 million; moreover, it received a revenue fund of some £23·6 million, which was needed to bridge the gap between revenue collected as fares and the NIR operating costs.
I understand the wishes of Members for further investment in the railway network, including those sections of single track, which tend to be referred to as “the lesser-used lines”, whether it be the line to Larne, or Coleraine or Derry. I understand the aspiration to have a top-quality, cross-border service linking Belfast and Dublin and to greater frequency of service and capacity in the commuter network around Belfast. Towards the end of 2006, the Department for Regional Development set up a steering group to begin the review envisaged for 2007. The group has examined a wide range of options for the future provision of rail services and is close to providing me with its findings. It has examined the entire rail network; that is, the commuter lines around Belfast, the line from Belfast to Dublin and the single-track sections. Importantly, it has been able to take account of recent changes in the use of our railways.
I shall examine the findings of the steering group and investigate the case for further investment in the rail network. I shall want to consider all available options, and it will be necessary to seek the resources for future funding in a priorities and budget exercise and in the investment strategy. I look forward to support at that stage.
There is a process that will allow me to put forward my case for funding and to have that case considered when the Executive Committee begins the work of agreeing a draft Budget. My ministerial colleagues and I, in that Committee, will have important decisions to make on how best to allocate the available resources.
We are all aware of the competing claims for investment in a wide range of public services — health, education, economic regeneration, rural development and, in my own Department, roads and water. Transport services — including public transport, of which railways form a part — must show that they represent good value for money. Resources are limited, and we must use them in a way that brings the greatest benefit to our society and is in line with priorities for development. Before that process comes to a close towards the end of the calendar year, it includes a period of consultation and consideration by the Assembly. At that stage, I expect that there will be clarity on the way in which the railway network is to be shaped for the years to come, together with the levels of investment that will underpin that development. Go raibh míle maith agat.
Roy Beggs (UUP)
I wish Members to consider the original motion and the amendments. There is a need to ensure that the debate concerns more than just intercity travel. With careful listening, it is clear that the debate was much wider than that. Members have been interested in improving the modal shift to public transport by enabling as wide a range of people as possible to benefit from the rail service. I hope that, with the proposer of the motion having indicated his acceptance of my amendment, everyone will be able to accept it. The amendment respects the ability to improve local services in Northern Ireland and to improve regional network services outside Northern Ireland, with improved linkages to any region. I hope that Members will accept my amendment.
Sammy Wilson (DUP)
This is the first opportunity I have had to speak since the death of my colleague in East Antrim. George Dawson campaigned fiercely for the railway service in his constituency, and I know that he will be greatly missed in the Assembly.
I address the point that was made by the proposer of the motion — that he rejected the DUP amendment because he said it epitomised, or was a symbol of, the partitionist philosophy of the DUP. With that phrase, he tried to cast aside what was a considered amendment. The DUP’s amendment is designed to, first, focus attention on what is realisable when it comes to the debate, and, secondly, focus attention on the immediate needs of improving the rail network in Northern Ireland.
The proposer of the original motion talked about his hope that the motion and the proposal would not be held up by appraisals, debates and reviews. We have come to expect that cavalier attitude from the SDLP when it comes to spending taxpayers’ money. I went through three days of motions that had been proposed by the SDLP during the Transitional Assembly at the beginning of the year. In those three days alone, it spent the block grant — on the issues of water charges, affordable houses, the transportation strategy, victims’ forums, the final closure of old people’s homes, rural schools, and so it went on.
Sammy Wilson (DUP)
No. However, there is a bit of sense in deciding what one’s priorities are. In his speech, Mr Dallat slipped in that he thought his proposal would cost about £500 million— but he was unsure. He did not want any appraisal of it anyway. First of all, since the Assembly will have to work within finite resources, people should look at what is deliverable. That means that the Minister for Regional Development will have to carry out very severe appraisals of proposals that come forward from the Assembly.
A second reason for the DUP’s amendment is that any appraisal of expenditure should be directed towards the immediate needs of people in Northern Ireland. As Roy Beggs, Ken Robinson and others have outlined, there is a severe need for resources to be spent in East Antrim, and, of course, that applies to other rail lines in Northern Ireland.
Those carriages are still in use today. I have received emails from commuters who travel on the Larne line, and they refer to rain coming through the roofs and to there being no heating in carriages, and we expect people to travel in those carriages.
Not only are the carriages in poor condition, but, as a result of the old engines, the service is poor. One email said that it took one and a quarter hours to go from Carrickfergus to Great Victoria Street. That distance could be walked quicker.
Sammy Wilson (DUP)
A pushbike would have been quicker.
A lady who emailed me was on her last warning at work because she relied on the train to get her there each morning. Even though she caught a train that should have got her into Belfast at 8.00 am, cancellations, delays, broken trains, etc — all of which were beyond her control — still left her late for work at 8.30 am. Such events will put commuters off using trains.
Mr Dallat should focus his priorities on improving the rail links in Northern Ireland first of all. Then, and only then, should we consider international rail links.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle, as an deis labhartha seo a thabhairt domh. Ním comhghairdeas leat as do cheapachán mar Cheann Comhairle agus guím gach rath ort.
I support Mr Beggs’s amendment. Many Members have spoken during the debate, and most referred to the folly of the destruction of the Irish rail network, which at one time interlinked every town and many villages throughout the length and breadth of Ireland. Members agreed that the short-sightedness of the past is now catching up with us, as our roads become more and more dangerous, our towns and cities more and more congested, and our atmosphere more and more polluted.
We have moved from an era when almost every possible cargo was carried by rail, to the present day, when most rail lines are devoted to passenger services only. What an advantage the previous network would be to the environment, trade, industry, commerce and tourism on this island if it still existed.
Members, in general, agreed that rather than bemoan the passing of a former age, we should do what we can with the present rail infrastructure to ensure that it is the best that it can possibly be, and, where possible, augment it where it makes good sense.
Members proposed the extension of the rail network into counties Tyrone, Fermanagh and Donegal, with an interlink to Sligo. Members also maintained that we must ensure that the existing network is upgraded to the highest possible standards for both track and rolling stock. They also said that we must ensure that timetables are synchronised in such a way that travel by rail, where possible, is the preferred option of as many people as will make a difference to our environment, the atmosphere, the economy, and, most importantly, public safety.
Mr Dallat reminded us that investment in rail pays. He said that the number of passengers on the Belfast to Derry line has doubled since the purchase of new trains. Investment in railways encourages more and more people to leave their cars behind and travel by rail. The Belfast to Dublin line is an example of that point. After the new Enterprise service was introduced in 1997, the number of passengers on the Belfast to Dublin line doubled.
We need further investment in, and development of, the Belfast to Dublin and the Belfast to Derry services. We need cross-border commuter trains that service all major towns, as well as a fast and efficient intercity service with limited stops.
The Enterprise service is a great intercity success, but it boasts neither the time nor the timetable to suit commuters crossing the border. It simply will not get them to work on time. Every morning, one can witness the spectacle of travellers racing by car from Dundalk to get the 7.35 am commuter train from Newry to Belfast, while travellers from Newry head in the other direction to get the 7.15 am Dundalk train to Dublin. There is no good reason why the Belfast-bound commuter train cannot start from Dundalk, and the Dublin-bound train from Newry. The only reason is a lack of rolling stock.
We need at least four new trains on the Belfast to Dublin route to ensure the hourly service that is needed. North/South economic activity is booming and will continue to grow, so the infrastructure must be adjusted to take account of that reality and to make it easier for the increasing number of cross-border workers.
My colleague Pat Ramsey mentioned the primitive state of the terminal in Derry, and Danny Kennedy, my colleague from Newry and Armagh, underlined the inadequacies of the railway station in Newry. I add my voice to Mr Kennedy’s concerns: Newry’s station facilities are primitive to say the least. There are a mere 60 parking spaces, which has the effect of discouraging people from using the rail service to Belfast, and to Dublin. We need a modern intercity station in Newry with state-of-the-art passenger services and a 300-space car park. The authorities have been vested with the land, and there is no reason why work on the station should not begin this year.
The fundamental message, as emphasised by Member after Member, is that where there has been investment in our railways in recent years, business has grown by 30%. That figure is true of the Portadown, Belfast and Bangor corridor, and indeed of other lines.
Mr Dallat mentioned that £500 million was needed in the north-west. Contrary to what Mr Sammy Wilson said, Mr Dallat is not opposed to an appraisal, but to the red tape that is sometimes involved in appraisals, because that can stop rather than facilitate a project. Mr Dallat also mentioned the need for EU involvement.
Lord Morrow adopted an extremely conciliatory attitude to Mr Dallat’s motion, and I am sure that he will agree that the motion and Mr Beggs’s proposed amendment cover all aspects of the debate. I encourage Lord Morrow and his colleagues to fall in behind the rest of us and support the motion and amendment No 2.
Lord Morrow or me? [Laughter.]
Lord Morrow suggested that the Minister should take a wider view, stretching into counties Tyrone and Fermanagh, and indeed across the border, and that there should be an interlinkage between the Northern and Southern rail systems. Therefore, I fail to understand why he bothered to table an amendment to what was a perfectly good motion.
Roy Beggs Jnr said that as many people as possible should be encouraged to travel by rail. He mentioned the importance of access at local stations for tourists, students and senior citizens. He complained about the neglect of the Larne line and its rolling stock.
Sammy Wilson interjected that breakdowns with older trains are discouraging passengers from using the rail system. Raymond McCartney quite rightly praised my colleague Mr Dallat for proposing the motion. He acknowledged the presence of the Minister for Regional Development in the Chamber and made the point, as many other Members did, that a fully integrated transport strategy is needed in Northern Ireland. He said that over-reliance on cars is causing congestion and pollution. He also bemoaned the demise of the Donegal rail network and hoped to see a link through Derry and Letterkenny to Sligo.
David Ford wanted to hear more from the Minister on his future plans. He mentioned Gregory Campbell’s mysterious disappearance from South Antrim and his own difficulty with reading rail timetables. He went on to point out the need for improved commuter services into Belfast, and he underlined the inconsistencies in the DUP’s attitude on that issue. He also said that rail must be considered as a major alternative to the private car, which eats up 60% of transport investment.
Jim Wells said that access to rail travel is far from widespread in Northern Ireland and that as much as possible should be done to encourage people to use rail where it is available. He also said that his intimate knowledge of Northern Ireland’s ageing rolling stock tells him that people would not be encouraged to use rail travel in some areas. Once again, he underlined —
William Hay (Speaker)
Question, That amendment No 1 be made, put and negatived.
Question, That amendment No 2 be made, put and agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this Assembly calls upon the Department for Regional Development to bring forward their plans for upgrading the rail network to provide attractive commuting options and also inter-city services between the principal centres of population and the neighbouring regions.