Antrim to Knockmore Railway Line
I am delighted to introduce this debate on a topic that is of great interest to my constituents and which I know will have the attention of Members for South Antrim, Lagan Valley, South Belfast and further afield.
Many Members will recall that, in the face of public opposition, the rail service on the Antrim to Lisburn branch line — commonly known as the Knockmore line — which passed through the stations of Crumlin, Glenavy, Ballinderry and Knockmore, was stopped in June 2003.
At the time, Translink said that the Knockmore line would be retained as an emergency diversionary route for the foreseeable future. The line has now been mothballed, and a replacement bus service is now in place for former rail passengers. However, strong public support remains for the reintroduction of the rail service. I am glad to be able to put that on record today.
Outside observers looking in on Northern Ireland may well ask themselves why a relatively small, but well populated, area, so close to a major city is without a proper rail service. They may ask how, in these days of intense interest and common concern about the environment, there can be such a glaring gap in public transport provision, and why many hundreds of people have no choice but to make private car journeys on increasingly congested roads rather than letting the train take the strain.
My fellow Assembly Members will be aware of how such a situation arose. In March 2000, the ‘Strategic Safety Review of Northern Ireland Railways’, which was undertaken by Arthur D Little Ltd of Cambridge, reported to Translink that £183 million was required to operate and maintain the existing network safely.
The NIO set up the Northern Ireland Railways Task Force to examine its strategic options for the future of the railway network in Northern Ireland, which it did partly through public meetings. In September 2000, the interim report of the task force was published. It stated that the Troubles had led to underinvestment in the network and to the breakdown of it; that progressive closure was inevitable unless investment was made for operational safety; and that political decisions were needed to end the uncertainty about the network’s future.
In the wake of the Little Report and the setting up of the task force, there were real concerns that the whole local railway network would be closed down. I remind Members that the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ mounted a splendid “Save Our Railways” campaign with the support of Translink, community leaders and local representatives. After a while, it appeared that a consolidation of the network seemed to be the preferred path for the NIO. Unfortunately, the Knockmore line was earmarked for closure.
Many voices united behind efforts to save the line. Friends of the Earth pointed out that a bus substitution service would not work because evidence from England where branch lines had been closed indicated that many passengers would simply transfer to private cars rather than buses.
I recall David Ford talking of the “bizarre situation” of a railway line running a few metres past a major airport but not being connected to it. That is a key point for us all to dwell on. Aldergrove is one of the few international airports in Europe without a rail link. There have been calls for the creation of a rail shuttle service from Aldergrove to Antrim station at least. As we look to enhance our regional economy, should we not consider making gateways such as the international airport more accessible through a better connection?
In April 2003, the NIO Minister Angela Smith MP told the House of Commons that she had decided to give her consent to the discontinuation of rail service on the Antrim to Lisburn line from June 2003 onwards. She said that she did so against the backdrop of competing transportation priorities in Northern Ireland, financial feasibility and a wider economic consideration. Minister Smith also stated that Translink had estimated that to obtain regular services on the line would require track maintenance costs of about £565,000 per annum and, in due course, £13 million to modernise the line. Some people may think that a reasonable decision was made, but I do not. A short-sighted, short-term decision was made that was detrimental economically, environmentally and socially to the people of Northern Ireland in the long term.
I am not an economist, but I raise a query on cost. Considering the environmental agenda, population targets and carbon footprints, what has been the cost to the local environment of the thousands of additional car journeys that have been made since the Knockmore line closed? What has been the cost to public health? I do not know — perhaps someone may.
Apparently, among the NIO’s reasons for closing the Knockmore line was the then lengthy travel time to and from Belfast via Knockmore junction. Until 2003, travel from Antrim town to Belfast took up to 45 minutes, as the train took a U-bend down through Crumlin, Glenavy, Ballinderry, Knockmore and then on through south Belfast. There is no doubt that members of the public living in Antrim town and further north are delighted that travel from Antrim station via the Bleach Green line now takes only 25 minutes.
However, what about those who were left behind after the 2003 closure? The triangle area of Antrim town, Ballinderry and Lisburn, which is close enough to Belfast to be factored into growth considerations for the Belfast metropolitan area plan 2015, has witnessed increased demand for new homes due to the population overspill from Belfast and local young people who wish to remain in their hometowns.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)
My hometown of Crumlin has grown from a small sleepy village of 2,400 people in 1992 to a small town with a population of around 8,000 in 2006. In 2000, a report to Antrim Borough Council noted that there could be an estimated 70% population increase in Crumlin over the subsequent five years. Likewise, the nearby village of Glenavy, which in 2001 had a recorded population of 1,800, has experienced enormous growth. The draft Belfast metropolitan area plan noted that Glenavy’s proximity to Lisburn and good A-class road links, along with the nearby M1 motorway, made it an attractive option for future housing settlements.
Crumlin and Glenavy have not only experienced population and housing increases, but huge developments from multinational companies such as Tesco, which is building a 30,500 sq ft store in Crumlin. A discussion on housing and retail development is for another day. However, my point is that population growth and any resulting development will require an adequate transport infrastructure.
Adequate transport infrastructure, such as the development of the Knockmore railway line, can be beneficial to the economy of Northern Ireland by linking Lisburn and Antrim and, therefore, linking major shopping outlets such as Sprucefield and Junction One, which would provide an attractive shopping trip for people here and in the Republic of Ireland. There is also an opportunity to provide transport links to the Maze development if the national stadium is sited there. The Knockmore railway line would be an infrastructural link facilitating a new concept of the three main shopping hubs of Belfast, Lisburn and Antrim.
I have outlined some background details and highlighted points for attention and concern. I will now flag up some thoughts on what could form part of the possible solutions to satisfy existing demands and meet future growth.
In April, I attended a reception in the House of Commons with my party colleague Dr Alasdair McDonnell MP. One MP from each of the three main British parties co-hosted the reception for a community railways group that examines the feasibility of restoring old disused railway lines to offer services for local passengers and freight. The Minister with responsibility for railways and his counterpart from the Opposition Bench addressed the event. Some 100 people attended. Therefore, it was clear that the community railways idea attracted great interest and attention from public policy figures.
The British Government are keen to increase passenger numbers on local and rural lines, and a community rail strategy has been in place since November 2004 to help advance that desire. Community rail is seen as a cost effective means of increasing investment and maintaining infrastructure. Apparently, it is a great success story, with over 50 designated community rail lines helping Whitehall to meet various departmental and cross-cutting policy priorities on the environment, regional development and social inclusion, among others.
From that evening’s discussion, I learned that Whitehall’s community railway development strategy had been reviewed to include an additional objective:
“Enabling local rail to play a larger role in economic and social regeneration.”
I have not examined the full details of the strategy in Britain, and I do not suggest that it can be directly imported because the economies of scale are different. However, those at the reception talked about the reopening of various lines across England — a total of hundreds of miles of track. In contrast, the track from Antrim to Knockmore is less than 20 miles long. That evening in London, I was greatly impressed by the energy and excitement of those who talked about the new possibilities for railways, and I left full of hope that the reopening of the Knockmore line could be more than a mere wish.
No Member will produce all the answers in this debate. However, we should promote suggestions and proposals for further consultation, discussion and debate. Members should take a few matters into account. Population growth is increasing the demand for housing in every locality. More people place greater demands on the existing infrastructure and require an increase in its provision. Traffic congestion is increasing in every city, town and village, and climate change means that more sustainable, modern public transportation is required. County Antrim’s mothballed railway line has great potential.
The ‘Interim Report of the Railways Task Force’ sets out strategic options for the future of the railway network. Members should examine how rail transport could reinforce other public policy objectives and consider the prospect of 250,000 new local households over the next 25 years. Public transport initiatives by the private sector, such as those that operate in many parts of Europe, are another option.
As the Assembly examines and discusses Northern Ireland’s productivity, stability and growth in the context of a firm commitment to sustainable development, I am interested in the views of the Minister for Regional Development on the strategy and its suggested options. What future does he envisage for the mothballed Knockmore railway line?
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I am in favour of the debate, and I welcome the presence of the Minister for Regional Development. I ask him to consider the change in circumstances in the years since the original decision to close the Antrim to Knockmore line. The populations of Crumlin, Glenavy, Ballinderry, and so on, which are serviced by that line, have grown immensely and add to the already heavy traffic congestion. The case for additional infrastructure flows from that, which is an inescapable conclusion.
The Assembly should consider the case for reinstatement of that line in view of how it would develop infrastructure, assets and resources. Members must formulate measures to encourage commuters to leave their cars at home and to switch to public transport. However, a continued approach of downgrading rail links will never achieve that objective. Such evidence as is available from other areas where buses have replaced rail services demonstrates not only the unacceptable costs to the environment and public services but the fact that the vast majority of rail passengers will switch to using their cars rather than bus services. That is true even in areas where the demographic and population levels are relatively stable.
In those circumstances, we should be considering the very significant — some might say phenomenal — growth that that area is currently experiencing, and which is expected to continue.
Rather than downgrading rail services, we should be considering how to improve the quality of rail travel and exploring additional sources of passengers. The Antrim to Knockmore railway line runs past Belfast International Airport and, although the Minister will be obliged to point out that passenger numbers currently passing through the airport will not meet the criteria for a direct rail connection, we should not wait until all the conditions are met to act.
If the proper standard of infrastructure is put in place, economic and population expansion will continue and follow. Measures can be deployed to attract the necessary increased passenger numbers, and that will expedite the desired levels that the criteria set out. If we wait until we have the passenger numbers first, we will always be playing catch up.
There is fairly intense competition for new air routes into the region at the moment, and there is speculation that the management and the owners of Belfast International Airport are competing to attract Aer Lingus. I hope that the Minister will consider an opportunity to discuss that bid with his counterpart in the Irish Government, because the potential economic benefits not just to the constituency, but to the region, are obvious.
If there were a possibility of a rail link between the international airport and Belfast, I have no doubt that that would increase and enhance the case for Aer Lingus, and the attractiveness of the region to other carriers would also be enhanced.
The case for reinstating the Knockmore line is strengthened by consideration of the benefits of the anticipated infrastructure requirements that will arise from the development of the Long Kesh site.
All of those considerations provide a compelling case for an active review of current policy, and a proactive approach to future transport needs.
The previous Member to speak referred to the innovative and community-based approach to rail reinstatement in England and in Scotland, in which I was very interested and intend to explore further. I urge the Minister to take steps to inform himself of that particular approach, which has significant potential to resolve the conundrum of where to apply — and what priorities to attach to — resources. All things considered, the case exists for the reinstatement, and I urge the Minister to act. Go raibh maith agat.
William McCrea (DUP)
I congratulate my colleague the Member for South Antrim Thomas Burns on the opportunity that he has given the House to debate a very important issue. I paid tribute to Members of the House when this issue was debated previously. Then, another hon Member for South Antrim, Mr Ford, was also actively engaged in the issue of reinstatement, as was I. Therefore, I am absolutely delighted to wholeheartedly support what has been said in the debate.
This is an important community issue because, as Mr Burns has rightly said, there are very important needs in an area that has grown dramatically over the last period. Crumlin, Glenavy and Ballinderry have grown in a way that is unprecedented in other areas. Crumlin has gone from being a small village to a small town in a short period of time.
The demand for housing in that area has been increasing dramatically over a short period and continues to increase. We must ensure that there is a proper transport infrastructure in place to deal with that demand. Everyone knows that the present infrastructure is not adequate to meet the demands of that community. Traffic congestion is experienced in a lot of other towns and villages throughout the Province, but in this case it is the result of the dramatic increase in housing in the Crumlin area, and so there is a tremendous need to reopen the Knockmore railway line. Those who were actively engaged on the issue were disappointed when the line was mothballed.
The area is privileged in many ways, and it is privileged by the fact that a line is already there. In many other areas of the Province over the years the lines have either fallen into disrepair or disappeared completely, and it would be would be well nigh impossible to open them up again, given the many other competing demands on finances. However, the area in question already has a railway line. The people of the area are disappointed that, tragically, the Department has not got the vision to move the situation forward and reopen the railway line at a time of so much growth.
It is easy to tell people in the community to leave their cars at home and take alternative transport. However, the options are to walk to Belfast, Sprucefield, Junction One or to work — or to get on a bicycle. That would be nonsense.
The area is a triangle, comprising Lisburn, Antrim and Belfast, and keeping the railway line open should have been taken forward with vision and vigour, making it a focal point for the transport of the people in the area. Instead, it was put into mothballs.
It should also be borne in mind that the international airport is nearby, and, tragically, it never had a railway line. Therefore, whatever else is done, there must be an imaginative way to ensure that the railway line connects to the airport. For example, had there been a connection to the airport on the railway line from Antrim to Crumlin to Lisburn to Belfast, we would have immediately attracted certain groups of people to using the railway instead of buses and cars. That service should be developed. Members should be proactive and ensure that there is a proper connection from the international airport to our major city and to our other city, Lisburn. Perhaps Antrim will be the next city. They could all be connected together. My hon Friend Mr Wells should not look so discouraging. There must be a vision for the future.
Antrim is a growth area, as are Lisburn and Belfast. Why not have a proper connection? If we are asking people to get out of their cars because we mean business, there must be an alternative. The Knockmore railway line could be opened up again, and, with a little finance and a clear vision and hope for the future, it could work. On one side there is the international airport and Junction One, and on the other side there is Sprucefield shopping centre with its major retail outlets. Why not move the reopen and develop the railway as a strategy for success? The people of the area would be greatly encouraged.
Aer Lingus was mentioned, and I wholeheartedly agree that we should ensure that we have a base at the Belfast International Airport and that we attract not only Aer Lingus, which would be a valued component of the airport’s success, but other international operators and routes, such as the successful one that is operating from Belfast International Airport to New York.
Many people want to come from North America to Northern Ireland. It is the time for them to do so. It is a time for vision and action. We must be proactive, and that is why I am delighted to support the motion. I hope that the Assembly will give its full backing to the motion and I trust that the Department for Regional Development will be able to take the idea forward.
Basil McCrea (UUP)
I have taken time away from talking to several school groups in the Long Gallery because of the importance of this issue. I commend Mr Burns for his foresight in bringing the matter to the Chamber. I agree, totally, with the comments that I have heard so far.
Several practical issues must be faced. Dr McCrea mentioned that many people have talked about the issue at length and that some of the figures that had emerged will have to be addressed if we are to move forward. I was not a Member of the Assembly at that time. Nevertheless, there was a frank and full discussion of the issues. It appears that, at that time, it would have required between £12 million to £13 million of capital expenditure to upgrade the line. In addition, the rolling stock might cost several more millions of pounds.
The situation is that the Assembly and the Department for Regional Development have considered the issue in the past, and at that time, a case could not be made. Part of what the Assembly must do, is work out what is different and why the situation has changed. Is it a case of vision, which I wholeheartedly believe that it is. It is something that we must do differently. If we look backwards and say that that did not work, then we will not look forward.
I am sure that if we were to invest in an up to date, state-of-the-art commuter system that we would develop an entirely new economic corridor; one that would not only provide opportunity for our young people and those people living in the Antrim to Knockmore area, but would take considerable pressure off the social housing situation and other issues.
When I last spoke to the Deputy Speaker, in the Chamber, I told him about where my father had been born. Now I can tell him that my mother came from Glenavy. Therefore, I have a particular connection with the Lisburn to Antrim area. I know it very well. I recall that when — we lived in north Belfast — we went to Glenavy, it was a half-hour trip. It was like one was almost leaving the country.
The benefit of putting an infrastructure in place is that land that, hitherto, was on the periphery of economic development, is brought to the centre. As Dr McCrea, Mr Burns and Mr McLaughlin have said, if that infrastructure is put in place it will link the growth centres of Antrim, Crumlin and Lisburn, and create something of real value. The people of Northern Ireland expect that type of vision from us. It says: “Look not at what we had before, but at what we could have in the future.”
I realise that these are early days and that we have to consider where we might find the capital funds for the project. However, that should not put us off what is imperative. I am happy to join with the hon Members in seeking some form of cross-party mechanism as a way of facilitating and attracting in the investment that is necessary in order to make the project work.
I realise that the Executive have many different budgetary pressures to consider, but that does not mean that we cannot act. Indeed, we should, as one, creatively examine how to move forward.
I could, as other Members have, repeat many of the arguments that have been put so eloquently before me. However, there is no point in doing that, save to say that the re-opening of the Antrim to Knockmore railway line is the right thing to do in the light of issues such as the environment, carbon footprints, housing and economic opportunities. It is a project that provides a vision for Northern Ireland. I commend the comments made in the debate to the House.
David Ford (Alliance)
I congratulate my constituency colleague Thomas Burns on securing this Adjournment debate and, on behalf of William McCrea and myself, welcome him and others elected to the new mandate to this meeting of the South Antrim railway supporters club. The clear view in the Assembly is that there are serious issues to be addressed. Although this is simply a debate on the Adjournment on one particular railway line, it is important for the infrastructure of the entire region. In welcoming Members to the debate, I apologise on behalf of Trevor Lunn, the southern wing of the Alliance Party’s Knockmore line group — he is on duty in the Education Committee.
Fifteen or 16 years ago, I stood on the platform at Crumlin railway station with a senior Northern Ireland Railways (NIR) official who was the then infrastructure manager. It was while talking to him that I first heard the term “the circle line”. Realistically, we should not treat the Knockmore line as a small branch line connecting two places, but as a key part of the development of a line to run from Antrim to Whiteabbey, Belfast, Lisburn and back to Antrim to provide for the growing economic activity and population in the south Antrim area.
Other Members have spoken about the designation of Antrim and Lisburn as key growth towns and, indeed, Crumlin as a secondary growth town, yet the Department for Regional Development (DRD) has made only half-hearted efforts to consider the issues surrounding the railway network. Given the problems of the daily commute from the north-west and the south-west into Belfast, it is time that we recognised that no other city in Europe the size of Belfast, or most that are rather smaller than Belfast, would consider that building for private cars meets the needs of a commuter travel service. Unfortunately, the DRD — the Department of Roads Development — continues with the likes of widening the M2 purely to move a traffic jam from Sandyknowes to Greencastle and will not examine the key issues that might properly address the problems of a commuting population.
The logic of the regional development and transportation strategies dictates that Antrim to Lisburn is a key transport route. It is provided for, in certain respects, by improvements to the A26; yet the railway line, along virtually the same route, has been closed. To mothball a railway line along a key transport route seems to be a contradiction, given that the regional transportation strategy is a policy of DRD, which is also responsible for the support of the railways.
As well as the population areas that Members have highlighted for growth, the railway line passes an area of significant growth at Knockmore, on the north-west side of Lisburn, and the international airport, with its associated business park. With the prospective arrival of Aer Lingus, which was mentioned by Mitchel McLaughlin, those are the key economic drivers in the area. Only the railway can provide sustainable transportation for those types of development.
At Question Time earlier today, the Minister for Regional Development stated that 100 million passengers a year would be needed to justify building a railway link to an airport. If he wishes to correct that figure I will happily give way to him, because I suspect that he is out by a factor of at least 10.
However, we are not talking about building a new railway line to the airport. We are talking about using a railway line that runs past the airport boundary. The distance from the terminal building to, for example, the station used by the RAF during the Second World War in the townland of British, is less than half a mile down the road. However, facts such as that are not mentioned when discussing major new developments and completely new railway lines into airports. On that basis, we must be realistic about what is possible. The suggestion that a vast number of travellers are required to justify such a project — far more than are currently using the airport — completely fails to recognise the contribution to that railway line that is made by the two towns at either end and by the villages in between.
In that sense, the line should be used to provide a station for the airport; and not simply a line that should end at the airport. That makes a difference.
For years, Translink in general, and Northern Ireland Railways in particular, has been starved of investment. It was only the strong push that the Assembly made in its first mandate that ensured that 23 new trains were provided. That is why people now use the line between Portadown and Bangor, and, to a certain extent, the line to Ballymena, Coleraine and Derry, in greater numbers. However, more investment is needed to ensure that there is a better timetable. Investment is needed in all kinds of other areas.
I could ingratiate myself with you, Mr Deputy Speaker, by pointing out the need for investment in the line and track north of Ballymena, past Coleraine, and on to Derry. Investment in the line between Whitehead and Larne is also needed, as is investment for the proposed rail and bus park-and-ride scheme at Ballymartin, outside Templepatrick. Earlier this afternoon, the House heard about the need for a new station at Tillysburn to serve Belfast City Airport. Additional rolling stock is necessary, both to replace some the outdated stock that the Enterprise service to Dublin uses, and to improve the timetable for other services.
Faced with all that, I can understand why the Minister may not regard the Knockmore line as a key instant-investment decision. Perhaps there are too many other priorities. However, that is why the other possibilities must be considered. Thomas Burns highlighted the possibility of private investment, similar to what is being done with community railways across the water. Such a possibility is a long way from a costed business plan, or even a formal proposal, but those are the issues that must be considered in order to make developments possible. Given the constraints of public finance, the urgent environmental problems that have largely been created by the levels of commuting in the Belfast area, and the potential economic benefits, the Minister has a duty to examine seriously any proposals for the development and reopening of the Knockmore line. I hope that he will listen seriously to any proposals that are put to him. I congratulate Thomas Burns for raising the matter in this Adjournment debate, and I trust that the Minister and the civil servants will be listening to us all.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I am glad that David Ford raised this point, as I wish to correct a figure that I gave during Question Time. I inadvertently said that the number of passengers that needs to come through an airport in order to sustain a railway link was 100 million when, as Mr Ford has correctly pointed out, I should have said 10 million. I am happy to correct that slight slip, and I will return to that issue later.
I thank Thomas Burns for bringing the discussion to the House. I know that the Knockmore to Antrim railway line featured in discussions in the previous Assembly, and even during the Transitional Assembly. Various questions have been asked on the matter, which I was aware of before I assumed responsibility for it as Minister for Regional Development.
I am committed to the development of our transport infrastructure and to the improvement of public transport systems. When I spoke during the debate on a private Member’s business motion on the development of rail network on 14 May 2007, I referred to the many benefits, both economic and social, that can flow from reliable and efficient public transport arrangements. I am keen for more resources to be made available for that purpose. I hope to see the continuation of the reversal of the decline in railway services that we experienced in years gone by and continued investment in the network in order to make good the historical underinvestment that undermined the viability of our railway network. Recent developments have been positive. Rail patronage is growing, with passenger numbers up by more than 31% between 2002-03 and 2006-07.
On 14 May 2007, I referred to the work that was undertaken by a DRD-led steering group, which was assessing options for the future development of rail services. I said that I would examine that group’s findings and consider the case that I could make for resources in the Priorities and Budget exercise and in the investment strategy. I have now looked at the steering group’s findings and have registered major bids for capital funding for railway services through the measure of investment proposals in the investment strategy. That funding would allow for substantial improvements to the commuter network around Belfast, to the services on lines north of Ballymena and Larne, and on the line between Belfast and Dublin. Those are the developments for which the strongest case can be made at present, and I know that they will be welcomed by many of the Members who spoke in favour of such developments on 14 May 2007.
Several Members also spoke in that debate in favour of the Antrim to Knockmore line, and today’s debate is focused more closely on restoring that line to passenger service.
As I indicated on 14 May, the steering group examined the options for the future development of the railways, including an assessment of the case for the reintroduction of passenger services to the Antrim to Knockmore line, as well as for the commencement of the greater Belfast area circle line that was envisaged in the regional development strategy.
Low usage was the circumstance that led to the withdrawal of passenger services in 2003. The Railways Review Group reported in 2000 that passenger activity on that line accounted for no more than 0·82% of the total usage of NIR services. By 2003, Translink estimated that no more than 70 passenger journeys a day originated or terminated on that line.
Costs were also high. Track maintenance costs of more than £500,000 per annum were being incurred and £13 million would have been required to modernise the line. I understand why the line was taken out of passenger operation.
The steering group’s findings do not make a strong case for bringing the line back into service. Reopening the line would involve substantial costs, but would bring relatively few benefits because the number of additional passengers that would be attracted would be too low to justify that cost. Passenger projections were made in the context of increases in railway usage, which I referred to earlier, and not on existing figures. Even in that context, the increased numbers fall short of making a case for the required investment. Consequently, when the possibility of the reintroduction of passenger services was examined, a large, negative net present value (NPV) emerged.
I must take account of the strength of development cases and consider affordability. Funding that can reasonably be allocated to railway services is limited, and I must hold a view on priority areas. At this stage, I could not make a credible case for the necessary resources to reinstate the line.
It would not be wise or prudent to close a railway line in this day and age, and I do not propose to do so. The fact that I do not see a case for investment at this time does not mean that there is no future for the line. The line has been mothballed — not closed. It has been maintained to a standard that allows it to be used for NIR training purposes and for passenger services in an emergency. Abandonment is not a course that I would consider. That means that the option to take a fresh decision is always there if circumstances change and if the costs can be justified and given priority.
Many such circumstances were raised in the debate. Mitchel McLaughlin and Thomas Burns spoke of population increases in that area, and such considerations could and should be taken into account. Mitchel also suggested that rail travel should be improved and spending on it prioritised, and Basil McCrea, who has left, put the case for real-terms increases in spending. He, along with David Ford, recognised other priority demands such as the Belfast to Derry line, the Belfast to Dublin line and other commuter lines in and around Belfast that carry much higher volumes of passengers. Through a straightforward stacking up of case arguments, unfortunately, the Antrim to Knockmore line comes quite low on the list of priorities. That is not to say that we cannot examine the level of population increase.
As for Aer Lingus, I welcome the attraction of any new services that will bring economic benefits locally and across the island. Aer Lingus is currently deciding between Belfast and Birmingham as its preferred hub for a base unit of three aircraft. Belfast International Airport has not approached the Department for Regional Development for assistance to attract Aer Lingus. Assistance for attracting airlines is a matter for the Air Route Development (NI) Ltd, which is administered by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. Unfortunately, the fund is no longer accepting new applications due to pressures on resources. Nonetheless, I am not aware of any approach from the airport. Members will welcome the involvement of Aer Lingus, or any other airline — that is good for business generally.
Mitchel McLaughlin, David Ford and Thomas Burns mentioned community-based approaches that people are developing in England and Wales. Officials from my Department always argue the case for railways, and we would be happy to consider new and innovative areas in which that case may be advanced. Dr McCrea suggested that the Department must have a vision, and I share the vision of increased rail traffic, passenger journeys and an alternative to the car that he and many others outlined.
I, certainly, share that vision. The system that has been inherited is very much skewed towards roads. However, much public transport travels by road; buses, for example. Therefore, investment in roads does not necessarily preclude improvement in public transport. Roads improvement is necessary to help stimulate the economy.
The vision must be long term. The debate, and others that have been held in the Assembly, will help to enhance that vision of investment in rail and in other forms of public transport, and of providing cleaner forms of transport. The difficulty with investment in rail is that it is the most costly of any form of public transport, and has the least return. Nonetheless, investment in rail should not be considered in pounds, shillings and pence, but in the contribution that it can make to the environment, regional development, spatial development, and for the ability of trains to make people’s journeys to work quicker and more comfortable, which will mean less congestion and trouble on the roads.
I welcome debates on the future of rail services and on investment in inter-rail services because they help to develop the discussion, not only in the Department but in the Assembly as well, and will help to shape the Executive’s future priorities. If the ideas, energy and enthusiasm that Members have shown in both the debates on railways that I have attended can be imparted to the Executive, that will help to make the case for investment in railways when they discuss budgetary requirements.
Although the line has been mothballed, I appreciate that people in the area want it to be reopened. I have outlined the Department’s competing priorities and the substantial investment that is needed in railways. The Department and I are willing to consider any future arguments. Therefore, on a more positive note, the possibility remains that the line could be brought back into service. Members suggested various options for it — for example, it could be part of a Belfast, Lisburn and Antrim passenger circle line that was envisaged in the regional development strategy. Circumstances might change to the extent that that proposal becomes more viable.
It has been suggested on several occasions, including during today’s debate, that the line could be extended to serve Belfast International Airport. However, any proposal would have to demonstrate that it would be a worthwhile use of resources. The study that was carried out in 2006 estimated that the cost of upgrading the line for that purpose would be £35 million — to relay the track and to resignal the line. A further £1 million would be needed to provide a halt. David Ford suggested that the line should be able to deliver passengers right into the airport, which would, of course, require further investment. That provision is called a “spur line”, and would give trains access to the terminal building. It would increase the costs substantially.
I am pleased that so many clear arguments have been put forward in the debate and that Members, when they put their cases, took account of the competing priorities and costs that are inherent in investment in public transport, particularly in railways. Debates such as this can help that type of investment to be prioritised in the future. I have already indicated that I have not ruled out the possibility that one or all of those options could prove to be viable future uses of the Antrim to Knockmore line. At that stage, I will be ready to support any case that is made for its reopening. Go raibh míle maith agat.
Adjourned at 4.53 pm.