The Department for Regional Department provides Translink with an annual subsidy to meet the deficit it incurs in operating railway services in Northern Ireland. The Department expects to pay about £12 million to Translink in the current financial year. However, the subsidy is not route-specific. Therefore there is no information available as to the level of subsidy that is required to operate the Antrim-Knockmore section of the Londonderry-Belfast route.
In the light of the proposal to close the Antrim to Knockmore line, I accept that we must obtain the best estimate of how much subsidy would be required to continue to operate services on this line in addition to providing a service from Antrim to Belfast via Bleach Green. My Department has asked Translink to provide this information.
When will the Minister be in a position to tell us how much money the Department believes may be allocated in subsidy for this line? Will the Department, in arriving at its conclusion, take into account the subsidy for the replacement bus service, together with the fact that fewer people would use that service?
On 23 February my Department received an economic appraisal for the retention of the Antrim to Knockmore line. That contains a considerable amount of useful information, but it does not tell us how much it would cost to keep the line open until major work is required. We have asked Translink for that additional information. The economic appraisal says that major work on the track will be required in about three years’ time. The estimated cost is approximately £12 million.
At this point, I will repeat what I have said in response to the many representations which have been made to me about the line: I want the line to remain open, and I know that many Members share my view. However, we must face up to the fact that it will cost money to keep it operational, even in the three years before the major work is required. The net running costs of the bus substitution service to which the Member referred are likely to be much lower than the cost of maintaining the train service. My Department has asked Translink for its best estimate of the net running cost of the train service.
Has the Minister considered the implications for the Belfast Area Plan of this proposal to close the Antrim to Knockmore line, particularly in the light of the proposed location of 20,000 new houses along this public transport route? As an interim measure, is he prepared to consider the provision of a light railway shuttle service on that line instead of the proposed bus service?
Unfortunately, there is no short, simple and obvious answer to the Member’s question nor to the analysis underlying it. I am prepared to look at any option that will assist in keeping the line open. Several options have been placed before me, and I am examining each one. We were told that Irish Rail had spare rolling stock. Approaches were made about this, but it emerged that no such stock is available. There have been indications that Translink might be able to get rolling stock from Great Britain, which might be suitable after modification for our gauge. So far, however, that venture has proved unsuccessful. It is likely to be towards the end of 2003 before Translink can acquire new trains.
I am prepared to examine all options to try to keep the line open.