I consider that the new Northern Ireland Railways (NIR) timetable provides appropriate levels of service, bearing in mind the limited rolling stock currently available. Because of the reopening on 10 June of the direct rail link between Antrim and Belfast, the new timetable provides journey time reductions of over 30 minutes for travel between Belfast and Antrim and all stations north and west of Antrim.
Those reductions have also enabled Translink to use its available rolling stock to provide a better service on the Londonderry to Belfast line. For example, there are now nine scheduled services each way on weekdays, compared to seven northbound and six southbound prior to the reopening of the line.
There are clearly benefits in the new timetable for the northern part of the region and for those travelling from the Waterside to Antrim and on to Belfast. How can the Minister assess the value of the Knockmore line, as he plans to do over the next year, when the only morning train from Antrim to Belfast via Lisburn is timed to suit school students who must be in Lisburn before 7.30 and workers who must be in Belfast before 8.00? Is it realistic to base any assessment on such a timetable?
As the Member knows, I am acutely aware of the problem. I received a number of deputations about the Antrim to Knockmore line and spoke to a number of people in the area before the decision to preserve the line for a further year was taken. I also spoke to people who were still lobbying when the announcement was made.
So, if there is a section of rail line in Northern Ireland that I am aware of, it is the Antrim to Knockmore section. My difficulty is that Northern Ireland Railways told me that it was in the unenviable position of having to open a new line. It cost approximately £17 million to provide an efficient, effective service and increase and improve the level of service for the thousands of people who use that line. The line is now open. Unfortunately, the corollary of that was that the Antrim to Knockmore line could not be supplemented and built up to the same degree.
I was not prepared to contemplate the closure of the Antrim to Knockmore line, and I am still not prepared to contemplate it. I understand and accept the Member’s point that the current reduced service is not the best way of measuring the effectiveness of any service beyond the 12-month extension. Unfortunately, it is the only method that we have. I hope that we will be able to look again at the Antrim to Knockmore line in the regional transportation strategy, and I view its continued usage with sympathy and support. I hope that we will be able to preserve it, but I cannot say more than that.
When the new rolling stock is brought in for other lines, does the Minister intend to use the existing rolling stock for the Antrim to Knockmore line? Will the rolling stock be used at more appropriate hours so that peak-period public transport could be provided for people who wish to use the line?
I put forward similar propositions recently. Unfortunately, it will take approximately two years to acquire the new rolling stock. However, it is not as straightforward or as simple as preserving the line until new rolling stock becomes available and then transferring some of it to the Antrim to Knockmore line. We must also remember that there is a significant and substantial cost implication for preserving the line on safety grounds in the next three years or so. It will cost millions of pounds. The Member has raised the issue and I, as Minister, have already raised the issue in the Department. If it provides a possible source of preserving the line, I am open to looking at that.