Londonderry to Coleraine Railway

Ministerial Statements – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:15 pm on 10th October 2011.

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Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker 12:15 pm, 10th October 2011

I have received notice from the Minister for Regional Development that he wishes to make a statement to the House.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

Mr Speaker, with your permission, I wish to make a statement on the Londonderry to Coleraine railway line. As many Members will be aware, there has been considerable interest in that issue over recent weeks. That is due to the large number of people in the north-west and, indeed, throughout Northern Ireland who have a strong desire to see that railway line upgraded.

The mayor of Derry City Council organised the meeting that took place on 24 August 2011 in the Guildhall in Londonderry. It was convened to allow representatives of political parties, community groups and the business sector to discuss the importance of the local railway line to the north-west area, particularly in view of the year of culture activities, which are at an advanced stage of planning, and the impact of Translink’s proposals to maintain safety standards on the line in light of the limited capital made available in Budget 2010.

On hearing about the planned meeting, I asked to be allowed to attend to hear at first hand the views of all local representatives, including you, Mr Speaker. The meeting lasted for about two hours. All those who spoke were direct and to the point. As I said to Members during the Adjournment debate on 12 September, the strength and depth of feeling expressed at that meeting and the validity of arguments made required me to consider what, if anything, could be done.

Following the meeting, I tasked my officials to work with Translink to consider all options. I want to update the House on the outcome of that work. Let me begin with a little background information. The regional development strategy and the regional transportation strategy both refer to the need to improve public transport links between Belfast and Londonderry. Given the continued investment in new trains and the clear growth in passenger numbers, investment to secure the condition of the railway track was seen as crucial.

The original business case to justify the investment in the Coleraine to Londonderry line was approved by the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) in November 2010. The approved option was single track relay with a passing loop and appropriate bridge works, at an estimated cost of £75 million. Had funding been available from year 1 of Budget 2010, the project would have begun immediately and been completed during 2013. The project aimed to deliver a 30-year design life and the removal of existing speed restrictions, with a capacity for an hourly train service initially.

Under that option, the line would have been closed for about 12 months for relaying to take place. The option of working evenings and weekends rather than closure would have more than doubled the cost and may have quadrupled the time.

In February, my predecessor decided to defer the commencement of work on the Londonderry to Coleraine railway line until 2014-15. Some £20 million was set aside in the current Budget to commence the work. That decision was confirmed through a written answer to an Assembly question asked by the Member for East Londonderry Mr George Robinson.

As we all know, doing absolutely nothing is rarely an option. There are major issues with the condition of the existing track that need to be addressed if safety risks are to be managed properly. Therefore, Translink officials developed plans for immediate safety work on the worst part of the line at a cost of £7 million. Even under that understandable make do and mend approach, train speeds would still have to be reduced to avoid risk to passengers. That meant line capacity for only five return trains a day, because of the lack of a passing loop and the interdependence with other train services on the network. It was the release of that detail that precipitated the discussions on 24 August, which I referred to earlier.

As I said, because of the concerns expressed, I tasked my officials to work with Translink to identify other options. As a result, I am pleased to inform the House that it will be possible to re-phase the project. That will mean relaying the end section of the line at Coleraine and Londonderry and completing essential bridge works on those parts, a phase of the project that will cost around £27 million; completion of re-signalling works between Coleraine and Londonderry and construction of a new passing loop in 2015, which is estimated to cost around £22 million and should deliver hourly services; and full relay of the track by 2021 at an estimated cost of £36 million, which should lead to the introduction of half-hourly services.

That option was tested by updating the original economic appraisal. The appraisal indicated that the new phased option is comparable to a full relay in net present cost terms and, in the current circumstances, has a better non-monetary score. Specifically, the 2013 City of Culture factor and the opportunities to promote major sporting and cultural events have also been considered. Critically, the phased option is considered affordable within the parameters of my Department’s current budget.

Translink officials have assured me that, if they get the go-ahead by the end of October, the first phase — the relay — could be completed in April 2013. We need to be clear that there are risks. For example, the proposed timetable is on the basis that the procurement process can be completed without complication.

I also want to make it clear that the line will be closed completely for about nine months from July 2012 until April 2013. The line, therefore, will be closed for the start of the City of Culture year. However, it will be open for most of the key events in the City of Culture calendar, with eight return services a day.

The recommended option in the updated appraisal was approved by the Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company board and its accounting officer and submitted to my Department on 19 September. My officials and I gave it urgent consideration and agreed that the economic case for the phased option was acceptable in the circumstances. The addendum has been submitted to DFP Supply, with whom there has been constructive engagement. I do not expect any issues to arise with DFP approval.

I will now turn to funding. The updated appraisal makes it clear that about £27 million of capital funding is required in 2012-13 to allow the first phase of the project to go ahead. I realise that the Executive’s capital budget is under pressure, so I am prepared to find that capital from my existing budget by re-profiling some planned strategic road schemes. I stress that the re-profiling will mean that there will be merely a six to eight-week delay in starting those projects. I estimate that that will provide about £22 million of the required sum, and I am looking to Translink to re-profile its current and future capital expenditure to provide the rest.

The choice of road schemes to be re-profiled will have to take account of the commitments made by the Republic of Ireland Government to the A5 and A8 schemes, the current state of progress on those and other road schemes, including the A2 and A6 schemes, risks arising from procurement, and, critically, the capacity of the construction industry to deliver on the roads programme.

I know that many Members will agree that there remains a strong economic case for ensuring that the roads budget is adequately funded. I realise that there are other competing priorities for the £22 million, not least capital investment needs in water and sewerage systems in my own Department’s budget. Under present plans, however, some £50 million would have been required to complete the full relay option in 2015-16. That will no longer be directly required for this project and could be switched back to the roads budget if required at that time. That would, of course, be subject to Executive consideration in relation to the next Budget period.

I am sure that colleagues will agree with me on the compelling case for investment in the Londonderry to Coleraine rail line. The arguments in favour of the proposal are based not on a narrow economic analysis but on the wider imperative of completing that phase of track enhancement in time for the 2013 City of Culture. The work will also complement and assist the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment’s efforts to secure major golf tournaments and other prestige events for the area.

I am aware of previous problems with the Belfast-Bangor line relay, including poor specification and project management, as well as budget overruns, which led, rightly, to criticism by the Public Accounts Committee. I am determined that that will not happen in this case, and I will task my officials accordingly.

At the Executive meeting on 6 October, I asked Ministers to agree that I re-phase the Londonderry to Coleraine rail line project, doing the relay and essential bridge works first and the signalling, passing loop and remaining bridge works after the 2013 Year of Culture. There was full agreement to that proposal.

In my view, this decision secures the Londonderry to Coleraine rail line’s future. Indeed, I will wish to see further investment in that railway line so that, in years to come, a high-speed and frequent railway service will operate between the north-west and Belfast and onwards to Dublin and Cork. Rail services will operate eight trains a day for most of the City of Culture year. When the other two phases of the project are complete, the opportunity will exist for increased and more frequent services.

This decision sends out a clear message that the Executive are determined to ensure that opportunities arising from potential cultural, tourism and sporting events will be fully supported. It also clearly demonstrates that we can and do listen to what people say to us.

I thank Catherine Mason and her team at Translink for their help in making this proposal a reality. I know that they all put a lot of work into the project in recent weeks, and I am grateful for their assistance. I also pay particular tribute to my own officials in the Department for Regional Development, who worked exceedingly hard in the past few weeks to make this proposal possible.

Today’s announcement is good news for the people of the north-west, the people of Northern Ireland and the many hundreds of thousands of visitors who come to this fine land and use that scenic railway line. I am sure that they will all join me in supporting this good news. I am also pleased to inform the House that I have given Translink officials permission to proceed, and an advert will appear in the European journal within the next week or so.

I look forward to being on the train to Londonderry in April 2013, and I trust that as many Members as possible will join me in visiting the Maiden City during the City of Culture year. I commend the statement to the House.

Photo of Jimmy Spratt Jimmy Spratt DUP 12:30 pm, 10th October 2011

I welcome the Minister’s statement and thank him for briefing the Deputy Chair and me earlier. I believe that this is a common-sense approach to a critical part of our rail infrastructure. I will not rehearse in full my comments in a debate on the Londonderry line on 12 September, other than to say that this will represent a major boost to the economy of Northern Ireland in the year of the UK City of Culture.

I note that the Minister refers to commitments of the Republic of Ireland Government in respect of the A5. Will he advise the House whether he has any further update on the availability of resources from the Republic of Ireland Government? Will he also assure the House that, despite Translink’s indication that the upgrade “could” be completed by April 2013, he will do all in his power to ensure that the works will be completed for 2013?

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

I am grateful to the Chair, Mr Spratt, for his encouragement and that of his Committee. I agree that the announcement will give a huge boost to the local economy in the north-west and has the capacity to generate significant opportunities for culture and tourism as we move towards 2013 and beyond.

The Chair of the Committee has made reference to the A5 and A8 schemes. He will know, as the House knows, that I am awaiting the inspector’s report to update me on views on the A5 and A8 schemes. That is my standard response. I am not in a position to comment, and it would not be sensible or proper for me to do so; the Chair of the Committee and other Members understand that. However, I believe that the upgrade is possible by 2013. I hope, and will work positively to ensure, that works are completed in time for the celebrations in April 2013.

Photo of Raymond McCartney Raymond McCartney Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a ráiteas.

I thank the Minister for his statement. I welcome his clear statement of commitment — indeed, the Executive’s clear commitment — to the Derry line. From his visit to the Guildhall in August, the Minister knows the importance that people place in the railway line as a key piece of infrastructure for the regeneration of the north-west and for the City of Culture.

The Minister noted some concern about the procurement process. What steps can he take to ensure that there are no glitches in that process so that, as he arrives on the first train into Derry in April 2013, we can all be there to welcome him?

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

I welcome the Member’s comments, which represent significant progress on his behalf. He will no doubt recall the statement he issued on 24 August 2011, in which he said:

“It would seem that Danny Kennedy — true to the historical Ulster Unionist Party approach to everything that would benefit Derry — is determined to dismantle all of the foundations for progress”.

The Ulster Unionist Party got the blame for basically everything that had gone wrong over a generation, when he said that it was:

“All denied to Derry by the Ulster Unionist Party!”

I am sorry that the Member, in his contribution, was not a little bit more aware of what he had said earlier, but I welcome the fact that he has at least given grudging approval to my announcement, because, in his response to the announcement, he was out like Linford Christie. The ink was not dry on the Executive decision before Mr McCartney had a statement out welcoming it. I hope that it nails the false and offensive allegations that were peddled by Raymond McCartney and others from Sinn Féin in relation to how the Ulster Unionist Party approached issues around the north-west. His contribution, though late, is welcome.

It is my intention to monitor progress on procurement issues. Obviously, if legal issues arise, they will be subject to their own timetable, but I am very hopeful and optimistic. I, as Minister, my Department and Translink will want to see the progress that we have indicated here, the necessary work carried out and the line reopened in April 2013.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 12:45 pm, 10th October 2011

I thank the Minister for his statement. He referred to previous difficulties with the Bangor to Belfast relay. Will he ensure that detailed plans are approved for this relay before the contractors come on site, so that the relatively tight timetable can be met? Will he ensure that the proper procurement process occurs when appointing contractors?

Photo of Joe Byrne Joe Byrne Social Democratic and Labour Party

I wholeheartedly welcome the Minister’s statement. He has responded to the genuine concerns of the people of the north-west. I am happy to say that I said at the last debate on the issue that some sort of rescheduling was surely possible, and I think that has now happened. Will the Minister assure us that the procurement process will be expedited, so that there are no bottlenecks, as Roy Beggs said? Secondly, can he give an assurance that the A5 will in no way be delayed unduly?

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

I am grateful to the Member for his contribution. He has perhaps shown a little more faith in me than others have done. I understand from both the Member for East Antrim and the Member who has just spoken that procurement issues are important. It is important that my Department and Translink work together to ensure the smoothest possible outcome that meets the required deadlines. I have already indicated the restrictions on what I am able to say about the A5, and I think that the Member understands that.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

Thank you, Minister, for your statement. It is a very welcome statement indeed. I wish to press you, as others have done, with regard to the procurement process. It is generally given that the construction work will probably flow well to a timetable, but we have had hiccups in the past in relation to the procurement. Will the Minister assure us that the procurement process will be scrutinised regularly, if not daily, by his officials to ensure that it meets the timetable set down?

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow Minister (International Development)

I join in welcoming the Minister’s statement. I also thank him for coming to the Guildhall in Londonderry in August, which he did of his own volition, and for responding to the adjournment debate that was tabled by my colleague Adrian McQuillan several weeks ago.

The Minister will be aware of the old saying that just because we are not paranoid, it does not mean that they are not out to get us. Taking account of that and setting it to one side, however, the one issue that I hope he can respond to is that his Translink officials, at the time of the Guildhall discussion and subsequently, said that, even if the money were available there and then, there would still not be enough time to get the line open and up and running for 2013 UK City of Culture. Will he explain to the House, now that the money is available, how the work will be done in time?

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

I am grateful to the Member for his contribution. The context of the remarks that were made in the Guildhall meeting was absolutely clear. In the context of the overall scheme, the estimated cost of which was £75 million, it was simply not possible to meet the timescale. The fact that we are now phasing the work makes it possible for the essential relay and bridge strengthening to take place. Effectively, that will allow us to get the work done over a nine-month period so that we will be up and running from April 2013.

Photo of Pat Doherty Pat Doherty Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his statement and for the briefing that he gave to me and the Committee Chairperson earlier today. I also welcome his belated commitment to the north-west; developments like that are always good. I understand the constraints of the independent inspector’s report. It is my understanding that, of the £27 million required, £22 million will come from the A5 project. That will lead to a delay in the start of that project by six to eight weeks. At what point will the £22 million go back into the A5 project?

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

I thank the Member for at least having the good grace to welcome the statement and the announcement. I shall ignore his backhanded compliment about commitment to the north-west. My view, and that of my party, is that we have, and always have had, a strong commitment to the north-west and to the great city of Londonderry, and that remains. Today’s statement is proof of that.

I have had to re-profile moneys from within my budget. Therefore, the £22 million that is being used for this work will, or could at some stage in the future, technically, because it is a transfer from roads to rail, transfer back as necessary. It is about management of my budget to enable this sensible and appropriate decision to be taken forward.

Photo of Stephen Moutray Stephen Moutray DUP

I thank the Minister for his very positive statement. The current journey time between Belfast and Londonderry is approximately two hours and 15 minutes. Will the Minister indicate whether the work that is hopefully going to be done before April 2013 will have an impact on that journey time?

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

I am grateful to the Member for his welcome, and I thank him for it. The relay work is essential for safety, and, to a limited extent, it will also help with journey times. However, there are other factors, such as where in Belfast those journeys begin and their speed. The long-term intention is that we not only improve the line and introduce a loop system that will increase the number of trains on the line but shorten journey times. The Member’s point is well made, and we are conscious of it, but we want to build on that positively.

Photo of Michael Copeland Michael Copeland UUP

Will the Minister advise when he expects to get the final Department of Finance and Personnel approval for the commencement of the work?

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

I thank the Member for welcoming the scheme. [Laughter.] We have worked and engaged constructively with officials and, indeed, the Minister of Finance and Personnel on this matter. It shows a degree of joined-up government. I am also pleased that the Executive gave their approval to the recommendation. I think that it is good decision for not only the House but the Executive. Members should dwell on one issue: had the work not been brought forward and we faced the prospect of Londonderry’s being the City of Culture in 2013 without any serious kind of rail link between there and Belfast, we would all have been numpties and would have been branded as such. That applies not only to Members of the Executive but to Members of the Assembly. I think that the public understand that, and it proves that we are listening and are capable of listening to public opinion. It also proves that we are capable of moving forward on a value-for-money basis.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

I also welcome the Minister’s statement and the commitment that he gave this afternoon with no ifs, no buts and no begrudgery. I am absolutely delighted. I fully understand the difficult circumstances that the Minister inherited from the previous Minister. Can he give us a guarantee today that the stop-start approach to the renaissance of that most wonderful railway is now definite and that we can have, in as short a time as possible, a decent intercity service between the cities of Derry and Belfast?

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

I thank the Member for his acknowledgement of today’s announcement. I know that he has an abiding interest, which he has shown in the House, in the upgrade of rail services between Belfast and Londonderry. I reassure him that the announcement gives clear confidence to the long-term viability and future of rail services between Belfast and Londonderry. That is to be welcomed. There is much more work that we can do and get on with. The Member knows that this is a positive day and that it should be seen as such. Many people, including Michael Palin, love the journey and make it not only to conduct business but to enjoy tourism and the scenery, which is very special. I hope that word will have reached Michael Palin that we are able to do something and that this parrot is not dead after all. [Laughter.] We have been pleased to put life into the project. So, I thank the Member for his very positive comments.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I, too, welcome the Minister’s statement this afternoon. I remind him that, to get to Coleraine, he has to go via the Ballymena and Ballymoney stations in north Antrim. However — there is a “however”, of course, in all these things — the Minister referred to risk. He outlined the issues on the re-profiling of some planned strategic road schemes, such as the A8, the A5, the A2 and the A6. Will he assure the House that that re-profiling will not in any way inhibit or stall the A26, which is, equally, a very important part of the transport infrastructure of north Antrim?

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

I am grateful to the Member for his words of welcome and his timely reminder that anyone who uses that line has to travel through his constituency, which is really what he meant. [Laughter.] The A26 is, at this point, still within his constituency boundary.

As they know, all Members have put forward many projects for consideration. I hope very much that, given my overall budget, we will be able to bring forward projects to deal with road improvements, strategic and otherwise, as we move forward.

I am not in a position today to say that upgrading the line will impact on a particular scheme, but my commitment is to upgrade the roads infrastructure all over Northern Ireland and, likewise, to improve rail services.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP 1:00 pm, 10th October 2011

I welcome the Minister’s statement, and I congratulate him on this significant development. I welcome the fact that he has found the funding from his existing budget. What is his assessment of the increased tourist potential that the upgrade will bring to the entire north-west, the north coast, Ballymena and Ballymoney? What is his assessment of how the railway line can be seen as a legacy from Londonderry’s time as the UK City of Culture?

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

I thank the Member for his welcome for the statement. The upgrade will help to unlock the potential for significant investment in tourism and cultural and sporting opportunities. My Executive colleague the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment is actively pursuing how we can bring a major golf championship to the north-west. I have no doubt that an effective and efficient rail service between Belfast and Londonderry would contribute to that. To that extent, I am hopeful that it will be seen as a clear signal not only of the development of the north-west but of promoting cultural, economic, sporting and other links in Northern Ireland generally so that all of us can benefit.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I also welcome the Minister’s statement, which will be extremely well received in my constituency. I congratulate him on listening to and acting on the measured arguments that were made by the people of Derry. Are attempts ongoing to access European funding that might enable the project in its entirety to be completed more quickly? Should the total cost estimate include the cost of the renovation, reconstruction or even relocation of Waterside train station to ensure that it is fit for purpose and to maximise the service’s potential?

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

I am grateful to the Member for his initial comments and warm welcome for the announcement. Having received half a loaf, he now wants all of the bread. I understand the points that he made. We are pursuing whether there are any European funding opportunities that the three-phase scheme could avail itself of. Early work is being carried out on how the possible replacement or upgrade of the rail station at Londonderry might be brought forward. However, given the significant challenges in the budgetary situation, I have to be realistic about that.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

It is good that a start to the upgrade has been made. It surprises me that the full upgrade has slipped to 2021, and I trust that it will be completed. Will the Minister agree that, rather than merely reprofiling the A5, if that is what he intends, if he were to radically revisit it, he would have an abundance of money not only to complete the rail link to Londonderry much sooner but to do the other vital projects such as the further dualling of the A26? Another of those simple yeses would do.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

I am grateful to the Member for what I at least thought was a positive welcome for my announcement. I have already given my response on the A5. Sensibly and rightly, I am constrained about what I can say, and even the Member knows that.

Photo of Adrian McQuillan Adrian McQuillan DUP

I also welcome the Minister’s statement and his commitment to the project. Is nine months the minimum or maximum closure of the railway line?

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

I am grateful to the Member for his welcome. Our estimated time frame is nine months. If that can be improved on, we would welcome that. There are procurement issues, which take time to work through, and we need to make sure that the contracts are signed and sealed and everything is correct. I am happy to monitor the situation to see whether it is possible to improve on that time frame. However, at this stage, the best estimate is that the work will take nine months, allowing the line to reopen in April 2013.

Photo of Cathal Ó hOisín Cathal Ó hOisín Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an Aire. I thank the Minister, and I, too, welcome the proposed delivery of the project, most of which is in my constituency.

The Minister alluded to the thousands of visitors who would benefit from the panoramic views across Lough Foyle and Donegal. Does he also recognise the hundreds of thousands of travellers who do less than benefit from the views of the car in front as they get snarled up in Dungiven because of the lack of a bypass there and the people of Dungiven who are breathing in on a daily basis 10 times the nitrous dioxide level recommended by the European Union?

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

I thank the Member for welcoming my statement. He refers to the A6 project, and he will be aware that my Department has been carrying forward that work on an ongoing basis. We will continue to do that.

Photo of Ian McCrea Ian McCrea DUP

I, too, join all those who welcomed the Minister’s statement. Although I have no constituency interest in it whatsoever, it is certainly good news for Northern Ireland.

The Minister referred to the reprofiling of some roads, and, although I understand that his Department has to look at that for the different areas, from a constituency perspective I am happy for him to save money and not waste it on the dualling of the Randalstown to Castledawson road. I ask him to reconsider whether that is a necessary option for that community.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

I thank the Member for welcoming the announcement. Obviously, all politics is local. He raised an issue of concern in his constituency, and I have had recent meetings with other elected representatives on the same basis. We will, hopefully, bring forward our views on that in the coming months.