I have not yet had any formal discussions with the Irish Government about a joint bid for EU funding to improve cross-border rail services. I did discuss potential service improvements to the Belfast to Dublin Enterprise service with the Irish Transport Minister in the margins of the European transport council meeting in Brussels in December. I am keen to see what can be done on the line north of Dublin to ensure that the Enterprise can arrive in Dublin before 9.00 am on weekdays.
At the North/South Ministerial Council meeting in transport sectoral format on 20 April 2012, Minister Varadkar and I noted that the reliability and punctuality of the Enterprise service had improved significantly in recent months. I welcome the new station that has been constructed at Newry and the work that has started on the redevelopment of Portadown station. I look forward to measures that will be completed this year to improve locomotive reliability on the Enterprise service and to equip the trains with Wi-Fi.
As regards longer-term improvements, Minister Varadkar and I agreed that investment possibilities to upgrade the Belfast to Dublin railway line could be considered within the context of forthcoming EU decisions on the next TEN-T programme. We await the outcome of those decisions.
I thank the Minister for a comprehensive answer. I hope that we can have a commitment from him to push ahead with a submission to the EU for funding on an all-island basis in order to improve rail services on the Belfast to Dublin line and, indeed, the Belfast to Derry line. I think that, on his recent visit to Brussels, the Minister was somewhat encouraged by the fact that there may be opportunities to follow up on that. Can he confirm that there will be improvements in the town of Lurgan in particular?
I am very grateful for the Member’s supplementary question. We seemed to travel from Brussels to Lurgan very quickly. For factual accuracy, I was not in Brussels but Strasbourg. Nonetheless, there was useful engagement in Strasbourg with, amongst others, Commissioner Kallas and members of the European subcommittee on TEN-T issues. I understand the Member’s point. I am very keen to see improvements generally to the rail network. I think that one of the difficulties we face in Europe is that it has a sense that freight in Northern Ireland and, indeed, in the Republic of Ireland is moved by rail, which is not the case. Unfortunately, it does not appear to be immediately economically viable either. However, we are making close representations to Europe on all those issues.
On the issue of Lurgan, the Member will be aware that Translink has identified a signalling upgrade that will, when implemented, reduce crossing closure times for south-bound trains stopping at Lurgan railway station. The upgrade will be installed and commissioned in this financial year. However, it will work only for trains stopping at the station before passing over the level crossing. I explained that in detail at Craigavon Borough Council at the end of March. Translink has invested around £827,000 in the upkeep and refurbishment of facilities at Lurgan rail station.
However, there are no plans or available funding at this time for any major works to Lurgan railway station, but the need for investment in the station will be reviewed by Translink as it updates and prioritises its plans for capital expenditure.
I do not know whether the Minister has had any assessment done of international rail travel between Northern Ireland and the Republic and whatever hundreds of millions it would cost to develop that, but would he set that beside the need to develop internal rail links within Northern Ireland — we have seen the need for that — equating those two to ensure that we get the productivity there internally, before we talk about internationally?
I am grateful to the Member. I think he was being slightly mischievous, but I accept the point that he makes. I think that I have shown strong commitment to improving the rail infrastructure in Northern Ireland with the upgrade of the Coleraine to Londonderry line. I know that the Member, and, indeed, all Members of the House, will support that. Where it is possible, and subject to the necessary funding being available, yes, of course, I see rail infrastructure as an important tool. There is good evidence of that, with the new trains that are continuing to be brought online and the 20 new trains purchased recently. I think that is improving the quality of the service and the experience of travelling by rail. That is reflected in the record numbers of people who are using the trains to travel either for leisure or for work.
Go raibh maith agat, a Príomh-Leas Cheann Comhairle. I wonder whether the Minister agrees with Mr Campbell’s colleague junior Minister Bell who earlier expressed the importance of the TEN-T funding for rail development on this island. I wonder, in particular, what thoughts he would have on the development, somewhere down the line, of a potential western corridor for rail on the island of Ireland.
I am grateful to the Member for his supplementary question. As I have outlined, we had very constructive meetings in Strasbourg last week on the TEN-T regulations. That will be ongoing work. The Member will know that I am due to come before the Regional Development Committee on Wednesday to update it with a report from my recent visit. Those are issues that we will want to carry forward constructively together.
I think the potential cost of what would be, in European terms, a high-speed rail network, either North/South or, indeed, extending to other parts of the neighbouring jurisdiction, is likely to be prohibitive. Some £1 billion is talked about. However, we want to ensure that Northern Ireland can avail itself of any possible opportunity for grant assistance from Europe in terms of the TEN-T regulations, and that is what I am working to achieve.
I thank the Minister for his answers so far, and, indeed, the work that is being done to improve our existing rail services. He has pointed out the increased take-up of rail, which is, no doubt, a consequence of the rising cost of petrol. What is being done to introduce new services in the short or medium term?
I am grateful to the Member for his supplementary question. What I have attempted to do, by, for instance, the upgrade of the Coleraine to Londonderry line, which we spoke about earlier, is not simply to maintain services but to enhance them. However, those things cost money, and I am mindful of the overall financial position that Translink finds itself in. The intention is that we do not simply stand still in terms of our rail services, but that we continue to improve the quality of the services to the general public.