Lisburn to Antrim Railway Line

Oral Answers to Questions — Infrastructure – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 6th July 2021.

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Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP 2:00 pm, 6th July 2021

1. Mr Butler asked the Minister for Infrastructure to outline her Department’s plans for the reopening of the Lisburn to Antrim railway line. (AQO 2350/17-22)

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

Members will know that I am ambitious for our rail network, and I have a vision to enhance our rail connectivity to better connect our communities while delivering cleaner, greener and more sustainable transport. Alongside my counterpart in the Irish Government, Minister Eamon Ryan, I was delighted to announce the all-island strategic rail review, which will allow us to consider our network across the island and how we can improve it for everyone. The review will examine the potential for rail connections across the island, including how our existing connections could be improved and where new rail links would be best placed.

I want to ensure that any proposals for changes to the rail network include operational and financial viability and have a very clear focus on the part that rail can play in growing our all-island economy while improving people's ability to connect and access opportunities and addressing long-standing regional imbalances. The review's purpose is to allow data to drive how to improve and expand our rail connections, allowing us to press ahead, at long last, with enhancing our rail connectivity in Northern Ireland and across the island. The reopening of old railways, including the Lisburn to Antrim railway, will be considered as part of that overall review.

My Department is also preparing the regional strategic transport network transport plan for public consultation. It is anticipated that it will be published for consultation later this year, and I welcome all representations from the public, including those about reopening the Lisburn to Antrim railway line via Knockmore, through that process.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

I thank the Minister for her encouraging answer. The Minister is fiscally responsible in her outlook, and she should be commended for that. There are obvious financial burdens in providing new rail networks or opening up older ones. Does the Minister accept that reopening the Lisburn to Antrim railway line might be one of the most cost-effective options available to her?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his question. We always have to be mindful of fiscal constraints and the importance of fiscal responsibility. The Member may know that, since 2005, Translink has spent just over £2 million maintaining the line to allow for its current non-passenger use. While he makes a key point, the all-island rail review will allow us to consider our rail network and how we can improve it for everyone. It reflects the commitment in 'New Decade, New Approach' (NDNA), but I want to use the opportunity to examine the data and the operational and financial viability to ensure that we do what we can to enhance our rail network. There is a specific focus in the all-island strategic rail review on how we can connect our international gateways through rail. Our ports and airports are also important elements of the railway line highlighted by the Member.

Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for her answers to my elected Lagan Valley colleague. I know that the Minister knows how important rail connectivity is in helping us to reduce emissions. Will she provide an update on her work with Minister Ryan to improve all-island connectivity?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his question. Of course, improving our rail network is about connecting communities to opportunities, and it enhances our tourist offering, but the Member makes a very important point: it is also about ensuring that we take action to encourage more people to use sustainable transport and public transport. Our rail network is an important part of that.

The procurement process for the all-island strategic rail review has begun. It is restricted to a maximum period of 12 months. As I said, it will be data-driven, and it will report back, but an important part of that process will be a public consultation exercise. I encourage the Member and others to make sure that they feed into that process.

Photo of Martina Anderson Martina Anderson Sinn Féin

Minister, as you know, I have been vocal — maybe too vocal sometimes — about rail connectivity, particularly in the north-west. It was welcome that my Adjournment debate received cross-party support a few short months ago. In light of that, will you provide an update on the feasibility study to improve the Derry line, such as the phase 3 works and the consideration of the half-hourly halts at Ballykelly, Strathfoyle and City of Derry Airport?

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

As that is not necessarily the question that has been asked, it is at the Minister's discretion to answer.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am content to answer it.

As I have said many times in the Chamber and outside it, rail has huge untapped potential to deliver multiple benefits across our island. It is also an important component of addressing regional imbalance. That is why, as Minister, I have been very much focused on improving connectivity to the north-west.

In line with that commitment, I commissioned a feasibility study to get phase 3 of the Coleraine to Derry project back on track. As the Member highlighted, I also commissioned additional studies to explore the possibility of a half-hourly service between Belfast and Derry, as well as to provide additional rail halts at Ballykelly, Strathfoyle and the City of Derry Airport at Eglinton. I can tell Members that work on the phase 3 feasibility study is ongoing, with a number of topographical and pilot studies under way. A report is still on schedule to be completed by November of this year. A full and robust business case will then be prepared and submitted to me that will ensure that all future spend is fully informed by it and that there is high-level assurance on costs, risk and benefit realisation.

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

The focus is rightly on the importance of connectivity and, in the original question, rail connectivity. Connectivity is hugely important for growing the economy. It is important for our relationships across this island. The Minister makes much of her engagement with all-island strategies. Will she tell the House what engagement she has had and continues to have with the Union connectivity review, which is extremely important for connectivity in the United Kingdom?

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Again, that supplementary question is not specific to the question that was asked, so it is at the Minister's discretion whether she wishes to answer it.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. As I have demonstrated on multiple occasions, I very much value the importance of connectivity across these islands. I am also very committed to partnership working across these islands. I have met the chair of the UK connectivity review, Sir Peter Hendy, and made a written submission to that review. As part of my commitment to working across these islands, I met my ministerial counterparts in Scotland and Wales as recently as last week to discuss a range of shared challenges and opportunities in transport, making a modal shift in people's travel and tackling the climate emergency. I remain very much committed to working across these islands to improve the lives of everyone in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

Reopening old and abandoned railway lines is a key aspect of our green recovery for which we need to plan. What is the situation with railway passenger numbers on our existing network? What more is being done to encourage people back on to the railways?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his question. I do not have the most up-to-date figures to hand for the passengers who are travelling on our rail transport, but, from recollection, some of the most recent figures that I have seen are around the 60% mark. Of course, when we have periods of very good weather or a bank holiday weekend, we see an increase in passenger numbers. Translink has therefore put measures in to mitigate that, working with the PSNI.

Throughout the pandemic, we have put measures in place to give passengers the confidence to travel. The Member will know that we introduced the mandatory use of face coverings on our public transport. We have taken additional deep-cleaning measures and run a public awareness campaign. As a public transport provider, we take our safety responsibilities extremely seriously, but we remain committed to giving passengers the confidence to come back onto public transport safely. That will allow them to go about their everyday lives, but public transport is also an important part of tackling the climate crisis.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Would reopening the Lisburn to Antrim line not greatly facilitate a connection to the International Airport? Is that not vital to its future success?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his question. As I said in response to Mr Butler, part of the all-island strategic rail review is rail connectivity and the links to our international gateways. Those are our airports — Belfast International Airport, Belfast City Airport and City of Derry Airport — but also our ports. That provision for passengers is important, but it is also important, as Mrs Dodds highlighted, for growing the economy and will therefore be a key element of that work.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Before we move to the next question, I remind Members that question 9 has been withdrawn. Also, topical question 4 from me has been withdrawn, as it could have presented some practical difficulties.