GOVERNMENT is about supporting job creation. It’s about maximising infrastructure to create investment and jobs. Such opportunities might seem rare but sometimes the answer is staring us in the face and we cannot see it. Rail freight is an example.
Connectivity, commercial sense and common sense are the requirements. Rail fright has all three – a gift for any willing politician. It is a classic win-win situation.
Rail freight is not subsidised in Ireland, yet the business is profitable, even if it has to use the ‘scenic route’ to get to its destination! It is profitable even though the company chartering the service is charged almost five times as much to use the tracks as its European counterparts!
Mayo is the largest producer of rail freight in the country. In 2014, over 1000 freight trains came in and out of Mayo. There is no rail freight from Galway, Clare and Limerick (to name three counties) simply because there is no adequate freight connection. That could be easily resolved by re-opening the Claremorris to Athenry link – a distance of 30 miles at a cost of just over €30million. It would open up the western seaboard to rail freight.
Mayo would also benefit. Freight trains could travel more directly to Waterford (30 miles shorter), Cork (80 miles shorter) and Foynes (135 miles shorter) rather than use the ‘scenic’ passenger line eastwards to Portarlington and Dublin, before they detour south.
An average freight train can remove 36 long distance lorries from our roads. Rail freight creates 70 percent less carbon dioxide than the equivalent road journey. There is also the bonus of a re-opened railway for tourist/heritage traffic. Imagine the Wild Atlantic Way by train… Possibilities are endless.
Earlier this year, Iarnród Éireann Chief Executive, David Franks said: “Mayo is a key centre for our rail freight business and we will continue to work with industry and exporters to identify opportunities for freight business growth.”
Recently, Mayo Chambers, a business group that represents more than 4,000 businesses across the county, called for the re-opening of the freight line on the Western Rail Corridor between Claremorris and Athenry. Chairman Brian Hopkins said reconstructing the “missing link” would encourage investment by improving infrastructure.
“Connectivity is critical,” he said. “Investors want environmentally sustainable ways of moving product in and out. Re-opening Mayo’s rail link to the south will make the county more attractive for inward investment and enable us to grow existing rail freight traffic.”
Speaking to local media last January, An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, said: “I still see potential [on the Western Rail Corridor] from a freight point of view.” Figures released during that week showed that passenger numbers on the reopened railway between Ennis and Athenry had increased by a 72.5 percent in the previous 12 months. More than 220,000 passengers travelled between Galway and Limerick. Train lengths were doubled at the weekends to cater for growing passenger numbers. Note to Western Rail Corridors doubters - the increase in passengers on the Ennis-Athenry route was the largest annual growth on Ireland’s rail network in 2014!
In March, the issue was discussed at the Joint Oireachtas Transport and Communications committee. Mr Howard Knott, representing the Irish Exporters Association (IEA) stated that the IEA “strongly supports the Western Development Commission’s recent initiative to commission a study of potential demand for rail freight serving the West.” He added, “If you are trucking freight from the West to Dublin Port and you have to wait an hour an a half from the M50 to the Port Tunnel then you need an alternative.”
West on Track’s Colmán Ó Raghallagh said plans are underway by private investors to establish a rail-freight hub in Claremorris. He noted the recent Dáil statement by Transport Minister Paschal Donohue emphasising the importance of projects which would “add value” to existing infrastructure.
Politicians, more than most, fear change. The unknown is a great stumbling block. If Mayo can generate 1,000 freight trains per annum then put maths, economy, environment, sustainability and political will together. It adds up to a great future. Political support for rail freight is a no-brainer. Re-opening the Athenry to Claremorris freight link is the start. Political will is the key.