WINDOW SEAT TO THE FUTURE Eamon Ryan’s remarks bode well for the long-campaigned-for Western Rail Corridor.
Is the Western Rail Corridor close to becoming a reality?
Minister for Transport Éamon Ryan spoke about rail in the national media in the past week. His comments about the Western Rail Corridor were particularly noteworthy and welcome.
Speaking about the impending publication of the All Island Rail Review – which is being held up because of the Northern Ireland Assembly – Minister Ryan said ‘I expect it to support the likes of the Western Rail Corridor’.
He said this is not just the section from Athenry to Tuam and onto Claremorris but opening up a rail network that would span from Ballina to Rosslare in Wexford, via Claremorris, Athenry, Limerick and Waterford.
It can also, he said, access Foynes Port via the Limerick to Foynes railway line currently being reopened, while access from Waterford to Rosslare would also involve reopening a closed railway line.
Such a network would, he said, be ‘the centre of a more balanced development for the country where the west lifts on the back of that sort of rail infrastructure’.
Calling it an ‘Atlantic Rail Corridor’, the Minister spoke of the importance of connecting to deep water ports and maximising rail freight on these routes.
It is reasonable to assume that the Minister is not just guessing the Western Rail Corridor will be supported in the All-Island Rail Review. Someone in his position would be privy to all drafts of such documents well ahead of publication and given the importance the Government placed on that review in terms of extending the Western Rail Corridor to Claremorris, it is hard to see how they could back away from it if the review recommends its reopening. Minister Ryan’s comments certainly hint at a man very much in favour of follow through.
Freight will be a key part of the viability of such a railway, but its benefits for passenger traffic were clearly demonstrated in the Dr John Bradley report commissioned by West on Track.
In the past, critics questioned the viability of the reopening of the corridor from Limerick to Ennis and subsequently to Galway. However, recent figures reveal the Galway to Limerick rail service recorded its busiest ever year in 2022, since its reopening in 2010. It recorded a 14 percent increase, taking it over the 600,000 annual passengers for the first time. Only two other rail services recorded any sort of increase in 2022, both less than 2 percent.
“All the naysayers were wrong,” Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív told The Connacht Tribune. “This is a massive vote of confidence in the line and vindicates those who campaigned to have it reopened. This is more extraordinary taking into account the lack of frequency of services on the line and the need to make journey times faster,” he said.
People who have been following this story over the years will recall that there was a counter campaign for the Athenry to Claremorris section, with some wanting it to be turned into a greenway. That campaign has died down in recent times as the railway comes closer to becoming a reality.
While those campaigning for the greenway may have been well intentioned, its development at the expense of the railway line would have been a criminal waste of such a vital regional-development asset.
Which brings us to Sligo, where efforts to turn the old railway line from Collooney to Charlestown into a greenway are afoot.
The original Western Rail Corridor ran from Collooney to Limerick, and Éamon Ryan did not specifically mention the section north of Claremorris. However, his comments about not turning old railways into greenways worth noting.
If the Western Rail Corridor from Athenry to Claremorris gets the go ahead, then attention must immediately switch to extending it to Sligo. A railway line connecting the two biggest urban centres in Connacht would be a huge asset to the region.
Serious consideration needs to be given to extending the railway into Donegal also. The county has not been served by a single metre of railway since 1965. Should the Western Rail Corridor extend to Sligo, then Donegal would be the missing link in a coastal loop of the island.
Constructing a railway through Donegal would make sense environmentally, economically and societally. It would go a long way to showing that the Irish Government is serious about balanced regional development.
Rail will be a key part of the future in Ireland and such potential routes simply must receive priority over greenways.