SUPPORT Minister for Transport Éamon Ryan’s comments on the Western Rail Corridor represent a ‘truly transformational development’.
Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan’s announcement that he supports and will seek funds to reopen the Western Rail Corridor between Athenry and Claremorris together with the Foynes Rail link was a momentous announcement, which received an overwhelming welcome.
Ryan concluded his comments in Dáil Éireann last week with the view that developing these two small links would give us a national rail freight service connected to two international deep-water ports in Foynes and Waterford.
This was more than just an announcement of reopening vital rail links but reversing previous decisions taken by the state not to support rail freight and, therefore, making it the main driver for reopening the line.
The 2003 Booz Allan Strategic Rail Review highlighted that freight had become unreliable and recommended it abandon unit load (turn up and go container traffic) which was the backbone of its freight services. This ended in July 2005 and was followed by a decision to cease haulage of Guinness traffic, an important railway customer for over 100 years.
The failure of the then FF/PD Govt in 1997 to invest €6.7 million in a rail link to Lisheen zinc mine in Tipperary and utilising the rail network was a key turning point. As a consequence 400,000 tonnes of zinc ore per year went on trucks making a 260km round trip to Cork or New Ross which could have been serviced instead by a small investment in the rail network.
To Iarnród Éireann management it was a signal to abandon freight and mothball rail links like Athenry-Claremorris and Limerick-Foynes. The 2016 Rail Review pointed out that Ireland was one of the few countries in the EU not to support freight and Government policy would have to change if this was to be reversed.
A report by Booz and Co for Cork Port in 2010 observed: “For many years, passenger operations have been Iarnród Éireann’s primary business, and the existing rail infrastructure reflects this.”
The report also pointed out that when Cork Port applied to planners to move the port to Ringaskiddy without a rail connection there was ‘little evidence of government policy actively pursuing or supporting major expansion in rail freight services’.
Only the determination of Mayo industries like Ballina Beverages and Baxter saw containers return to rail in 2006 but by the end of the decade Mayo had become and still is the only intermodal (containers) rail freight centre in the country.
In November 2018 Iarnród Éireann’s CEO Jim Meade told an Oireachtas Committee that: “Freight has to wash its face. We cannot subvent it or use any public funds.”
Other EU states subvent rail freight. There has been no significant state investment in rail freight since specialised wagons were purchased in 2002.
Dublin Port themselves financed and built a new freight terminal at Dublin Port in 2011 now used for Mayo rail freight traffic.
We remain the only EU country which doesn’t support rail freight through grants. Track access charges – the tolls paid to use the railway – are the highest in the EU when it comes to freight, six times higher than France, for example. That means a container from Ballina by rail pays €104 in track access charges but by road its pays one road toll of €14 and has free use of the €750 million Dublin Port tunnel.
When Ryan said in his answer that opening both Claremorris-Athenry and the rail link to Foynes makes sense, he was announcing a significant shift in government policy towards rail.
The presumption that the only case to reopen Claremorris to Athenry, linking Mayo with Galway was purely via passenger traffic is wrong, when the real driver is freight. However, making it work requires a shift in Government policy. By including Foynes, the Minister was creating a freight spine through the west that aids government policy to cut carbon emissions and makes the case to support rail freight proactively.
A reopened railway will cut the existing journey times from Waterford to Ballina which can take up to eight hours and 12 minutes via Kildare versus six hours and 15 minutes via the Western Rail Corridor. A revitalised Foynes line brings Ballina four hours away from the TIER 1 Shannon Foynes Port rather than over eight hours via Portarlington, using already congested and busy railways. Revitalising these rail links brings Mayo closer to its ports and allows the railway to be used more efficiently while releasing capacity on the already congested railway between Kildare, Portarlington and Athlone.
As Pat Keating of Shannon Foynes Port Company said to the Irish Times last week a revitalised Foynes line could remove 800 lorries a week off the roads – that’s 41,600 lorries a year with a lot of that traffic likely to come from the Mayo-Galway region, reversing decades of neglect of the railways freight capability. A truly transformational development.
Limerick native Hassard Stacpoole is a Programme Manager for Network Rail in the UK with more than 20 years experience in the rail and transport industry.