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Could Western Rail Corridor play a key role in Brexit solutions?

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ALTERNATIVES  A timber freight train at Claremorris Railway Station. “If a train runs to Waterford and has 18 wagons, that is taking 18 trucks off the road,” said Editor of Fleet Magazine, Jarlath Sweeney.

Analysis

Edwin McGreal

Reopening the Western Rail Corridor from Athenry to Claremorris will not just open more commuting and passenger options in Mayo but could be a crucial missing piece of the jigsaw in solving some of the challenges facing Irish businesses post-Brexit.
Minister for Transport Eamonn Ryan expressed strong support for the reopening of the corridor as part of an ‘island wide spine of rail freight capability that also delivered passenger capability’.
He said that key to this would be potential connections from the north-west via the Western Rail Corridor to the deep-water ports in Foynes in Limerick and Waterford.
Meanwhile the Irish Exporters Association (IEA) have highlighted the need to create sustainable alternatives to the UK landbridge due to Brexit concerns, which could further strengthen the need for the reopening of the Western Rail Corridor.
In their pre-Budget submission, the IEA said it is ‘becoming increasingly apparent’ that Irish freight, outbound and inbound, ‘will be snarled up in any delays’ that occur in British ports post Brexit.
“Britain is not ready for the transport (and by extension the supply chain) challenges of Brexit. Alternatives to the landbridge using direct shipping from Irish ports to France and the Netherlands will be required to keep our supply chains flowing,” stated the IEA.
This increases the focus on the potential benefits of the Western Rail Corridor.
The closest ports to the continent are in Rosslare and Waterford, the second of which would be connected to the north-west via the Western Rail Corridor if the plans espoused by Minister Ryan come to pass. There have also been calls for the restoration of the existing rail connection from Waterford to Rosslare.
The IEA welcomed the favourable comments made by Minister Ryan about the reopening of the Western Rail Corridor.
“The IEA believes that increased rail freight capacity should play an important and significant part of our climate change agenda. The further expansion of rail freight also has the potential to contribute to Ireland’s regional development,” they said.

Changing times
Currently the majority of Irish freight is transported by road but Claremorris-based Jarlath Sweeney, Editor of Fleet Magazine, a road transport and logistics magazine and website, sees the potential for significant change from road to rail freight.
Ballina Beverages (Coca-Cola) currently operate a significant amount of rail freight from Ballina to Waterford, which has to be routed via Portarlington. Mr Sweeney believes a more direct route via the Western Rail Corridor combined with environmental imperatives could see a significant move to rail freight.
“Ballina Beverages were one of the main initial instigators of rail container freight from Ireland to global markets and they’ve been applauded for it,” Mr Sweeney told The Mayo News.
“I see huge potential from the other business players in the west to hop onto the wagon. So too with the pharmaceutical businesses you have across the west and further down the line, taking in Limerick and other places on the journey to Waterford and Rosslare.
“We have a number of high profile agricultural machinery manufacturers that currently export their product by road, more than likely through Dublin, and Dublin Port is getting quite congested.
“Rosslare will become a major 'Brexit buster' and we need to connect the old railway line from Waterford to Rosslare. Rosslare is owned by Irish Rail and it is in their best interests to have this additional business in its portfolio. Freight is going from Rosslare to Spain and France direct, rather than using the land bridge across the UK.
“Eamonn Ryan’s vision has great opportunity and potential when you include the deep sea port in Foynes in Limerick as well,” said Mr Sweeney.
Jarlath Sweeney agreed with Minister Éamonn Ryan that freight was always going to be a key element in any proposals to reopen the Western Rail Corridor. Minister Ryan said an argument for the corridor purely on the basis of commuters from Claremorris and Tuam ‘would be difficult to win’.
“In the early stages of the campaign to reopen the railway line, I highlighted the potential of freight because that’s where I saw the opportunity,” said Mr Sweeney.
“There’s the time element, the environmental element because rail freight is far more environmentally friendly than road transport.
“Basically if you imagine if a train runs to Waterford and has 18 wagons, that is taking 18 trucks off the road,” he said.
He said while road transport ‘has a challenge to reduce its emissions nationally’, the road freight industry need not suffer dramatically from a general shift towards rail freight.
“Bearing in mind I publish a road transport magazine every month, I am very active in the industry, I know all the players, I know there will be certain criticisms but when you look at the viability of rail freight, it is still very dependent on road freight to get the freight from the factories to the railway stations. Those small journeys can be financially rewarding. So it will be an inter modal system,” he said.
He also saw potential for Claremorris to become a key railway intersection in the region.

Passenger transport
He added that while freight could be the crucial determinant, passenger benefits can be substantial.
“On the passenger side, if we have a direct line to Galway, I think we will see a boost for population centres that are on the line, the likes of Claremorris and Tuam; that they will see additional growth and attract people back into the regions.
“You have to consider how the Covid situation has changed the landscape in terms of how people work. More people are working from home and there might be more people moving back to the west if there was better infrastructure for passenger transport.
“A good rail link will reduce the need for driving too. It has a lot going for it. The impetus that is there now means it is now or never.”