NEW HORIZON? Freight trains carrying timber meet at Claremorris Railway Station. Minister Éamonn Ryan said the ability for trains to go south on the Western Rail Corridor from Claremorris to Athenry and onto Limerick could be a huge boost for industry in the west.
Hopes are high of positive development before end of year
The support expressed by Minister for Transport, Éamonn Ryan, TD, for the reopening of the Western Rail Corridor in the Dáil this week has been described as ‘momentous’ by a rail industry expert.
Limerick native Hassard Stacpoole, a leading authority on railway infrastructure and services in Ireland and the United Kingdom, described Minister Ryan’s comments as ‘the most significant change to government policy on rail and freight in a generation’.
Speaking in the Dáil on Thursday last in response to questions about the Western Rail Corridor from Rose Conway-Walsh, Éamon Ó Cuív and Dara Calleary, Minister Ryan expressed considerable support for the reopening of the Western Rail Corridor from Athenry to Claremorris.
The Western Rail Corridor from Sligo to Limerick closed in the 1970s but the line has already reopened from Limerick to Athenry/Galway. Proposals to extend it to Claremorris are currently under review.
Minister Ryan said any examination of the Western Rail Corridor had to be looked at in a ‘wider context’ than merely the passenger route from Athenry to Claremorris. He said trying to ‘win this project’ on the basis of such commuter numbers ‘will be difficult to win’.
However, looking at the issue in a wider, regional context including rail freight capability, he saw the potential to create an ‘island-wide spine of rail freight capability that also delivered passenger capability’ which would ‘change the perspective on what we were doing’.
Key elements of this would be potential connections from the north-west to the deep water ports in Foynes in Limerick and in Waterford which, he argued, would be a big boost to industry in the west.
“Putting in a rail connection between Athenry and Claremorris opens up the whole north west to the rail freight capability of Foynes, which is a high-quality deep water port. From an industrial economic perspective and in light of the bigger picture of a zero-carbon world by 2050, we will have to develop a very large renewable wind energy capability offshore in the west.
“In the Shannon area and the wider west, we have significant clean water resources that modern manufacturing industry needs. In the north west, we have some of the most advanced and best manufacturing capability in the world, including high-quality expertise in high-quality manufacturing. Put clean power, clean water and a highly educated and highly skilled manufacturing workforce together and we have a long-term economic potential like what we have in Ballina and what we had in Asahi.
“This industrial development would be on the back of an international rail freight capability, which would allow us to access international ports.
“I would extend the development farther from the Limerick-Shannon-Foynes connection to Waterford. We would then start to have an island-wide spine of rail freight capability that also delivered passenger capability. I am keen on examining the overall question from this wider perspective. It would change the perspective on what we were doing,” said Minister Ryan.
‘Shovel ready project’
Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh (Sinn Féin) urged the Minister to follow through.
“This is a shovel-ready project and the time for tweaking and talking is over. We are impatient. We need the Minister to do what he says he will do,” she said.
Welcoming the Minister’s remarks, Deputy Dara Calleary (Fianna Fáil) said ‘rail freight does win the case’.
“A total of 1,000 freight trains a year leave Mayo to serve Dublin and Waterford ports. Those freight train journeys displace 20,000 long-distance truck movements annually but there is potential for much more. The Minister is absolutely on track, if I may use that phrase, in this regard,” he said.
Minister Ryan concluded in positive vein by observing that there are two missing links – the old railway line from Athenry to Claremorris and a connection from Limerick City to Foynes – and connecting them all ‘makes economic sense’.
“Developing those two small links would give us a national rail freight service connected to two international deepwater ports. I would go to Europe with that proposal. I would take it to the EU’s climate action recovery fund and say that this proposal makes economic sense. This is a region with clean power, clean water, manufacturing expertise and two deep-sea ports that can be connected by rail freight. I do not see why it cannot work,” he said.
Hassard Stacpoole is a Programme Manager for Network Rail in the UK with more than 20 years experience in the rail and transport industry. He described the minister’s statement as ‘momentous’.
“It means the Minister has signalled his intention to end the years of the status quo and the ‘steady state’ policy in rail investment. Rail freight is the key in revitalising the underused rail link from Waterford to Limerick and from Foynes to Athenry, Claremorris and County Mayo,” he stated.
A spokesperson for West on Track, who have been leading the campaign to reopen the Western Rail Corridor, also welcomed this week’s developments.
“We are pleased with the strong cross party support for the reopening of the Western Rail Corridor and we particularly welcome the very positive commentary from the Minister which shows he is determined to provide infrastructure not just for one part of the country but for all of the country,” he stated.