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‘Strong business case’ for Western Rail Corridor


POTENTIAL An aerial picture of Ballina Railway Station. As Ireland’s only inland port, Dr John Bradley argues in his reports for the benefits of stations like Ballina having more direct access to southern ports through the Western Rail Corridor in a post Brexit Ireland.

Edwin McGreal

An extensive report published this week has found that there is a ‘strong business case’ for the reopening of the Western Rail Corridor (WRC) from Athenry to Claremorris.
The 210 page report by leading economist Dr John Bradley, on behalf of advocacy group West on Track, was written in the aftermath of a damning state sanctioned report on the Western Rail Corridor by consultancy firms EY and Mott McDonald.
The differences in the two reports are striking and Dr Bradley’s report takes issue with much of the data and assumptions used in the EY report.
Fundamentally, Dr Bradley’s report outlines a positive benefit/cost ratio for the railway and outlines significant chasms in capital and operational costs outlined by EY compared to his report, as well as many other divergences.
Dr Bradley emphasises that reopening Phases 2 (Athenry to Tuam) and 3 (Tuam to Claremorris) would provide a link between Westport, Castlebar, Ballina, Claremorris and Tuam to Athenry, Galway, Gort, Ennis and Limerick, with onward connections to the south and east. He adds ‘this would also reopen a direct route for rail freight traffic from Mayo to Waterford Port … and also to Foynes Port, when reopened’.
The costs of restoring the line from Athenry to Claremorris are significantly lower in Bradley’s report than in the EY report. The EY costs per kilometre came out at about 60 percent higher than the costs in Bradley’s report, something he called ‘a disturbing cause for concern’.
The overall capital costs arrived at by EY were €263.8 million. Dr Bradley’s report has the capital costs at over €100 million less, €153.78. The Bradley figure includes a 20 percent overrun contingency – the figure he arrived at was €128 million.

‘Rigorously researched’
Dr Bradley details how costs derived in his report were ‘rigorously researched’ and were prepared with advice from railway experts in Ireland and the UK. The costs of Phase 1 restoration linking Limerick/Ennis to Athenry/Galway were used as the template for the costs detailed by Bradley.
The costs were reviewed by UK-based Permanent Rail Engineering, who found the EY capital costs ‘would appear to be unreasonable’ given the same technical specification is required for Phases 2 and 3 (Athenry to Tuam and Tuam to Claremorris) as was required for Phase 1 (Limerick to Athenry).
Bradley’s report provides a Project Appraisal Balance Sheet (PABS) which summarises the monetised and non-monetised benefits of the project, which shows the WRC score 36 out of 42 possible points, ‘indicating that a strong business case exists to undertake the project’.
Not alone does Dr Bradley posit that there is a ‘very good business case’ for the restoration of the WRC link between Athenry and Claremorris, but that there is ‘almost certainly’ one for the eventual restoration of the line from Claremorris to Collooney/Sligo.
Two additional factors which Dr Bradley stresses are Brexit and the potential availability of EU funding. He states the ‘increased strategic focus on vulnerabilities in Ireland’s supply chain’ because of Brexit ‘require improved connectivity and direct access to the south-eastern and southern ports of Foynes, Cork and Waterford’ for freight.
He adds that Ireland’s application to have the Western Arc reinstated on the EU TEN-T Core Funding Network, linked with its demotion from a ‘Developed Region’ to a ‘Region in Transition’, makes the availing of such funding more realistic than ever.

Carbon challenges
Dr Bradley stresses that in the timeframe under scrutiny in the review (up to 2056), the world will ‘face a massive challenge to slow down and reverse climate change’ and that attempting to address CO2 emissions is likely to have a ‘significant impact’ in how we travel.
At length he charts how both greater use of passenger trains and freight trains will necessary and the role the Western Rail Corridor will play for passengers and businesses along the western seaboard in such a scenario.
Dr Bradley assesses the total demand for passengers utilising the WRC from Athenry to Claremorris by 2030 as 575,000 passengers per annum with a revenue total of €2,604,063.
He also floats the potential for rail tourism with the opening of Phases 2 and 3, in addition to his above calculations detailing that if even 5 percent of those tourists who visit Galway every year could be enabled to travel by train to destinations such as Westport and Ballina, it could add a potential 80,000 tourist journeys per annum.
Dr Bradley also breaks down noise benefits, local air quality benefits, greenhouse gas benefits, physical activity benefits and collision benefits, in substantial detail.
He explores how restoring the line will impact on public finances, stating it is ‘expected to have neutral to positive effect on the exchequer, with the greatest benefits accruing to local authorities’, another departure from the EY report.
In a detailed analysis of the impact the restoration of the railway can have on rail freight, Dr Bradley speaks of the potential of Ballina, Ireland’s only inland port.
He outlines how in a post-Brexit world, access to southern ports becomes more important than ever and how connections via the WRC can play a big part in this.
Dr Bradley goes on to say that in order to establish ‘the robustness’ of the West on Track cost benefit analysis, a series of sensitivity analyses were undertaken.
Phase 1, Limerick to Athenry, was completed in 2010 and while there were many doubts about its feasibility in advance and in its early years, the line carried more than 500,000 passengers in 2019.

The Western Rail Corridor is the name given to the railway line from Sligo to Limerick. The full line was completed in 1895 but was closed to passenger traffic in 1976. The Limerick to Athenry section was been fully restored in 2010. The railway line from Athenry to Sligo is still in place and in state ownership.