March 30, 2009

The express train which has lost its momentum

For the past 10 years I have been travelling on the Dublin-Belfast Enterprise express up to four times every week. It is with genuine relief at the end of a hard week of cross-border cooperation that I collapse onto the homebound train from Newry to Dublin with a cup of tea or a can of stout and The Irish Times.

It’s not a bad service – it’s certainly a far cry from the dreadful days of the early nineties when bombs and bomb scares, usually in South Armagh, used to lead to extended bus trips around the back roads of the Carlingford peninsular that could add two or three hours to the journey.

But it’s not a good service either, certainly not for a train that is supposed to provide a high-speed link between the island’s two major cities. Most Enterprise trains take 125 or 130 minutes to do the 113 mile journey, with four stops. Earlier this month I experienced the real pleasure of travelling on the new train from Malaga to Seville: it takes just 115 minutes to make this 160 mile journey (with three stops) linking two cities which are smaller than Belfast and Dublin. And this is just a regional train: it doesn’t travel at anywhere near the 220 miles per hour that the major inter-city AVE expresses between Madrid and Seville and Madrid and Barcelona reach.

Improvements in the Enterprise in the past decade or so should also be put into historical context. I stand to be corrected on this, but a railway history enthusiast told me recently that Belfast-Dublin on the fastest non-stop Enterprise today takes just five minutes less than it did 61 years ago in the age of steam (and just a year after the service was first introduced)!

We in Ireland have benefitted from the resurgence in rail travel everywhere in Europe. The new Dublin-Cork train, with its average speed of 58 miles per hour (it is 49 mph on the Belfast line, largely due to speed restrictions north of the border), its comfortable compartments and computerised seat booking system, is a great improvement on what went before. The introduction of new trains on the Sligo and Waterford lines, where services had been almost ‘third world’ in their shabbiness and unreliability, saw traffic increase by 15% and 11% respectively in 2005-2006. In the North smart new Spanish (again!) railcars have made rail travel attractive for the first time for many decades, with the result that passenger journeys increased by 12% in 2008.

But the Enterprise, refurbished with new rails and rolling stock back in the mid-nineties, has once again stood still and even gone backwards. The once smart French carriages are looking increasingly shabby; the American engines have always been temperamental. Annual passenger numbers, which reached more than a million in 2003 and 2004, have now dipped to under 800,000.

Meanwhile the time it takes to drive from Dublin to Belfast has been getting shorter as the road improves. When the new Newry outer ring road finally joins the new stretch of dual carriageway south of Banbridge, there will be a modern highway all the way from Dublin Port Tunnel to Belfast’s Westlink, and – traffic permitting – car journeys of well under two hours will become possible. As University of Ulster economist Dr Michael Smyth says: “If it takes less time to drive between the island’s two cities than to go by train, there is something radically wrong”.

This was also a point made by the IBEC-CBI Joint Business Council in a submission to the North/South Ministerial Council in November 2007. IBEC and CBI worried that with car journeys along the MI corridor, which runs parallel to the rail line, rising by 85% in the 10 years up to 2006 (and this was long before the avalanche of Southern shoppers descended on Newry, Lisburn and Belfast), the number of cross-border trips was growing strongly but the railway’s share of them was being eroded.

The Joint Business Council also expressed concern about the Enterprise’s reliability, pointing to long delays of up to and sometimes more than an hour. “Unless these problems are addressed quickly, the service will lose the confidence of users.”

At a time when railways in other European countries are increasingly seen as a competitive and environmentally sustainable form of passenger transport, this decline in the island’s premier rail service simply does not make sense. But with the onset of the recession it is not going to change any time soon. A 2008 submission by the North’s transport company Translink estimated that a new hourly service, with a new track alignment to facilitate 140 mph trains to reduce the journey time to 75 minutes, would cost £1.5 billion. A more modest hourly service to bring the journey time down to 100 minutes would cost a mere £200 million. However in the present economic climate not even this is going to happen. It looks as though the limit of any foreseeable modernisation will be the refurbishment of a few carriages and ‘business as usual.’

Andy Pollak