Western Railway Corridor
The Western Railway Corridor (WRC; Irish: Conair Iarnróid an Iarthair (CII)) is a recent term for a partly disused railway line running through the west of Ireland. Currently two sections of the line, from Limerick via Ennis to Athenry and from Collooney to Sligo, see regular services, with other sections either closed or only technically classed as open.
West on Track
West on Track was established in 2003 with the aim of reopening the western rail corridor line, for the use of passenger and freight traffic. Its aim was to preserve the infrastructure already in place and to seek funding for the reopening of the railway line. People involved in West on Track include the sociologist Fr. Micheál MacGréil SJ.
Expert Working Group
In 2005 an Expert Working Group reported on the prospects for reopening all or part of the corridor. In September 2006 the preservation and reclamation from encroachment of the northern section began and the Government then announced funding to begin Phase 1 (Ennis-Athenry) of the re-opening of the corridor. The reopening of these sections was included in the Transport 21 infrastructural plan, and the National Development Plan 2007–2013 "Transforming Ireland – A Better Quality of Life for All". Transport 21 was the plan name given to long term public transport planning by the Irish government which fell from office in 2011. The plan was dropped by the new Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar in 2011 and is no longer the blueprint for transport planning in Ireland.
Route and services
The Western Rail Corridor encompasses a series of railways built by various companies throughout the late 19th century, forming a south-north line from Limerick to Sligo. Towns along the WRC include Ennis, Gort, Athenry, Tuam and Claremorris. The route crosses the Dublin–Galway line at Athenry, the Dublin–Westport/Ballina line at Claremorris and joins the Dublin–Sligo line at Collooney. The route largely parallels the corridor served by the N17 and N18 roads.
Passenger services between Claremorris and Collooney ended in 1963, with the section being closed completely in 1975 (the track was left in situ but severed at Collooney). Passenger services between Limerick and Claremorris ceased in 1976, though freight services continued for some time afterwards.
In 1988, a new passenger service started between Limerick and Ennis operating on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This was expanded to Fridays and Saturdays in February 1993 and a six-day service in May 1994. In December 2003, a new seven train a day service started between Limerick and Ennis (connecting or continuing to/from Dublin or Limerick Junction). This has since been upgraded to up to 9 trains per day.
Rail Freight Services
Freight services ran regularly on the Limerick to Claremorris section until the mid-1990s. However, with the closure of the Asahi factory near Ballina, regular freight services north of Athenry ceased in 1997. Fertiliser trains from Foynes continued to use the line as far as Athenry until 2000 and bulk cement trains from the Irish Cements Ltd Castlemungret factory near Limerick until 2001, when the line ceased to have any regular traffic. The line from Claremorris to Athenry now carries no services and is classified by Irish Rail as "engineering sidings". Work on clearing the line was undertaken by Iarnród Éireann from November 2015 onwards. Works included reinstating fencing and removal of vegetation.
Debate on the need for the Corridor
The reopening of the Western Rail Corridor has raised debate in Ireland, with opinion divided on the benefits of the scheme.
Arguments in favour of reopening the corridor:
Arguments in favour are generally advocating a balanced development of the regions vis à vis Dublin and the importance of infrastructure in so doing. The lobby group WestOnTrack is leading the campaign to reopen the corridor.
- The Western Rail Corridor has been supported by all the main political parties and by the local and regional authorities of the counties through which it passes.
- The case for its reopening has been articulated in an op-ed in the Irish Times, in the Sunday Independent, by the Irish Hotels Federation, in the Irish Independent, in the Western People, and in the findings of a TG4 opinion poll.
- Environmental benefits from reduced car usage including lower air pollution and smaller carbon footprint
Arguments against reopening the Corridor:
Arguments against the reopening are based on the cost of the restoration work and the annual subsidy required post capital expenditure, and some advocate using trackbed as a cycle path or Greenway instead.
- Questions have been raised about its viability in an editorial in the Irish Times, by an article in the Irish Independent, by the lobby group, Platform 11, and by the Strategic Rail Review, 2003.
- In 2009, the Bord Snip Nua report recommended cancelling future sections of the project and closing the Ballina-Manulla rail line
- Critics say that southern sections of the scheme are more viable than those closer to Sligo. The idea of a greenway on any parts of the route, which may become surplus if a railway order process was undertaken, was suggested by Minister Eamon O'Cuiv at a West on Track conference in May 2009 in response to lobbying for this idea from Enniscrone resident Brendan Quinn and his colleague John Mulligan.
The presumed social benefits of restoring this rail service have been presented as an argument in favour of the project. The argument is that even if the line is not profitable, it will provide a vital social service for a poorly served region of the country.
Project opponents argue that social benefits will be gained only if the service is popular and reiterate predictions of low passenger numbers and that the funding would be better used in other projects that would benefit more people. Some also argue with the assumption that the West is receiving less than its fair share of government capital spending.
Report on transport budget underspend in the West of Ireland
A mid-term evaluation of the Irish government's National Development Plan by the consultants INDECON, is cited by some parties as a reason to build the Western Rail Corridor.,
The report stated that only half the forecast NDP transport investment in the BMW region for the period 2000–2006 was spent or committed to be spent by 2002, a shortfall of €364 million. As Transport projects have long lead times this report indicated that the relative shortfall in transport expenditure would be maintained over the course of the planning period to 2006.
Reliability of the McCann Expert Working Group report
Lobbyists for the project point to the recommendations of this report commissioned by the minister for transport as evidence that the project is justified. The report stated that if the case for Mayo rail freight could be proven, it would add to the case for rebuilding Athenry-Claremorris as one section. It is accepted that Ireland is generally too small for rail freight.
Frank McDonald, in an article in the Irish Times based on information released under the Freedom of Information Act, indicated that the report was rewritten to exclude any negative assessment of the viability of the project including a forecast that it would 'attract only 750 passengers per day and could require an annual subvention of up to €10 million'. Passenger numbers for the first section of the line between Ennis-Limerick were reported at a mere 600 a day in March 2008.
A cost-benefit analysis report prepared by Goodbody Economic Consultants for the Department of Transport in 2006 stated that passenger numbers on the soon to be opened Ennis-Athenry section of the WRC would be in the order of 200,000, requiring an annual subvention of €2.4m, with a negative Net Present Value of -€137m. The report concluded that even a doubling of patronage would not make the project viable on cost-benefit grounds, while the regional development benefits from the re-opening were viewed as 'unlikely to be significant'
The effect of freight
Opponents argue that rail freight volumes in the country have dropped near to zero in recent years and that indirect freight routes already exist from most large towns in the region. As of September 2015 nine trains serve this freight route in each direction each week.
Predicted results of the project
Supporters predict environmental and economic benefits will flow from increased tourism and industry following the line's successful restoration.
Opponents predict that, following a failure of the line to attract significant passenger numbers, future rail projects will have difficulty gaining funding in Ireland.
Infrastructure before development
Advocates of the project argue that key transport infrastructure should be built prior to development and may actually encourage development to take place. Land use and settlement strategies are in place in all of the counties along the route of the WRC as a result of direct initiatives by the County Development Boards and County Councils concerned. In addition the WRC is specified as a key infrastructural objective in the County Development Plans of Clare, Galway, Mayo and Sligo as well as the Regional Planning Guidelines of the West Regional Authority .
Project opponents, however, argue that the local councils are not following land use policies that would create centres of population density around the railway stations along this route, but instead are continuing to permit isolated rural housing.
Timeline for the reopening of the corridor
Expert Working Group Report
An Expert Working Group, headed by Pat McCann, CEO of Jurys Doyle Hotels, reported to the Minister for Transport regarding the prospects for reopening some or all of the route. The group was set up by Minister Séamus Brennan at the urging of West-on-Track in June 2004 and delivered its report to Minister Martin Cullen in May 2005.
Phase 1: Ennis to Athenry
58 km / 36 miles (€74.7 million)
Phase 2: Athenry to Tuam
25 km / 15.5 miles (€34.7 million)
Phase 3: Tuam to Claremorris
(subject to study of rail freight demand or in conjunction with phase 2)
27 km / 17 miles (€58.9 million)
Phase 4: Collooney to Claremorris
(subject to further feasibility studies and possibly justifiable on the grounds of balanced regional development)
74.43 km / 46.25 miles (€197.4 million)
On 1 November 2005 the Transport 21 plan was launched committing government expenditure of €34 billion between 2006 and 2015 on road, rail and light rail projects. The Western Railway Corridor commitments under this plan were largely those recommended by the McCann Report:
- 2009 – Opening of Ennis-Athenry section
- 2011 – Opening of Athenry-Tuam section
- 2014 – Opening of Tuam-Claremorris section
Former Minister for Transport Martin Cullen also announced the undertaking of a feasibility study into a rail link for Shannon International Airport in his speech at the launch. This study, undertaken by MVA Consultants, estimated the proposed link would cost €700m, while an Irish Rail manager stated that 'the costs of the construction of the rail link are out of proportion to the benefits to be gained'.
Transport 21 also stated the section of line from Claremorris to Collooney, the northern section known as Section Four in the McCann Report should be subject to protection of the alignment.
Transport 21 was shelved by the current Irish Government in May 2011. There are no plans to re-open any more sections of the Western Rail Corridor. Former Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar TD is on record as saying the Government has no plans to re-open any further sections of the Western Rail corridor.
TEN-T Transport policy
In November 2013 the European Parliament approved European TEN-T Transport policy. In the most radical overhaul of EU infrastructure policy since its inception in the 1980s, the European Parliament on 19 November 2013 gave final approval to new maps showing the nine major corridors which will act as a backbone for transportation in Europe's single market and revolutionise East–West connections. To match this level of ambition, Parliament also voted to triple EU financing for transport infrastructure.
On the island of Ireland, the only rail route corridor that is included in the TEN-T Core network is the route Cork-Dublin-Belfast. The Limerick-Athenry section of the Western Rail Corridor is included in the TEN-T Comprehensive network. The closed railway line north of Athenry is not included in the maps for future railway projects listed in TEN-T.
Progress of works
Following preliminary works in late 2005 and early 2006, official clearance work on the northern section of the line (Claremorris to Collooney) began on 18 September 2006. Renewal of track commenced in 2007 on the line between Ennis and Athenry and was completed in 2009. After a gap of more than thirty years, train services between the cities of Galway and Limerick commenced on Tuesday the 30 March 2010, on budget at a cost of €106.5m. The service provides five trains per day between Galway and Limerick. It serves existing stations at Limerick, Ennis, Athenry and Galway, as well as new stations at Sixmilebridge, Gort, Ardrahan and Craughwell. The Limerick to Galway service also feeds into expanded intercity services between Limerick and Dublin and between Galway and Dublin. Irish Rail planned for both routes to gain hourly services at peak and two hourly off-peak, however recession has resulted in delay, with some services withdrawn.
The middle section of the western rail corridor, Athenry – Claremorris, has been programmed but not funded under Transport 21 while the Colooney – Claremorris northern section has not been programmed or funded bar some line clearance work in 2006. Transport 21 is no longer Irish government policy.
In comments by Irish Prime Minister (An Taoiseach) Enda Kenny on 22 December 2014 on Midwest radio said the Western Rail corridor was "not going to happen in the foreseeable future" and said "this is not going to happen" when asked about the Western Rail Corridor.
Following those remarks, in January 2015 the Taoiseach Enda Kenny at a press briefing in Lough Lannagh in Castlebar told local media in Mayo that he still sees the potential for developing freight services on the line stating, "I still see potential [on the Western Rail Corridor] from a freight point of view."
On 8 July 2013, The Irish Examiner reported that patronage on the Ennis to Athenry sector had fallen to 34,200 in 2012 from the 34,461 reported in 2011. and that passengers on that sector in the first 5 months of 2013 were 11,900. However, The Irish Examiner noted that total passengers on the line from Limerick to Galway had grown in 2012 from 224,000 to 235,000.
Nearly 4 years after the opening of the route online booking was finally introduced in December 2013.
On 6 January 2015 Iarnród Éireann reported that following the introduction of online booking and new adult fares, passenger numbers on the Galway-Limerick railway (Western Rail Corridor) for 2014 were in excess of 220,000, including a 72.5 per cent increase in passenger journeys through the Ennis- Athenry section of the line, the largest annual growth on the rail network. The service was also being promoted through free car parking at Gort, Ardrahan and Craughwell; promotion of Taxsaver tickets, giving commuters full tax relief on the cost of monthly and annual season tickets purchased through employers and group travel promotions, including schools.
The line has seen massive growth as reported in the Irish Times: "Of particular note was the growth in passenger numbers on the western rail corridor, which saw a 72.5 per cent increase from 29,000 to 50,000 journeys through the Ennis- Athenry section of the line."
Collooney Claremorris section as a Greenway
This idea has been advocated by the campaign group Sligo-Mayo Greenway, who argue that the funding for a Greenway on this section would be minimal in infrastructural terms and would not hinder the eventual reinstatement of the Railway should the funding for that ever become available, unlike the closure of the Foyle Valley Railway by Derry City Council after the parallel installation of a cycleway. The campaign for the Greenway on this section of the track, point to the success of the recently opened Great Western Greenway.
In August 2011 this proposal was ruled out by the Western Regional Authority but the proposal continues to be discussed. During 2013 the idea twice failed to get a seconder at Galway and Mayo Co. Councils and was also defeated (16-3) at Roscommon Co Council. The Co Managers’ reports in respect of the new Co Development Plans for both Galway and Mayo pointed to the strategic importance of protecting the railway infrastructure and to having proposed walking and cycling routes located elsewhere.
In July 2014 Sligo county council passed a motion put to the council chamber by Cllr Dara Mulvey that Sligo county council should seek funding for a feasibility study for a greenway on the route within County Sligo from Collooney to Bellaghy on the County Sligo/Mayo border, this matter is now being investigated. The motion was passed without a vote by Sligo county council and is now county council policy supported by the elected members. Sligo county council is the first of the three county councils, Sligo, Mayo and Galway that have given majority support to the greenway campaign.
In February 2015 a new campaign group the Sligo greenway co-op was formed as a shareholding co-op - with shares issued at €1 each and shares sold in blocks of ten. As of July 2015 the Sligo Greenway Co-op had 280 shareholders in county sligo and has the full support two Sligo TDs (members of Irish Parliament), Mr Tony McLoughlin TD and Mr. John Perry TD.
However, a major study by the NWRA (Northern and Western Regional Assembly) of future recreational developments in the area of outdoor pursuits in Counties Galway, Mayo and Roscommon has rejected the idea that the Western Rail Corridor be turned into a walking or cycling route. The “http://nwra.ie/the-study-of-outdoor-recreation-in-the-west/ (2014)” stated: “The Regional Planning Guidelines (RPGs) for the West Region 2010-2022 seek the full reinstatement of the Western Rail Corridor as a long-term strategic sustainable transport route. Greenways are not mentioned in the RPGs, though the development of suitable long-distance walking and cycling routes (subject to environmental assessment) are supported. It is not the purpose of the Regional Planning Guidelines to see such routes provided at the expense of long-term strategic infrastructure so it is critical that the goals are not hampered even in the short term particularly when other more suitable greenway options could be explored taking account of environmental, social and economic considerations.”
Supporters of the greenway claim that use of a greenway will protect the trackbed from adverse possession claims and will not preclude reinstatement of the disused sections of line as a working railway in the future. However, the recent case of the Comber railway in Belfast shows that once a rail line is converted into a walking or cycling path it is practically impossible to get it back. In the Republic of Ireland however, Irish Rail the state owned monopoly that owns and manages the railway infrastructure has stated in the feasibility study for the Navan/Kingscourt closed railway that they are happy enough for the closed railway to become a greenway on the strict provision that if the route is required for rail use in the future then it will revert to rail use.
Sligo to Derry
The last phase of the Western Rail Corridor is the suggested construction of a railway connecting Sligo, Ballyshannon, Bundoran, Donegal, Letterkenny, Strabane and Derry where it will connect with the Belfast-Derry railway line. This proposal however is not included in the TEN-T European Transport policy However, a study on future rail lines commissioned by Irish Rail by consultants AECOM in 2011 found that an extension of the Belfast-Derry railway line to Letterkenny was one point away from being regarded as a viable prospect.
- Iarnród Éireann
- Rail transport in Ireland
- History of rail transport in Ireland
- Platform 11
- Wild Atlantic Way
- Image of Disconnected Athenry - Tuam line in Athenry, image acquired by Bing May 2012
- Image of Disconnected Claremorris - Collooney line in Claremorris, image acquired by Bing May 2012
- Image of Disconnected Claremorris - Athenry line in Claremorris, image acquired by Bing May 2012
- Image of Disconnected Claremorris - Collooney line in Claremorris, image acquired by Bing May 2012
- Restored Western Rail Corridor will reinvigorate west Irish Times, 21 May 2005
- Let's put the west back on track Irish Times, 12 June 2006
- Decentralisation, the WRC and Regional Development Irish Times 19 June 2006
- 'Lack of road and rail links' killing tourism in west Sunday Independent, 14 August 2005
- Plans for Increased Regional Access Vital for Tourism Spread throughout Ireland IHF Galway branch press release, 13 Feb 2006
- Gridlock in Galway City Irish Independent (Letters), 14 August 2006
- Students call for Western Rail Corridor to re-open Western People, 6 Sep 2006
- Opinion Poll Findings show Significant Passenger Demand for Western Rail Corridor MRBI/TG4 Press Release, 31 October 2006
- Editorial in the Irish Times 9 June 2006 (subscription required)
- 'Ladybird' WRC report a one-track journey into madness Irish Independent, 16 May 2005
- Platform 11's Position on the Western Rail Corridor
- An Bord Snip Nua Report 2009
- The Merits of a Cycleway Not A Railway Western People Letters Quoting Minister O Cuiv speech , 20 May 2009
- Government Ignored Doubts over Western Rail Corridor
- "RTÉ Report On Closure of Ennis Limerick Railway Line March 2008". RTÉ News. 12 March 2008. Retrieved 13 July 2009.
- "Transparency essential for PPPs". Retrieved 24 May 2006.
- "Goodbody Economic Consultants: Audit of the Business Case for the Reintroduction of Passenger Rail Services between Ennis and Athenry" (PDF). Retrieved 14 May 2009.
- "Trinity College Student Economic Review 2006: An Economic Analysis of the Western Rail Corridor". (PDF)
- Iannrod Eireann Freight Services September 2015
- McCann, Pat. "Report to the Minister for Transport from the Chairman of the Expert Working Group on the Western Rail Corridor" (PDF). Retrieved 24 May 2006.
- "Limerick Rail Link to Airport ruled out in Study". The Irish Times. 10 October 2007.
- Irish Times Iarnród Éireann passenger numbers up by 1 million
- Cross-party consensus rules out greenway for western rail corridor
- "Home". Sligo Mayo Greenway – A new opportunity for the West of Ireland. Retrieved 10 August 2011.
- Study of Outdoor Recreation in the West
- Johnson, S. (1997). Johnson's Atlas & Gazetteer of the Railways of Ireland, Midland Publishing Ltd. ISBN 1-85780-044-3.
- Current timetables http://www.irishrail.ie/media/02-DublinLimerickEnnis2807131.pdf from Iarnród Éireann website
- Report to the Minister for Transport from the Chairman of the Expert Working Group on the Western Rail Corridor (WRC), May 2005 from The Department of Transport