A review on expansion of the railway network across the island of Ireland has recommended widespread changes, including increasing top train speeds and reviving abandoned lines.
The All-Island Rail Review, published on Tuesday, recommended reinstating the Western Rail Corridor between Claremorris and Athenry and the South Wexford Railway.
It also recommended extending the railway into Co Tyrone – running from Portadown to Dungannon, Omagh, Strabane and Derry, on to Letterkenny in Co Donegal.
Transport Minister Eamon Ryan said the analysis of the line “shows that it does stack up, it makes real sense, they’re all significant towns, they would hugely benefit by being connected by rail”.
“So I’m hopeful, subject to agreement with the Northern Ireland administration, that that line can and will be built.”
It would also seek to reinstate the Antrim to Lisburn line with a station at Belfast International Airport.
The 25-year plan examines electrification of the rail network, for faster and more frequent trains as well as new routes for passengers and freight.
If all 30 recommendations were implemented in the coming years, it would cost an estimated €36.8 billion, with €27.6 billion to be provided by the Irish government.
The Department of Transport said this was an annual capital investment of a billion euro a year above existing plans, and “roughly equivalent” to peak annual investment in the motorway network in the late 2000s.
After bringing the report to Cabinet, Green Party leader Eamon Ryan told reporters: “It’s a new age of rail.
“This country, back in the 1920s, had probably the most dense rail network in the world. We’re going to add to what’s existing and bring back high-speed rail, frequent rail, rail freight, better balanced regional development.
“It’s not cheap, but at the same time, not doing it would be incredibly expensive. Our country would be gridlocked, our emissions would be rising – this gives us a better alternative, a transport system that works for everyone.”
The review also recommended developing the railway to boost connectivity in the North Midlands, from Mullingar to Cavan, Monaghan, Armagh and Portadown.
Short-term recommendations include hourly services between major cities across the island and one train every two hours between other centres.
Although upgrading railways to major cities was recommended to ensure that “train journeys are faster than the car”, the review found that benefits of a 300kph network would be “significantly outweighed” by the cost.
Two tracks or four tracks should also be implemented in some areas, and rail freight access at Dublin Port should also be developed, it said.
Mr Ryan, speaking to reporters after Cabinet approved the publication of the report, said he had a meeting on Monday with Irish Rail which is “confident” it can revive the Foynes line “the year after next”.
“A lot of what this is doing is using the existing assets that are not being used.
“That section for Wexford to Watford, we’ve maintained that line for the last 10 years when it wasn’t being used, and the line from Watford to Limerick Junction, it’s there in name, but not really in reality.
“Well, let’s use that service, let’s use that line. By reintroducing that we connect to the port, we go to every single business along that line and say, ‘Do you want your goods transported out of the country in a low-carbon, sustainable way?’ And I’m absolutely convinced the answer to that will be yes.”
The review was launched by Mr Ryan and Northern Ireland’s then minister for infrastructure Nichola Mallon in April 2021.
Mr Ryan said a Northern Ireland Executive would be needed to agree the full document, as some of the “big spending elements” are in that region.
A strategic environmental assessment is out for consultation and expected to be finalised next year, and rail freight analysis will be needed for Dublin Port, Rosslare and Limerick Junction.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday morning, Mr Ryan said a new “Atlantic rail corridor” would bring low-carbon transport for businesses.
The Green Party leader said: “Early parts of the last century, we probably had the best rail network in the world. We’ve let it lapse.
“We’ve lost lines, we’ve given up on rail freight. We don’t have connection to the north west. And what the report says is, we bring back rail. We bring back rail as a way of getting better balanced regional development.”
Mr Ryan said rail freight could be running “within the next year or two” and the Waterford-Rosslare and Claremorris-Athenry lines could reopen by the end of the decade, adding that they are “the missing pieces in the jigsaw”.
By Cillian Sherlock and Gráinne Ní Aodha, PA
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