Great Victroria Street Station.
© John Yellowlees, 2011
Northern Ireland Railways operate a 300-km passenger-only rail network that is completely integrated with bus operations under the ownership of Translink, the Northern Ireland transport holding company. Fleet sizes are:
- 43 3-car CAF diesel multiple-units
- 2 locohauled Enterprise train-sets
- 173 Goldline coaches for interurban operations
- 33 tour coaches
- 923 service buses for local routes
- 286 Metro buses for use on Belfast city services
Annual ridership is:
- 11.5M rail (up from 6M in 2001/2)
- 26M Belfast buses
- 41M Ulsterbus (half schoolchildren)
All are publicly-owned, a legacy of the Troubles. In 1996 rail and bus management were merged under Translink, which has a Group Chief Executive to whom report a Chief Operating Officer, Director of Finance, Commercial Director and Director of Human Resources and Design Development. The Chief Operating Officer has General Managers Bus and Rail, an Infrastructure Executive and a Head of Corporate Safety. There is no competition between or within modes, and everyone works together to provide the best possible service for the people of Northern Ireland.
Classic survivor: a somersault signal on the Derry line.
© John Yellowlees, 2011
Translink inherited a rail network of low basic wages and a carry-on-regardless culture of risk-taking that stemmed from the impact of the Troubles on the network and on its fleet of 19 elderly Class 80 and 9 Class 450 diesel multiple-units. Initial concerns included the ongoing condition of these trains, the ultrasonic testing process, the condition of track and structures and also the safety of user-worked level crossings.
Developments at that time had included Belfast's new Dargan Viaduct that was a bi-product of a road investment cutting through the old Queen's Quay depot, the revived station at Belfast Great Victoria Street and the upgrading with Iarnrod Eireann of the Belfast-Dublin Enterprise service.
Evidence as to the absence of any strategic plan included the partial single-tracking of the cross-city route across the new Viaduct, and during April 1998 there were two collisions and a broken axle in passenger service that led to the commissioning of AD Little and Halcrow Transmark to carry out a strategic safety review which found that with a few exceptions safety levels were not unreasonable but focused attention on issues of safety management and culture, operations, permanent way, structures, signals & telecommunications, level crossings and fleet engineering. A Railway Task Force then constructed four options, for modest enhancement, straight implementation of AD Little, truncation to Greater Belfast or mothballing all but the Dublin line, and out of the resultant Save Our Railways campaign there emerged a strategy to retain the whole network while investing mainly in the core routes, with reduced investment in the lesser-used lines beyond Ballymena and Whitehead.
A contract signed after a competitive tendering process with CAF in February 2002 for new trains to replace the Class 80s led to delivery of the first of 23 Class 3000 three-car units in April 2004 with associated investment in new maintenance facilities and equipment at the Fort William traincare centre, infrastructure changes and training including a simulator, helping staff development which has probably been more successful with rail than with bus. A vision statement to be the best railway in the UK and Ireland was fulfilled by recognition in the shape of a clutch of awards, and a development framework emerged to address such errors as the 2001/2 Bleach Green-Antrim reopening as single track which for higher line-speed had laid the new metals down the middle of the former double-track formation and will have to be relaid in the next ten years as double track.
Class 3000 at Portrush
© John Yellowlees, 2011
A base plan which was now required to replace the Class 450s that, though modern in appearance, had wiring dating from the 1970s had to be compatible with the Government's transport strategy and other plans, and received ministerial approval in November 2007, with the contract awarded again to CAF in March 2009 and the first unit delivered exactly two years later.
It had been hoped that this second batch might be aluminium-bodied, but rising prices led to a decision to stay with steel: among the 130 lessons learned from the first batch were a new traction package, an updated train management system including eco-driving, more accommodation for cycles and greater multi-user space.
With this greater scope for carrying buggies, the 20 new Class 4000 units that entered service in the year to November 2011 have been concentrated on inner-suburban duties, and are maintained at a new depot constructed on the former freight yard at Adelaide.
Bangor combined rail and bus station as stylishly rebuilt in 2001
© John Yellowlees, 2011
Cancellation of the Derry line renewal in 2011 in favour of service-reduction proved short-lived when the minister was persuaded to find the money, and now Coleraine-Castlerock and Eglinton-Derry are being relaid with refettling of the stretch in between. The line is due to reopen on 24 March 2013, and subsequent resignalling with a new passing loop will provide for an hourly service with a minimum Belfast-Derry journey-time of 2 hours 10 minutes.
Antrim is being rebuilt as an eco-station, and renewal of Portadown will ensure compliance with the Disability Discrimination Act. Sustainable service-development seeks 20M passengers by 2020, with corporate planning having a 3-4-year horizon, business planning looking ahead 10 and strategic planning 25 years.
Government objectives of a sustainable economy, health and well-being, protection of people and the environment, a strong and shared community are consistent with rail development, and objectives now in sight include creating a public transport hub with more platforms and a new bus station on the site of old warehousing at Belfast Great Victoria Street, converting all 20 Class 4000s to 6 cars (longer trains being the only option since the network won't support greater frequency), migrating the Belfast-Dublin route from the present two-and-a-quarter hour diesel service to an electrified one competitive with road journey-times, more park-and-ride, installation of GSM-R communications, dualling in 2016/7 Antrim-Ballymena and the Dargan Viaduct and reopening in 2020/1 the mothballed Lisburn-Antrim line (maybe with a branch to Belfast International Airport, but a station on the Bangor line for Belfast City Airport would be much more do-able and attractive).
Further openings of abandoned lines to Armagh, Enniskillen and Donegal are not affordable today, but could become so by 2035 with changes in the energy outlook towards greater use of renewals. Now the Department for Regional Development has launched a Consultation Paper on Future Rail Investment which invites comment by 13 April. Orders of cost for the various options are £620M to maintain the current network, £600M for longer trains, £260M to increase network capacity for more trains, £460M to electrify the Enterprise service, £350M to roll out network electrification, £50M for ports and airports links, £1000M to extend to the west and £1000M to extend to Donegal.
Report and photographs by John Yellowlees. Note: Photographs taken in May 2011.
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