Western Rail Corridors in Ireland and Wales

Having just posted about reinstating disused rail routes in Wales, I thought I'd check out what was happening on the west coast of Ireland, where there have been plans to reopen the route between Limerick and Sligo—the Western Rail Corridor—for some years. In 2005 it was included as part of a comprehensive €34bn transport infrastructure programme called Transport 21.

Serendipity was smiling. I found that the first part of the route has just been completed, and that the first direct service from Limerick to Galway ran just before Easter. The article in the Irish Times is here and this is the news item from TV3 on 29 March:


And I also found this 25 minute video of a programme from March last year called EcoEye, which should give some idea of the overall scope of the project, and even how it might be extended:


But for those who'd prefer to read about it, there's a Wiki article about the WRC here and a lot more information on the West on Track website here.


First, I don't think anybody could fail to be struck by the similarities between western Ireland and the western half of Wales. In the not too past Ireland, like Wales, had railways that ran north-south, but these were abandoned several decades ago, so now there is a rail network that radiates from Dublin in the same way as the British network radiates from London, leaving relatively good east-west links by rail, but nothing running in a north-south direction.

The second thing to note is that re-instating this railway will bring significant benefits to the area – both in terms of expanding the economy and in terms of environmental benefits to a predominantly rural area. That same argument must surely hold true for the western half of Wales as it does for western Ireland.

The third thing I would note is that the cost of reinstating the rail link has been extraordinarily low. The sections of rail from Limerick to Ennis and Galway to Athenry already exist, so this first stage involved reinstating 58km (36 miles) of track at a cost of €106.5m (£93m) including four new stations and associated works:

•  renewal of 36 miles of track, including all necessary fencing and drainage and installation of points and crossings at Gort and Ennis

•  a 90m platform with furniture, signage, shelter, Automatic Ticket Vending Machine, lighting, car park, PA, Customer Information Systems, help point and CCTV provision at Sixmilebridge, Gort, Ardrahan and Craughwell. These stations will also be accessible to the mobility impaired

•  At Ennis and Athenry stations, PA, Customer Information Systems, help point and CCTV has been provided

•  Repair and improvement work has been undertaken on bridges on the route to allow rail services to operate:
- modernised signalling systems
- improvement to level crossings, and elimination where practicable


That works out at £1.6m per km or £2.6m per mile. To put that into perspective, the same sum of money wouldn't build more than three or four miles of motorway ... probably even less. The thankfully aborted M4 relief motorway would have cost £1bn, which worked out at £45m per km or £70m per mile.


Yet there are some things about what has been done in Ireland that cause me concern. First is the low speeds. It takes two hours to make the journey between Limerick and Galway but, on a clear road, the car journey would take 90 minutes. Although the track was already there, most of it had to be taken up and relaid, I would have thought that would be an opportunity to iron out some of the slower sections. But Irish railways are not particularly fast anyway, the train from Dublin to Galway takes about 2hr40m to cover 208km. That's only about 80km/h or 50mph. When we reinstate our railways, we should spend more to get a higher standard of track capable of supporting faster speeds.

There are some very wide variations in predicted passenger numbers. The video reports pointed to about 300,000 a year, but this report in the Irish Independent put the figure at only a third of that, meaning that the service would run at a €2.4m a year loss. As the service has only been running for a week, it's much too early to tell. However one encouraging sign is that Iarnród Éireann have upgraded the train from a two car to a four car unit, as reported here. As I mentioned in this post, other rail reinstatements have attracted many more passengers than were originally predicted.


My main reason for reporting this is to give us in Wales an idea of not only what can, but what is being achieved in a country that is very similar to our own. To look forward to the day when our own Minister of Transport can ride on the first train in fifty years to link Porthmadog to Blaenau Ffestiniog or Bangor, or Carmarthen to Aberystwyth.

In total, the WRC in Ireland is or 185km (115 miles) in length. The length of track it would be necessary to reinstate for us to get a west coast main line is 89km (56 miles) between Carmarthen and Aberystwyth, plus either 40km (25 miles) between the Cambrian Coast line and Pont Britannia or 18km (11 miles) between it and Blaenau Ffestiniog, although part of the second would be new rather than reinstated. So it's a smaller project, but just as important for just the same reasons.


Even though it is election time, I don't want to be overly political about this since the project in Ireland had support from across the political spectrum, although the more right wing Fine Gael seem to be lukewarm about future phases now. I would like to think that all parties in Wales could unite around a reinstated west coast main line for Wales ... but at the moment it seems that it isn't even on the radar of the other parties.

So much of this election seems to be about two parties making a big deal over what are really just minor variations on the same overall policies. On transport, for example, both the Tories and Labour are going to spend £16bn on a high speed line to Birmingham and more on extending it to Manchester and Leeds. The only difference between them is the exact route. If that sort of money can be spent by a UK government entirely in England, who else but Plaid is going to fight for our share of transport investment in Wales? Who else but Plaid has the vision to plan for it? We pay our taxes too, and our fair share of £16bn is 5% or £800m. A west coast main line for Wales would cost much, much less than that.

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Anonymous said...

Is this in Plaid's manifesto?

Unknown said...

I would remind you that there is already a rail link between Port and Blaenau Ffestiniog.

MH said...

I don't know what will be in Plaid's manifesto for this election, Anon. But I can say that Plaid's position has evolved and become more positive towards it over the past few years. There was no mention of restoring rail links in 2005. In 2007 we said,

"We are committed to reopening a limited number of railway lines and to dual track single lines."

In 2009 this had become,

"We will campaign for European funding to go towards building a modern public transport system for Wales, with cheaper and faster rail links between the south and the north, mid and west ... "

At the 2009 conference we passed a motion calling for,

"the Government of Wales to designate a route for a high speed direct rail link between the north and south of our country, since the need for a high speed rail link within Wales is an important a priority as a north-south road link."

and for

"the Governments of the UK and Wales to commission preparatory work to enable the realization of these [there were several] proposals, to identify the levels of investment required and the timescales for implementation."

We can never be sure whether something will make it from conference to manifesto, but I expect it to be there in some form.

What I would like to do is aim to build consensus around what that north-south route should be, and how it forms part of a comprehensive rail network.

MH said...

Sion, I think I do remember hearing a little something about that ;-)

... but there are railways and railways!

Anonymous said...

How about the line between Builth Road and Old Moat?

There would be pretty significant engineering challenges including how to put the line through/past Llanidloes and replacing bridges and tunnels.

However if it were coupled with a westbound branch at Old Moat (to Aberystwyth, Pwllheli and possibly Blaenau/Llandudno via your proposed Conwy Valley link), double tracking or passing loops on the HoW Line south of Builth and the Cambrian line from Old Moat to Shrewsbury, there is scope for a pretty comprehensive North-South service serving some of the larger settlements including Rhayader, Llanidloes, Llandovery, Llandeilo, Pontardulais and Ammanford.

You could even have a limited-stop service to/from Cardiff via the Swansea District Line.

Anonymous said...

Keep up the good work, MH! As yet Plaid's commitments are very vague (north-south links could just mean further developments using track in England a la Gerallt Cymro). Given how slippery the party has been on the manifesto commitment to establish a daily newspaper, I hope we can move to firmer commitments (e.g. "to restore the rail link between Carmarthen and Aberystwyth") but as yet I haven't seen any hint of this. Are Elin Jones and Penry James making the running on the Carm/Aber link, for example?

MH said...

Anon, The line between Builth Road on the Heart of Wales line and Old Moat (just east of Caersws on the Cambrian line, for those who don't know) is interesting in two ways.

First it is part of Tad Deiniol's proposal for a north-south line. But second, it is also a stretch of line that Stuart Cole told me was under consideration by Network Rail for re-opening as a freight line, because of capacity restraints on other routes.

So yes, it is certainly on the "must be considered" list, and it would open up the through routes you've detailed.


Efrogwr, As I said, Plaid have progressed their position on this over the past few years. The critical words in the latest resolution were "within Wales" which means opening a new route, since the current route via Shrewsbury and Hereford is largely in England.

However, manifesto commitments are important, and we must only promise what we can deliver if elected in enough numbers to form a government. What we need now is to identify the routes we want to reopen or build, and to protect those routes from other sorts of development. It is only after we have developed a plan for the network and costed it that we can make the commitment to specifically open route X, Y or Z.


I have to say that there is surprisingly little in the way of campaign groups for reopening rail lines. Some people have suggested I set up a website or forum to specifically talk about it. If anyone knows of such groups that I haven't come across, please let me know. Similarly, if any group like Tad Deiniol/Yn ein blaenau have proposals that haven't been published, I'd like to see them.

Old_Miwl said...

A campaign group for a western rail corridor in Wales has just been launched - see our new website (still in progress at the moment at www.trawslinkcymru.org.uk If anyone is interested in joining our mailing list please let us know on post@trawslinkcymru.org.uk. There will be a debate in the Senedd next week on the Carmarthen - Aberystwyth line and we're asking people to e-mail or call their Assembly Members to ask them to take part and support. More details are on our website. Diolch.

MH said...

Thanks, Old Miwl. I've just written a new post about it here:


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