A LONDONDERRY rail lobby called for parity of esteem with Cullybackey at a meeting of Derry City Council’s Regional Services Committee on Tuesday (October 1) and garnered cross-party support under its rallying cry of greater, faster investment on the local railway line.
A delegation from Into the West called on the assembled councillors to make the development of the line “a major political issue.”
They were invited to address the Committee after Rail Minister Danny Kennedy last month announced Translink had encountered issues in relation to procurement and that the second phase of the scheme to create a passing loop and improve signalling as far as Coleraine would not be completed until 2016.
Eamon McCann, of Into the West, pointed out that Cullybackey - an Antrim village with a population of 2,500 - is served by 38 trains a day, whilst Londonderry is currently served by 18 per day.
Mr McCann said: “All we are asking for is parity of esteem with Cullybackey!”
His fellow campaigner Jim McBride pointed out that the number of passengers going through the turnstiles on the Londonderry line rocketed by 147 per cent between 2001 and 2011. He told councillors usage of the NW line also dwarfed that of the Dublin line, which has only a third of Londonderry’s passengers.
Whilst the “procurement issue” has remained a mystery since Mr Kennedy announced the delay last month, the Into the West delegation told councillors it was down to new signalling and there had been a problem meeting relevant standards of certification of signalling as set down by the Railway Inspectorate UK.
Following the group’s presentation, Mayor Martin Reilly said: “I share their sense of frustration and anger that the line has been delayed.”
Mr Reilly said there hadn’t been “adequate explanation” as to what went wrong and that to merely put it down to “procurement issues” was insufficient.
He said the Rail Minister had already agreed to meet a council-led delegation and invited Into the West and the Foyle Civic Trust - champions of the refurbishment of the old Waterside railway station as the preferred option for the city - to take part.
UUP Alderman Mary Hamilton said: “I’d really like to see more investment in rail and I’d also like to see the old Waterside railway station put back in use.”
DUP Alderman Maurice Devenney said the delay announcement was “very, very disappointing”
He said the DUP locally were “very supportive of the old railway station.”
SDLP councillor Shaun Gallagher said it seemed further evidence of a discrepancy in treatment of citizens to the west and east of the Bann and that he agreed with Into the West. “There is no argument here,” he said.
Sinn Féin councillor Kevin Campbell claimed the procurement issues had been discussed at a board meeting of the Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company in June 2013 but hadn’t come to light until September.
Mr Campbell said this was “extremely frustrating” and said the delay was “absolutely unacceptable.”
SDLP councillor Eamon McAuley suggested an application for European Regional Development Funding (ERDF) - given Brussels’ keenness on the trans-European transport network (TEN-T) - be considered.
After the meeting Into the West representative Mary Casey told the Sentinel: “We want the second phase and the decision on the railway station on the 2015 deadline otherwise we’re seeing a progressive delay to 2016, 2017, we’re seeing perhaps the £20m that is set aside for this investment, maybe allocated elsewhere, and we have ideas about where that could be allocated to - away from the NW region.
“So, we’re taking a stand on this if we want our children and young people to get jobs here.”
Addressing the procurement issue, her colleague, Mr McBride said: “We find it very surprising as a group that they had no difficulty procuring new signals for the Belfast area but they have had difficulty procuring signals for the Derry area - which they are well aware of - for next year.”
The Mayor told the Sentinel the procurement issues would be discussed at the forthcoming meeting, with Mr Kennedy: “That’s exactly what we have to have the meeting for. “To have those discussions with Translink and the Minister’s officials, to find out what the delays are, why they weren’t foreseen and what they can do to overcome those difficulties as quickly as they can. So that will form the subject matter of the meeting.”