A top civil servant at the Department of Regional Development (DRD) has confirmed that the start date for the long-awaited phase two of the Londonderry to Coleraine rail upgrade has slipped from May to September.
Doubt has also been cast on whether the infrastructural improvements will be completed in 2016 as had originally been projected.
Rail Minister Danny Kennedy has promised that despite warnings Translink is in danger of going bust within two years he will try to protect the funding for the upgrade, which is supposed to come from the state transport company’s imperilled coffers.
Mr Kennedy’s Permanent Secretary Peter May revealed the start of the upgrade has been kicked back by four months from May to September during a briefing of the Stormont Regional Development Committee.
East Londonderry SDLP MLA John Dallat broached Translink’s financial health during exchanges with Mr Kennedy and Mr May.
“You know that the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Translink said that the company would go bust in two years,” Mr Dallat.
“That worries me. I am not straying into the capital project, but, Minister, you wrote to me recently to say that phase two of the Derry to Belfast railway could be funded out of Translink’s budget. Now we know that Translink is likely to be bust in a few years’ time,” he said.
In response Mr Kennedy said he “cannot afford to let Translink go to the wall” and that the money for the upgrade is a priority within the company’s budget.
Mr May told MLAs that: “For 2015-16, £16.2 million has been allocated to Translink for the railway upgrade.”
Mr Dallat pointed out that this fell far short of the £40m it is estimated will be required to complete the work.
Mr May replied: “You cannot spend it all in one year, so you allocate only the money that you can spend in a year.”
It was then revealed that the work will now be started in September rather than May as had originally been planned.
Mr Dallat said: “I am sorry, Chairperson; keep me right if I am wrong here. I understood that phase two - the passing loop - would be finished this year. How many years will it take?”
Mr Kennedy replied: “The contract will, hopefully, begin this year. There are other issues to be resolved.”
During the same briefing the East Londonderry Sinn Féin MLA Cathal Ó hOisín also referred to the four month slippage in the rail project.
“I welcome the £16.2 million that has been identified for Translink, although the start date has somewhat slipped from what it was to be in May,” he said.
Mr Dallat expressed hope for a “decent intercity service between Belfast and Derry.”