Train of thought: what next for the western rail corridor?
Harry McGee takes the 13.45 to Ennis on the ‘Hogwart’s Express’ of the west
Galway 1.45pm Platform nine and three quarters at Ceannt Station in Galway is not easy to find for the non-wizard classes.
We have been standing on the main platform at the station waiting for the 13.45 to Ennis and Limerick to arrive. But it is slow coming down.
As far as I am concerned, having been born and brought up in this city, it is the only platform. But I am proved wrong. A ticket collector who knows we are going to Ennis tells us we had better hurry up because the train is going any second now. We look agog at an empty track.
“At the other platform,” he says gesturing up the left, “around the corner”.
We rush up to the end of the platform. Around the corner another platform is revealed.
Not quite platform nine and three quarters, but almost as well hidden.
On it stands a two-carriage train. It is about the same size, but not quite as quaint as the Hogwart’s Express.
We are a minute away from departure time for a train journey that’s not quite as much a secret as Harry Potter, but is certainly not well known among the general public. Departing platform two is the 13.45 train to Ennis, a service that was stoked back into life in 2010.
It’s the first 78km leg of an ambitious project to link up existing lines and create a western rail corridor that will allow direct journeys from Cork to Sligo.
The missing links were the disused lines between Ennis and Colooney in Co Sligo, most of which had ceased to be operational in the mid-1970s.
As we leave Ceannt Station, there are 32 people on board.
Oranmore 13.54 The first 20km is along the Dublin line and the first stop is in Oranmore, now effectively a suburb of Galway. A few alight, and a few get on. Numbers remain steady.
In 2003, a small group of rail enthusiasts came together to form West-on-Track, with a dream of having a continuous rail service along the Atlantic seaboard. They contended it would have economic benefits, but also social advantages in that it would address the imbalance of infrastructure on the east coast, link cities and towns in the west by rail without reference to Dublin, and provide new opportunities for manufacturing through opening new freight routes.
From the start, critics said that rail would never be sustainable on cost grounds and would operate at significant losses, that the populations served by the routes were too small, that the scores of millions expended would be better spent for other projects in the west.
A Limerick to Ennis service has been in operation since 1988 and the Galway-Athenry leg is on the main Dublin rail-line. In the mid-noughties when everything was flush the entire project was included in Transport 21 unveiled by Fianna Fáil transport minister Martin Cullen.
The first leg, that linking Ennis and Athenry was sanctioned. The new 58km section opened in 2010 and cost €106 million, some €30 million more than first envisaged.
The second stop is Athenry, a pretty medieval town. It shares one thing with every other stop on the route: all are hurling strongholds. This is really the hub of the whole route. If the western rail corridor project is ever completed, trains from Limerick to Sligo will continue north, with passengers bound for Galway transferring here. The second phase of a 25km track linking Athenry to Tuam was due for completion in 2011, but never happened.
A combination of delays, a recession and a new government put paid to it.
Transport 21 was ditched.
Supporters say that this section connecting the city to its biggest commuting town, Tuam, was always the most feasible. The passenger numbers drop to 25, which isn’t too bad for a mid-day, mid-week train.
Then a strange thing happens.
The driver walks from the front to the back of train, cranks up the engine, and we begin to reverse.
Not really, we have changed direction back towards Galway. A little outside the town, the train turns left on a spur line and we travel south towards the Clare border.
Home of the Galway Blazers hunt, a quieter village since it was bypassed by the M6. It is noticeable that many of the passengers are pensioners or students. Brendan Ryan is a passenger who lives in Sixmilebridge. He’s been a regular on the service and thinks it’s fantastic, giving a reliable and fast service into the centre of Galway.
An engineering student from NUIG says the same. She commutes in from Ennis every day for lectures. When you point out that it’s a bit quiet, she replies that it’s standing room only in the morning and evenings, and the train is packed on Fridays.
As you travel south, you see glimpses of what might be the nemesis of this project, the final part of the new M18 motorway between Gort and Athenry. It makes you wonder what impact it will have on numbers.
A report by consultants drawn up before the service began concluded that, even with healthy passenger numbers, it would not be able to wash its face and would need hefty subventions. And the passenger projections in that report were substantially higher than those that actually travelled in the first few years.
Along the critical Athenry to Ennis sections, it was low. Not quite ghost train, but just over 34,000 in 2011 and 2012. It fell to a dismal 28,473 in 2013. Colmán Ó Raghallaigh, spokesman for West-on-Track has said it argued, for the service to succeed it would need four things: online booking, an attractive fare, modern rolling stock and good speeds.
West-on-Track have also argued that the figures for the whole journey from Limerick to Galway should be the yardstick. Both were much higher in 2013: 130,000 for the Galway to Athenry leg and 60,000 for Limerick to Ennis.
But then a strange thing happened over the past 12 months.
With more modern stock, Iarnród Éireann also offered online fares and an ongoing promotional €5.99 fare. It transformed the figures. On the Athenry to Ennis section, passenger numbers were a staggering 78 per cent up until November 2014 compared to the comparable period 2013, from 23,000 to 41,000.
It was a low base but an impressive lift nonetheless.
The last stop in South Galway, a market town that is home to many Brazlilians, to the current Galway hurling champions, and to the great corner-back Sylvie Linnane.
There are still 25 on board for the last leg across the border into Clare and on to Ennis. As we approach the station, you can see the turloughs (winter lakes) everywhere.
To many, the idea is as daft and utopian as the baseball ground in the middle of nowwhere in the movie The Field of Dreams: “Build it and they will come.”
It will cost millions of euro each year to taxpayers to subvent a service used by a tiny fraction of the population in the west.
Ó Raghallaigh rejects such notions. He points to recent figures which show that passengers numbers on this route compare favourable to those on the flagship Dublin-Belfast line. He also says that the stations are busier than some Dublin and Meath ones such as Clondalkin, Adamstown and Dunboyne, although nobody shouts too much about those statistics in Dublin.
He also argues there are real possibilities with freight if the line is reconstituted. “You cannot use the shibboleth that the first phase is a failure when it is a success. If you have a terrible service nobody will use it. If you have a good service, they will use it.”
We arrive on time. The journey has taken one hour and 10 minutes.
Across the platform is another train that’s Galway bound and which is packed.
So where does it all go from here?
There are no plans to open further sections and it is clearly low on the priority list. To the horror of West-on-Track, another group is talking about opening a greenway between Colooney and Claremorris. Iarnród Éireann say further expansion of the western rail corridor is a decision for Government.
The upshot is: The future of the Athenry-Ennis section is not secured.
And the train journey from Athenry to Tuam, to Claremorris and through to Sligo remains as much a creature of the imagination as that train journey from platform nine and three quarters at King’s Cross to Hogsmeade Station.