Cork plans new lease of life for railways

 

It might seem a laudable nod to conservation but the fact that the makers of The Great Train Robbery used Cork's Kent station to double for a Victorian train station indicates just how little was done to develop the terminus over the last century.

That was back in 1978 and since then the station, which was built in 1893, has remained substantially unaltered.

However, that's all about to change now with an imaginative plan which will see it modernised while retaining its red-bricked Victorian charm.

The plan, drawn up by Iarnrod Eireann, aims literally to make the station more central to the commuting needs of the people of Cork, in an attempt to ease the gradually increasing traffic gridlock on the approach roads and streets of Cork.

The proposals for Kent station and four other smaller stations form part of "Moving Cork Transport Beyond 2000", a joint study commissioned by Cork Corporation, Cork County Council, Bus Eireann, Iarnrod Eireann and the Garda.

The plan involves the expenditure of about £36 million, including some £20.7 million on the development of rail services, all with the aim of encouraging more Corkonians to use bus and rail transport when commuting in and out of the city.

Coinciding with the proposal and integrated into it is the planned redevelopment of Kent station, which will see a new entrance being built from Penrose Quay with the aim of shortening the journey by foot or bus to the city centre.

The plan involves the sale of Horgan's Quay, currently used as a freight yard by Iarnrod Eireann, for an estimated £20 million-plus and its development into a hotel, housing and technology park complex.

Iarnrod Eireann district manager in Cork Mr Sean Cullinane said many tenders had been received for the development of the site, in keeping with the general plan and it was now being whittled down to five prospective developers.

"Hopefully we'll have the successful tender selected by Christmas and the money we receive for the Horgan's Quay site - say up to £10 million of that - will be used to fund the redevelopment of Kent station," he said.

The plan is to develop a new entrance to the station from Alfred Street, complete with moving walkways, lifts and a bridge to connect with the existing platform so that commuters and mainline passengers have a shorter journey to the city centre.

The development will also see the provision of six retail units for shop and restaurant facilities at the entrance.

Alfred Street will also be developed with bus parking facilities so that Bus Eireann will be able to provide a much speedier service to the city centre than the present one which involves going down Lower Glanmire Road and Water Street.

"We will still retain the entrance and facilities at the Lower Glanmire Road side but this plan will bring us a lot closer to the city centre and make us a lot more accessible for people working in the city centre or going to college here," Mr Cullinane said.

But if Kent station is going to be the fulcrum of the new rail service in Cork, it is only the beginning, with the plans for the upgrading of the Cork-Cobh and Cork-Mallow section of the main line heralding something of a resurgence in rail transport in Cork.

The idea of a suburban service in Cork is, of course, nothing new: a glance at any rail map from the end of the last century would show that Cork city and county had an extensive network of thriving rail services.

Indeed, in the 80 years following the arrival of the railway in Cork in 1849, lines were developed throughout the county, west as far as Bantry, south to Kinsale and Crosshaven, north to Newmarket and Mitchelstown and east to Youghal.

Such an extensive network produced termini in Cork city, at Lower Glanmire Road, Albert Quay, Capwell, Western Road, all of which were gradually closed down until only the first-named remained open for passengers.

BUT that too is about to change. The Cobh line, arguably the only truly suburban line in Cork to survive the years of retreat and retrenchment, will, under the joint study proposal, receive a £13.4 million upgrade.

It currently carries about 500,000 passengers a year, some 20 per cent of them tourists, on 12 daily return services aboard a two-piece diesel car which serves stations at Little Island, Glounthaune, Rushbrooke, Carrigaloe and Cobh.

"Little Island is the only manned halt even though it's not as well used as we'd like - it's well over a mile from the industrial estate; we'll be looking with Bus Eireann at providing a feeder bus linking it with the industrial estate," Mr Cullinane said.

Among the Cobh line proposals are the reopening of stations at Tivoli in the city and Ballynoe on the outskirts of Cobh to avail both of new housing and passenger traffic on the Monkstown to Carrigaloe cross-river ferry.

A £2.7 million investment in tracks and signalling at Kent station together with a £2 million investment in a two-piece diesel car will enable the further development of a commuter service to Mallow on the main Dublin line.

And, as on the Cork-Cobh line, there are plans to reopen long-closed stations on the Mallow line at Kilbarry near Blackpool, the original Cork terminus prior to the opening of the tunnel in 1855, and at Blarney.

"We've ample car parking at both stations and the idea is that we will provide Park 'n Ride facilities at Blarney and Kilbarry as well as Tivoli and Ballynoe, just as we're already doing at Mallow and Cobh."

The proposed reopening of Blarney provides an excellent example of Iarnrod Eireann working closely with the planning authorities, in this case, Cork County Council, to come up with an integrated plan.

"Blarney was disused for many years because of the drop in passenger numbers but the council has zoned land for housing adjacent to the station so the population there will increase, but without that information, we'd never be opening Blarney.

"The council has a great idea: `if we go out to, let's say, Blarney and developer Mr X is building houses there and we're opening the station, it's going to increase the price of the houses for Mr X so why doesn't he make a contribution?'", said Mr Cullinane.

A new £2 million twopiece diesel car to service commuter traffic from Mallow to Cork can be easily integrated into existing schedules and if all goes well, offers the prospect of further possible services from places such as Rathduff.

While current plans don't extend beyond the reopening of the four stations between Mallow and Cobh, the Moving Cork Transport Beyond 2000 group is also looking ahead to the possibility of the reopening of the Midleton and Youghal lines.

Closed since the 1970s, they are unique in Cork terms in that the actual permanent way is still intact and, although in need of considerable work, could, the group believes, be restored, though with some investment.

WHILE Sean Cullinane believes the original 1978 LUTS plan, which guided transport and land use development in Cork, failed to give proper recognition to the region's rail services, he believes the current approach is much more properly balanced.

"Back in the 1970s, we had a railway to Midleton and at that stage we would have hoped the planning authorities would have built or zoned the land adjacent to the then disused railway line so it could be opened," he said.

"What happened was they developed the Ballincolligs and the Carrigalines where you had no rail link - so therefore from the rail point of view, the LUTS fell down badly: it placed an overemphasis on the road network."

However, the current grouping is working much more closely, and while development in Midleton hasn't quite matched what Cork County Council predicted, the group is confident it will grow and make the reopening of the Midleton line viable.

Reopening Midleton would cost around £8 million and it would cost a further £15 million to reopen the line to Youghal but the planning authorities have taken into account that there's a disused railway line to both towns," said Mr Cullinane.

"Now, it would be a major job but it's not beyond the bounds of possibility; it's much easier to put a railway line back on a disused railway line than to start on a greenfield situation when you've lost the land and the permanent way.

"We would envisage if we did reopen Midleton that it would probably be an unmanned halt, but it's important to emphasise at the moment, we don't envisage reopening Midleton because the required housing development hasn't happened yet."