All Island Strategic Rail Review: Ireland develops roadmap to better rail
Ireland’s rail network suffers from significant deficiencies, including inadequate coverage, low service frequencies, and slower speeds compared to similar rail systems. That’s one of the main conclusions of the All Island Strategic Rail Review published this week. The proposed recommendations for improvements carry a capital cost estimate of 1.8 billion euros in 2021 price, the review of Ireland’s railway network shows.
The Vision Statement of this review is to deliver “an accessible, efficient, safe and sustainable transport system that supports communities, households and businesses.” The 30 recommendations outlined in the report could potentially reduce passenger rail journey carbon footprint by up to 80 per cent compared to electric vehicles. Major city travel times would decrease by 50 per cent, and 25 per cent more people could live near a railway station. Cities like Dublin, Belfast, Cork, Limerick, Galway, Waterford, and Derry-Londonderry could double passenger rail market share. There could also be an economic boost to the tune of 20 billion euros.
This report is the fruit of a collaboration between the Republic of Ireland’s Minister for Transport, Eamon Ryan, and Northern Ireland’s Minister for Infrastructure, Nichola Mallon. The proposed rail improvements under the All Island Strategic Rail Review could have a profound impact on rail connectivity in Ireland and may lead to a potential reunification of the railway network between Northern Ireland, administered by the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland. The time frame considered spans from the present to 2050, aligning with both jurisdictions’ ambitions of attaining net zero carbon emissions by that time. The next stage of the report is scheduled to be released before the government in Dublin next month.
The island of Ireland has approximately 2,300 kilometres of public rail lines, operated by Irish Rail (Iarnród Éireann), the state-owned railway company in Ireland. Translink (Northern Ireland Railways) operates 357 kilometres of the rail network in Northern Ireland. There are 199 passenger rail stations on the island, with each of the seven major cities serving as a terminus for rail services. The majority of the rail network is single-track, and the maximum permitted speed on the rail network is 160 kilometres per hour along certain lines and 145 kilometres /h on parts of the Northern Ireland network.
The report also established that customer expectations are not consistently met, with some areas experiencing poor connectivity. Surprisingly, none of the major Irish airports have passenger rail services. Integration between cities, modes of transport, and jurisdictions is patchy. The island’s demographics also make it challenging to support high-density, high-frequency railway networks in many regions.
Despite these challenges, passenger numbers on the entire island experienced a remarkable 37 per cent growth from 2011 to 2019, reaching a record high of over 65 million passengers in 2019. Despite a significant decline during the COVID-19 pandemic, there are positive indications of a swift recovery. By 2022, both Iarnród Éireann and Translink reported serving 70 per cent of pre-pandemic demand. However, passenger rail mode share remains low at around 1 per cent of all trips or around 3 per cent of passenger kilometres, which is lower than most European countries (the EU average for the latter figure is around 8 per cent).
According to the report, a decarbonisation strategy should be developed and implemented, encompassing an electrified intercity network with expansions in overhead line equipment (OHLE) for the DART service in Dublin. The focus of electrification should be on DART and Enterprise services due for renewal earlier. Additionally, battery and hydrogen-powered trains should be integrated into the system.
The report also makes recommendations for more sustainable cities. For instance, in the Belfast area, double tracking should be extended, and long-distance/fast services should be segregated from stopping services. Consideration should be given to establishing new stations in the city regions of Belfast, Cork, Derry~Londonderry, and Limerick – Shannon. Additionally, rail links to Dublin, Shannon, and Belfast airports should be improved.
To improve intercity travel, upgrade the cross-country rail network to a dual-track (and four-track in some areas) and increase service frequencies. Enhance the core intercity railway to reach top speeds of 200 kilometres per hour. New rail sections should be developed on congested corridors, and capacity should be added to high-conflict areas among intercity, freight, and commuter rail services. A cross-Dublin solution should be explored.
Direct services between the east and south coasts should be increased, and regional and rural lines should have at least one train per two hours. Line speeds should be raised to at least 120 kilometres per hour. Restoring abandoned railways, such as the Western Rail Corridor between Claremorris and Athenry and the South Wexford Railway, is of interest. Extending the railway to Tyrone, Derry-Londonderry, and Donegal and enhancing connectivity in the North Midlands is vital. Bus and rail service timetables should be integrated to connect communities where direct rail access is unfeasible. Efforts should be made to connect as many towns with populations of 10,000 or more to the rail network.
The report also makes customer experience recommendations, stating that continued investment in initiatives for a seamless customer journey is essential. Service quality should be benchmarked and monitored for continuous improvement. Future rolling stock should align with infrastructure-led interventions. Integration within rail and with other transport options should be improved. Implementing ‘clock-face’ timetable calling patterns and developing cross-border structures for better cross-border infrastructure and rail service planning is crucial.
The Review’s proposed recommendations carry a capital cost estimate of 1.8 billion euros in 2021 price. Additional expenses for operating and maintaining an expanded rail network on the island are projected to reach 600 million euros in 2021 prices, with potential funding sourced from increased revenue or government support, dependent on fare levels. This investment plan is anticipated to span approximately 25 years, necessitating an annual capital spend of around 0.27 billion euros above current commitments.
The division of capital costs between Ireland and Northern Ireland is estimated to be approximately 75 per cent and 25 per cent, respectively. For the higher estimate of 36.8 billion euros, the Review’s interventions applicable to Ireland would amount to 27.6 billion euros, equivalent to an annual expenditure of 1.00 billion euros per annum in 2023 prices over 25 years. For Northern Ireland, the capital cost estimate stands at 9.2 billion euros, corresponding to approximately 0.37 billion euros per year, in 2023 prices, over the same period.