Passengers hike leads to renewed calls for rail extension

Part of the existing Western Rail Corridor.

There has been a 22% increase in numbers using the Galway to Limerick rail line in a year, which will strengthen the case for an extension to Cork and proves that reopening the track to Mayo and Sligo would be adequately supported by both passengers and freight, according to campaigners.

The annual rail survey by the National Transport Authority (NTA) recorded 1,402 people travelling between Galway and Limerick on census day, 17 November 2016, a jump from 1,147 journeys on the year before. The 2015 figure was more than double the numbers carried in 2014 – the year that online booking started.

The business case for the Galway-Limerick route had projected 220,000 by 2020. If the passenger numbers in 2016 were annualized, it would amount 420,600 passengers.

And while rail travel nationally is up 19% between 2012 and 2016, the increase for Galway-Limerick is 38%, states Colmán O Raghallaigh, spokesman for the rail campaigners, West on Track.

“It is a myth to say that it is a majority of pensioners using it – we understand that figure is about 20%. Our people who travel on the line say there is a very, very good spread of people using it – families going between Galway and Limerick at weekends, a lot of students and in the summer many tourists,” he told the Connacht Tribune.

“Any notion it would be discontinued due to low numbers doesn’t make sense. With an over 20% increase every year, I can see it grow to half a million passengers in the year.

“And they haven’t even put on enough trains to meet demand for commuters from Oranmore, Gort and Athenry. Why we aren’t looking at reopening the line to Cork is beyond me. People don’t want to change in Limerick Junction. These figures show if the service is reasonably good, if the price is right, people vote with their feet.

“The reality is the new motorway from Gort to Tuam hasn’t made the slightest difference on traffic in Galway. There are huge numbers travelling from Claremorris and beyond to Galway and the only way to improve that is to have travel by rail.”

The campaigners also point to the big hike in rail freight. A study by the Western Development Commission identified a four-fold growth potential in Mayo rail freight traffic that currently stands at over 1,100 freight trains to and from Mayo annually.

Colmán said with Brexit fast approaching, it made economic sense to increase rail freight traffic from the west through the southern ports with direct routes to Europe.

He also dismissed consistent calls for the disused rail lines to be turned into greenways.

“We have a community greenway in Claremorris with 2,000 a week using it. It’s a 5.5km track around a wood and a lake that’s going to be extended by another 2.5km. It’s nowhere near the rail line. Why are people obsessed with developing a greenway on a rail line? Communities should aspire to have both. It’s short-sighted to get rid of such a critical piece of infrastructure,” he insisted.

“If the Government are serious about developing the Atlantic Economic Corridor with better road, broadband, electricity links – why would they not look at the infrastructure we already have?”

Spokeswoman for Iarnród Éireann, Jane Cregan, said any decision on the rail lines was a matter for the NTA and the Department of Transport.

“I would premise that the census figures are coming from a very low base but obviously we welcome any growth in passengers. The survey is always done on a Thursday in November which is our busiest time with students at college and school and people choosing to travel by rail due to bad weather,” she stated.

“We receive a subvention that goes to support lightly used lines and we will continue to run this line as long as that continues.”

In a submission to the Labour Court during the recent pay talks, Irish Rail identified four poorly used routes that could be cut due to a funding gap and among them was the Ennis to Athenry line.  Based on a 2016 rail review, that report is currently being considered by the NTA.

The €160m link between Limerick and Galway opened in 2010 when it carried just 50,000 passengers.