The past, present and future of cross-border rail

Recently, to great fanfare, the Irish government announced an €800m funding package in support of its Shared Island strategy aimed at funding public spending on projects in Northern Ireland. The lion’s share of the spend is on the A5 project, and that, together with Casement, is where most of the media attention went. However, there is also an allocation aimed at increasing the frequency of cross border rail services.

Before looking at this in detail we should talk a little bit about the cross border “Enterprise” service, the state that it is in and what the Irish government’s announcement will mean in practical terms.

First, a little history. It’s fairly well known already that the Enterprise was launched just after World War 2 by the then privately owned railway operator, the Great Northern Railway, which controlled the Belfast-Dublin corridor and connected to places like Navan, Strabane, Enniskillen, Newcastle, Armagh, Banbridge and Dromore. The Enterprise express train was set up to compete with Aer Lingus’ new Belfast-Dublin flights. It was an immediate success. Over time, intermediate stops were added, and the service frequency gradually increased.

The current Enterprise service is the outworking of a major investment programme including EU money during the 1990s. Major sections of the track were upgraded, the signalling was improved, and new, high end rolling stock purchased. Those of us who travelled the route before and after this major upgrade will remember well just how dramatic the transformation was.

Sadly, since then, all investment in cross border rail completely stopped, with the exception of a mid-life refit of the trains which began during the 2010s. No new money was forthcoming to address the various problems that have presented themselves since then. Design flaws in the train power supply necessitated adding an extra generating carriage, a clumsy workaround which makes the train heavier and less fuel efficient. Punctuality and speed have declined, and the service takes almost 20 minutes longer than it did when the upgrade works completed in the summer of 2000; the 0650 Belfast departure seldom arrives on time. Capacity problems are painfully apparent – the 1650 weekday Dublin departure is always full to standing room, likewise the morning departure from Drogheda towards Dublin. The Enterprise sets are often out of service, with substitute commuter trains taking their place.

If you use the service regularly, as I have in recent years, little irritations and niggles become apparent. The WiFi capability  is so poor that it is essentially useless to anyone needing to use it for work purposes. Irish Rail allow seat bookings, but Translink do not. Fares are significantly different on either side of the border. The catering service in standard class is patchy.

In 1997, the Enterprise was the most modern and well-specified service on the island of Ireland. Since that time, almost every other operating train in Ireland has been replaced and has had its timetables enhanced. Alongside some of the flagship Dublin-Cork services it is the only train on the island that is still locomotive-hauled; all other trains are operated by multiple units (a kind of modular train which has engines under several of the carriages). There is no reason why the Enterprise rolling stock cannot operate for another 20-30 years, if a full refit is performed, but the economics of operating locomotive-hauled trains may ultimately prove to be the limit on their service life.

In my opinion, cross border rail is basically serviceable, but not fit for the modern era. There aren’t enough services or capacity, timekeeping is poor, travel time and reliability are poor, and the service is expensive to run. This is not good enough for what should be the flagship service between the two largest cities on the island and we are well past the point where we invested to bring it up to scratch.

This takes us to the Irish government’s funding proposal. The full press release is here, but I’ve quoted the relevant section below.

Introduction of an hourly-frequency rail service between Belfast and Dublin – €12.5m:

– Introduction of an hourly-frequency rail service on the Dublin-Belfast line is an agreed priority for both Administrations. An hourly service will double current frequency and significantly enhance sustainable transport connectivity between the two largest cities on the island and be a catalyst for economic and social connections throughout the Dublin Belfast economic corridor region and across the island.

– €12.5m is being allocated from the Shared Island Fund, with match funding from the Department of Transport, to meet the total cost of introducing of an hourly-frequency rail service between Belfast and Dublin over an initial three-year period.

– The additional resourcing will allow for increased capacity for Iarnród Éireann and Translink NI with their respective fleet networks. The increased service will be introduced progressively with an hourly-frequency service expected to be fully in place by Q1 2025.

There are a couple of takeaways here. The total Irish government spend is €25m – half from shared island funding, the other half from the Department of Transport. By Q1 2025, around about a year from now, there should be a total of 16 services in each direction throughout the day, doubling the current 8. The funding allocation lasts for three years, so around €8.3m per year.

This is a very small of money in the scheme of things and clearly makes no provision for purchasing any additional rolling stock (for reference – each new train carriage costs approximately €3.6m, and the cost of powered carriages with cabs would be higher still).

Instead, it looks like the additional services will operate using existing Irish Rail and Translink stock, with the bulk of the money going on the operational costs of fuelling and staffing the trains. Since the two jurisdictions use different train protection and radio systems, some outfitting may be required on the rolling stock which will operate. Currently, there are three Enterprise trainsets operating the existing timetable. By my rough calculations, the two operators will need to find an additional two sets, with train crews, to run an hourly service.

This investment creates benefit on either side of the border – truth to be told, the Irish government will be selling this to their voters in terms of Drogheda and Dundalk commuters gaining extra express services to and from Dublin. Many of the peak Enterprise services are already full beyond sitting capacity (eg the first morning train from Drogheda to Dublin; the early evening train to Belfast from Connolly) so the extra capacity will be help for those coming from Portadown, Newry and Belfast too.

However, in the round, this investment, while welcome, is little more than a sticking plaster. It does not solve the reliability problems of the Enterprise trains themselves, which are the worst across the island. In fact, increasing the service frequency makes the timetable more vulnerable to disruption by a failed train; even a delay of 30 minutes could knock the whole timetable out for that day. The fact that spare trains are being rostered in to provide a higher frequency service reduces their availability to cover for breakdowns.

Alongside issues with the trains, there are issues of track capacity. The section between Malahide and Dublin his highly congested during peak times and, unofficially, Irish Rail’s policy seems to be to prioritise local commuter trains over the Enterprise. This is one of the reasons why the train is around 20 minutes slower than it was at the turn of the millennium. Irish Rail will have to allocate extra slots to support the extra services. I suspect it will be immensely difficult to identify paths without slipping the timetable further, which could end up adding another five minutes to Enterprise schedules – we will see when the timetable becomes available.

Finally, alongside track capacity and reliability, there is the issue of speed. Most services take around 2 hours and 15 minutes. This suggests an average speed of approximately 52mph, for a train that is capable of travelling continuously at 90mph. By comparison, Dublin-Cork services operate at around 75mph on average, using the same locomotive,  similar coaches and a similar number of stops. If the cross border service was maintained to the specification of the Dublin-Cork service, today’s trains would take 1 hour 35 minutes.

I make these points because I feel it is important to highlight that while extra investment helps, cross border rail has been neglected for over 25 years – even though it is an open and shut case of how cross border co-operation between the two jurisdiction should be working well. I hope that, with the restoration of devolution, the governments on either side of the border recommit themselves to enhancing and extending cross border rail.

Part of the reason for this neglect is the nature of the joint stewardship of the service. Translink and Irish Rail each staff and operate half of the services; however they collect tickets and revenue where it is paid. Only Irish Rail have the capability to perform the heavy maintenance of the trains. One way to solve this would be to set up a jointly-held corporation to operate the Enterprise under a single management team. This would allow a management team to lobby for resources and upgrades with one voice.

But overall, we require significant investment. The rolling stock needs to be upgraded, with redundant sets in place to allow for proper maintenance. North of the border, attention is required to re-lay old track and fix drainage problems to eliminate speed restrictions. In the South, there’s an urgent need to have additional track capacity, somehow, between Connolly and Malahide – an enormous financial and technical challenge in its own right. In the longer term, upgrading the line to higher speed running with electrification is likely to be on the cards also – estimated a few years ago as a £400m project (which is likely to be significantly below the reality).

All of that being said, I’m looking forward to the improved Enterprise service frequency kicking in next year; and here’s hoping that the governments continue to look at ways they can go further.


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