The problem with magazines (and I’m an addict) is the Chinese meal one: you have one, and an hour later you need another. I may take a newspaper (or two) on a train journey; but I know it/they won’t keep me going the full distance, two hours or so between King’s Cross and York.
A bit back I splurged on the last-but-one Back Track, “Britain’s leading historical railway journal”. What prised the £4.20 out of my wallet was Michael H.C. Baker on Dublin to Belfast, half-a-dozen close-printed pages on the old Great Northern line. My experience of that route started in the days when the Ulster Transport Authority and Córas Iompair Éireann had taken the line over, but when steam locomotives were still in use. Soon after steam gave way to diesel. To this day, you find many, if not most still refer to the service by the 1950s name, “The Enterprise”.
In all honesty, the trick was to arrange for one of the CIE services: the catering was superior.
As Baker’s conclusion admits, the rail link between Belfast and Dublin is under a cloud, if not under direct threat:
Not so long ago there was serious talk of electrification and an hourly service but rail travel in the Republic has fallen by 25% of late. Ireland now has a motorway and road network which means that almost all journeys between Dublin, Belfast and the principal cities and towns are quicker by road than rail and long-distance coaches have made great inroads into railway revenues. The ‘201’ Class has not proved to be the most reliable of locomotives, chiefly on account of the fact that they have to provide all the heating, air conditioning and other auxiliary power for the carriages, although converted BR-built Mk 3 generator vans now do the job which should overcome the problem.
In March 2011 the Northern Irish Minister for Regional Development listed 32 permanent speed restrictions — the permitted maximum south of the border is 90mph — between Dublin and Belfast. £40 million of upgrading had been scheduled just for the section between Lisburn and Lurgan but this was “now deferred indefinitely due to budget constraints”. Worse, Northern Ireland Railways have said that £500 million is needed to bring the ‘Enterprise’ service up to “an acceptable standard” and it has “so frequently broken down that it is no longer fit for purpose”. Its average speed of 43mph (69km/h) is very nearly the slowest inter-city route in Western Emope. Oh dear, of dear! Some of these statements are a perhaps understandable plea for an ideal which can never be obtainable and an inter-city route of less than 120 miles with a number of stops is never going to rival, for instance, Paris to Marseilles or London to Edinburgh. I always enjoy my journeys between Dublin and Belfast and no doubt will in the future. One minor, not very expensive, outlay could be in the buffet car where a replacement for the seats which must be left over from the Spanish Inquisition would not come amiss!
That any kind of rail transport still exists across Northern Ireland is despite the ingrained prejudices of years of Unionist government. Let’s not pretend: the UTA closures of the 1950s and into the early 1960s were, in part, sectarian politics: too many of the old GNR railmen were Roman Catholic. When the Benson Report of 1963 proposed the closure of all links to Derry, it was the old Northern Counties Committee line, through largely Unionist country, that survived, and the “Derry Road”, from Portadown and on through Catholic country, which was axed.
There are, today, just four lines remaining: to the Border (and therefore on to Dublin), the NCC track to Derry, with a spur to Portrush, (most of which is spectacular, but single-track — and the station at Derry is inconveniently the wrong side of the Foyle), and the two commuter lines — the Bangor line along the Gold Coast of County Down (which ought to service George Best Airport, but contrives not to) and the Larne line (which once linked to the ferries to Stranraer).
The obvious missing link is the mothballed Ballinderry link from Lisburn and Knockmore, past the back of Aldergrove (Belfast International Airport) to join the Derry Line at Antrim. Reviving that is the ever-rumoured, oft-promised, never-delivered story, most recently just last month:
Northern Ireland could finally get a rail link to Belfast International Airport.
Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy has proposed a series of feasibility studies which could eventually mean the first major track extensions to the rail network since the wholesale closures of the Sixties.
In a new document outlining the future of rail investment for the next 20 years and beyond, the minister proposed looking at the potential to create a new route serving Belfast International Airport.
Add a spur to Dublin Airport (which was implicit in the original proposal for Dublin’s Metro North) and the two main runways of Ireland are directly connected, and as adjacent as Heathrow is to the West End. That, of course, involves a degree of finance, and a lot more imagination.