Record numbers on the Derry railway line this summer despite ‘continuing disruption’

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The Londonderry railway line had its busiest two months on record over the summer, although the line was “hampered by disruptions and diversions”, transport campaigners have said.

Translink figures reveal that over 173,000 passengers used Derry’s Waterside rail station in June, July and August 2022 – the highest summer demand ever for rail locally, and a 22% increase on the busiest previous summer in 2019.

In addition, the record monthly passenger number was also broken twice this summer.

The previous peak month was August 2019, when 52,241 passengers passed through Waterside station.

This was beaten in June when the station carried over 57,000 passengers and again in August with 63,000 passengers using the station.

In total, over 250,000 people have traveled by train from Derry since April 2022, putting 2022/23 on track to be the busiest year for rail in the region.

However, rail campaigners Into The West said the record demand came despite a summer of “continued disruption” for local rail passengers, as well as the ongoing disparity between rail services on either side of the Bann.

Into The West is the rail campaign for counties Derry, Tyrone, Fermanagh and Donegal.

Lobby group chairman Steve Bradley said: “These latest figures are fantastic and show that passenger numbers continue to grow all the time in Derry and the North West.

“It’s proof that there is a huge untapped demand for rail travel in our city and that people here appreciate the option of traveling by train. What is particularly notable is that the busiest two months in local rail history came in a summer when the Derry-Belfast line suffered frequent problems.

“First, we had the ridiculous situation in which Translink continued to divert at least four trains on the Derry-Belfast service each day to run between Belfast and Portrush instead – forcing passengers in NI’s second largest city to switch in Coleraine and sometimes wait up to an hour for a connection service.

“To prioritize the small coastal town of Portrush over one of the larger towns on the island in this way – reducing Derry to unimportant spur status in the process – is totally unacceptable.

He added: ‘We are making it clear to Translink that this must not happen again next summer, and we are calling on the Council and groups like the Derry Chamber of Commerce to do the same.

“Secondly, we have received regular reports from passengers over the summer of general problems on the Derry-Belfast route – from signaling and maintenance issues to bus replacement services, all of which have had an impact on the reliability and convenience of using the Derry Railway.

“And finally there is also the fact that Derry receives a significantly lower level of service than that received by every rail station east of Bann on the Belfast line.” Mr Bradley said Derry only had one train every two hours on a Sunday, for example, while Coleraine and all stations in the east had hourly service.

The second city has a single morning service which reaches Belfast before 9am, while Coleraine has four and Portush has two.

This raises the obvious question, he said, of how much rail demand could increase if Derry had adequate service.

This record summer for train departures from Derry represents a continuation of the remarkable growth in demand since the city secured hourly service to Belfast in 2018 and a new station in 2019.

In 2016, the now demolished Waterside station in Derry was ranked only the 17th busiest station out of the 54 stations in the Northern Ireland network.

By March 2022, the station that replaced it had become the 9th most popular station – and Into The West is confident it will continue to climb that ranking for years to come.

The introduction in 2018 of an hourly service between Derry and Belfast (but not on Sundays) specifically resulted in a 61% increase in passenger numbers through Waterside Station over the following two years.

Mr Bradley concluded: “It really is a case of ‘build it and they will come’. It is therefore time for Translink and Stormont to tackle the stark east-west discrimination in services that exists on the railway line between Derry and Belfast, which clearly suppresses the real demand for rail transport in our city.

“And it’s also time to shift the conversation to how and when we’re expanding our city’s rail – restoring it to places like Letterkenny, Strabane and Omagh to provide the kind of infrastructure a regional capital is supposed to have. “

A Translink spokesman acknowledged the ‘strong growth’ of the Derry line since the introduction of hourly services which make it more convenient and attractive for passengers to travel to and from Derry, connecting people and supporting the local economy, attracting visitors and investment, and providing more choice for passengers traveling between NI’s two major cities.

“Translink has invested nearly £74 million in major upgrades to the rail network and associated infrastructure to the North West in recent years, including the North West Transport Hub (largely funded by the INTERREG program VA of the EU), offering modern and comfortable facilities for passengers,” a spokesperson added.

“We are pleased to have seen a strong recovery in the number of rail passengers traveling on the Derry/Londonderry route over the past year and we remain committed to developing rail services in the North West in the future.

The Department of Infrastructure said it remained committed to supporting rail services in the North West.

“This includes the recent development of the North West Hub, investment in new trains to expand capacity in the region and support for the feasibility study in the Phase 3 upgrade of the rail line between Derry and Coleraine.

“In addition, the department is currently advancing the strategic rail review of the whole island with colleagues from the Department of Transport, which includes the review of the provision of services in the North West. It is expected that this review will be published in the coming months,” the ministry concluded.

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