Karen Power, Associate Director in Turley’s strategic communications team, discusses why she believes this is a unique opportunity that must consider both passenger and freight rail

 

The All-Island Strategic Rail Review has made bold and ambitious promises to improve rail connectivity across the island of Ireland, but is it missing a key opportunity to improve the freight network too?

The Irish Government and Northern Ireland Executive launched the All-Island Strategic Rail Review in April this year. Its purpose is to review how the rail network on the island of Ireland can improve sustainable connectivity between major cities, enhance regional accessibility and support balanced regional development. It promises to deliver ambitious change to the way the island’s railway infrastructure supports regions  and citizens.

What’s clear is that improving connectivity and the movement of goods is a major focus for both governments. And yet, the launch of the All-Island Strategic Rail Review, which could support those wider ambitions, only briefly mentioned the role of rail freight.

The review is one of a number of investment projects being delivered by both governments to improve infrastructure on the island of Ireland – particularly those with a cross-border benefit.

The National Development Plan (NDP), released in October this year by the Irish Government, for instance, outlined a €165 billion (£141 billion) investment plan which included improving transport and the nation’s connectivity with the UK, the EU and the rest of the world through its ports and airports.

In addition, Rosslare Europort is set to receive a €30 million (£25.5 million) investment over the next five years to support the local region as well as the wider national economy. And the Port of Cork has undergone an €80 million (£68.5 million) investment to improve the movement of goods in and out of the ROI.

The scope of the All-Island Strategic Rail Review primarily focuses on passenger rail. And while there is no denying the importance of this and how improvements to lines could benefit businesses,  regions and citizens, it is vital that the importance of freight rail in improving our connectivity across the island of Ireland, and contributing to lowering our emissions, is not understated.

The opportunity we face is striking when considering the key driver behind the huge sums of investment being made into ports and airports – to improve how goods are imported and exported. If the journey of those goods on land isn’t as efficient as it could be, are the governments missing a trick in not pushing our freight potential as much as possible?

Supporting growth in the logistics sector The transport of goods on land has arguably never been a more important and timely issue, with demand for logistics and warehouse space at an all-time-high. Figures from Savills found that logistics space demand in Ireland was up 22 per cent in Q2 this year, compared with the same period last year. This is evidenced by retailers like Amazon which are choosing cities including Dublin to open huge fulfilment centres to meet growing customer demand.

Connecting warehouses with other logistics hubs and customers is critical and rail freight has the potential to speed up delivery and provide a more sustainable transportation method to road and air. Both the Irish Government and Northern Ireland Executive have committed to improving last mile logistics facilities, and rail freight can and should play a considerable role within that.

The risk with not taking a holistic approach to our rail network is that any changes made at a local level may be carried out in isolation and not be able to take advantage of the opportunity provided by an all-island rail system. A comprehensive approach will ensure that the island doesn’t end up with a piecemeal freight network that doesn’t meet the needs of businesses or citizens.

Interestingly the potential for improving all-island rail services featured heavily in NDP. Within the NDP there is a more prescriptive focus on freight specifically within the All-Island Strategic Rail Review, compared to the brief reference afforded to it in the initial scope of the review.

The NDP commits that the strategic plan for freight will look at the capacity of routes from major ports such as the Rosslare to Dublin line. The Review will also provide an opportunity to reflect on the strategic potential of currently lightly used lines. These include the Waterford to Limerick Junction line, disused lines such as the Wexford to Waterford line, the Western Rail Corridor or the Navan to Kingscourt line and indeed the potential of possible new alignments or corridors, such as along the Western seaboard that may warrant consideration.

Outside of the All-Island Rail Review, the NDP also commits to funding a new train protection system. This will maintain and enhance safety on the network, while the indicative allocations also support the implementation of a number of initiatives to support the development of rail freight. It also emphasises that plans for strengthening surface connectivity to ports and airports will continue to be prioritised, with a particular focus on rail freight connectivity to the Ports of National Significance.

These specific commitments to freight rail are welcome and indeed vital to ensure joined-up thinking and long-term delivery on strategic projects that benefit the country as a whole.

Improving only some elements of the island of Ireland’s wider transport network won’t deliver what we need it to especially when we consider that freight services do not currently operate in Northern Ireland partly due to the limited rail infrastructure. Rail freight must have a solid strategy in place as part of the island’s future transport network and making sure it is given equal weight in the All-Island Rail Review is the best way to achieve that.

Karen Power is an Associate Director in the strategic communications team at Turley, a planning and development consultancy. Based in the business’  Dublin office, Karen works with developers, local authorities and housebuilders to improve communication between them and local communities during the planning process.