Group To Examine Reopening Disused Rail Lines For Tourism

By Ronan Dodd

By Ronan Dodd

Nenagh Rail Partnership is to seek a meeting with Irish Rail, tourism groups and council managers along the Ballybrophy to Limerick line to have it developed for tourism.

The decision comes after the partnership’s seminar last weekend in the Abbey Court Hotel, Nenagh, on Reviving Rural Rail.

One of the ideas that arose from the seminar was to develop the disused lines from Birdhill to Ballina and from Roscrea to Birr as cycle and walking trails.

Upperchurch travel writer and tourism promoter John G O’Dwyer told the seminar that innovation was needed to make sure the line remained operational.

Mr O’Dwyer, who gave examples of walking and cycling routes in Ireland and abroad, including the new Green Way in Mayo, asked: “Could a long distance walking / cycling route circling Lough Derg be opened?”

His idea was later taken up by Jim Deegan of Rail Tours Ireland, who suggested that the partnership look at developing the disused lines.

He said that the spur from Birdhill was part of the original line from Limerick, while the Roscrea to Birr line was a private line that operated to the former Parsonstown and continued to Portumna in Galway.

It was also suggested that the Birdhill to Silvermines / Shallee spur could be reopened to tourism.

Following the seminar, the partnership’s chair, Cllr Virginia O’Dowd, said: “We think this is certainly worth investigating. We think it is a good idea. I am aware of the Green Way in Mayo and have seen at first hand how popular it is.”

She said that in order to develop any of these ideas, the partnership will be looking for a joint meeting between Shannon Development, the enterprise boards, the managers of counties Tipperary, Limerick and Offaly and Irish Rail.

“I hope this meeting will take place sooner rather than later as we need to encourage new ways to bring business to the line,” she said.

The seminar was opened by Junior Minister for Public and Commuter Transport Alan, who outlined the investment in the rail network that has taken place in the past decade.

“The railway programme spend on the Ballybrophy to Limerick line between 2001 and 2010 amounted to over €28m,” he revealed.

However, he warned that a Government review of capital spending is underway and that it will examine capital proposals across all sectors of the economy to establish a set of priority projects and programmes that will support economic recovery and employment opportunities.

“All agencies funded by the Department have been requested to make submissions supporting their programmes and setting priorities in a scenario of reduced allocations. Submissions have been received from the National Transport Authority, Railway Procurement Agency and Irish Rail. These submissions are being examined and will inform the Department’s conclusions on the capital review,” he said.

Deputy Kelly said that given scarce funding resources, rail investment needs and service improvements must be based on value for money. However, he maintained that the Government was committed to ensuring a key role for the rail network.

Keynote speaker Don Cunningham, director, new works, Irish Rail said that the Ballybrophy line needed €25m to increase speeds on a 31-mile stretch of the line, but that only €3m was available out of the annual safety budget.

He said that the way forward to look for outside investment to upgrade the line and facilities, to increase passenger numbers through discounted fares, examining the Ballybrophy link to the mainline and to promote tourism.

In the long term there was a need to concentrate planning at or near stations and have feeder buses at stations.

“We know that there is a hidden gem in North Tipperary,” he said.

Mr Cunningham said that Irish Rail was looking forward to working with Nenagh Rail Partnership, jointly implementing initiatives that will help to sustainably revive rural rail in this area.

Rail consultant and founder of the UK-based Association of Community Rail Partnerships, Dr Paul Salveson, outlined many of the success stories in relation to lines similar to the Ballybrophy line in England.

He encouraged local community groups to get involved in their local station and to devise in some form of activity at the station, whether it be Tidy Towns, looking after the station’s garden or having school pupils and students help decorate the station.

After the conference he said: “It was a real honour to be invited to the conference and I was impressed by the enthusiasm and can-do attitude of the Nenagh Rail Partnership. Clearly the line from Ballybrophy to Nenagh and Limerick is at risk given the wider economic problems facing Ireland, but the discussion showed a willingness to rise to the challenge and build a thriving and prosperous railway which could serve both local people and visitors and stimulate tourism and regeneration.

Experience in both Britain and Ireland shows that railways are a very long-term investment but once a line is closed it is very difficult, and costly, to re-open it.

The first priority must be to win an assurance from Government and IE that the line will not close. Ways need to be found, in discussion with a wide range of stakeholders including county and town councils, businesses and community groups, that would help to generate more business for the railway. At the same time, ways of reducing operating costs are essential.

There is no doubt, and it comes up every time you talk to people, that the currents ervice does not meet people’s needs. It needs to be more frequent with higher line speeds. The link to Dublin is important, both for people wanting to have a day out in the capital or do business, as well as visitors coming into North Tipperary. A long-term objective should be to have some through services from Limerick to Dublin via Nenagh. In the short-term, improved connectivity at Ballybrophy is important.

Stations, particularly Nenagh and Roscrea, need to be brought to life, with retail and other community and business activities. Nenagh is promoting itself as a ‘cycling hub’ but there’s nowhere to hire a bike. The station would be ideal.”

North Tipperary county manager Joe MacGrath, who spoke on the importance of the line to the county’s infrastructure, said that there was a need to turn the line back into a mainline from Limerick to Dublin by installing a link to the Cork-Dublin line at Ballybrophy.

He also stated that speeds needed to be brought up to 100km/h. Mr MacGrath pointed out that a lot of work had been carried out on the line, but there had been no increase in speed levels.

This was a point taken up by many speakers from the floor, and Jim Gallivan, IE business development manager in Limerick, said that they hoped to take about six minutes off the journey from Nenagh to Limerick in the next while.

Tourism consultant Lorraine Grainger spoke on the need for tourism providers to have add-on packages to stays in the area.

She said that it was not good enough these days to just offer basic hotel / B&B accommodation, but there was a demand for extras such as cycling, walking, fishing and other types of activities.

Rail Tours Ireland boss Jim Deegan said that there was a need to make the line relevant to the communities on it.

“You need to make communities aware that if they don’t use it, they’ll lose it,” he warned.

“Time is critical. You have a beautiful railway line with some wonderfully scenic stretches,” he said.He said that low-cost solutions needed to be found, and suggested that timetabling could be addressed with no additional cost.

Cllr O’Dowd thanked partnership committee members Duncan Martin, treasurer, and Ronan Dodd, secretary, for their work in organising the seminar as well as all those who spoke at the conference, including Mayor Seamus Morris on the opening night, and Mr Deegan for providing a bus free of charge for a trip from Nenagh to Castleconnell. She also thanked Jim Gallivan of Irish Rail for facilitating their return journey by train from Castleconnell, and the Abbey Court Hotel for providing the conference facilities.