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Northern Ireland

Wider tracks and too few trains
by BBC Northern Ireland Environment Correspondent Mike McKimm

The railway system in Northern Ireland, as with the rest of the UK, saw severe cut-backs in the 1950s. It now offers a service to just three key areas: the north west and Londonderry, the east coast as far as the main town of Bangor and to Dublin in the Republic via the main towns of Portadown and Newry.

The system is run as a private company but is a government agency - Northern Ireland Railways. Much of the infrastructure and rolling stock is elderly and an increasing cause for concern.

The fact that railways in Ireland use a wider track than Great Britain means that all rolling stock has to be made specifically for the system, so second hand equipment cannot be bought in.

Car beats the train

Passenger use has fallen over the years, due mainly to the limited service and the popularity of the car. There has been an increase in cross border traffic, thanks to the purchase of new multi-million pound trains to run an express service between the two capitals - Belfast and Dublin.

Although the system receives a government subsidy, some of it statutory government funding, the level of finance is much smaller than in the rest of the UK. Despite this, rail travellers in Northern Ireland enjoy lower fares, partly because it is unlikely they would use the system if charged the same rate as in Great Britain.

While most rail networks require capital spending, the situation in Northern Ireland has become critical. The NI Environment minister, Lord Dubs, recently described the funding as "a shambles" after a number of train breakdowns attracted much public criticism about under investment in the system.

Passengers lost, profits not spent

To add to the problem, the government has been removing the modest profit the railway company makes because, if it was spent, it would upset the public spending calculations - a fact to which the minister admits. The system needs new rolling stock to maintain a very basic service and thousands of passengers are lost every day, simply because there are not enough trains.

Most freight in Northern Ireland is moved by road - even bulk loads more suited to rail transport. As a result goods trains and associated depots are rare, and while there is a potential to expand in that direction, the relatively small journey distances involved and the current culture of using trucks and containers, makes the development unlikely in the short term.