The express train which has lost its momentum

[This is taken from A Note from the Next Door Neighbours, the monthly e-bulletin of Andy Pollak, Director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh and Dublin]

For the past 10 years I have been travelling on the Dublin-Belfast Enterprise express up to four times every week. It is with genuine relief at the end of a hard week of cross-border cooperation that I collapse onto the homebound train from Newry to Dublin with a cup of tea or a can of stout and The Irish Times.

It’s not a bad service – it’s certainly a far cry from the dreadful days of the early nineties when bombs and bomb scares, usually in South Armagh, used to lead to extended bus trips around the back roads of the Carlingford peninsular that could add two or three hours to the journey.

But it’s not a good service either, certainly not for a train that is supposed to provide a high-speed link between the island’s two major cities. Most Enterprise trains take 125 or 130 minutes to do the 113 mile journey, with four stops. Earlier this month I experienced the real pleasure of travelling on the new train from Malaga to Seville: it takes just 115 minutes to make this 160 mile journey (with three stops) linking two cities which are smaller than Belfast and Dublin. And this is just a regional train: it doesn’t travel at anywhere near the 220 miles per hour that the major inter-city AVE expresses between Madrid and Seville and Madrid and Barcelona reach.

Improvements in the Enterprise in the past decade or so should also be put into historical context. I stand to be corrected on this, but a railway history enthusiast told me recently that Belfast-Dublin on the fastest non-stop Enterprise today takes just five minutes less than it did 61 years ago in the age of steam (and just a year after the service was first introduced)!

We in Ireland have benefitted from the resurgence in rail travel everywhere in Europe. The new Dublin-Cork train, with its average speed of 58 miles per hour (it is 49 mph on the Belfast line, largely due to speed restrictions north of the border), its comfortable compartments and computerised seat booking system, is a great improvement on what went before. The introduction of new trains on the Sligo and Waterford lines, where services had been almost ‘third world’ in their shabbiness and unreliability, saw traffic increase by 15% and 11% respectively in 2005-2006. In the North smart new Spanish (again!) railcars have made rail travel attractive for the first time for many decades, with the result that passenger journeys increased by 12% in 2008.

But the Enterprise, refurbished with new rails and rolling stock back in the mid-nineties, has once again stood still and even gone backwards. The once smart French carriages are looking increasingly shabby; the American engines have always been temperamental. Annual passenger numbers, which reached more than a million in 2003 and 2004, have now dipped to under 800,000.

Meanwhile the time it takes to drive from Dublin to Belfast has been getting shorter as the road improves. When the new Newry outer ring road finally joins the new stretch of dual carriageway south of Banbridge, there will be a modern highway all the way from Dublin Port Tunnel to Belfast’s Westlink, and – traffic permitting – car journeys of well under two hours will become possible. As University of Ulster economist Dr Michael Smyth says: “If it takes less time to drive between the island’s two cities than to go by train, there is something radically wrong”.

This was also a point made by the IBEC-CBI Joint Business Council in a submission to the North/South Ministerial Council in November 2007. IBEC and CBI worried that with car journeys along the MI corridor, which runs parallel to the rail line, rising by 85% in the 10 years up to 2006 (and this was long before the avalanche of Southern shoppers descended on Newry, Lisburn and Belfast), the number of cross-border trips was growing strongly but the railway’s share of them was being eroded.

The Joint Business Council also expressed concern about the Enterprise’s reliability, pointing to long delays of up to and sometimes more than an hour. “Unless these problems are addressed quickly, the service will lose the confidence of users.”

At a time when railways in other European countries are increasingly seen as a competitive and environmentally sustainable form of passenger transport, this decline in the island’s premier rail service simply does not make sense. But with the onset of the recession it is not going to change any time soon. A 2008 submission by the North’s transport company Translink estimated that a new hourly service, with a new track alignment to facilitate 140 mph trains to reduce the journey time to 75 minutes, would cost £1.5 billion. A more modest hourly service to bring the journey time down to 100 minutes would cost a mere £200 million. However in the present economic climate not even this is going to happen. It looks as though the limit of any foreseeable modernisation will be the refurbishment of a few carriages and ‘business as usual.’

Andy Pollak

  • The easiest way to improve service, as shown by the clockfacing of the Dublin-Cork service, is to run more trains. This reduces time-to-next-service and therefore door-to-door times.

    Irish Rail (IE) have about 100 Mark 3 carriages now surplus. A few of them are on standby in case the new Dublin-Cork trains require maintenance, but there are more than enough that, if refurbished, they could be added to the roster of Dublin-Belfast trains. Indeed, IE having failed to sell the Mk3s have now put out a tender to refurbish 48 of them. There are, however, a few obstacles to adding them to Dublin-Belfast.

    1. IE and NIR-Translink run Enterprise as a shared fleet, and more trains would require additional dedicated locomotives. Any increase in the number of locomotives and carriages on the Enterprise would likely require NIR to chip in financially. The problem with Enterprise is that it usually requires IE and NIR to be flush at the same time for anything to happen.

    2. The Mark 3 fleet have electricity generator carriages which is why they are more reliable than Enterprise, but the Intercity Mark 3s don’t have driving cabs at the opposite end to the locomotive as the Enterprise does. This hampers turnaround as the driver can’t simply walk to the other end of the train and drive it out. Ideally the Enterprise and its expansion sets would have end carriages (DVTs) such as the Dublin-Cork trains have, which have both driving cabs and generators to enhance both turnaround times and reliability.

    3. There might be resistance to repurposing the Mark 3s rather than buying new carriages. This will mean in practice no expanded Enterprise for a long time given that both NIR and IE have lashed out for new trains for other services like Belfast-Derry and there is unlikely to be much left for Dublin-Belfast.

    4. There are and will continue to be congestion/bottlenecks in areas like north Dublin, and it’s questionable how much IE and NIR will want to solve cross border issues when it can use the same track time for local voters (erm) commuters.

  • Comrade Stalin

    The trouble with the Enterprise is that there hasn’t been a consistent investment programme. The service was profitable, and possibly still is, but the profits are returned to NITHCo and redistributed throughout the group to cross-subsidise loss-making services. It does not appear that any profits are ringfenced for re-investment into the service.

    Some of the problems today, such as reliability and punctuality, related to bad decisions and underinvestment at the time of the previous major upgrade which re-launched the Enterprise in the mid 1990s. Three trainsets are required to operate the timetable currently in place. Four were purchased, leaving one spare. Except the management had a change of heart at the last minute and decided to distribute three carriages from the spare set between the other three sets to increase capacity. The increased load that this placed on the locomotive (which is unique on Irish railways in that it provides electrical power to the rest of the train along with motive power) contributed to their higher failure rate. Moreover, since the fourth set is cannabalized, no easy replacement exists if one of the other sets fails.

    The problems with the track on the Northern side of the border were known about and overlooked at the time of the 1995 upgrade. There are major issues with wet ground and sinkage in some sections between Lisburn and Portadown. Fixing this once and for all, as the article outlines, is going to involve serious expense.

    The comparison with the timings in the age of steam is a bit unfair, since there is no non-stop express Enterprise service to compare with; and furthermore, in the steam days there was no, no Central Railway (the trip between Central and Central Junction adds a few minutes) and no DART to hold the trains up at the Dublin end; furthermore safety standards were lower. The RPSI run a “Steam Enterprise” excursion every summer which takes close to three hours including stops to make the trip.

    Mark, I think a major improvement in things could be have if IE and Translink reorganized the Enterprise service into a single holding company operating on both sides of the border, with each company having an equal holding. The company would take ownership of the Enterprise sets, and subcontract refurbishment work on the locomotives and carriages to the two railway companies. Organizing this as a GoCo would allow it to raise it’s own finance (within prescribed limits) to invest in it’s future.

  • Comrade Stalin – I couldn’t agree more with everything above including the holding company.

    However, I suspect there might be some resistance to demerging enterprise from the Comrades in the rail unions, since it would essentially separating the train operating company from the track operating companies, as opposed to the more integrated operations now.

  • All fair enough, as far as it goes.

    It doesn’t alter the essential problem: 112½ miles at (about) 46 mph – the slowest noted speed between “capital” cities in Europe (I think Andy Pollak’s 49 mph is a trifle optimistic). When he mentions the improvements achieved in Spain, he neglects also to emphasise the essential: electrification. That immediately improves acceleration.

    Now, way back in 1990 (as I recall: check the date) we had a full review of NIRail. In more difficult times even than today, there were murmurations about electrification. Then, in late 2007, we had the further discovery that £500M was required to upgrade even a diesel service. That (as I recall) was the cost of providing decent rolling stock: the track improvements were already in hand.

    Despite Comrade Stalin’s diktat, comparison with steam days may be telling. The story started when Aer Lingus began a direct service from Collinstown to Nutts Corner in 1947. Because that was bleeding “first-class” passenger numbers, the Stormont regime encouraged GNR(I) to introduce the Enterprise. A seven-coach rake (upped to ten in the summer peak) was hauled by Class V locos (the limit of 4-4-0 engines was imposed by the size of the sheds at Dundalk). The schedule was 135 minutes non-stop (i.e. about 52 mph). That was on old-style jointed track, but it killed off the air aervice sharpish. In 1950 AEC railcars replaced the steam-hauled trains: the first mainline diesel service in these islands.

    A final gloat: I’m just back from a few days in Tuscany, riding Trenitalia’s routes, including double-decker stock. Heh, heh! Whereas we have five-foot gauge, but don’t use it.

  • Dewi

    High Speed is where it’s at. The Basque Y for instance. A similar scheme for Ireland connecting Dublin, Cork, Westport, Derry, Belfast and back to Dublin would have a huge economic effect.

  • Dewi is, as so often, right.

    The North-West is one of the more deserving parts of this island. That is, of course, the way the east-of-the-Bann die-hards intend to keep it: deserving but unfulfilled. There is a strategic corridor from Dublin to Derry, with interchanges at:
    Goraghwood, for a Newry spur;
    Portadown (for NINE’s reinstatement of the link to Dungannon, Omagh, Strabane, and on to Derry);
    Lisburn for the Knockmore line, and a “circle line” for Belfast’s other commuter belt (which won’t please the North Down Jaguar, G&T, golf-club mafiosi).

    The Knockmore line provides not just a link between Dublin and Derry, it comes pretty close to connecting the two main airports (so no need for a second Dublin runway in a decade’s time?).

    In passing, any bets that Tillysburn (for Belfast City, the Harbour Estate, and Park-and-Riders coming in from North Down) continues to get the investment before an Aldergrove link, before the Derry line? Err … can’t think why? Well, it would be another victory for NI’s all-conquering car-culture, having killed of the sensible BMAP light-rail proposal … despite the plain inadequacy of existing and proposed road access to this development hot-spot.

    Quite frankly, the Knockmore line represents one of the greater scandals to be unearthed in our local festering swamp. It was “moth-balled”, not just because it was unreliable — and therefore unable to retain passenger numbers — but because NI Rail needed the rolling stock to plug gaps elsewhere. Even so, the line eats up the odd hundred thou’ a year, even in its present state. Add in Conor Murphy’s curious inflation of cost by a factor of ten in turning down the BFS-link last time: a “mispeaking” or enemy action in the DRD?

    So a quick round of applause for David Ford, who has championed railways in NI.

  • It seems the Enterprise lost momentum earlier today; it was coach-and-four from Belfast to Newry(?).

    NI Railways – Update Portadown Line Re-opened 31-Mar-2009 9:34
    Translink wish to advise passengers that the Railway line at Lurgan has re-opened again, and Services are operating as normal.