What next for our North-South postal and train services?

[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]

Here is some good news. The postal service between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland works well. A report in February by Consumer Focus Post, the consumer ‘quango’ which looks after the interests of users of the UK postal system, found that nearly four in five Northern Ireland individual users and nearly two thirds of business users rated the cross-border mail service as ‘good.’ 85% of individuals and 75% of businesses questioned rated the reliability of the service positively.

‘Good’ means somewhere between two and three days. We are a far cry from the days 90 years ago when there was a guaranteed overnight postal delivery between London and Dublin, and the Holyhead-Dun Laoghaire mailboat was fined if it was an hour late. We are in the era of private courier companies cherry-picking high-value inter-city business post from the old state postal monopolies and the whole postal system being threatened by the rise and rise of digital communications.

But despite all these radical changes, the old ‘snail mail’ remains a vital resource for this divided but very much inter-connected island. Nearly eight million items a year are posted from North to South, and 10.6 million items go in the other direction. More than one in eight postal users in Northern Ireland and over two-thirds of businesses send post to the Republic regularly, and nearly half of those cross-border business users told Consumer Focus Post that this was an “essential service” for their business. With cross-border trade having more than doubled in the past decade and now being worth over €2.8 billion per year, this is hardly surprising.

However despite this report’s positive headlines, many of the people questioned felt there was considerable room for improvement. Is between two and three days for a letter to travel the 15 miles from Derry to Letterkenny, or even the 100 miles from Belfast to Dublin, acceptable in this age of high-speed communications?  Is it right that mail from Northern Ireland to the Republic is charged at European rates while mail in the other direction is charged at much cheaper domestic Irish rates?  If closely related countries like the Czech Republic and Slovakia and the Nordic countries can negotiate common lower than EU tariffs, why can’t the UK and Ireland? Why does a small one kilo package sent by Royal Mail’s ‘Ireland Express’ service from North to South cost an exorbitant £22.50 to make sure it arrives the next day?

Turning to another key North-South service, also in February Engineers Ireland and InterTradeIreland published an excellent report entitled ‘Infrastructure for an island population of eight million’, which looks forward to what Ireland’s cities, transport, energy supplies, environment, ICT resources, enterprise and health facilities might look like in 2030.

A key element in the transport chapter is the Dublin-Belfast corridor and, in particular, the Dublin-Belfast rail link. Of the latter, the report says that a high speed and high frequency rail service between Ireland’s two largest cities will be “a critical building block in the creation of a European scale conurbation on the island.”

It notes that the 10.8 million passenger journeys on the line in 2008 represented almost half the total number of journeys on inter-urban routes on the whole island. It foresees a quadrupling of passenger numbers on the line by 2030, “provided the competitiveness of rail does not deteriorate.” Elsewhere it clarifies this by stressing that the average rail speed must be comparable to the average car speed (up to 110 kph) on what will soon be effectively a Dublin-Belfast motorway. The Southern section of the Dublin-Belfast road is already the busiest inter-city road in the country, and the report concludes that if the speed and frequency of the rail service is not improved, it will be necessary eventually to add an extra, fourth lane to that still incomplete motorway.

Calculating a continued 7% annual increase in passenger traffic on the railway in line with recent historical experience, the report estimates that this could lead to 39 million passengers travelling non-stop between at least two of the six stations of Dublin, Drogheda, Dundalk, Newry, Portadown and Belfast, and says this would justify a train frequency of one train every 15 minutes. This is the frequency of trains currently running between Glasgow and Edinburgh, exactly half the distance of the Dublin-Belfast line.

Whether this will ever happen is another matter. In this island of voluminous and excellently-argued reports which are never implemented, I wouldn’t put a lot of money on it. The Irish government certainly won’t have any money to put into it for the foreseeable future (€2.5 billion would be needed to provide a new track alignment to put on 140 mph trains to bring down the Dublin-Belfast journey time to 75 minutes). But maybe now, in mid-recession, is precisely the time we need to begin planning such visionary ‘island of Ireland’ economic and infrastructural projects for when the recession is genuinely over in perhaps five or six years.  Certainly the British government is already thinking in such terms, with the unveiling last month of plans for a new 250 mph railway from London to Birmingham on which work will not begin until 2017.

If you want to discuss any of this, the Centre for Cross Border Studies is holding the second of two lunchtime seminars on the future of the Dublin-Belfast rail line at Jury’s Inn on Dublin’s Custom House Quay on Thursday 27th May from 12 midday to 2 pm (sandwiches provided; no charge). Anybody interested is welcome to attend. All we would ask is that if you would like to come, you should contact my colleague Patricia McAllister at [email protected] or 028 [048 from the South) 37518282.

Andy Pollak

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