Increasing numbers of passengers let the train take the strain … apart from a 10 year decline on the Enterprise

Monday morning’s Belfast Telegraph splashed with the front page story that passengers numbers have fallen by 22% on the Belfast-Dublin Enterprise train over the last decade.

The ‘exclusive’ – based on figures in DRD’s Future Railways Investment consultation document [pdf] that was published in January – was picked up by Talkback at lunchtime as well as other news programmes.

The actual consultation ended in April, though this isn’t mentioned in the paper! And in some ways, it’s never too late to kick off a discussion about the state of the railway network and usage levels in Northern Ireland.

As a student, I travelled up and down from Lisburn to Botanic for three years, and the in and out of Great Victoria Street for work. The old bang door carriages which alternated between freezing cold and blazing hot were gradually replaced with brighter and swisher rolling stock, leaving the once so modern Enterprise carriages looking worn and tatty.

Some days I still manage to time the commute home perfectly, hopping on the Enterprise at Central, and arriving in Lisburn twelve minutes later. Otherwise it’s nearer twenty five minutes as the trail backs into Great Victoria Street, waits four minutes and then tootles down to Lisburn.

A friend’s father once told me that as a student some fifty or so years ago he used to commute home from Botanic to Lisburn every lunchtime – a trip of 10 minutes in those days – walk the five minutes up the hill home, grab something to eat and then head back into Belfast before the hour was out.

The train can be incredibly convenient.

NIR train line passenger numbers chart

The graph in the report – and the associated table – shows the change in passenger numbers from 2001 to 2011. Other than the cross-border service, passenger numbers across the other lines had mostly risen by 50% or more. Cross border services dropped by 22%. In fact, if it had been surveyed over nine rather then ten years, then the drop would have been closer to 35%.

NIR passenger numbers table

Passenger numbers on the Enterprise were fairly flat in the five or so years before the Malahide bridge collapsed in 2009. For years security alerts on the line and knock-on delays due to bus substitutions dented customer confidence in the cross border rail service.

There’s less need to let the train take the strain now that the whole M1/A1/N1/M1 has been dualled and made the drive to Dublin very fast and very predictable. There’s a competitive bus market – on the hour, every hour – down to Dublin airport and on into Dublin City Centre.

Yet a hundred or more railway enthusiasts have just finished their long railtour weekend, darting all over Ireland on steam and diesel trains. It’s an annual event run by the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland. Restored heritage locomotives and carriages have been winding their way through the normal NIR and IÉ timetables and countryside.

Railways are gentle, and when you’re not commuting to work they can even be romantic. The regular rhythm from the tracks is soothing. Goldliner buses and NIR trains now have free wifi. But no bus has a well-stocked bar and hot food available to order. Working (or sleeping) on a train is an altogether nicer experience than travelling on a bus. But in the case of the Enterprise, the service is less frequent, more expensive and feels less value for money.

The Future Railway Investment report notes on page 22 that:

Today, NIR costs are roughly double the revenue received through the fare box and via concession payment.

What would make the Enterprise more appealing?

£460m would apparently electrify the line from Belfast to the border, buy at least six new high speed trains, provide hourly services, increase the maximum speed to 125 km/h and cut journey times to 90 minutes if similar investment was made by IÉ. Politicians and commentators in the Belfast Telegraph agree that this money could only be found in Europe and would not be funded by the Executive. Annual NI Executive spending on railways is currently £44m.

The consultation paper moots the idea of upgrading the Great Victoria Street bus/train station to an “integrated Transport Hub” and moving the Enterprise away from Central Station.

Chris Ryder suggests that “there should be business lounges at Belfast and Dublin to attract passengers to Enterprise”. Offering wifi at the stations while you’re waiting indoors for your train to arrive would be a start – instead of leaving passengers needing a net fix standing on platforms hooking up to the trains waiting on other platforms.

The last train leaves Dublin Connolly at 2050, far too early if you’re wanting to come back to Belfast after dinner. A train really needs to leave an hour later.

NIR Central Station Euro ATM machine

For years Central Station had a cash machine that dispensed Euros. While there are cash machines at Dublin Connolly, it feels better to have them in your hand before you get on the train … knowing that if the machine swallows your card, at least it’s been lost in the jurisdiction you live and work in, a lot easier to retrieve that if you lose it in another country.

But the Ulster Bank Euro ATM disappeared from Central Station last year (though I only noticed last week). I understand it was removed by the bank for commercial reasons due to low usage. [The bank haven’t replied to my query last week.] Still, it is a small backward step that says rail travel is not valued and not part of the all island tourism strategy.

Rail will only ever pay if passenger numbers rocket. Across the entire NI Railways network, this generation of diesel trains may be the last. The NI Executive will face a choice between electrification or mothballing the entire railway network.

Someone better start asking Europe for the money before Cameron holds an EU referendum!

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