Is a 60-minute Belfast-Dublin train journey time realistic ?

In the Independent today, Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan floats the idea of a 60-minute Belfast-Dublin railway journey as a possible outcome of a brexit deal. This is an interesting, and indeed exciting, idea but I wonder if the Minister is aware of the size and scale of the project he is proposing.

The current Belfast-Dublin railway line, whose construction began almost 200 years ago, was designed in an era when railway vehicles could not move quickly, when railways were assembled by different companies at different stages, when it was more important to connect large population centres with small villages and towns, and when carrying freight, including livestock, was a major priority.

When the Enteprise service was first introduced in 1947 (a commercial response by the then privately-run Great Northern Railway to a plan by Aer Lingus to offer Belfast-Dublin flights) it offered a non-stop time of 2 hours and 15 minutes. Gradually, over time, the GNR’s successors added stops and improved track and timings. The record timetabled journey time was reached briefly in late 1999, following the upgrade of the Belfast Central-Central Junction (near Great Victoria Street) section, when the 0800 weekday service was scheduled to arrive in Dublin at 0945, a 1hr45 minute trip, stopping only at Portadown. Since then the service has slipped somewhat; the same journey now takes 20 minutes longer, albeit with stops in Newry and Dundalk.

Over the past 15 or so years, the Enterprise service has received progressively less attention on either side of the border, especially following the upgrade of the motorway along which buses can travel between Belfast city centre and Dublin Airport in less than two hours. While the train itself is capable of 90mph running, inferior track conditions at many points along the route, especially north of the border, require the train to run at lower speeds for safety reasons. In addition, over the same period, the Dublin-Malahide section has seen the increased frequency of the DART, Dublin’s high-frequency commuter train service. Successive Irish governments have prioritised DART and suburban rail timekeeping and frequency, understandably enough given the number of voters who use the service within Dublin’s commuter belt; but this has come at a cost to the Enterprise, which often finds itself running directly behind a stopping DART service, especially travelling south. This has to be accounted for in the timetable.

Even if the track were brought up to spec and the DART problem solved, it is hard to see how the service could be improved beyond the 1 hour 30 minute schedule envisioned by the Enterprise renewal project of the early 1990s. The route is approximately 120 miles in length, and a 90 minute trip would require an average speed of 75mph, significantly above today’s fastest average speed of 50mph. Charlie’s vision of a 60-minute trip would require an average of 120mph, well over double the present speeds. No trains in Ireland today are capable of operating at this speed.

This is significantly faster than the journey time by rail between the UK’s largest cities. The London-Birmingham journey, which is roughly the same length, takes 1hr13 minutes by express, using track and trains rated for 125mph running. To deliver the timetable Charlie is talking about would require doing the same thing the UK is doing for London-Birmingham – building a completely new, electrified high speed railway line. The cost of doing this would be considerable to say the least. It cost the UK £5bn to build High Speed 1 (excluding the refurbishment of St Pancras), a line just over half the length of the Belfast-Dublin line. Even if a way could be found to substantially slash these costs, we’re still talking about many £billions to build a railway servicing population centres much smaller than those served at the terminii of high speed rail services in the UK. It is hard to see how this kind of expenditure could be justified.

The underinvestment in the cross-border railway during the course of the past ten years gives me pause to wonder if the Irish government are in any way serious about the kind of idea that Charlie Flanagan is floating here. If they are, though, significant improvements are possible without this kind of outlay. The recently refurbished Enterprise rolling stock is entirely adequate and the issues with locomotive reliability have recently, though belatedly, been solved. The Governments should turn their attention to track refurbishment, service frequency, and the bottlenecks in the Dublin area. A simple solution, killing many birds with one stone, would be to have an hourly Enterprise service terminate at a new station in Dublin airport, with regular DART connections to the city. A 90-minute stopping service to the airport is deliverable, would easily compete with the motorway, and would offer the prospect of a major improvement in transport connectivity across the entire island.

  • Fear Éireannach

    The reopening of Dunleer has been the subject of many campaigns since then, without success.
    Quadrupling of the line in Dublin would also speed up Dundalk trains and might indirectly help Dunleer.

  • Fear Éireannach

    Countries all over Europe have improved their rail lines and the improvement would facilitate a range of commuter services and an airport service as well as the Enterprise.

  • lizmcneill

    Wouldn’t that mean closing Syndenham? Why can’t the airport have a shuttle bus that goes to the train and the long stay car park instead of removing a stop used by local people?

  • lizmcneill

    Won’t it just be a case of induced demand? If the number of rush hour vehicles needed is similar to non-automated, does it really matter that they’re not parked on the street at off-peak?

  • johnjefkins

    Sorry but that is a false hope.
    a) We might just have a few less cars parked
    b) We’d still need exactly as many travelling at any one time
    c) we already have automatic traffic flow management,

    So where is the difference? Its just another type of taxi.

  • johnjefkins

    As it is CAPACITY led it is being built to relieve the busiest bit first (ie London-Birmingham & to Lichfield).

    But Lichfield-Crewe is due to open ONLY ONE YEAR LATER. Phase 2a is planned to follow only ONE year later.

    So pretty well the entire London-Manchester route will be improved by 2027 anyway.

    HS2 links London with cheaper rents in Manchester.
    London is thus not the only one to benefit !

    Your logic would mean closing the M1 and M6 as they too “only benefit London”. Of course they don’t. And of course we help the north by making it better connected (ie with a Y shaped line centred on BIRMINGHAM).

    And just how is HS2 wasted on “corporates” any more than the light rail etc ? This is no different to any other investment.

  • AndyB

    You’re correct that it would mean closing (more strictly relocating) Sydenham, but the new station would be accessed from a continuation of Inverary Drive past the community centre or a new road from opposite Circular Road besides Shorts recreation ground – still very convenient for most existing, more accessible for some, and at the price of some of the recreation ground at the Community centre, the potential for a small park and ride. It’s not as if it would be in the airport grounds, not with a great big dual carriageway in the way.

    The problem with running a shuttle bus is that, firstly, well it is there and I was a frequent user of it years ago when I was going out with an English girl. However, it runs inside the airport grounds only as far as the old entrance.

    Why is this? The simple answer is that while a shuttle bus could turn onto the bypass and stop at the Bangor-bound platform so that Belfast-bound passengers would have to climb the footbridge anyway, I wouldn’t like to have to try and cross two lanes of traffic to turn round via the turning circle at the old entrance.

  • Christopher Mc Camley

    Many projects are more urgent than this one, including York Street, M1, M2 exchange. And Sprucefield, Hillsborough. Without the Newry, Dundalk and Drogheda commuters the Belfast to Dublin line wouldn’t be viable.

  • Ray Lawlor

    Damn you and your informed logic! 😛

  • notimetoshine

    I can think of one solution, a bus lane!

    But I agree the M1 Is another disaster altogether. One for which I’m not sure of the solution. What are the options?

  • AndyB

    Believe me, I’d love to be proven wrong on all five counts!

  • AndyB

    Not much use going to work though 🙂

    (That’s a sore point for a lot of us. I understand why, because people need the seats, but it can also be far too rigid when you can’t take a bike on a quiet morning train!)

  • AndyB

    Incidentally… Bristol International Airport, and the bus is more expensive for a shorter journey.

  • AndyB

    Truthfully? More trains, and cheaper so they are better than the hassle of driving. People like trains, but they don’t like buses so much.

  • notimetoshine

    But the capital cost of trains and the poorly laid out network here would require massive amounts of investment. Take Newry for example, the most awkwardly placed rail station in the country by my count, or the fact that our airports aren’t linked up to the network. Is there the stomach to pay for such expensive developments?

    Frankly I have always thought we fetishise trains, dreaming of those halcyon pre beeching days. Of course buses have a popularity problem but effective marketing and attractive pricing would soon solve that. I know also business commuters and travellers are supposed to prefer trains to buses, but it can be done.

    Take the Eamonn Rooney commuter service I take. 6/8 busloads of people from a relatively small catchment area, most of them business travellers, many of them graduates and an awful lot people who would have once driven. The same with their Dublin service as well. The demand can be found if the offering is right.

  • AndyB

    All I can say is that Newry had no railway station at all between 1965 and 1984!

  • Timothyhound

    Politicians in Ireland don’t do infrastructure. Whether it’s the disaster of the A5 or Charlie Flanagans hot air on Dublin Belfast trains the end result is the same. Nothing of substance.

  • Fear Éireannach

    And a very central one from 1864 to 1965!

  • rustbucketblues

    You guys and your ‘East of the Bann’ problems. I’m from Tyrone. What’s a train?