Change here for Ballinderry, Glenavy, Crumlin and… Aldergrove?

Wesley Johnston very kindly gave me some old NIR, UTA, GNR and even NIRTB timetables owned by his father, and it got me thinking.

I’ve long been an advocate of reopening Lisburn-Antrim for commuter services, but what would a train service look like?

The 1977 NIR timetable is the benchmark, rather than the much slower timetable which applied by the mid-1990s.  10 minutes Antrim-Crumlin, 5 minutes Crumlin-Glenavy, 6 minutes Glenavy-Ballinderry, 9 minutes Ballinderry-Lisburn including a stop at Knockmore.

Trains call at Antrim at 14 minutes past the hour going towards Belfast and 47 minutes past the hour going towards Coleraine, so that’s where you begin.  I calculated that this timetable works if crossing loops are provided at Crumlin and another loop in the region of Knockmore Junction:

Antrim 07:20 07:50
Crumlin 07:30 08:00
Glenavy 07:35 08:05
Ballinderry 07:42 08:12
Lisburn 07:50 08:20
Lisburn 07:11 07:41
Ballinderry 07:19 07:49
Glenavy 07:25 07:55
Crumlin 07:30 08:00
Antrim 07:39 08:09

The additional services can be extended all the way to Portrush, crossing at Killagan for a half hourly service Portrush-Belfast.

Connections from Lisburn-Belfast? Essential. Let’s have a look and for now let’s take the 10:11 from Lisburn. 09:41 from Great Victoria Street connects in with a five minute wait at Lisburn, and there appears to be room for a train to leave Great Victoria Street at 10:00 for a ten minute express trip to travel through to Antrim. It’s also desirable, because you need four minutes minimum to turn a train round and go the other direction and if it’s sitting in the platform it’s in the way of another train which could be passing through. Looking good.

What about the other direction? 10:20 from Antrim. Arrives Lisburn 10:50, next departure for Belfast 11:07. That’s not much good. Can we run express to Belfast, a mere 9 minutes, arriving at say 11:00? Yes (in principle), right in behind the 10:37 all stops from Lisburn which arrives at 10:58.  The only real issue is capacity at Great Victoria Street, which won’t be fixed until Weavers Cross is completed in the mid-2020s.

Airport connections

So Aldergrove. There are three options for an airport station:

The old Aldergrove station

The old Aldergrove station served an adjoining aircraft maintenance depot until 1960, but by 1985 little trace remained. I believe it’s just to the east of the village, and has a narrow access road to what is now a private dwelling.  The distance from the terminal is such that you might as well run buses from Crumlin anyway for all the additional time it would take.

A new spur to the terminal

From 1916 to 1918, a siding ran from Aldergrove station to the airfield to assist in its construction, but this trackbed would only have led into what is now the army base.  A new spur would have to cut across past the fire training school, across Seacash Road, and through the long term car park to reach the terminal, and another alignment to rejoin the main railway line.  I can foresee demolitions required because of the constraints on how sharp a curve is possible on a railway line, and it all relies on the willingness of people to give up land.

A new station at British Road

British Road crosses the railway line a few minutes from the terminal, and a station could be provided here.  British Road is narrow, would have to be widened, and also carries a weight restriction.

So we’re talking quite a considerable cost.  We already know that reinstating Lisburn-Antrim as was in 1977 is estimated at £50,000,000, including new platforms to 21st century standards, signalling and a full relay, all of which are definitely needed considering that the line had severe permanent speed restrictions from the mid-1990s and that the signalling was obsolete (arguably it was obsolete in the 1970s…) By the time you add in the road alterations for a new Aldergrove station at British Road, never mind building a spur…

What would be the benefits to passengers of a station at British Road?  With trains passing at (say) 5, 25, 35 and 55 minutes past the hour, you would need two buses to shuttle between the terminal and the station, probably leaving at 15, 25, 45 and 55 minutes past the hour if not earlier.  Time from the terminal building to Belfast?  At least 45 minutes, and with the inconvenience of having to change between bus and train.  The direct bus is quicker except at rush hour, and less inconvenient – the only thing is that the train fare would be cheaper.

Realistically, the only time efficient use for a halt at Aldergrove will be for passengers travelling from Lisburn and west, and from Antrim and north, and even that is doubtful given the existing 109a Ulsterbus service which once ran hourly but has been reduced to two hourly due to sheer lack of demand.  For everyone else knowing that they’re going to have to use a bus, they might as well get it in Belfast and not have to move until they get to the Airport terminal.

Am I being too gloomy?  Some would say yes, but then I have to point out that Translink has lost millions having to run nearly empty services for essential workers during Covid, and they started the year underfunded to the tune of £20 million (we’ve been here before).  They’ve now been forced to find that in management cuts to preserve staff who actually operate the services, including the proposed closure of the Ulsterbus Tours business.  If Translink cannot secure the money required to operate existing services which not only provide a green alternative but are the difference between our road network functioning and grinding to a halt, if the Department for Infrastructure is already underfunded compared to what it requires to maintain the road network in its curent state, never mind NIWater and Translink, what hope is there of getting money to operate additional services?

We will wait and see.  I’m still convinced that we, the ratepayers, should be having our money used to expand services, reducing the need for the private car (the old thing of societal responsibility), meeting our environmental obligations etc.

That though requires a root and branch review of what the Executive currently uses its capital and revenue budgets for, and the strength to abandon pet projects.

Ballinderry, Crumlin and Glenavy are realistic candidates for reopening, as long as the defunding of what was DRD I noted in 2014 can be reversed – or will it just be another case where the Committee chair blames the department for the Executive (specifically the Finance Minister) refusing to fund what is now DfI properly so that it isn’t able to do what it ought?

Of course there is a far bigger story there of prioritisation of funding which is going to come back to bite Northern Ireland as “efficiency savings” prove to result in service cuts because too few politicians are willing to recognise that you only get what you pay for.

But I won’t stop dreaming.