Ireland commits to funding Enterprise replacement from 2027 – what about NI?

Cover of the Irish National Development Plan 2021-30

The Irish National Development Plan is a long document, and I have had little time to do more than skim it, but the key headline spotted by Jonny McCambridge and noted by Mick, one of the concrete proposals in the plan, is the replacement for the Belfast-Dublin Enterprise service by 2027.

The branded Enterprise service was introduced by the Great Northern Railway in 1947, and at one time was extended to Cork.  NIR relaunched its side of the service in 1970 with three Hunslet locomotives (one of which survives at Cultra) and BR Mark 2b coaches running in push-pull formation.  In 1973, CIE introduced its new air conditioned BR Mark 2d coaches, in 1981 NIR bought three new GM locos similar to the 1976 CIE 071 class and some second hand BR Mark 2 coaches to increase and improve the Enterprise service, and these worked the Enterprise until the present trains, consisting of De Dietrich carriages and 201 class locomotives (later supplemented by former Irish Rail Mark 3 generator vans) were introduced in 1996.  By the time that the proposed replacement trains come on stream, the De Dietrich carriages will have been operating the Enterprise for seven years longer than NIR’s Mark 2b carriages did, and for almost as long as the Mark 2b carriages’ total service on the Enterprise and on local and special trains.

The 1990s plan was that a non-stop service would take as little as 90 minutes, but as I noted in this morning’s Belfast Telegraph, there are several complicated reasons why this never happened:

  • The delayed relay of the track between Lisburn and Belfast, by then reduced to 30-40mph
  • The even longer delayed of the relay from City Hospital to Belfast Central, reduced to 20mph before it was rebuilt
  • The omission of much of Lisburn-Lurgan from the relay plans as it had been relaid in the 1980s (only being refreshed now, more than 30 years later)
  • The demand for the service leading to all trains stopping at Portadown, Newry, Dundalk, and, except for the 0800 from Belfast and 1650 from Dublin, Drogheda

Once the work between Lisburn and what is now known as Lanyon Place (incidentally on the Belfast Central railway line) was completed, schedules were sped up, but demands for additional stops at Lisburn slowed the trains again, and the real killer was congestion in the Dublin area, something which Brendan has discussed once or twice.  In late 2015, Alan reported that Irish Rail wanted to reschedule the Enterprise to make it substantially slower to fit around a more intensive DART service, proposals which were somewhat watered down, but still leave the train probably slower like for like than the GM and Mk2s service operated at a maximum of 70mph in the early 1990s.  I’ve occasionally observed that the Enterprise is now travelling through North Dublin so slowly that it would have time to stop at the DART stations.

I wrote a comment for the BelTel last night, which has promoted me to a public transport expert (I prefer “well informed” as rather more accurate), where I identified the key issue: Irish Rail cannot do the replacement on its own: the NI Executive has to step up and fund Translink’s side of the border, for which Translink is developing possibilities including bimode or even trimode trains ahead of electrification required to meet DfI’s zero emissions target.

In the end, two things must happen or nothing will happen:

  • Irish Rail must be allowed to revert to traditional train regulation where space is left between stopping trains to allow express services a clear run – something which applies to outer suburban trains not stopping before Malahide as much as it applies to Belfast trains
  • The Northern Ireland Executive needs to step up with the funding, sufficient to do the job properly in a way that it wasn’t in the 1990s