The ‘circle line’ proposal for Greater Belfast…

Anyone familiar with the Black Mountain and Cave Hill walking trails will know that the city of Belfast is cut off from urban sprawl to its immediate west and north west. This does not mean that the communities at either side of these hills are cut off from one another. To the contrary in fact, the greater Belfast commuter belt takes in the communities from these hills to Lough Neagh in an increasingly service driven economy where Belfast has become a gateway to cosmopolitan life.

Antrim town and Lisburn city have rail links into Belfast but are disconnected from each other and most of their suburban hinterlands. For example, reported in the Irish news in 2018, according to census data from 2001-2011 the two villages of Crumlin and Glenavy grew in population by 20% and 67% respectively. The former is now considered a town. Their halts and line are still there, but they’re closed to passengers and will likely need more investment to reopen.

That’s why during lockdown I began planning a pressure group called the “south antrim railway group” (SARG) to generate more interest in increasing railway coverage for commuters from Antrim to Lisburn (spanning the international airport) who are faced with car dependency in many areas.

John Blair MLA asked for a cost breakdown via an assembly question to infrastructure minister Nicola Mallon. According to official figures, a total of £2m has been spent on the mothballed line since its closure in 2003. This has included capital investment and maintenance spend, there is only one other rail route across the lagan Belfast city centre and this is why it is thought that this track remains in place – crucially though we are talking about a line which just needs to be brought up to passenger carrying standard. 

At the north of the above ordnance survey map, you have Antrim town which is connected to the M2 motorway (the busiest road in NI) at three exits and to the Derry/Londonderry to Belfast railway line. When I wrote to the Newsletter, that unionism should take more seriously the problems of transport west of the Bann, I got a reply from Gregory Campbell which was enlightening as it covered a period post GFA when railways were on the chopping block:

…when I was minister in charge of Regional Development back in 2001 and railways were in dire straits I received a weighty document on my ministerial desk which had a number of options for the future of rail in Northern Ireland.

 

The preferred one was ‘closure of the line north of Ballymena’, the effect of which would have been to close all rail services from Ballymena through Coleraine and on to Londonderry. [edit – now the busiest line in NI, imagine losing that!]

 

I emphatically rejected that as being totally unacceptable and the department then retained the services so that when future finances became available, upgrades rather than closure would be carried out.

Due to ongoing financial pressures the decision later was taken in 2003 to close the line between Antrim and Lisburn. Finances were bad then and are bad now when it comes to infrastructure – our lowest funded department. But now rail is back on the agenda, this is why when a committee at Belfast city council withdrew its support for the York Street Interchange (YSI) road project excitement generated around the possibility of reopening this mothballed line.

The idea of a ‘circle line’ has gained traction on social media with Cllr David Honeyford (who represents the Glenavy area) positing the idea of such a project which could include new halts. I know the community of Templepatrick and Ballyclare well, they are both close to the Ballymartin park and ride which sits on the M2 motorway exit 5. It is currently a bus stop with a railway line passing right next to the site. The planning for a halt never got off the ground because of capacity issues – too many passengers and trains using a mostly single track line from Derry to Belfast.

Numbers are so large now on this Derry to Belfast line that a companion light rail commuter service should be contemplated by translink – similar to what operates in the Republic of Ireland. Creating a circle line service would necessitate upgrades between Antrim town and Belfast (known as “bleach green”) because of the aforementioned capacity pressures already on the line. But with the floundering of road projects generally (A5 and YSI) and COP26 fresh in our collective consciousness, isn’t this the least that our community could be delivering?

If there was a regular, glider inspired, light railway service circling Belfast via Lisburn and Antrim then people might even consider usage within the city itself. It is striking how many currently commute within a few postcodes of Belfast city in a private car. 

When Translink launched its ‘glider’ service, there was instant criticism and a feeling of betrayal at what are diesel ‘bendy’ buses. However, doubters cannot argue with data like this:

Over 2 million additional Glider passenger journeys were made in comparison to previous bus journeys taken along the route – an increase of over 30% – which means around 1.67 million fewer car journeys, reducing congestion and enhancing city air quality.