Campaign for Portadown-Armagh railway builds steam

Calls for a railway link in Armagh are on the rise in the wake of the city’s failed city of culture bid.

The original line that connected Portadown with the city was opened in 1848 as part of the Ulster railway which went on to connect with the west of the province. However, the partition of Ireland in 1922 hastened the railway’s decline, as well as causing logistical problems in regards to goods crossing the border. The line and railway station would be put out of commission by 1963 following the recommendations of the Benson report.

In the last decade there has been a resurgence of interest in reopening the line. In 2014, then Minister of the Department for Regional Development, Danny Kennedy (UUP) include the reopening of the line in a list of potential projects. This proposal was accompanied by a petition signed by 10,000 people in favor of reopening the line, which was submitted by Newry and Armagh MLA Dominic Bradley (SDLP).

More recently a feasibility study has been commissioned by Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon council in regards to reopening the line. Councillor Sam Nicholson (UUP) a supporter of the line’s reopening, and part of the project’s working group, explains the main obstacles in the way. “Obviously the main obstacle is money. But by investing in this technical study we can get an idea of what the costs will be. When we brought the proposals to infrastructure minister Nicola Mallon we had very positive discussions. However, the assembly elections means a new minister in that position who may have different ideas.”

Nicholson is upbeat in regards to both the possibility and potential benefits of a reinvigorated rail network on the island of Ireland. “We don’t want this project to stop at Armagh. We’ve seen a template in England of old railways being reopened as part of initiatives to go green and boost trade. When you look at rail coverage in Ireland it’s the west of the country that has the worst. With an all Ireland rail review coming up we want Armagh to be the first step in a wider reopening of railway lines.

The most vocal supporters of the line’s reopening is the lobby group Portadown-Armagh Railway Society (PARS). It was founded in 2012 and in 2015 gained registered charity status. PARS is one of the main driving forces behind the campaign, undertaking research and delivering presentations to various relevant bodies, including the newly commissioned study.

Society member Derek Smyth outlines the main arguments for the return of the line. ‘Our belief is that Armagh as a city has been isolated from the benefits that having a railway has. There are only two cities in the UK and Ireland that doesn’t sit on a railway, Armagh and St Davids. St Davids only has a population of around 150. So Armagh is the only city of significance to not have a railway line.’

‘Armagh is the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland and it has massive untapped tourist potential. With its observatory and planetarium alongside a number of other historically significant sites and buildings. With cruise ships now coming into Belfast, passengers are looking for places to visit. They often choose to go to places like the north coast because it’s so much easier to get there. Having a railway link would make the city a lot more accessible for tourists.’

The ABC council area has the lowest percentage of tourist income in Northern Ireland. With the number of visitors coming to see friends and relatives three and a half times higher than the number of tourists. In comparison with the city of Londonderry, Armagh has a quarter of the tourist traffic that the walled city attracts.

Additionally, with many experts pushing for increased public transport to play a major role in the fight against climate change, many of it’s supporters argue that reopening the line is a no-brainier. Reopening the line could make Northern Ireland’s infrastructure and transportation systems greener and more efficient.

Phillip Stothers is a 21 year old student who uses the train to commute to Jordanstown. His family farm also lies on a disused section of the railway line. ” Having to get the train at Portadown is definitely an inconvenience. Especially before I could drive as my parents had to drop me off and pick me up. Having a railway station in Armagh would make the railway network a lot more accessible for me and a lot of other people.”

“With the railway line running alongside our family’s orchard, it’s not hard to imagine the opportunities for the business if the line was reopened for freight trains as well as for passenger ones.”

Section of railway line on the Stother’s farm

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