Irish Rail 071 class engine 085 in charge of the morning tanker service from Dublin Port to Ballina

Ireland at the dawn of a new future for rail freight

A comprehensive All Island Strategic Rail Review is set to bring significant improvements to all of Ireland’s railway network, with a particular emphasis on enhancing rail freight connectivity. The review, jointly commissioned by the Republic of Ireland’s Minister for Transport, Eamon Ryan and Northern Ireland’s Minister for Infrastructure, Nichola Mallon, back in 2021, proposes several transformative rail projects that aim to facilitate efficient freight transportation and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The All Island Strategic Rail Review is set to propose a major boost for rail freight connectivity in Ireland. It may even lead to a reunification of the network across the border between the United Kingdom-administered Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, bringing together business and commercial interests in Belfast and Dublin. The next stage of the report is due to be published before the government in Dublin next month.

Tiny fraction of Irish freight is conveyed by rail

One of the key proposals in the All Island Strategic Rail Review is the establishment of an Atlantic «railway spine» connecting Ballina to Rosslare, opening up new freight connections to ports and encouraging a modal shift from road to rail. Ballina, in the northwest of the Republic of Ireland, is already considered to be Ireland’s intermodal freight hub. Despite that, the facilities in the small northwest town are modest but have the potential to grow significantly and have been seeing limited growth over the past few years, including recent new flows between there and the west coast port of Galway.

General views of Dublin North Wall freight depot with several trains in shot
Image: Flickr. © Cityswift.

The review recommends a major pivot away from roads to railways for both passenger and freight transport, as currently only tiny fraction of freight in Ireland is carried by rail. The proposed Atlantic railway spine would create essential freight links between Ballina and Rosslare in the south – the port that has benefited greatly from redirected European traffic, entering Ireland while avoiding using the so-called land bridge route via Great Britain. That route has become an administrative headache since the Brexit vote. However, the report has a primary focus on enabling efficient transportation of goods. A current barrier to rail freight playing a greater role is the need to divert eastwards towards Dublin before heading north west to Ballina. Historic rail routes have long since been dismantled.

Western counties regain rail after decades disconnected

The report also suggests strengthening rail connections to major deep-water ports like Foynes and Dublin Port to further enhance freight transportation options. One further integral component of the proposed railway spine is the construction of a railway connection between the centrally located town of Athenry, County Galway, and Claremorris, in County Mayo in the west, as well as new connections between the south coast ports of Wexford, Rosslare, and Waterford. According to the report, these additions will improve regional accessibility and foster balanced regional development while facilitating routes for rail freight, and faster and more efficient intercity travel for passengers.

Three quarter shot of the the Irish Rail XPO Logistics intermodal freight train from Ballina to Belview Port, Waterford, standing at the platform awaiting another train to clear a single track section
The Irish Rail XPO Logistics intermodal freight train from Ballina to Belview Port, Waterford. Image: Flickr. © Cityswift.

In parallel with the proposals to boost rail freight, the review aims to reconnect counties Donegal, Cavan, and Monaghan to the national rail network for the first time in decades. By re-establishing rail links from Claremorris in Mayo to Athenry in Galway and from Waterford to Rosslare, the country will have a new rail line running down its west coast Atlantic spine from Ballina to Wexford, further enhancing freight connectivity. Minister Eamon Ryan has emphasised the importance of achieving a significant modal shift from road to rail to meet greenhouse gas emissions targets. The review highlights that rail travel between major towns and cities is currently slower than road travel for most routes. The proposed improvements in line speeds between major cities aim to address this disparity, making rail travel a more attractive and efficient option.

Development will bolster manufacturing industries

Regarding Northern Ireland, the review suggests a railway spur to Letterkenny from the North, connecting it to Derry, Strabane, and Omagh. Although largely for the Northern Ireland administration, the review underscores the potential benefits of reconnecting these towns to the rail network, which could lead to positive impacts on regional development and passenger travel. The All Island Strategic Rail Review presents a promising opportunity for Ireland to enhance its rail freight capabilities significantly.

Currently, there is no rail freight activity in Northern Ireland, but the ambitious proposals in the review may encourage a renewed examination of rail freight potential in the region. By improving freight connections to ports and major cities, Ireland aims to bolster its manufacturing industries with low-carbon shipping solutions, contributing to a greener and more sustainable future for rail freight transportation across the country. The plans are eagerly awaited by stakeholders and are expected to bring transformative changes to Ireland’s rail infrastructure.

Autor/a Simon Walton