February 16th 2011The recession has meant hard times for Ireland, Tim Casterton reports...
Despite this, rail freight in the country is bucking the trend, turning in a €1m profit for Iarnród Éireann last year. Now for the first time in many years expansion is taking place driven by the tightening of HGV drivers' hours, rising fuel costs and environmental considerations.
Surprisingly, the catalyst for this modest expansion is the small town of Ballina in the North West of Ireland. For a few years now the small freight yard here has been a thriving hub serving the DFDS, formally Norfolk Line, container trains to and from Waterford and the pulpwood trains run for the Irish forestry company Coillte. Last year these services were joined by the new IWT container train services from Dublin Port.
Such is the buoyancy of these services that the small yard (a loop and two sidings) is now being expanded with the reinstatement of the former Crossmolina Siding just north of the station (accessed via the level crossing) for the stabling of trains awaiting loading.
Apparently both DFDS and IWT are negotiating with adjacent landowners for space to store containers and it is also possible that power supplies may be installed in the future so that refrigeration units on containers can be run.
In the east, the Port of Dublin is responding to a report that suggested that it becomes rail connected again by reinstating tracks from the Alexandra Road Tramway back into the port. This would allow trains to be loaded or unloaded directly by the gantry crane.
Currently the IWT container trains are loaded and unloaded on the tramway and this involves quite a bit of shuttling of containers to and from the port complex. This extension should be completed in April this year and following this, it is possible that a further extension into the Dublin Ferry Terminal may be restored, thus giving access to the Eucon terminal.
Once the extension into Dublin Port is completed, IWT expect to increase the weekly number of container or liner trains from the port from three to five on the Ballina route and in longer term will look at serving other destinations. Cork has to be considered as a strong possibility for such services. The port has also received expressions of interest in further use of rail by other freight customers.
More good news for Iarnród Éireann's Freight Division was the new contract for transporting pulp wood from Ballina and Westport to Waterford. This allows for a 20% increase in tonnage during 2011 to around 60,000 tonnes.
Last year some 135 trains were operated for Coillte and the new contract should see this number rise to around 160 trains this year. Another exciting development is the possibility of the introduction of a long haul service from Londonderry to Waterford and talks are presently taking place regarding this. For the time being though, this traffic flow is being moved by sea.
If this Londonderry flow does start, it will be the first time freight traffic of any nature has operated on Northern Ireland Railways tracks for many years. The south end of the Belfast to Dublin line does still see regular freight traffic of zinc ore from the Tara Mines near Navan, with this producing around three daily services to Dublin North Wall for export.
No one should underestimate the gravity of Ireland's financial problems. Railways however represent an optimistic light in the beleaguered Irish economy.