Ulster's rusting trains trundle ever more slowly on weed-choked tracks

Most of the railway network in Northern Ireland is under threat of closure amid fears that the system no longer meets basic safety standards.

Most of the railway network in Northern Ireland is under threat of closure amid fears that the system no longer meets basic safety standards.

After years of under-investment the 210-mile railway now requires work costing £183m, and its future depends on the findings of a government task force due to be published shortly.

The rail network, which carried five million people last year, is in such poor repair there are fears that a single derailment could prompt an emergency closure.

It is in a semi-derelict state, with 40-year-old trains trundling along weed-infested track that is gradually becoming unusable. Passenger numbers are declining, in contrast to the recently refurbished Belfast-Dublin line, where patronage went up by 40 per cent after new trains were introduced four years ago and which would be retained even if the rest of the network was shut down.

A report by specialist consultants AD Little found that £183m needed to be spent on new rolling stock, track refurbishment and signalling equipment over the next decade to ensure the safety of the system. The consultants warned that two thirds of the rolling stock is rusting so badly that it must be replaced within eight years. In addition, half the track needs immediate replacement. The possibility of closure has aroused considerable public anger, including a 25,000 strong petition organised by the Belfast Telegraph which is running a "Save our Railways" campaign.

In announcing the task force, the Northern Ireland minister, Adam Ingram, warned that "difficult decisions" would have to be made and "there has to be a real question mark over the priority expenditure on that scale [the £183m estimate in the AD Little report] should have against the many other pressing demands on public expenditure."

The route likely to be targeted for immediate closure is the network's longest line, linking Northern Ireland's two biggest cities, Belfast and Londonderry. The journey between the two cities, that used to take 90 minutes in the 1960s, now takes an hour longer because of the state of the track and trains.

However, the complex devolved politics of Northern Ireland may come to the railways' rescue because the line runs through the constituencies of several prominent politicians across the sectarian divide, including Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein and Gregory Campbell and the Reverend Ian Paisley of the DUP.

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