Network franchise plan shelved

Northern Ireland Railways only has 206 route miles, much of it single track, which is why little attention has been paid to its fate, until today's rail debate.

In a series of Parliamentary answers earlier this year, Junior Northern Ireland minister Malcolm Moss admitted that the Government was looking at privatising the non-core activities, but stressed that a plan to franchise the whole network had been shelved. Although Stagecoach, the acquisitive bus company, has had two meetings with ministers on plans to take over the service, the Government denied there were any firm plans for a takeover.

Northern Ireland benefits from an integrated transport policy that would not be allowed by Tory dogma in Great Britain.

A single company, Northern Ireland Transport Holdings, owns both the railways and the two main bus companies, Ulsterbus and Citybus and therefore runs the services in co-operation with each other.

The lines were nationalised in the late 1940s. Last year, there were 6.14 million passenger journeys for the railways, an increase of over 7 per cent on the previous year. The railways, which are all diesel operated as there are no electrified lines, receive a subsidy of pounds 7.3m, but this amount is declining each year under Government spending restrictions, which is why privatisation is seen as a long-term option.

As in Great Britain many branch lines were closed in the 1950s and 1960s leaving a truncated network.

The main line between Belfast and Dublin was also the subject of regular terrorist attacks which further added to the decline in the infrastructure. The sale would be fiercely opposed by Ulster Unionists through fear that the lines would eventually be taken over by Irish Railways.

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