TRANSLINK has moved to allay fears that rail travel between Larne and Whitehead could become a thing of the past due to proposed service cuts.
As reported in the Times, the rail company intends to introduce a reduced timetable in the new year that will slash the number of services operating on that stretch of the Larne line due to “funding pressures”.
At the latest monthly meeting of Larne Council, Translink’s general manager Mal McGreevy reiterated his intention to go ahead with the cuts unless additional funding becomes available.
He said: “We run 143 trains a week between Whitehead and Larne in both directions, and the morning and evening services account for about 40 per cent of all passengers. The rest carry about 10-12 people per train, which is just about enough to support a mini-bus service, but not a rail service.
“I am unable to sustain the number of services between Whitehead and Larne, and plan to reallocate some of these services to the Whitehead to Belfast section of the line,” he said.
However, Mr McGreevy was quick to dismiss members’ fears that the cuts could lead to the phasing out of the Larne to Whitehead route.
“I do not want to see the Larne to Belfast route become the Whitehead to Belfast route,” said Councillor Martin Wilson.
But Mr McGreevy described that scenario as “highly unlikely” and added: “We would be unique in the northern hemisphere if we started downgrading railway lines. I really do not see the Larne to Whitehead section closing, and I hope that the service cuts will be a short-term measure.”
Mr McGreevy also told elected representatives that he believed the newly introduced Class 4000 rolling stock would lead to an increase in the number of rail users on the Larne line.
“In 2006 we revamped and increased services on the Larne line, but passengers have not responded to that and we have not seen the growth we expected. But I am confident that with these new trains, those 10 passengers per train will grow to 30 and then 50 in the future. We are anticipating a significant growth on the Larne line over the next two or three years,” he said.
Members were told that the new fleet of trains would bring a host of benefits for local rail users, such as fewer delays and faster journey times.
“The new Class 4000 trains will way outperform the older Class 3000 stock in terms of reliability. Also, they have much greater acceleration performance, meaning they will cut about 7-8 minutes off the current journey times of the older trains.”
Alderman Roy Beggs said it was “very encouraging” to see more passengers making use of the new trains, but expressed disappointment that the Larne line has been “the last to benefit” from Translink investment.
He added: “Now we are being told that it will be another two to three years before the Larne line is comparable to other areas. Have you seriously sought funding specifically for an upgrade to the Larne line?”
Mr McGreevy responded that Larne line was “second or third” on Translink’s list of priorities for future investment.
“We have been focusing on where there is the greatest need, which has been the Ballymena to Coleraine section of the network. Coleraine to Londonderry is the next greatest, and while the section from Whitehead to Larne is due for renewal, it is not at the same priority level as the others,” he added.
Councillor Mark McKinty suggested that a park and ride would be of great use to rail travellers in Ballycarry, who currently have to travel to Whitehead to avail of such a facility.
Mr McGreevy said the potential for a park and ride in the village has been under discussion with Roads Service for the past 10 years, but added that the current road layout would not be able to sustain the additional traffic. He also said that such a scheme in Ballycarry was “right down at the bottom of the priority list”, especially after the recent major investment in upgrading park and ride facilities in Carrickfergus.
Councillor Winston Fulton believed that more people would travel by rail if there was better connectivity between bus and train services.
“It would probably suit a lot of people to take the train to work each day, but they are not using it because they would have to walk a long way to get to and from the station if they lived somewhere like Craigyhill. What are you doing to attract people onto the trains and what help are you giving them?” he asked.
Councillor Brian Dunn echoed this statement and said: “The right way to increase numbers is to take people to the train station by bus. Larne only really has one station, whereas Carrick has three. So a bus service for rural dwellers would be useful.”
Mr McGreevy said there was a successful Goldline bus service operating from Craigyhill to Belfast. “People would favour a direct bus service rather than getting a bus to the station, waiting for a train and then taking the train into Belfast,” he claimed.
Councillor Oliver McMullan said many people from rural areas of the borough would often travel to Ballymena to use the train rather than make use of the station in Larne.
“I think Translink has dropped the ball in terms of publicity when it comes to the Larne line, as the Larne