Portadown Armagh Railway Society (PARS), which has been campaigning for the past 11 years, has described a recent funding announcement as a “major milestone”.
Just a few days ago, Transport Secretary Mark Harper announced the UK government was awarding £800,000 to Translink to deliver a feasibility study on reinstating the line.
It came less than two weeks after a technical study, jointly funded by the Department for Infrastructure and Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council, concluded the Armagh Portadown railway line project was “operationally feasible, technically deliverable and would promote sustainable transport across the borough and wider region”.
Derek Smyth, a members of PARS and a retired European project manager for DuPont, said the group was “very hopeful and excited” by the funding news.
He said: “The study will start looking at real costs – how many bridges will be needed, what will be involved, construction etc.
“We are very pleased to have got to this stage, although we have had, and still do have, our naysayers along the way.
“This is money from the department in England, it’s not from the Stormont budget. It’s the relatively straight-forward nature of this project that makes it feasible – it’s a 10-mile track with more than 85 per cent of the original line through open fields and much of the infrastructure still intact.
“We want to see a modern service for people in the city. We envisage a through service from Belfast to Armagh, stopping at Portadown.”
Society chairman and retired civil servant William Hutchinson, whose father worked with Great Northern Railway (GNR) and who, as a boy, spent Saturdays with him in the signal box at Portadown railway station, is equally optimistic about the future of the project.
He said: “The government currently has a green policy with emphasis on active, sustainable travel.
“Train passengers could be in Portadown in 11 minutes and Belfast in just under 40 minutes. The fastest bus from Armagh to Portadown at present is 28 minutes.
“We want to get cars off the road, not accommodate more. There’s a huge carbon count when you build roads.”
Armagh has previously been named by the World Health Organisation as failing to meet air quality safety levels.
Armagh railway station first opened on March 1, 1948 and closed in 1957, and the vision now is not only to reinstate the local line but to look beyond to the rest of Ireland.
The recently published All-Island Strategic Rail Review has also recommended the re-opening of the Portadown to Armagh railway line. The recommendation includes a further extension from Armagh to Monaghan, all the way to Mullingar, via Clones and Cavan.
The society – formed in 2012 – and which has between eight and nine members, has taken many photos of what is left of the path of the Armagh to Portadown railway line and has used its own money to pay for a drone to take footage of its entire length (see below).
It has been a slow, steady journey to get to this stage, with the group “getting on a project footing” and working closely behind the scenes with council and statutory bodies.
A survey in 2014 – orchestrated by local campaigner Suzan McComb – was signed by 10,000 people who said they would like the railway line to be reinstated.
A railway working group was consequently formed within the council and a scoping study carried out.
Said Derek: “On the strength of the scoping study we went to Nichola Mallon, who was then Minister for Infrastructure.
“That was in 2021 and it was when the real breakthrough came. She asked a lot of questions and and literally the next day her technical folk were contacting the council and they agreed to co-fund the technical study, the results of which have just been published.”
As for cost, Derek, who grew up about 50m away from ‘The Derry Road’ – a stretch of railway line between Portadown and Derry – says the rail project has been shown to make economic sense for the future.
“Modelling that was done for the study does not take into account any tourism benefit and we believe that is a major justification for making Armagh city accessible,” he said.
“That would be the icing on the cake when the railway comes because we will see a big uptake in visitors and tourists coming to Armagh to spend their money.
“We believe the line could be open in Armagh by 2030, if there is a will.”
A poll carried out by Armagh I last month showed a sizeable majority in favour of bringing back the railway line, with 71 per cent saying ‘bring back the trains to Armagh’, 22 per cent saying ‘fix the roads’ and seven per cent saying ‘it’s all just a dream’.
Looking ahead, to the ideal integrated travel plan, both Derek and William believe a bypass is also needed, to take traffic, particularly heavy goods vehicles, off the mall.
But that could be a fight for another day.
In the meantime, their efforts are concentrated on the railway line.
The group has invited Armagh DEA councillors to a meeting this week. So far, two have replied but they are hoping all six will attend.
“We think we are at a very important stage in our campaign. We need to keep the momentum up now,” they said.