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£2bn needed to repair Northern Ireland's infrastructure

The Northern Ireland Assembly is urgently exploring ways to halt disintegration of the province's road and rail network. Damian Arnold and Steve Turner report.

Northern Ireland needs to spend an extra £2bn on its transport infrastructure over the next 10 years to save it from falling apart.

The extra cash is needed to revamp parts of the 'unsafe' rail network (NCE 22 June) and many kilometres of rural roads that face abandonment because there is no money to repair them (NCE 8 July).

Poor infrastructure has reached crisis levels after 25 years of chronic underfunding according to engineers from Northern Ireland's Department for Regional Development. The failure to invest is in stark contrast to the transport boom being lapped up by contractors and consultants in the Irish Republic.

The Republic's infrastructure was in a similar 'laughable' condition 15 years ago but investment, culminating in £4bn to be spent on Ireland's roads over the next six years, has caused a stampede of UK consultants and contractors to the Emerald Isle.

The north is now faced with the same challenge. The new Irish Assembly, which reconvened in April, has commissioned a study to identify new sources of cash to reduce dependence on public expenditure. It is not expecting huge increases from the Treasury - public expenditure in Northern Ireland is already 64% of GDP, double the rate of spending in other parts of the UK.

A report from consultant Transport and Travel Research is expected to be with ministers this week. It explores new charging options available to raise revenues for transport. Details of the study are veiled in secrecy, but it is understood to include a feasibility study into congestion charging schemes in Belfast - although a source claimed that there was 'tacit acceptance that these measures are unlikely to be used outside Belfast'.

Other options scoped out include workplace parking charges, privately financed road and public transport schemes, compulsory developer contributions towards transport and an increase in the local household tax for the region.

An option that could be implemented sooner rather than later is interurban road tolling according to the Social Democratic and Labour Party's Joe Bryne who sits on the Assembly's Regional Development Committee.

'Road tolling is taking off in the south of Ireland, ' he said. 'I could see a very strong case for some sort of road tolling to fund the West Link road scheme in Belfast. It would be a key market test.'

Byrne added that new revenue sources could also be used to build a light rail system in Belfast.

Potential new revenue sources will be included in Northern Ireland's 10 year plan for transport, expected to go to the Assembly in spring 2001. The plan will not guarantee funds but will fuel the debate said a DRD spokesman:

'Transport is fast climbing up the political agenda, ' he said.

'The main spending priority over the last 10 years has been with industrial development because of high unemployment levels.

Transport has also suffered from the amount spent on security over the last 30 years.'

Optimism is high but politicians have warned that transport could still lose out in future spending rounds, particularly as the new Democratic Unionist DRD minister Gregory Campbell, in line with his party's policy, refuses to attend cabinet meetings.

Byrne says: 'It's very frustrating to see the minister for regional development not sitting in on executive cabinet meetings where all the key decisions are being made on funding. Transport may not get as good a share if the minister is not there arguing his case.'

Crises on the roads Road spending in Northern Ireland needs to rise by 50% says the region's roads agency, the Roads Service.

Although this year's road spending allocation of £170M is £15M up on last year, it will not be enough to arrest the serious road maintenance backlog in the province.

Last year's £43M spend on maintenance was £37M down on the annual requirement of £80M, adding to a backlog already estimated at £100M, according to the National Audit Office for Northern Ireland.

Short term repairs rather than resurfacing add to problems as they do not give long term value for money.

Spending per unit length of road is less than half than in England because, due to the rural road system serving a widely spread population, the region has to maintain two and a half times more road per person.

With roads battered by freight - 99% of all Northern Ireland's goods travels by road - and car ownership set to rise from 700,000 to more than 1M in the next five years, a step change in maintenance spending is urgently needed.

Meanwhile, the strategic road network has still to be completed.

In the short term six road schemes are in the pipeline, including the £46M Belfast Westlink and the A6 Toombridge bypass on the Belfast to Derry road. The schemes were announced by Chancellor Gordon Brown in May 1998 as part of a £350M package for Northern Ireland which included £87M for road schemes.

But the schemes stalled after it emerged that the funds were partly dependent on the sale of Belfast Port to private bidders for around £70M. The Assembly has asked to review the sale and may recommend that the port stays in the public sector. 'The delay might be a knock on to some of these (road) programmes, ' said a DRD spokesman. DA Crises on the railways Problems recently came to a head with the threatened closure of the network. But the starvation of funds has been crippling the system for years.

A report by consultant AD Little in March (NCE 22 June 2000) highlighted the need for £183M in investment in Northern Ireland's railways over the next 10 years.

Without this investment - of which an estimated £117m is required in the first three years - the network will not be able to continue to run safely.

Poor track conditions mean that trains now suffer speed restrictions. The Bangor to Belfast line, for example, should have a 110km/hr speed limit. At present this is 80km/hr and by next year it is predicted that this will be reduced to 50km/hr. Fewer carriages on trains means that congestion and customer dissatisfaction is rising A railway taskforce followed the report to investigate alternatives.

This will present four strategic alternatives to the minister for regional development before the end of August to help him prepare a coherent argument to put to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The four alternatives are:

Allocate £117M to carry out the Little recommendations;

Allocate £117M plus to carry out the Little recommendations and develop the system;

Allocate less than £117M and close part of the network; and Mothball all lines apart from the Belfast to Dublin line.

The proposals will be considered, prior to Northern Ireland's Comprehensive Spending Review in September.

Chancellor Gordon Brown has already allocated more cash to Northern Ireland, but it is up to the Executive to decide how to spend it. But in the past, rail has suffered as roads have been allocated more of the precious budget.

'The assembly as a whole has to vote in favour of greater resources for public transport and infrastructure, ' according to Gregory Campbell, the recently appointed Democratic Unionist Party minister. He described the rail debate as a matter of 'fundamental importance'.

Historically, the railway in Northern Ireland has only been able to attract a fraction of the cash given to the privatised companies in England and Wales.

In 1997/98 the average investment in the UK was £33.20 per head, compared to £5.50 in Northern Ireland. Scotrail received 22.1p per passenger mile, Cardiff 35.8p, Liverpool 41p, the Isle of Wight 64.5p - Northern Ireland got just 5.28p.

Sources also estimate that during the troubles, terrorism has cost the railways up to £300M.

Translink, the publicly owned train operator, is tied by expenditure rules governing public bodies. Private rail companies in England can purchase rolling stock over 25 years - the life expectancy of the vehicles. Public bodies, however, have to purchase the stock up front. ST

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