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Line reopening signals fresh start for N Ireland rail

A VALENTINE'S night meeting of the Railway Civil Engineers Association heard the significant, if not romantic, details of the reopening of a Northern Ireland railway line.

After years of underinvestment in the railways, leading to the threat of closure of the whole railway system last year, the reopening is seen as a new start for railways in the province.

Coupled with the decision earlier this year by the Northern Ireland Assembly to invest in the railways, the future does indeed look brighter.

The most recent manifestation of the policy to revitalise the railways has been the ú12M construction contract to reopen the Bleach Green to Antrim line to passenger and freight traffic.

In what speaker John Barnett, infrastructure and property executive for Northern Ireland railways, described as the region's equivalent of Beeching, the line was closed in 1978 following the Benson report.

Over the past 20 years the line had fallen into disrepair, and required a complete overhaul.

There were numerous over and under structures, 20 occasional crossing points, a house so close to the line that the occupier was using an old signal post as a washing line, and badgers - a protected species - inhabiting undergrowth next to the track.

Northern Ireland's railway is a different gauge to Britain's at 1,600mm, and getting hold of compatible plant proved difficult for contractors - even involving borrowing a steam locomotive from the local railway preservation society. Manual track laying meant the contract proved very labour intensive.

But the new engineering type contract set up to promote non-confrontational working enabled main contractor Farrans, and subcontractor Henry Boot Rail to complete a testing contract successfully.

The track was relaid using continuously welded rail and concrete sleepers, with a nominal 300mm thickness of ballast, giving a 150km/h line speed.

In all, 24km of track was laid, incorporating a 3km double tracked passing section in the middle of the run. A new signalling system was installed - and the badgers relocated.

The line was commissioned in December. With driver training complete, it is hoped that the first train will travel on the line in March. Eight trains a day are planned to use the route, providing a valuable additional service to passengers in the north of the province.

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