Following a formal submission under Section 60(2) of the Transport Act (Northern Ireland) 1967 from Northern Ireland Railways, I have decided to give my consent to the discontinuance of rail services on the Antrim-Lisburn railway line in Northern Ireland. I will be informing Northern Ireland Railways forthwith. I am placing a memorandum setting out the background to this decision in the House of Commons Library, the House of Lords Library and the Northern Ireland Assembly Library.I should make it clear that this statement relates to the branch line running from Antrim via Crumlin, Glenavy, Ballinderry and Knockmore on to Lisburn. There will continue to be rail services between Antrim and Lisburn via Belfast. The future of services on this line has been under review for some considerable time. I have given this matter careful consideration. I have reached my decision against a backdrop of other competing transportation priorities in Northern Ireland, taking into account financial feasibility, value for money and wider social and economic considerations. The need for services on this line has been assessed according to future population growth and the condition of the existing infrastructure and rolling stock requirements. Translink (the public transport operating group in Northern Ireland) have estimated that to retain regular services on this line would require track maintenance costs of £565,000 per annum and in due course a sum of £13 million to modernise the line. These costs, in addition to the allocation of rolling stock, cannot be justified, at least for the foreseeable future.Services on the line have been reduced since June 2001. Prior to this, there were 11 train services each way on weekdays, 9 on Saturdays and 3 on Sundays. Even when full services operated on the line less than 160 passenger journeys per day originated or terminated at stations on the line. In 1998–99 the passenger activity on this line accounted for 0.82 per cent. of the total usage of the Northern Ireland Railway network. Translink estimate that the current average patronage level is in the region of 70 passenger journeys per day.Services will, therefore, be discontinued from June 2003 onwards. However, I am approaching this matter in the following manner:
abandonment of the line is not being considered at this stage;
the line will be maintained to a standard that will enable trains to use it in emergency circumstances, albeit under strict safety rules and speed restrictions. This arrangement will be reviewed after one year of operation to ascertain the actual usage of the line for diversionary purposes. The review will consider the full range of options for the future usage of the line at this stage;
Translink is committed to consult proactively with local people affected by the discontinuance of services to ensure that bus substitution and regular bus services are integrated with the aim of providing enhanced bus services; and
the possibility of the line being modernised to become part of a Belfast-Lisburn-Antrim-Belfast passenger circle line, as envisaged in the "Regional Development Strategy for Northern Ireland 2025", remains a longer-term possibility. This would depend on there being a robust financial, economic, social and transportation case showing it to be a worthwhile use of resources, and on the agreement of the Executive that it was an affordable priority within a future Budget.
In reaching this decision I was fully cognizant of the importance which the Northern Ireland Assembly accorded to improving public transport in Northern Ireland, manifested in the Assembly's approval of the strategic direction and underlying principles of the "Regional Transportation Strategy for Northern Ireland 2002–12" last July. I am fully committed to the development of public transport in Northern Ireland. In the December 2002 Budget, an extra £40 million was allocated for the bus replacement programme over the next 3 years, and an extra £40 million has been allocated for the ongoing modernisation of the core railway network in Northern Ireland over the same period. 'These allocations are over and above the resources already allocated for the purchase of new trains and for rail safety.
However, significant challenges lie ahead if we are to provide quality and frequently used bus and rail services, and to tackle the wider transportation challenges in Northern Ireland. This will inevitably lead to difficult choices about priorities, and the requirement is to target investment where the value for money and transportation outturns can be fully justified.
I acknowledge that the discontinuance of services on the Antrim-Lisburn line will be disappointing to communities serviced by the line. However, the cost of maintaining the services could not be justified, given the very low level of passenger usage; and bus substitution services will be made available by Translink. Getting the balance right between competing transportation priorities is a challenge for all of us.