Christy Parker hears how the disused line between Youghal and Midleton should be restored as a rail link rather than made into a featureless greenway
Draft plans by Cork County Council to convert a disused railway line into a greenway would be “the most strategically senseless action ever carried out” by the local authority.
The claim is being made in a submission to the county council on its proposals to reinvent the single track railway line between Youghal and Midleton.
Liam Burke, a retired teacher and former member of Youghal Town Council for 20 years, representing the Green Party, insists the potential to restore the 23km route as a rail link should be retained instead.
The closing date for submissions to County Hall in a public consultation process on the proposed greenway is Tuesday, October 30.
In his submission, Mr Burke notes: “Youghal is within the internationally recognised 45-minute rail commuting distance from Cork.
“And given the outstanding performance of Cork-Cobh (908,000 passenger journeys, 2017) and Cork-Midleton (413,000 passenger journeys), one would imagine a firm recommendation being made for reopening the Midleton-Youghal line.”
Mr Burke cites Cork-Midleton, Ennis-Limerick, and Athenry-Ennis as just three examples of rail lines that were “emphatically” closed but later reopened “due to unanticipated increases in commuter mobility and traffic congestion”.
He believes the greenway proposal contradicts at least three reputable transportation studies since 2000.
They include Iarnrod Éireann’s Strategic Review of the Cork Suburban Rail Network in 2000. Its qualitative ranking of six options ranked Midleton-Youghal reopening as second option.
A 2002 Cork suburban rail feasibility study remarked of the rail line that “the potential would exist to extend the route from Midleton to Youghal in the future.”
Furthermore, the Cork Area Strategic Plan 2001-20, concludes that a rail service to Youghal “may be feasible in the future.”
Against that background, Mr Burke says abandoning the option “represents short-term, visionless thinking and a complete absence of strategic forward planning for the sake of having a quick-fix greenway on land in public ownership”.
Mr Burke insists a restored rail service would reduce pollution that a projected increase in population and car ownership would bring and contribute to “Ireland’s obligation to reduce its carbon emissions”.
With the seaside resort increasingly a post-industrial satellite town for industrialised Cork and Carrigtwohill, he sees the ever-increasing traffic on the N25 as furthering his argument.
The rail line had opened as a Cork-Youghal service in 1860. Daily passenger services ceased in 1963, with goods traffic ending in 1981 and the final passenger excursion departing in 1987.
Operating as a single track with a turntable, the line was never formally closed: it simply fell into disuse.
Mr Burke accepts that constructing greenways on some abandoned rail lines has merit.
In his submission, he contends that the Youghal-Midleton line “has always retained the possibility of being restored, and for good reason”.
While Youghal’s history overflows with images of trains disgorging thousands of visitors at Youghal strand, the ex-teacher is motivated not by nostalgia but by future projections.
Locally, pro-greenway advocates outline the phenomenally successful Waterford greenway as proof of their pursuit but Mr Burke feels the east Cork equivalent has far less potential.
“Waterford has a tunnel, bridges, viaducts, and magnificent coastal scenery”, he surmises.
“The scenic quality along Midleton-Youghal is nil.
“It has no outstanding natural or man-made feature, just flat, featureless farmland or hazardous marsh, with its attendant dangers.”
He is sceptical that visitors to the route will find much enthralment with “farmers’ boundary ditches” which, he argues, will undermine “the greenway’s potential to attract tourists through any reputational value”.
On that ground alone, he says, “the proposed route fails the high ‘scenic quality’ funding criterion laid down by the Department of Trade Tourism and Sport”.
The plan also envisages a 2.6km boardwalk across the adjacent wildlife preservation area of Ballyvergan Marsh.
“Have they considered the inherent dangers,” asks Mr Burke, “with quagmires, drainage channels, and hidden pools of water — not to mention inaccessibility for emergency services?”
Cork County Council says the route will be leased long-term from CIE, with the transport company retaining the option of reverting to rail at any time.
Mr Burke views that provision as “mere spin”, and that the greenway will “end forever any possibility of the rail link returning”.
He says similar situations in Britain have proved “politically impossible” as greenway and railway have remained mutually exclusive.
As an alternative attraction, the former councillor suggested extending the Youghal eco boardwalk at Claycastle along a 15km coastal route, past Pilmore and Ballymacoda to Knockadoon.
“With appropriate funding ‘the longest boardwalk in Ireland’ would be an amenity of outstanding coastal scenery and of regional importance, while the vital infrastructural asset of the railway line would be preserved,” he says.
If we tarmac over the tracks, Youghal loses a key city link
By Liam Quaide
On a recent radio show, 96FM host PJ Coogan lamented plans by Cork County Council to tarmac over the Youghal-Midleton railway line to create a greenway for walking and cycling.
He spoke of a similarly short-sighted move by the State in 1961 to close down the West Cork railway network. Imagine, he suggested, what it would be like to be able to commute easily by train between Cork City and towns such as Kinsale and Bandon?
These are not fanciful notions. As the population of Cork city and county is set to increase by approximately 300,000 over the next 30 years and with traffic gridlock a daily feature of our working lives, this is exactly how we should be considering our transport needs.
The Youghal to Midleton railway line last carried passengers for regular journeys in 1963. Local representatives have lobbied for years to have it reopened. The loss of industries in recent decades has impacted badly on Youghal, and it has struggled to regain its status as a thriving coastal town.
Youghal has serious potential for redevelopment as a place to live and as a tourist destination. A key element in this has to be good public transport links with the rest of Cork.
Planning Youghal’s future development should be part of a broader plan for Cork city and county. Midleton had its rail line to Cork reopened in 2009. It is well used by commuters and is generally regarded as an asset to the town.
Critics point to the fact it is running at a significant loss. Some public services are costly but this is outweighed by their broader benefits to society and the economy.
The true value and viability of a Youghal to Midleton rail line would lie in its connection with other rail links as part of a transport masterplan for our growing population.
Imagine being able to take a train from Youghal to Cork, and from there a light rail to UCC or Bishopstown or Douglas. This is the kind of ambitious, broad picture planning that Cork needs. The Government’s Project 2040 mentions light rail for Cork but advances no plans to build it.
The value of greenways is unquestioned. As well as being fantastic tourist amenities which generate income for local economies, they connect rural communities.
Greenways allow children to walk and cycle to school away from the danger and pollution of traffic.
However, only a short-sighted business model of public services would decree Youghal unworthy of a rail line. Commute times on the N25 are getting longer and longer all the time, and are a serious quality-of-life issue for many people.
This is only going to worsen as our population grows. No matter how many roads we build, cars will continue getting caught coming into Cork City and the Jack Lynch Tunnel. Stewing in traffic for a good part of the working day is no way to live. It impinges on family life and wellbeing and is a waste of time.
Investing in a quality public transport system would ensure the region can grow in a well-planned way, easing congestion on our roads and allowing students, workers, and the elderly to travel as efficiently as our neighbours in other developed European countries.
Buses are not going to provide for the transport needs of east Cork commuters in the long term and, in fact, are not doing so at present. Population growth would concentrate around rail links, commerce would happen more smoothly, and the lines would gradually become less costly to run. Rail travel also facilitates cycling in that many people combine both for long journeys.
The UN published a landmark report this month which highlighted the essential steps we need to take in the next 12 years to decarbonise our societies if we are to prevent catastrophic and runaway climate change.
Joseph Curtin, UCC climate change researcher, estimates that Ireland will face fines of several billion euro by 2030 if we do not meet our emission reduction targets. Part of decarbonising will be a radical development of public transport.
The fact that politicians to date have failed to return the rail service to Youghal is not an argument to give up now. The CIE is a State body and with enough collective political will we can start planning for our future like any other developed European country.
If we tarmac over the tracks we will be cutting Youghal off from a key infrastructural link with Cork city indefinitely. We would stand no realistic chance of reconverting the line, and attempting to do so would be a grossly expensive and complicated endeavour.
The Green Party fully supports a greenway for east Cork, and recognises the much-needed boost to the local community and economy it would bring.
However, we do not believe an essential public service should be sacrificed in bringing it about.
We advocate a broad-picture approach to the development of Cork county and believe that it is worth fighting for both a railway and a greenway.
Liam Quaide is a psychologist and East Cork local election candidate for the Green Party