Farm Ireland

Wednesday 14 November 2018

Getting walkways on track is a route to rural riches

Taking steps to develop more of our defunct rail lines would bring huge growth to dying areas

John Mulligan

John Mulligan

At its peak in the 1920s, Ireland had more than 5,000km of railway, but sections closed as traffic declined and only lines connecting large centres of population to the capital have survived the switch to road transport.

The growth of private car ownership, improved roads and more efficient management of freight distribution have all contributed to the demise of the railways. The earlier canal network itself declined with the onset of the railway age.

All technology, it seems, has its cycle.

The demise of this infrastructure has left us with a residual legacy of routes driven through the countryside by the railwaymen and the canal companies. In the present difficult climate, how can we best use these corridors for the benefit of local communities and the country as a whole? In the case of the railways, should we cling to dreams of reopening lines at some time in the future or move now to extract value from these assets, bringing jobs and growth to areas that have declined in tandem with the original networks?

The most obvious approach works well elsewhere -- using defunct rail lines as cycling and walking routes to attract and retain tourists in the areas once served by the lines. In Britain, considerable sections of these old routes have been transformed into cycling and walking trails, not only increasing tourist numbers but also creating local amenities that are far safer than busy roadways for cyclists and walkers.

In the US, railway trails are popular destinations in themselves; the Cape Cod rail trail has spawned an entire tourist industry with bicycle hire, cafes and accommodation businesses flourishing along its length. The New Zealand Rail Trail through the old mining district of Central Otago supports more than 100 accommodation providers and dozens of other businesses along its 150km route, and is a destination of choice not only for New Zealanders but for tourists from all over the world.

The alternative view suggests that some of the more recently retired lines can be reopened. The lobby group "West on Track" is opposed to any proposals to exploit the Mayo-Sligo corridor for short-to-medium term tourism development, preferring to wait until conditions favour the reopening of the line to rail traffic.

Although the somewhat optimistic plans of the last Government only ever included a reopening of the rail line from Ennis to Claremorris, the campaigners feel that it may be possible to complete the rail link all the way to Sligo, turning the clock back to restore the infrastructure of the early 1900s.

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Other observers dispute this. Brendan Quinn, the Sligo-based promoter of a proposal to create a cycling and walking route from Claremorris to Collooney, believes that this project would bring life to towns and communities along the route, repeating the success of the recently opened route from Newport to Achill.

Mr Quinn believes that a harvest of 'tired, hungry tourists' can deliver far more benefit to the west of Ireland than the weed and briar crop that currently chokes the old railway route.

There are other proposals out there too. Campaigners in Donegal, mindful of the success of the Newport-Achill greenway, want the old Donegal railway network reopened as a cycling and walking trail. In Leitrim, others have a similar view around the old Sligo, Leitrim and Northern Counties Railway that links Sligo and Enniskillen. In the South-west, campaigners want to extend the successful Rathkeale-Abbeyfeale rail trail onwards to its original destination in Tralee.

It has taken 20 years of lobbying and voluntary commitment to get the Limerick section completed, but now the county has a facility that is internationally recognised as the best of its kind.

However, as local campaigner Denis McAuliffe points out, the real potential of the trail cannot be exploited because of opposition to plans to extend it to Tralee. Despite the obvious success of the project, local objectors seem set to block any attempt to complete the route through North Kerry.

People who oppose the development of trails appear to take that stance for a variety of reasons, some logical, others less so. There is a fear that walkers and cyclists passing along designated trails are somehow a threat and might trespass, leave gates open, or damage crops.

In fact, such fears could more correctly be directed at motorists; most rural crime tends to involve a vehicle of some kind. In some cases, farmers who have been squatting on long-closed lines or canal banks for decades are reluctant to relinquish the extra strip of land involved.

In the case of the Mayo-Sligo Greenway, there is a genuinely held belief that the railway will be reopened, despite the lack of any plans by Government for such an outcome and notwithstanding that funding for any such project is a couple of decades away, at best.

Part of the reason for these objections is fear; fear of the unknown, fear of change, but also an 'I'm all right, Jack' attitude that disconnects the objectors' own concerns from the well-being of the communities in which they live.

A minority of people in rural areas fail to make the connection between this kind of progress and any benefit to themselves, believing that, at best, the development of a trail through their area might result in a few euro for the local bike shop, and little else.

The reality is far different. Because of the lack of long-distance walking routes in Ireland, I do what many Irish hikers do -- I take holidays in Britain and elsewhere to avail of the excellent long-distance routes available in those countries.

Last year, while overnighting at a rural pub and bed and breakfast beside England's Hadrian's Wall Path, I got in conversation with a Northumberland sheep farmer about wayleaves (much of the trail is across private land), and about the influx of tourists that the Wall has brought to that part of the world. I expected some opposition, but his response surprised me.

Far from objecting, he was delighted that the path had been opened. I explained the problems that faced tourism development in Ireland, and the local objections that kept tourists away from rural areas, particularly walking and cycling tourists. Such an attitude hadn't even occurred to him when the idea of the Hadrian's Wall Path was first mooted.

"Before the path came," he said, "this pub was closed. We had to drive 20 miles if we wanted a pint. Now me and the wife can drop down for a beer, or a bit of food, and we meet very interesting people from all over the world."

I asked him whether other farmers felt the same. He told me of friends who had turned disused sheds to a new use, charging walkers £10 a night to roll out their sleeping bags on bunks in communal camping barns.

Some of them were making more money from an old barn than they did from the farm, which "wouldn't be hard", he added wryly. He told me of a small filling station and shop that was able to continue to serve the locality because of the business that tourism brought to the area.

He didn't have one negative viewpoint, and I found his attitude repeated all along the route as I spoke to farmers and business owners. A parade of 'tired, hungry tourists' passing your gate is a cash crop, it seems; they need food and somewhere to sleep.

In Ireland, we lag well behind Europe when it comes to attracting Irish and foreign tourists to the growing area of walking and cycling.

Hungary, a country about the same size as Ireland, has thousands of kilometres of dedicated cycling trails. Britain puts us to shame, and gets the visitors that we could get, if we tried. A Failte Ireland report in 2006 clearly showed that cycling tourists were turning their backs on Ireland, but much of Failte Ireland's policy on cycling still centres on 'hubs and loops', ignoring the requirement for long-distance routes that is at the core of cycling tourism.

Most of the attempts to deal with this issue have come from voluntary groups and individuals; official leadership has been lacking to date.

The result has been a series of plans -- some coming to fruition -- for isolated sections of greenway that are useful in themselves but which do not feed into a national plan and fall short of creating a marketable tourism product. There is no overall strategy that will deliver a combined walking/cycling network, linking major centres of population with scenic areas where people can enjoy our great outdoors safely and in comfort.

It is a simple matter to join the dots and put such a plan in place (see panel, above), but somebody needs to take charge. Too many disparate groups are involved at present; there is no overall strategy, no vision.

Failte Ireland is fragmented

into too many subsets, the NRA is part of a brief for cycling only, Waterways Ireland has no funds and no remit to provide pathways along canal banks, and attitudes across the local authority areas range from supportive to indifferent.

Somebody at cabinet level needs to pull it all together, to bring sustainable tourism and growth to rural communities for the benefit of us all.

John Mulligan is a hiking enthusiast and an author of several books

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