The new cycleway that is to be provided along the route of the disused Mullingar to Athlone rail route won’t be laid on the track itself, but alongside it, Westmeath county council members have been promised.
Council official Barry Kehoe told members of the council at their April monthly meeting that there was room for a three-metre cycle path beside the track, and he assured them that the council remained committed to seeing the rail link between Athlone and Mullingar reopened.
Public consultation is to begin now on the suggested cycle path, which is to form part of a cycling route running across the country from Dublin to Galway, with the Westmeath portions running in to Mullingar from the Meath border alongside the Royal Canal; and on to Athlone alongside the disused rail track.
“The corridor is wide enough for double tracking, and the existing line will be left in place. The cycleway will be 3m wide,” Mr Kehoe said.
At the monthly meeting, some councillors said they had been under the impression that the cycle path was to be laid on the track itself.
That, they feared, would be the final nail in the coffin for hopes of a reopening of the line.
Cllr Denis Leonard in particular voiced this concern, and also suggested that the route should run along the old N6, which would mean cycling tourists would pass through towns such as Rochfortbridge, Milltownpass, Kilbeggan and Tyrrellspass as well as Mullingar, Athlone and Moate.
Mullingar could then, he added, become a recreational cycling hub.
“Believe it or not, I share a lot of Cllr Leonard’s concerns,” stated Cllr Frank McDermott.
“I have got a lot of representations from many organisations voicing their concern regarding wheither the line will be affected – or removed,” he stated.
“Give the rail authorities half an excuse and they will never let a train on it again,” he said.
Cllrs Mick Dollard and Fintan Cooney were also anxious that the cycle track should not run on the actual train line, although Cllr Cooney admitted that everyone is sceptical about the chances of the rail line opening again.
In a presentation to the members, Mr Kehoe said that there is an increasing focus on healthy holidays, and he cited the success of the Greenway type of project, such as that in Mayo which sees 1,000 cyclists a day during the summer.
However, he said, the N6 route could not be used for this purpose. “If more than 1,000 cars a day are on a road, cyclists won’t use it and the old N6 carries more than that at the moment”.
In addition, if that route had been chosen, the cycleway could not have been marketed as a segregated corridor.
Mr Kehoe said that as part of the project to provide a full 200km cycle track from Dublin to Galway, the stretch from the Royal Canal to the Meath border would be completed by the end of this year.
When complete, the cycleway will be marketed both nationally and internationally, he said, going on to point out that there are 110 pubs, restaurants and cafes within 5km of the track, and 66 establishments offering accommodation.
The intention is, he continued, to commence the Part VIII process in the summer, and to bring it back to the council for approval before the end of the year, and to start it in 2014.
“We would hope it can be constructed by direct labour,” he stated.
Reacting to the presentation, Cllr Boxer Moran said that this was a brilliant story for tourism in Westmeath.
Cllr Mark Cooney described it as a “win-win” bringing benefits to every town, while Cllr Frankie Keena said it was a “no-brainer”, although he noted that at present, the rail line can be a place for anti-social behaviour and dumping.
Cllr John Dolan said it was a hugely important project, and he doubted there would be trains going down the track for some time.
Cllr Gabrielle McFadden also felt strongly that the project should go ahead, and Cllr Tom Allen was delighted, and hoped to see a coffee shop at the derelict Moate railway station, and perhaps the opportunity for steam train excursions along the track.
Cllr Paddy Hill also welcomed it.
“I don’t think any of us will ever see anything unless someone takes up Cllr Allen’s suggestion of a steam train,” he said referring to the hopes of the line being reopened to rail traffic.
Cllr Paul Daly hoped places such as Streamstown would also benefit, while Cllr Ken Glynn was relieved to know the track would not be covered over.