UK: This month should see an interim report presented to Britain's Department of Regional Development setting out options for the future of Northern Ireland Railways.

Drawn up by a taskforce of three civil servants, the report was ordered following an assessment commissioned from A D Little by Translink on the physical condition and safety of its 357 km network.

The assessment said that £183m needs to be spent on the 1600mm gauge network over the next 10 years to bring it up to modern standards. In particular, £67m was needed for track and structures, £25m for signalling and partial automatic train protection using TPWS, and £72m for trains. Replacement of the 1970s-built DMUs operating the Belfast - Londonderry services was especially urgent.

Establishment of the task force prompted Ted Hesketh, Managing Director of Translink, the merged operator of NIR and local bus services, to write to all 660 railway staff on June 21 warning them that 'the future of the rail network hangs in the balance'. He noted in his letter that 'the successful Enterprise service (to Dublin) is the only part of the network that is safe from closure.'

He commented that the network 'has been starved for many years, and in these circumstances, closure almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The trains are old and become unreliable, track conditions are bad and services become unattractive so people stop using them.'

Options being examined by the taskforce include franchising or privatising as a way of raising the capital needed to keep the network open. Hesketh promised that he and his Board of Directors 'are committed to the retention and modernisation of the entire network.'