'Urgent need' to improve road links to Cairnryan's flagging Northern Ireland ferry port

More than 800,000 vehicles and 1.75 million passengers a year travel on the Cairnryan-Northern Ireland routes. Picture: Louise Kerr
More than 800,000 vehicles and 1.75 million passengers a year travel on the Cairnryan-Northern Ireland routes. Picture: Louise Kerr
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New dual carriageways and re-opened rail lines to improve links to Scotland’s flagging ferry gateway to Northern Ireland are to be considered by ministers.

Cairnryan area ferry operators Stena Line and P&O said there was a “urgent need” to improve major roads to the port to stop more ferry traffic switching to routes from Liverpool and Holyhead.

All Scotland-Northern Ireland ferry sailings moved to Cairnryan in 2011. Picture: Louise Kerr

All Scotland-Northern Ireland ferry sailings moved to Cairnryan in 2011. Picture: Louise Kerr

Possible schemes include bypasses and dualled stretches of the A77 between Ayr and Stranraer, and on the A75 between Gretna and Stranraer.

The 23 potential projects also feature restoring the rail line between Dumfries and Stranraer, and the Stranraer-Cairnryan stretch.

That would enable ferry passengers to again travel by train, which ended nine years ago when Stena Line moved seven miles from Stranraer to Cairnryan, close to P&O's Loch Ryan terminal on the sea loch.

BACKGROUND: Stranraer waves goodbye to ferries

The Dumfries line, closed 55 years ago, was featured in John Buchan’s The 39 Steps, with fugitive Richard Hannay checking a copy of The Scotsman on a train for news of the police hunt for him.

The schemes will be considered as part of Transport Scotland’s latest Strategic Transport Projects Review after the South West Scotland Transport Study today recommended they should be examined further.

The Scottish Government agency said “the potential merits of new stations and services to improve connections to Glasgow” on the existing line to Dumfries would also be explored.

On possible road improvements, it said: “A continuous programme of improvements for the A77 and A75, including partial dualling, bypassing and other upgrades to replace existing low-quality stretches of the road with higher quality, more efficient and safer alternatives, will also be considered, as will the development of better freight facilities, especially to support the timber industry in the area.”

There are 13 daily sailings between Cairnryan and Belfast or Larne, which carry 1.75 million passengers a year along with more than 400,000 cars and a similar number of lorries.

In a joint statement, Stena Line operations manager Andy Kane and P&O Ferries Cairnryan port manager Craig Rennie said: “We need to reverse the drift of passengers, tourists and hauliers from Loch Ryan and Cairnryan to Liverpool and Holyhead.

“We are optimistic, based on our discussions over several months, that the Scottish Government understands the need for a continuous programme of improvements to the A75 and A77 to achieve that.

“We need a 21st century road network to service what are 21st century ports, and we are very far behind.”

An industry source added: “The Scottish route is the shortest ferry crossing, which is normally desirable.

“However, the road infrastructure at Liverpool and Holyhead has had investment and is significantly better than in the south west of Scotland.

“Hauliers need the certainty over travel times that dual carriageways and motorways offer.

“The A75 and A77 is just too slow, too stop-start too unpredictable.

“There is evidence of traffic accepting more ferry time, or indeed driving to Dublin, to avoid the Scottish roads.”

Motoring group IAM RoadSmart said an early improvement would be raising the lorry speed limit on single carriageway roads, such as the A77 and A75, from 40mph to 50mph, like in England.

Neil Greig, its Scotland-based policy and research director, said: “Although they are now at the end of the document, it is good to see long-awaited road improvements are a key part of the 23 schemes being taken forward.

“Upgrades to the A75 and A77 are vital if the Loch Ryan ports are to meet their full potential as an alternative route to Ireland.

“If you compare the standard of the A55 to Holyhead with that of the A75, you can see how far they still have to go.

“The increased HGV speed limit has been a key part of the success of the A9 in recent years, particularly in reducing platooning.

“The Scottish Government should move as quickly as possible to allow it to be implemented on all roads in Scotland.”

But sustainable transport campaigners Transform Scotland feared road improvements would win out against better rail links.

Director Colin Howden said: “Only last week, the Infrastructure Commission for Scotland called for roads policy to focus on safety, resilience and reliability.

“So it’s disappointing this report is heavily focused on further increases in road capacity.

“The unthinking promotion of new roads calls into question whether Transport Scotland is competent to take the urgent action required to tackle the climate emergency.”

Transport secretary Michael Matheson said: “The publication of the study is a significant milestone in improving connectivity for the area and more than twenty options will now go on for more detailed consideration as part of the second Strategic Transport Projects Review.”