Posted by: wesleyjohnston | November 6, 2013

All roads lead to Derry?

The subject of what to do about the road between Northern Ireland’s two largest cities – Belfast and Londonderry – has been a matter of heated discussion for a little over half a century now, and looks set to remain this way for the foreseeable future.

Currently a little over a third of the 68 mile route is dual-carriageway or motorway standard, while the remaining route is a frustrating and, in places, unsafe single-carriageway road. Plans to dual the 8 miles from Randalstown to Castledawson have been in planning for many years, while a more ambitious and longer term plan to dual the 19 miles from Dungiven to Derry is also on the schedule for the years to come. Neither has, as yet, been given funding so remain aspirations.

Dual-carriageway upgrades are justifiable not just on economic grounds, but also on safety grounds. In Northern Ireland, the death rate per mile travelled is four times lower on a dual-carriageway road than on a single-carriageway road. By way of example, between 2004 and 2009 ten people were killed on the stretch of single-carriageway between Dungannon and Ballygawley. Since the road was converted to dual-carriageway in November 2010, not a single person has lost their life on this stretch. Dual-carriageways clearly save lives as well as money.

As well as the Derry route, Northern Ireland has also been putting in efforts to dual other strategic roads. The 5 mile stretch from Derry to City of Derry Airport (on the road to Limavady) was recently dualled, while work is to get underway next year to dual another 4 mile stretch of the A26 between Ballymena and Ballymoney. There is also a plan to dual 22 miles of the A5 between Derry and Ballygawley, a plan currently on hold due to a successful legal challenge.

In a discussion I had recently with someone with an interest in the Derry area, he raised an interesting question. He dared to ask: IS the A6 the only road to Derry? Or, to put it another way, are we missing a trick by scrimping and saving in an attempt to dual all these routes at the same time?

Have a look at this map, showing three routes between Belfast and Derry. The normal route between the two cities is the main A6, or Glenshane, route at 68 miles. A longer route via the A26 and Coleraine is also possible, at 81 miles. An even longer route, via the A4 and A5 and Ballygawley, is also possible, clocking 102 miles.
Routes Belfast-Derry

What is interesting to note here is just how much more of the A26 via Coleraine is already dual-carriageway, or will be when the A26 dualling scheme is completed in three years’ time.

Now, when most people who make this journey look at this map they will say “What? Why would I go to Belfast by Coleraine? That’s a pretty big detour!”. And they’d be absolutely correct. If we assume, as a back-of-the-envelope exercise that a car can maintain 70mph on a motorway or dual-carriageway, and 50mph on a single-carriageway road, then possible journey times on each of these routes are currently:

A6 Glenshane Route – 1 hour 13 minutes
A26–A37–A2 Coleraine Route – 1 hour 22 minutes
M1–A4–A5 Route – 1 hour 44 minutes

(Note: in reality you’d be doing well to do it this quickly. The point is not so much to get the times correct, but to make sure we’re comparing like-for-like. Bear with me!)

Surprisingly, the Coleraine route comes out not all that much slower than the A6 route, mainly because so much more of that route is already dual-carriageway or motorway and thus capable of sustaining higher speeds. The route via the M1–A4–A5 takes significantly longer because, even though it has the longest stretch of dual-carriageway or motorway of them all, it is also considerably further.

The graph below shows how much of each route is of each standard:

Derry routes graphNow, my point is this. Notice just how much less dual-carriageway would have to be built on the A26 route than on the A6 route in order to provide a continuous dual-carriageway between Belfast and Derry. While the A6 road still needs 44 miles of dual-carriagway to complete the link, the A26 (after the 2014 upgrade is completed) will only require 34 miles – ten miles less.

Taking the average estimated cost of the proposed dual-carriageway from Derry to Dungiven as a rough cost guide, this suggests that the cost of upgrading the rest of the A6 Glenshane route from Randalstown to Londonderry could be around £870m, while the cost of upgrading the rest of the A26–A37–A2 route could be around £670m. A saving of £200m!

The main objection that will be raised to this suggestion is that a route via Coleraine is STILL much longer, 13 miles longer to be exact. Would people actually use it? What would be the impact on journey times if the entire Coleraine route was dualled? If, hypothetically, speeds of 70mph could be sustained on the whole route, the Coleraine route could get a car from Derry to Belfast in 1 hour and 9 minutes, around 4 minutes faster than the current A6. Not really much of a time saving, to be fair. However there would be five significant gains that would make this worth considering nonetheless:

  1. Such a road would be considerably safer, with reduced accidents, injuries and fatalities. It is estimated that each road fatality costs the government well in excess of £1m when all costs are factored in.
  2. Such a road would offer a much less stressful travelling experience, with fewer frustrations related to slow moving vehicles and feelings of being “stuck” behind slow traffic.
  3. Such a road would provide much more reliable journey times, allowing business travellers to plan journeys more precisely, saving time and money.
  4. Such a road would also serve other large settlements, such as Coleraine, Ballymoney and Limavady. By contrast, there are no large towns between Castledawson and Derry (no disrespect to Dungiven).
  5. Such a road would skirt through the northern periphery of the Sperrin mountains, rather than passing straight through their heart at Glenshane Pass, which may be regarded as preferable in terms of impact on the landscape. The map below illustrates this particular point (showing the sections that would need upgraded in red).

Terrain map

In other words, for £200m less than the current strategy of focusing on upgrading the A6, upgrading the A26–A37-A2 route would  provide a road that offered similar journey times to present, but with a significant improvement in road safety, reduced fatalities, driving experience and journey time reliability.

Are there any cons to this approach? Yes, there are.

  • Firstly, since the A26–A37-A2 route is 13 miles longer, using this route instead of the A6 would use more fuel and hence produce more carbon emissions. This would need to be weighed against the expense and emissions associated with upgrading the longer A6 route. A benefit-cost analysis would be needed to see how this point stacks up.
  • Secondly, some dual-carriageway sections of the existing A26–A37-A2 would need further upgrades. For example, the route would encompass the southern part of the Coleraine ring road at Lodge Road roundabout which is already operating at capacity and could need a flyover upgrade if Derry traffic was being encouraged to use it (although this would cost much, much less than the £200m saved). The route also has a number of other at-grade roundabouts, e.g. two between Ballymena and Antrim which would slow things down.
  • Thirdly, many people would be likely to continue using the A6 route, even without any more upgrades, negating some of the safety benefits above.
  • Fourthly, the people of Dungiven, the only town on the A6 route not yet bypassed, may initiate a revolt if their long-promised bypass does not materialise!

In this blog, I am NOT coming down on one side of the fence and claiming that abandoning all upgrades to the A6 and concentrating on the A26–A37-A2 is a strategy that ought to be adopted. There are too many benefit-cost unknowns to be able to draw that conclusion. However, what I AM saying is that, for such a significant cost saving of £200m, it would  be worth looking at this option very seriously.

Finally, it is worth noting that in 1964 when the motorway network was being planned, the route of the motorway from Belfast to Derry would have followed the A26–A37-A2 corridor, albeit not going as far north as Coleraine, as shown below. This is because, at that time, the idea of driving a motorway right through the Sperrins just seemed ridiculous from an engineering perspective. It would be interesting if this came full circle!

1964 Northern Ireland motorway proposals



  1. How much cheaper and faster still would it be to take it in a straight line from the end of the dualled section of the A26 to Limavady in a route roughly via Aghadowey.

    It would obviously avoid Ballymoney & Coleraine.
    In the case of Coleraine, a single branch spur to the new route could be built if anybody could ever justify it.

    • I see 2 problems with that:
      1) it would cost more as you would have to build a whole new road, unlike the others were they are upgrading current roads. Also you would have to acquire the land, which may be difficult seeing as much of the area is farmland and they may try and block it.
      2) it is still a sizeable detour. It would be around 80 mile via Limavady. Compared to the 72 mile via Glenshane. Also, the route you propose would only serve Limavady, Garvagh, Kilrea and Glarryford. While upgrading the A6 would serve Derry, Drumahoe, Claudy, Dungiven, Maghera, Magherafelt and Castledawson.

  2. Something else you need to remember, is that it is not only Derry traffic on the A6.
    The Coleraine route would not serve Magherafelt, Maghera, Cookstown, Toome, Dungiven, Claudy, Draperstown, Strabane(they might use the new A5 if it happens) and all the other surounding areas in South Derry/North Tyrone. The Derry city traffic are only a part of the A6 users.

    • Agree with the Derry not being the only A6 users but I don’t think people from Magherafelt of Magherafelt would go on the A5 to go to Belfast. Firstly, if they traveled to Belfast south of Lough Neagh they would go via Cookstown & Dungannon to the start of the M1. And secondly, it is a VERY big detour to go via Dungannon to go to Belfast from Maghera. Eg, From Maghera, Belfast is 40mile via A6, M22 & M2. But it is 68 mile via Dungannon using A29 & M1(of which 27mile would be on a single carriageway road)

  3. I like your thinking. It raises another few points. If EITHER of these options were built you could then get to the Roundabout at Aldergrove airport in less than an hour which begs two questions.
    1. Why was so much money poured into City of Derry Airport? (the tens of millions poured into it could have built either of the road options above)
    2. You could then get to Dublin (via Moira/Sprucefield) as quickly as via the A5 so why spend all that money on the A5?

    The next logical step would be dual carriage Templepatrick to Moira which would then mean you would have dual or m way all the way from Derry to Dublin for a fraction of the A5 scheme.

    In addition you would have provided a huge ‘ring road’ for Belfast enabling a lot of traffic to avoid the M1 and M2 near Belfast

  4. As a Derry resident and traveller of the A6 weekly, I would have support of this idea if it was to reduce the existing traffic on the A6…. which I would continue to use as im sure most other travellers would do too.

    Why would I add the extra miles to my journey endure bottlenecks leaving the M2 and when we arrive Derry? extra fuel, wear n tear? Plus our companies wouldn’t allow the extra mileage allowance as its shortest distance only!

    Derry under successive Unionist ministers have done their utmost to deny any funding to the West of the Bann and this has never been as stark as the last year under Danny Kennedy! and although I would class myself and NOT as being one of those “we get naffin, an emuns get everyfing” this last year has really got under my skin!

    A few years ago the North West roads network looked positive. We were guaranteed the A5, A6 was getting a major chunk of it upgraded… living in and working away from Derry was going to be good! look at where we are now!! NEITHER the A5 or A6 is going to be upgraded, Derry will lose jobs and prosperity which AGAIN will be funnelled into Coleraine…

    Interesting times ahead politically, Stormont failing the people of the West… just a little bit of history repeating? I hope not!

  5. With the new enterprise zone announced for Coleraine don’t be surprised if motorway standard for Coleraine all the way to Belfast gets priority over A6 or A5. Stormont is still not showing the north west that it has any interest in major investment west of the Bann. The Republic may well have to be lobbied more strongly to perhaps get the A5 funding so that Inishowen/Derry region is not left behind the rest of the island!

  6. This post is interesting to me as a regular commuter from Limavady to Belfast who at peak times travels on the ( Limavady-coleraine-belfast) (A37-A26-M2) route rather than the (limavady-dungiven-belfast)(B68-A6-M2) route despite this being about 7 miles longer for me because it is much quicker because of the better roads. Bring back the M23!

    • more like 4-5 miles longer actually

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