A New Age Of The Train


From top: Ireland’s rail network, 100 years ago vs now; Heber Rowan

Not so long ago, in the pre-virus days, Slugger O’Toole discussed building a rail line to Donegal, the far North-West of Ireland. Fair play. It is time to discuss generational public transport needs in Ireland.

There are some, this author included, who regard a working rail network, as civilisation manifest. A well run, speedy networks are something a country can be proud.They show that urban developments are made to meet needs long-term. That matters.

The Irish rail network includes 2,400km of track, of which 1,660km is used. As one of the most developed countries in the world, it’s not enough and not fit for purpose to discourage private car use. We work best together collectively, not alone.

In all public discussions around the development of our infrastructure, the business case against developing rail links is primarily one of population density. Namely, that there aren’t enough people living along the routes to justify further investment.

The Irish rail network was once a vibrant one into rural areas off the back of British development of the lines. There was even extensive planning done on the development of a Dublin metro system but the events of the Irish Easter Rising stopped it. Events!

The “Rail Review” of 2016, was the most recent public discussion about the health and future of the Irish rail network. It became a clarion call to many.

The head of Irish Rail and the Irish National Transport Authority stated that “there is no such a thing as a free lunch — the rail network is in financial jeopardy”. A funding gap of half a billion proved to be an inconvenient financial reality.

The political and public discussions at the time focused on maintaining the existing lines amid threatened closures, not improvements.

Then the €550 per passenger subvention that occurs annually for Limerick-Ballybrophy line was a hot point of political debate with the likes of Labour TD Alan Kelly at war with then Minister for Transport, Shane Ross. Ultimately no lines were closed and the panic subsided.

In fact, since then due to the growth of the Irish economy and an expansion of Dublin commuter services passenger numbers are up, however, their money is down.

The car is king.

The car remains king in Irish transport and despite some encouragement featured within the government’s Ireland 2040 infrastructure plans highlighting plans for the development of Metro-North (to Dublin airport and beyond), there is little in the way of serious ambition put forward.

In the last fifty years, Ireland has entered into what urban developers call a ‘land transport spiral’ whereby the chicken or the egg situation exacerbates congestion and a poor quality of living.

Cities grow wide with low densities and in areas dependent on having cars and away from other forms of services. It has been argued that increased private cars usage has been the death of rural towns. We don’t live or shop locally within our physical vicinity, that matters.

It is worth pondering if the lockdown will impact how both our behaviours within and perceptions of our localities will change. Transport and supporting local business matters.

Just as Galway city has been held up in decades of congestion over the potential for an outer ring road to be built with the acknowledgement that ‘if you build it, they will drive’ and not actually make matters better, development continues without developing Ireland regionally.

Economically, it’s a stark contrast with average incomes in the West of Ireland lower than €5,000 per year on average compared to Dublin. Yet there is no serious discussion about bringing Ireland together with high-speed rail even from the likes of Dublin to Belfast (arguably the most economically expedient) or to Cork.

This matters when we consider the long-term improvement of living standards in Dublin too, given that limited land and high population density ultimately decrease the standard of living for all if the majority of public transport investment is done within the greater Dublin area.

The problem for the government and the politicians that constitute it, is time. The difficulty of getting everything you need for your constituency within the short space of a five-year term. Yes, to all of those campaigning against the problems in health and housing, transport can appear to be a less important matter to go email your local TD about.

The political reality also, is that Dublin has 45 seats in the Dáil or 28% of the total. That’s power. It is no wonder that recent discussions around transport development focused on the BusConnects system and little attention was put on national infrastructure development.

Why spend money with a high-speed interlink between Dublin and Cork when you could win more Dublin voters within a lifetime of a government? Moreover, ask any Irish politician and they will say that a majority of their time is spent assisting constituents on housing or health-related matters.

When examining the problem, we often forget the time scales involved in rail developments, for instance, the Luas was initially first proposed back in 1990. Politicians need quick wins to get re-elected, and the people who proposed an idea are often forgotten amid all of the fanfare that accompanies the eventual ribbon-cutting ceremony.

The sad reality is that the narrative nationally has shifted to propel the creation of ‘Greenways’ or cycle routes along the former tracks of rural rail lines, as a good long term development.

While there are still campaigners for keeping the dream of the Western rail corridor alive (a train linking Sligo and Galway), with the smaller budget needed for construction and less time, politicians have it in their interest to back the creation of Greenways as it could save their seats.

TDs ultimately have to serve the interests of those who they elect them, a fact reflected in Green party leader Eamonn Ryan’s comments on the ‘advantage’ given to rural Ireland over the creation of the National Broadband Plan.

He and every other TD in Dáil Éireann, serve those who elected them first and foremost, national politics is a luxury only the properly powerful can do. Senior hurling.

Given that Ireland did sign up to a 7% reduction in greenhouse emissions with the Paris Climate Accord, the roll-out of an ambitious rail network (high speed or electrified) could be part of an overall solution to do just that.

Amid all of the political negotiations going on right now to form a government, how the urban-rural divide plays out with transport policy will contribute to influence the lifestyles and work of all. Maybe it is time we all get on board with a national rail network and a sense of ambition to match.

PS: Let’s remember there is a lot to celebrate about Irish Rail as a charming English couple experienced recently!

Heber Rowan is a Sligo native with a passion for politics. He works in public affairs and enjoys listening to and narrating audiobooks. He can be found on Twitter and occasionally blogs on Medium.com.

Maps via Dr Shaun O’Boyle

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30 thoughts on “A New Age Of The Train

  1. max

    They could have a service running to Cork every 15min that was half an hour faster than driving and you would probably still loose passengers to cars. To make trains viable you would probably have to disenfranchise private vehicles to the tune of about 50euro each way either tru tolls, petrol taxes, congestion charges, mileage dependant road taxes or something similar

  2. Rob_G

    “In all public discussions around the development of our infrastructure, the business case against developing rail links is primarily one of population density.” – got it in one.

    The distances in Ireland are too small, with too dispersed a population – you end up with the train stopping so frequently that it’s slower that the (much, much cheaper) bus. Outside of Cork-Dublin-Belfast corridor, and commuter services for Dublin, rail isn’t really financially viable – the subventions are staggering (Limerick-Ballybrophy is the worst, but figures for some of the other lines are eye-watering also).

    We already have a motorway network – introducing higher tolls, and people will be induced to take the bus.

    The political reality also, is that Dublin has 45 seats in the Dáil or 28% of the total. That’s power. It is no wonder that recent discussions around transport development focused on the BusConnects system and little attention was put on national infrastructure development.”
    – nonsense; Dublin has always been starved of much-needed upgrades of its infrastructure at the expense of building bypasses for Ballygobackwards

    1. scottser

      ‘We already have a motorway network – introducing higher tolls, and people will be induced to take the bus.’
      No Rob, all this form of taxation does is fill the coffers of private contracters and the cost of all forms of transport eventually rise. if you want a solution that incentivises people to change bad habits then the tax take should go into making public transport cheaper.

      1. Brother Barnabas

        or make it free altogether – and stop focusing only on the financial cost of doing that, instead focus on the societal, environmental, personal and economic benefit of doing it

        1. class wario

          they know the price of everything but the value of nothing. unfortunately a particularly ghoulish attitude that has only been exacerbated post-2008

      2. Rob_G

        No matter how cheap public transport is, some people will still insist on taking their car (partially due to the large sunk costs of vehicle ownership).

        Private motorists effectively receive a huge subvention from taxpayers in the form of all the infrastructure given to them at below cost/free of charge; charging private motorists directly for the use of some of this infrastructure will:

        (i) reduce the number of cars on the road, first and foremost, with all of the associated environmental benefits this brings;

        (ii) reduce the burden on the taxpayer, allows revenues instead to be spent on programmes that will benefit all members of society, and not just private motorists.

        1. scottser

          except rob, that almost every household has and needs a car and they are taxpayers for the most part.

          1. Rob_G

            Most households have a car, but that is not to say that most households need a car. I think that the burden of paying the cost of this vehicle ownership should fall squarely on the the people who own them and benefit from them, and not on those people who don’t own a car, who are inconvenienced by them, and yet are still expected to bear the financial costs of them.

          2. Ghost of Yep

            Rob, you sound like you have never been outside of Dublin.

            There is a large percentage of people in this country dependent on owning and using their car. You think they should be punished for not living in one of the few parts of this country with effective public transport? Very narrow thinking.

          3. Rob_G

            I don’t think they be punished – I think that they should pay for their cars themselves. Governments, broadly speaking, should tax things that are bad for society, and subsidise things that are good for society – this is why public transport should be subsidised, and why we shouldn’t be subsidising cars.

          4. scottser

            we’re probably agreeing more than disagreeing rob. but logically, you need to put cheap public transport solutions in place and make them more attractive to use before you start taxing the shite out of car owners.

            to labour the point, it’s why water charges died on it’s arse. the sensible thing to do would have been to invest heavily in the infrastucture first and eventually make paying for water at a metered rate considerably cheaper than a flat charge. but no, they went in with the model you propose – tax first/polluter pays etc. it doesn’t work. you have to build it, then they will come.

          5. Rob_G

            Yep and Scott –

            20 years ago, certainly 30 years ago, society wasn’t so different, and most households only had one car. Now, people who live in the same house will swear blind that their household needs two cars, or even three cars – now, in some cases this might be true, but on examination, it probably isn’t. One of the reasons car ownership has grown so exponentially is that so many of the costs are borne by society at large, rather than the car owners themselves; if more of these costs were paid upfront by car owners themselves, we might see less people driving fewer cars less often, which would bring all sorts of social, environmental, and health benefits.

          6. Ghost of Yep

            “But on examination, it probably doesn’t” When was this inconclusive examination done?

            As scottser said, if there is no service in place to choose (which there certainly isn’t for many people) then your proposal is a punishment.

            A good for “Society” can mean different things to different people . A good for society for many is to not be isolated and have the freedom to have options of different employers, weekend spots to bring the kids (schools in some cases), keeping connected with friends and family, drag races on the back roads in Louth etc.

            Edit: i would support a congestion charge in the city tomorrow though.

  3. John Davis

    Fully autonomous self driving cars in 8-10 years, investment in heavy rail now would be a poor decision.

    1. Formerly known as @ireland.com

      I can’t see it happening that quickly. Irish roads will be particularly difficult. It might be possible for them to handle the motorways and some N roads.

    2. goldenbrown

      they may well be available in 8-10 years time but what about the part where the population have to buy into them? or does the State purchase and construct that whole show on our behalf and provide it as a payg service? the market for “dumb” EV’s has been here for quite some time now but it’s still very niche, like it’s hardly on fire is it? none of my friends have an EV nor intend to buy one anytime soon…who knows maybe if we all lived in California that might be different. but we don’t.

      overall an interesting article but I reckon that Dublin is the only place where the population base is sufficient to build serious infrastructure projects that make sense at this time…outside of the greater Dublin area Ireland is a massively underpopulated land mass and I can’t see the sense in it. like there are several well known by-pass/motorway projects in this country that barely see 1000 cars per hour.

      have to wonder where the likes of this kind of money burning nonsense will end up post-Covid:

      1. John Davis

        When you can “rent” a car that will get you anywhere for about 30c/km with no parking at either end the car ownership idea goes out the window fairly fast. Think how quick smartphones transitioned.

        Also driving will be banned a couple of years later due to road deaths.

        1. goldenbrown

          there’s a big difference between the cost of a smartphone and a car John, in the privately-owned cohort the transition won’t be fast. average Mary with 2 kids and the 181 reg €30k TDi SUV sitting on her driveway won’t be changing anytime soon…I’m sorry but I promise you are in la-la land if you believe that.

          I like the payg idea don’t get me wrong but the GoCar type payg scenario has already existed for years so why hasn’t it been such a sweeping transformational agent to date?

          (I’ll assume you’re joking about driving being banned)

          1. Rob_G

            Autonomous cars will only work effectively if all other cars on the road are also autonomous; anyway, once their uptake hits a certain point, insurers will phase out insuring non-autonomous vehicles, it just won’t be economical any more.

          2. John Davis

            Go car is expensive, inflexable and inconvinent.

            Money talks, no way people will pay the 12k per year they are currently forking out when a better solution is available.

    3. Rob_G

      If Dublin follows the lead of other big cities and bans private motor vehicles from its centre within the next 10 or 15 year, autonomous vehicles won’t be the cure-all they are being made out to be.

  4. Formerly known as @ireland.com

    Greenways are great. They are low cost and bring tourism to the area. It would be great to have a full connected network of cycle paths, so that tourists can avoid roads. I can’t see new train lines being run. Also, interesting to see that the Easter Rising is blamed for Dublin not having a metro. The ones the British built in the other cities outside London really work well.

  5. Cian

    Its a cost thing.

    The UK’s new HS2, high speed train, is about 250km long and scheduled to cost over £100bn;

    Dublin to Cork is, coincidently, also about 250km.

    Can we afford €100+bn so that you can go from Dublin to Cork in an hour?

    1. goldenbrown

      any ideas why the insane costs in this part of the planet Cian? maybe that old CPO chestnut?

      (albeit they already have an experienced expertise for this) the French were allegedly able to install TGV Est Paris-Strasbourg @300km for around €4Billion…and ongoing the fares are fairly decent value

  6. guns and drums and drums and guns harooo

    What a pedestrian article it huffed and whistled but didn’t really go anywhere

  7. Cahir O'Doherty

    Some areas of the country should benefit from better rail connections, particularly the South East. I travelled a lot in that area last summer and Wexford is a hard place to get to if you don’t have a car. There are sizeable population centres such ad Kilkenny, Waterford and Clonmel that should be connected by a rail service run along the lines of the S Bahn in Germany. A line should be built connecting Cork to Wexford. The South East would benefit from that connectivity. No point in a massive one off natiinwide development. If this works then increase connectivity. Athlone -Mullingar-Droghda would be another one.
    These are practical connections serving sect size population centres.

  8. Peter Dempsey

    Heber Rowan? That can’t be his real name.
    BTW – Knowing how to drive (or owning a car) doesn’t make one a bad person.

  9. curmudgeon

    A very long article that somehow completely negated to mention how incompetent & utterly unfit for purpose our national Rail company is. Irish Rail (and parent CIE) is a massive waste of tax payers money, why do you think the LUAS project was not given to them? Because the govt of the day knew damn well Irish Rail couldn’t be trusted with it.

    Any govt planning big infrastructure projects without the support of a competent public administration will just end up like our last govt.s “Most expensive childrens hospital in the world”.

    But of course since we cant ever fire anyone with a harp on their payslip (thanks to public sector unionisation) or management in a “semi-state” so best of luck to any politicians wanting real change on a budget. In fact I’d argue the only place in Ireland this actually happens with regularity is down in Healy Rae country.

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