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A history of the metro project that never was

The metro must be the most announced public transport project the State has ever proposed

Long-suffering Dublin commuters, particularly those living in the north of the county, would be forgiven for rolling their eyes at yet another announcement about the capital’s long-mooted metro rail line being given the go-ahead. Equally, those same public transport users, or aspirant public transport users, would probably be unsurprised if the project once again hit the buffers.

The metro in its various guises – now Metrolink, once Metro North – must be the most announced public transport project the State has ever proposed.

Half a dozen transport ministers have had a go at announcing its development, starting with Mary O’Rourke in 2000. In 2002, the late Séamus Brennan put a date on its completion, “guaranteeing” the line would open in 2007. It didn’t, obviously.

The fact that Dublin still has no metro, and likely won’t until the middle of the next decade, has much to do with poor decision-making

The Railway Procurement Agency did eventually apply in 2008 for permission to build the line, then called Metro North and running from Swords to the city centre, when Noel Dempsey was minister. An Bord Pleanála granted permission for the line in late 2010, but at that stage the country was in the depths of recession and the writing was already on the wall for major infrastructure projects.

As minister for transport in 2011, Leo Varadkar had the ignominious task of announcing the line was being shelved. His colleague Paschal Donohoe had the cheerier task in 2015 of heralding its revival when he took up the transport baton, saying at the time that construction was scheduled to begin in 2021 with a view to delivery in 2026 or 2027.

Delays to the project to this point could be attributed, at least in part, to economic misfortune. However, the fact that Dublin still has no metro, and likely won’t until the middle of the next decade, has much to do with poor decision-making since.

In 2018, instead of going ahead with the Swords to Stephen’s Green line it was decided that the metro, now renamed Metrolink, would run all the way from Swords to Sandyford along the route of the existing Luas Green line. While acknowledging that this would cause “some disruption”, the then minister for transport Shane Ross was enthusiastic about the greater ambition of the project.

This enthusiasm was short lived. After a year of vigorous opposition to the potential disruption, particularly from residents in Ranelagh and their public representatives, Ross announced the shelving of the Green line upgrade element. He could “not countenance” significant disruption to the Luas line, he said, so the metro would terminate at Charlemont near Ranelagh.

An application for the revised line was due to be submitted to An Bord Pleanála before the end of 2019. Several revised dates were mooted in 2020, last year and earlier this year. However, it was announced this week that the application would be lodged in September, probably.

At a time of exceptionally high building costs it may be a saving grace that the construction phase of the metro is a few years off yet

The costs of the project have, as they inevitably do when time is allowed to march on, spiralled. Initially the line was estimated as costing €3.5 billion. Donohoe in 2015 did claw that back to €2.4 billion, but the decision to add in the Green line element pushed the estimates back over the €3 billion mark.

In mid-2019, Varadkar, then the taosieach, said the cost of the line could rise to €5 billion, and while the National Transport Authority did not formally issue any revised costs, it was indicated last November that it was looking more like something around the €10 billion mark.

That figure has been borne out in the estimates this week, issued in tandem with the Government’s approval for the line, with €9.5 billion now the midpoint of a “credible” cost range of €7.16 billion-€12.25 billion. Although Varadkar said there was an “extreme case” scenario of the cost rising to €23 billion.

In digesting all these figures, a version of the tree planting proverb might suggest itself that the best time to build a metro was 20 years ago, and the second best time is now.

However, in the current circumstances, that might not necessarily be true. At a time of exceptionally high building costs it may be a saving grace that the construction phase of the metro is a few years off yet, when perhaps prices will have moderated. However, as every seasoned Dublin commuter knows, nothing is guaranteed when it comes to the metro.