A Gluas for Galway? Light rail project campaign revived

City is choking with excessive traffic but bypass not expected before at least 2024

“Gridlock Atalia” is both a nickname for a placename, and a condition with which traffic-weary residents of Galway city and county are afflicted.

The city’s approach routes, including Lough Atalia, are regularly choked, and feature on AA Roadwatch’s daily bulletins.

An outer bypass planned for the city was abandoned some years ago on environmental grounds after expenditure of €14 million on planning and legal costs.

Galway County Council is leading a new bypass plan, which involves demolition of homes. When initial corridors were unveiled in 2015 indicating its proximity to the city, NUI Galway queried why other options like light rail were not being considered.


Plans for a revised bypass route – now more of a "throughpass" as it cuts into the city – were due to have been submitted directly to An Bord Pleanála in the third quarter of 2017. However, the €650 million project has been delayed for three reasons, according to Fianna Fáil councillor Peter Keane who held a recent public meeting on the city's transport woes.

He understands that discussions are continuing with the National Parks and Wildlife Service, and the strategic infrastructure application has to be translated into Irish before submission.

Speed bump

A third and perhaps most crucial speed bump in his view relates to the fact that the selected route "corridor" touches a parcel of land which multinational Boston Scientific had acquired at Parkmore on the city's eastern flank.

Proximity to the route renders land “sterile” for development under the city development plan, Cllr Keane explains – a situation also affecting land purchased by the city council for housing which is within or close to the bypass “corridor”.

Independent TD Catherine Connolly, a former city councillor, maintains that up to two-thirds of the city's public land has been frozen for this reason. If the bypass is approved, project completion is 2024 at the earliest.

She has lent her support to a revived campaign, spearheaded by a former councillor and city newsagent Brendan Holland, for a "Gluas" or light rail system for Galway.

Over 20 years ago, a community group submitted a plan for light rail from Barna to the city, taking in the growing suburbs of Knocknacarra and Westside. Ten years ago, Holland picked up the baton, with his plan traversing the city, at an estimated cost of about €200 million for 21km of track, or €9 million per km - compared to more than €31 million per km quoted for Dublin's Luas light rail system at the time.

Galway City Council produced a study in 2010 which said light rail was too costly, and the population was too low. However, as both Holland and Connolly point out, technology has improved, as has the urgency for low-emission transport solutions – with Galway being one of five cities earmarked for growth under the State’s national planning framework.

The revived Gluas light rail campaign is not opposed to the bypass, and Cllr Keane, a strong supporter of the bypass, is not opposed to light rail. However, he believes the State would never pay for two such transport projects.

Public meeting

However, the Gluas campaign points to European Investment Bank and public-private partnership opportunities. At a recent public meeting on Gluas, hosted by Ms Connolly, the French experience of light rail in Le Mans and Angers was outlined by honorary French consul Catherine Gagneaux.

In the short term, Cllr Keane believes radical action is required to keep cars out of the city centre by making public transport a far more viable option. Research has shown that 60 per cent of traffic traversing the city has no business in the city centre, he says.

Though he and fellow councillors gathering for their first meeting of the year on Monday will have the Storm Eleanor flood surge in their sights, they are also due to be presented with plans for an inner city transport strategy which could reduce the number of bus routes and improve frequency, while creating a new orbital route and an interchange at Eyre Square. The overall aim is to keep cars out of the city centre.

Ms Connolly believes car drivers need to know a positive alternative is on the horizon.

The Gluas campaign has initiated a petition seeking a new feasibility study, and Holland has been heartened by the response since he began seeking signatures before Christmas in his newsagent shop.

Ms Connolly also says that Minister for Transport Shane Ross has "left a door open" for light rail in a Dáil response to a question she tabled on the issue, by indicating that a strong business case was required.

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins is the former western and marine correspondent of The Irish Times