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A quarter of a century after the inauguration of the Dart, the Government is still trying to devise a public-transport solution for the capital, and the next stage could take the Dart underground

It was described in an Irish Timesheadline as “CIÉ’s new weapon to confound the begrudgers”. And in truth, the Dart did. On the Sunday after it started running between Howth and Bray in July 1984, more people travelled on the new electric trains than on any day since the railway line opened in 1834. There was something symmetrical about the Dart being inaugurated in the year of the 150th anniversary of Ireland’s first railway, the Dublin to Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire) line. And despite criticisms that it only served the “gold coast” around Dublin Bay, it gave the city its first whiff of continental Europe.

For months, Dubliners had been stopped in their tracks by the sight of brand-new, German-built electric trains gliding up and down the line on test runs. They were so different to the old diesel engines, which hauled probably the most obsolete rolling stock on wheels in this part of the world. That the new trains were electric was entirely due to Des O’Malley, then minister for industry and energy, who recognised the importance of not relying so much on imported oil; had it been left to his cabinet colleague, Prof Martin O’Donoghue, all Dublin would have got was a cheap and cheerful set of new diesel trains.

The Dart brand-name was chosen after sifting through numerous alternatives (such as “Bayline”). As Cartan Finegan, then marketing director of CIÉ, said at the time: “Finally, we settled for Dart because it seemed to say everything.” Dart is an acronym for Dublin Area Rapid Transit, which implied that electrifying the Howth-Bray line was merely the first phase of a much more ambitious plan to turn it into a network, with lines serving Tallaght and Blanchardstown via an underground link in the city centre. But that never happened.

When work on the electrification project started in 1980, David Waters, the engineer in charge, took personal responsibility for everything – he never bulldozed the project through, and instead negotiated with residents’ associations and other interest groups on issues such as rebuilding bridges.

There was some controversy about the cost of this EU-funded project, which worked out at £113 million (€143.5 million). Economists such as Seán Barrett of Trinity College thought it was wildly extravagant; like Martin O’Donoghue, they would have preferred to see a simple upgrade of services on the existing line. The most shocking thing was that the Department of Finance purloined £27 million (€34 million) in EU funding for the Dart, leaving CIÉ to borrow money to make up the difference. This saddled the company with repaying both capital and interest on a debt that should never have arisen, and vastly inflated the cost.

Even before the new service was inaugurated on July 24th, 1984, the price of houses along the line was going up; had CIÉ been able to “recapture” some of these gains, it could have repaid the capital outlay over time. The Dart also facilitated major commercial development, contributing to an office-building boom in Blackrock, for example. Land located near the line shot up in value, even in the bleak 1980s. It took a long time before CIÉ cashed in on this upward trend by promoting a major office scheme at Connolly Station, for example.

The company’s plans for a new transportation centre in the middle of town ran into trouble. Since 1976, CIÉ had been acquiring property on both sides of the River Liffey for this mammoth project, which would have incorporated an underground train and bus station topped by an array of office blocks, hotels and shopping malls. An Taisce was first into the breach, calling in January 1986 for a “complete reassessment” of this scheme on the basis that it would destroy the Temple Bar area. Ironically, the emerging “left bank” culture of the area had been unwittingly encouraged by CIÉ’s policy of renting out its buildings on short-term leases.

Liam Skelly, a firebrand Fine Gael TD for Dublin West, was having none of it, however. In late 1986, he claimed to have lined up a Canadian company to develop the proposed transportation centre. But the “Skelly Plan” bit the dust and Temple Bar was later designated as Dublin’s “cultural quarter”.

The plan to extend the Dart to other parts of the city was scuppered in October 1987 by the then Fianna Fáil minority government, led by Charles J Haughey. Not only did it rule out investment in anything other than buses and “diesel-based options” for rail, it also abolished the Dublin Transport Authority, which had been set up just six months earlier.

Eventually, as a result of the Dublin Transportation Initiative in the early 1990s, we were offered the Luas – although the city became the first in the world to build two free-standing light-rail lines. This was the outcome of a cowardly decision in May 1998 by ministers who couldn’t get their heads around the Luas running up and down Dawson Street.

When the Dart service started in 1984, a fleet of 80 carriages carried about 35,000 passengers per day. Government parsimony meant that not a single extra carriage was added during the next 16 years, even though passenger numbers were climbing to 80,000 per day. As a result, overcrowding during peak periods became unbearable.

Since 2001, major improvements have been made. The Dart line was extended to serve both Malahide and Greystones, new rolling stock was bought, real-time passenger information screen have been installed in all stations, platforms have been lengthened to cater for eight-carriage trains, and new stations were opened at Portmarnock and Grand Canal Dock.

Maintenance is poor, however. Dún Laoghaire station is grungy and confusing, despite its new look. Station nameplates are flimsy, their colour scheme a residue of Iarnród Éireann’s orange period; it’s a long way from the original “total design concept”.

The most serious problem is capacity. Due to constraints in and around Connolly Station, only 12 trains per hour can be accommodated on the Loop Line – too few to cater for the 90,000 passengers a day using the Dart and thousands of others on diesel trains.

Now, two decades after being ruled out, a Dart underground line is back on the agenda. This would connect Heuston Station to the Docklands, via Christchurch, St Stephen’s Green and Pearse Station, linking up with both the Tallaght and Sandyford Luas lines as well as the existing Dart line, to give Dublin a rail network.

Last December, the Minister for Transport Noel Dempsey described the proposed rail tunnel as the “most critical piece” of public-transport infrastructure in the State, and pledged that it would proceed, notwithstanding the Government’s yawning budget deficit. The estimate for the “Dart Underground” is €2 billion – considerably less than the still-secret cost of Metro North, which would provide a single, 18km Luas line from Swords to St Stephen’s Green. Given that the CIÉ plan would integrate existing suburban rail services, it seems better suited to serve Dublin’s sprawl than the metro.

What’s not included in the €2 billion estimate, however, is the cost of electrifying lines to Kildare, Maynooth and Drogheda so that trains could use the tunnel; clearly, diesel engines could not be allowed through because of the fumes they emit. The question remains of whether a cash-starved Government will have the stomach to go ahead with this.