Metrolink is going to cost a fortune, but perhaps we have got the infrastructure costs we deserve

Nobody is pretending it won’t be expensive. Colossally

Computer generated images of Metrolink, the planned Dublin metro train running from Swords to Ranelagh

Leading the charge on the first day of the An Bord Pleanála oral hearing into the long-awaited Metrolink were Michael McDowell and Colm McCarthy.

McDowell, a senator, barrister and Irish Times columnist, told the hearing that the whole project should be scrapped as it was a financial “black hole” that would “absorb €10-€20 billion” with the result that other capital projects would not go ahead.

McCarthy is a well-regarded economist and media contributor and was equally circumspect about Metrolink. He said it would be “colossally expensive” and the benefits were not obvious. He raised doubts about the value of increased accessibility to Dublin Airport; one of the benefits promised by Metrolink. “Metro, it seems to me, is a solution in search of a problem,” he said

Both men have form in this area. McDowell was trenchantly opposed to the Luas when it built in 2004, though at the time he supported “the principle of a rail-based public transport system for Dublin. It would have been possible, with decent planning, to have had a system which would have been placed underground.”


Then a Dáil deputy for Dublin South East, he told the chamber that the Luas as then conceived was an “expensive toy train set that will damage the city rather than improve it and will make it more ugly than it is, leaving the 90 per cent of those who will not live on the Luas corridors more frustrated and angry”.

Few would share that view some 20 years later.

McCarthy was equally negative about the Luas, predicting that it would struggle to reach the target of 20 million passengers needed for operational break even in its first year of operation. It carried 22 million people in 2005 and currently carries 50 million a year.

Its easy, but perhaps a little foolhardy, to dismiss the views of McDowell and McCarthy on the basis that their takes on the Luas did not come to pass.

Just because they were wrong about Luas does not mean they will be wrong about Metrolink.

Nobody is pretending it won’t be expensive. Colossally. The current estimate is €9.5 billion for an 18.8km line running from north of Swords to Charlemont on the Grand Canal.

At roughly €500 million per km, it is at the upper end of the range for such projects according to Britain Remade a campaign group that promotes economic growth in the UK.

Metrolink Dublin Olivia Kelly feature

The campaign has helpfully compiled a spreadsheet of tram, underground, heavy rail and electrification projects from 14 different countries based on work by the Transit Costs Project based at New York University’s marron institute of urban management.

Metrolink is not in the database, but converted to sterling, it comes in at £692 million per mile based on the current figures. No two projects are alike but what is clear is that in terms of cost, Metrolink has more in common with projects in the UK, the United States, Canada and Australia than elsewhere in Europe.

The Ontario Line, a new 16km (10-mile) underground running through the centre of Toronto that is due to be completed in 2031 will cost £1.3 billion a mile. Around 60 per cent will be underground. A similar portion to Metrolink.

A 6.4km (four mile) extension to the D-Line in Los Angeles, due to be completed this year, will costs £644 million per mile. The 3.2km (two mile) extension to the Northern Line in London, which was completed in 2021, cost £743 million per mile. The Northwest Line, a 30km (18.6 mile) extension to the Sydney metro that is 51 per cent underground, and is due to be completed this year, will cost £580 million per mile.

Comparable projects elsewhere in Europe seem to have been delivered at a much lower cost. A new 27km (16.77 mile) line to the airport in Toulouse that will be ready by 2028 and is 60 per cent underground will cost £164 million per mile. A 48km (29.69 mile) extension to the Barcelona underground due to be ready in 2026 will cost £206 million per mile and is 95 per cent underground.

There is only so much that can be read into these figures but if you were to list the things that we share with the UK, the United States, Canada and Australia you would have to include political culture and a common law system, one of the outworkings of which is a planning process which gives objectors considerable influence, even if they are not directly affected. This causes delays and pushes up costs.

It is notable in this regard that two Government TDs turned up at the first day of the oral hearing to make representations on behalf of their constituents despite the project in its current form being Government policy. Jim O’Callaghan, a Fianna Fáil TD for Dublin Bay South declared himself in favour of an underground to the airport but didn’t think it should terminate at Charlemont in his constituency.

Likewise Paul McAuliffe, the Fianna Fáil TD for Dublin North West spoke of the enthusiasm in Ballymun – part of his constituency – for the project but queried why the plan had been changed from the original 2010 version which took a different route through Dublin North West that was presumably more amenable to his constituents.

Labour Senator Marie Sherlock also declared her passionate support for the project but worried that it would be near impossible to get cars through Phibsborough at the height of the construction project.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that perhaps we have got the infrastructure costs we deserve.