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Is it any wonder that Ireland’s public transport is among the worst in Europe?

David McWilliams: Ireland’s hyper-local political system will always impede rather than advance national development

Did you know that this year is the 40th anniversary of the opening of the Dart line? How time flies. In 1984, Irish GDP was €20 billion; today it’s just over €600 billion – a 30-fold increase. If we consider a more modest measure, called GNI, we see today’s Irish national income is €400 billion. Whichever way you look at it, the economy is far bigger than the mid-1980s.

Have we seen a corresponding 30-fold increase in public transport investment in the interim? In fact, over the past four decades the only major public transport built in Ireland consists of two Dublin tram lines and a couple of stations along old, essentially Victorian, railway lines. That’s about it.

It’s not for want of trying from Irish Rail, which regularly advocates for more investment. The problem lies in the political class, the planning system and senior Civil Service priorities.

When the Dart was unveiled, it was only a third of the rail plan for Dublin. The original 1970s proposal envisaged the Dart running along the old Victorian coastal line (the easy bit); a new Dart line out to the burgeoning suburbs of Tallaght and Blanchardstown (a harder bit); and an underground Dart line connecting Heuston with Connolly, integrating the entire system. The last two plans were dropped and even at the inauguration of the Dart, then taoiseach Garret FitzGerald, a transport economist, stressed the decision to finance the Dart was taken by the previous government, when asked about lack of investment in the West.


With this sort of political ambition, is it any wonder that Ireland’s public transport is among the worst in Europe? This week, as the long-planned Dublin metro hearings resume, we hear again not only local politicians but members of our national parliament putting the interests of a few hundred people over the interests of millions of citizens.

In economics, putting the interests of the few ahead of the many is called the “paradox of aggregation” – what is good for the individual is not always good for the collective. Blocking an infrastructural project, such as a metro or a railway line, might benefit an individual or a small lobby group but ipenalises the rest of the population. As a result, Ireland’s hyper-local political system will always impede national development, rather than advance it.

Last week, this column argued that the intersection of the political and planning system means that the country is not serious about achieving the potential of the economy. This lack of urgency is most evident in the housing market, where the least populated country in western Europe has among the highest land prices. Forty years after the Dart was opened, with the capital city straining under the lack of a decent train and metro system, Ireland’s unwillingness to build public infrastructure, be it homes or a decent transport system, is having a profoundly negative impact on quality of life.

Diminishing quality of life is not something that first comes to mind in Montenotte. Home to Cork’s merchant princes, Montenotte is an imposing suburb perched on a hill overlooking the river Lee. Built in the mid-19th century, Montenotte is named after the 1796 Battle of Montenotte, which revealed the early tactical prowess of Napoleon. (I’ve always wondered whether calling its poshest neighbourhood, constructed at the height of the British empire, after a victory for France’s revolutionary Republic was an early sign of the Rebel County’s colours.)

As I sat in the early spring sunshine outside Cork Coffee Roasters cafe, apparently like some of the more elevated locals, literally looking down on the city, I wondered what Cork would be like with better national infrastructure and planning. Over the past century, since Independence, Dublin has grown exponentially while Cork, in terms of size, has lagged behind.

Many Corkonians might like it this way, but if Ireland is to develop in a less Dublin-centric way, Cork must grow.

According to the last census, Dublin city and suburbs are home to about 1.2 million people or just under a quarter (24.5 per cent) of the State’s population. By contrast, Cork, the second city, is only about a fifth of this size, with 223,000 residents (4.3 per cent of the State). Limerick is smaller again with 1.7 per cent of the State’s residents.

The economy is somewhere between 20 and 30 times bigger than it was in 1984 while the public transport system continues to lag woefully behind

Missing from this picture is Belfast – a metro area population estimated to be in the region of 643,000. In a future state, Belfast would offer a slight national counterweight to Dublin. It is half the size of Dublin but more than twice as large as Cork.

Dublin’s dominance in terms of headcount translates to economic heft. A good indicator of economic strength is tax revenue. Dubliners dominate Ireland’s tax take: €37.2 billion worth of tax receipts are collected from Dublin, accounting for more than half (53 per cent) of the national intake, dwarfing receipts collected in Cork (€13 billion), Limerick (€1.7 billion) and Galway (€1.8 billion).

It’s easy to see Cork shouldering a much greater burden of economic development in the future. Due to a cluster of multinationals, 194 firms in Cork are currently employing 43,000 people, operating across sectors such as pharmaceuticals, technology, cybersecurity, and financial services, and the city has the fourth highest disposable income per capita in Ireland. Cork city was voted the No 1 small European city for economic potential in the 2022/2023 edition of the Financial Times European Cities of the Future Awards. Cork Airport is Ireland’s second busiest, providing access to all major European destinations.

Unlike Dublin, Cork is sensibly moving its port - from Cork city to Ringaskiddy to allow easier access to deeper waters and shipping lanes and to allow the Tivoli and Cork city port areas – just down the road from Montenotte – to be developed for housing and local commerce.

However, the development of Cork, like the rest of the country, requires urgent attention at the national level. A city such as Cork should already have a light rail system rather than one coming down an already delayed pipeline. There is no train line out to Ringaskiddy, while the M28 motorway to the new port has been subject to rescheduling and won’t be opened for another five years. And despite all the talk about regional development, there is still no motorway or proper train service continuously connecting Cork with Limerick and Galway, thus depriving the west and southwest of the country as the transport map continues to focus on lines to and from Dublin.

If Ireland wants to achieve its potential and create a country where the quality of life is commensurate with our national income, acceleration is essential. This means building and building quickly, across the country, sustainably. Dublin is far too dominant and cities such as Cork are primed to benefit.

To achieve this, the story of the Dart should be instructive. Forty years on and hardly any urban transport infrastructure has been built. Rather than a source of celebration, the Dart’s anniversary is a source of shame, shame on a political system that isn’t serious about development and isn’t serious about the country in general.

The economy is somewhere between 20 and 30 times bigger than it was in 1984 while the public transport system continues to lag woefully behind.