The 'astronomical' cost of Dublin's Metro North, as the Taoiseach himself once complained, should force a rethink, argues Frank McDonald, Environment Editor.
This is what Bertie Ahern told the Dáil on June 30th, 2004: "To put a metro into the city on the scale proposed . . . would take up an enormous section of the capital programme for the entire State for an inordinate number of years."
As he said then, "the difficulty is the cost . . . has been astronomical and . . . is way out of line with what is considered reasonable for the taxpayer to bear . . . My feeling is it will be extremely difficult to undertake the entire project."
The Taoiseach was referring to estimates by the Railway Procurement Agency (RPA) that the likely price-tag for the first phase, linking Dublin airport with the city centre, would be €4.88 billion - a figure that caused consternation in Leinster House.
Three years later, the RPA is motoring ahead with a scheme that will cost even more - at least €5 billion, as revealed by The Irish Timeslast August. And the cost of repaying this capital investment would equate to €22 for every trip taken on the line from Swords to St Stephen's Green.
That's the figure cited by the Oireachtas Library and Research Service in a report on the metro project commissioned by Senator Paschal Donohoe (FG). It assumed that fares would cover the annual operating costs, leaving taxpayers to service a huge capital debt for 30 years.
So what has changed? How is a project branded by the Taoiseach as astronomically expensive in 2004 now proceeding in these more financially-straitened times? The short answer is that we don't know, because of the blanket of secrecy surrounding Metro North's funding.
All monetary figures in documents released to The Irish Timeslast July - nearly two years after they were first sought - were systematically blacked out. It was only by examining one letter closely that it was possible to discern a 2004 estimate of €4.58 billion.
Add the cost of construction inflation since then, as well as an extra station on the east side of Parnell Square plus the cost of putting the line underground in Ballymun, rather than running it along the main street, and it is clear that the estimate would now exceed €5 billion.
Even after allowing for such "value engineering" cost savings as underground stations with bare concrete walls, no escalators between street and concourse levels, and a minimal number of ticket machines - this exceeds the figure which Mr Ahern found "astronomical" in 2004.
It seems hard to credit that his change of tune could be related to the RPA's 2005 decision to reroute the largely underground metro via Drumcondra, in the heart of his constituency; this made sense anyway because it would provide a connection with the Maynooth commuter line.
The Cabinet originally gave its approval for a much more extensive metro in January 2002. The first phase was to include a line from Dublin airport through the city centre to Bray (supplanting the Sandyford Luas then under construction), as well as a spur to serve Blanchardstown. Rather optimistically, 2007 was set as the completion date for this phase of the metro. On foot of Cabinet approval, the RPA prepared an outline business case in 2002 for what has become known as Metro North and a fuller business case for the 17km (10 miles) line in 2003. A spokesman said a more recent cost-benefit analysis of the scheme was submitted this year.
None of these documents has been published, although one can imagine that the latest one has been scrutinised in detail by the Department of Finance. In the meantime, the RPA has shortlisted a number of "qualified candidates" to build and operate the metro. "It is intended that the Railway Order application process will commence in early 2008. The pre-application consultation process with an An Bord Pleanála has commenced and the public consultation process is ongoing," the RPA said in a statement on September 13th.
The RPA was much more forthcoming about figures in the past. It gave a full breakdown to the Oireachtas Committee on Transport in 2003 - €1.72 billion for construction, €903 million for risk provision, finance and insurance, €811 million for cost escalation and €458 million for VAT.
In addition - and this is the really interesting bit - the RPA's then chairman, Padraic White, explained that the public-private partnership (PPP) arrangement would cost the State €676 million, plus a further €313 million in fees for the consultants who would put it together.
So it's no wonder that major international companies such as Acciona, Alstom, Barclays Private Equity, Bombardier, Bouygues, HSBC Infrastructure Fund Management, Keolis, Macquarie Bank, Mitsui, Siemens and Veolia are all delighted to be put on the RPA's shortlist.
Under Department of Finance rules, all public capital projects costing €30 million must be subjected to a cost-benefit analysis, which is also supposed to examine alternatives. In the case of Metro North, these would presumably include a Luas line or rail spur to Dublin airport.
Even with "value engineering", such as the no-frills stations now proposed, the acknowledged cost-benefit ratio is weak at just 1:1.31 - nearly three times lower than the RPA's equivalent calculation for a city centre link between the Tallaght and Sandyford Luas lines.
The business case for Metro North is also based on extraordinarily optimistic assumptions such as the projection that it would carry 34 million passengers per year - eight million more than the two Luas lines carried in 2006 - with trains running every four minutes.
As the report commissioned by Paschal Donohoe pointed out, the RPA's assumption that 44 per cent of car users would transfer to metro in the catchment area it served also "seems particularly implausible" in the light of British figures showing much lower levels of "modal shift".
The metro project would only make economic sense if it was extended southwards from St Stephen's Green to Sandyford, Cherrywood and Bray. But this would involve digging another tunnel from the Green to Ranelagh, and nobody can (or will) say how much this would cost.
"How can anyone estimate the cost of a metro if a detailed design or even a geo-technical study is not completed?" one experienced transport engineer asked.
And if the cost of the project increases, the slim positive ratio would fall and could even become negative.
What's certain is that Metro North would be by far the most expensive public project in the history of the State, costing at least six times as much as Luas or the Dublin Port Tunnel. Indeed, a much more extensive Luas network could be built for considerably less money.
The Green Party remains committed to metro, whatever the cost. And now that it's in Government, its Ministers - John Gormley and Eamon Ryan - will presumably fight to get their way. But it will be up to Brian Cowen and his department to determine whether it goes ahead.
It would require a great deal of political courage to abandon such a "big-ticket" project. However, given the emerging budgetary position and the demise of the Celtic Tiger, it would be the prudent thing to do - and save the money for investment in projects that make sense.
London link: approval for new service
This week the British government finally gave its approval for a £16 billion (€23 billion) underground rail link across London from Paddington to Stratford, with intermediate stations at Bond Street, Tottenham Court Road, Farringdon, Liverpool Street and Whitechapel.
Crossrail, Europe's biggest civil engineering project, will provide a Parisian-style rapid rail service carrying 200 million passengers a year. It will link all the tube lines running through central London, thereby making it much easier for public transport users to get around.
Dublin also has a "Crossrail" project - the proposed underground rail interconnector between Heuston Station and Spencer Dock. But it is way down the list of priorities in the Government's Transport 21 programme and may not be built at all if the metro project eats up the money.The Iarnród Éireann project would perform the same role as London's "Crossrail" by linking existing and planned commuter rail services as well as the Tallaght Luas line (at Heuston), the Sandyford Luas line (at St Stephen's Green) and Dart (at Pearse Station).
As a result, it would serve many more public transport users than Metro North, or the proposed Metro West, a souped-up Luas line running from Tallaght to Ballymun via Clondalkin and Blanchardstown - an orbital route on which there isn't even a bus service at present.
According to Iarnród Éireann, the interconnector combined with electrifying commuter rail services to Kildare, Maynooth and Drogheda would result in a four-fold increase in peak rail patronage by 2016, giving superior access to Dublin from nearly all population centres.
The capital cost of this programme was estimated in 2002 at €3.4 billion, of which the interconnector - let's call it "Crossrail" - would account for €1.3 billion. Five years on, it would cost significantly more - but nothing like as much as Metro North.