Let’s not dig ourselves into a hole on the Dublin Metro plan

Cliff Taylor: We need solid evidence before starting this €4bn tunnel

March 24th, 2018: Metro North is to be announced as part of the Government's Ireland 2040 infrastructure plan. The rail line was also announced by governments in 2005 and 2015.

 

I’ve been Metrosceptical for a long time. It’s no surprise that the Metro plan, cancelled during the economic crisis, is back on the agenda again. And I’m willing to be persuaded it is the right thing to do, in some shape anyway. But it is likely to cost up to €4 billion and if we are going to spend that amount of money on one project, we need to be as sure as we can be that it is going to work.

The first time around, when the then Metro North plan was given the go-ahead in 2005, there was criticism of the lack of public information of the estimated costs and benefits. One study that was published by the Rail Procurement Agency in 2010 showed estimated benefits of about 1.5 times cost – less than you would want given the inevitable nature of these things to overrun. Only when assumed – and debatable –“wider economic benefits” were counted in, did the benefits rise to twice the level of costs.

On those figures, it would have been a tight enough call. And there was a lot of nonsense back then about not revealing the likely cost of the scheme due to commercial sensitivities, and other cost/benefit studies which were never fully published. Sometimes the concept of public money is poorly understood.

Cost vs benefit

Now the retitled MetroLink is firmly back on the agenda in an expanded form, with a proposed 26km (16 mile) route between Swords and Sandyford involving 25 stops. It plans to cater for an estimated 15,000 passengers per direction per hour. Construction work would start in 2021 with services to launch in 2027.

We need a lot more detail to persuade us there is an economic case, as opposed to a political imperative, to build this

This time around, we have a cost/benefit analysis just published at the start of the process, undertaken by Systra, a French-owned consulting and engineering company. On the face of it, it shows that the project would deliver value for money. It works from estimates of cost between €3 billion and €4 billion, saying that on the basis of the lower figure the benefits could be three times the costs. If the plan cost €4 billion, the benefits would still be 2.4 times the cost.

In the scheme of these things, anywhere over 2 is considered to offer strong value for money. However the analysis, as published, only runs to 28 pages. Few details of the assumptions are published. We need a lot more detail to persuade us there is an economic case, as opposed to a political imperative, to build this.

On the cost side of the equation, I’m not going to quibble with the experts, though it is worth noting the study itself refers to the figures as “indicative cost estimates”. But detailed final estimates need to be delivered as part of a full business case. And of course we know from Irish – and international – experience that “things” generally cost more than expected and take longer to deliver than anticipated.With the Metro route requiring homes to be demolished, GAA clubs discommoded and significant disruption, there is also scope for both legal and politically inspired delays.

Delivering people

It is counting the benefits, however, where this will probably stand or fall. The vital factor, as pointed to by Prof Edgar Morgenroth of DCU business school, will be whether our construction industry and planning system can ensure that enough people live along the route to get the required benefit in terms of passenger numbers. The key economic benefit is delivering people along the route more quickly to their destination – a bus might take 50 minutes from Swords to the city centre , or more at rush hour, while the Metro would get there in 25 minutes. This accounts for 78 per cent of the assumed benefits of the scheme, so we need to be sure that there will be enough passengers using the service.

But how robust are the usage numbers? And can our planning system delivery the desired change in approach to the kind of high-density living required to make the Metro numbers add up? As things stand, for example, large swathes of half-vacant land lie to the north of Ballymun on the proposed route. The regeneration plan for Ballymun, launched in 1998, has been delayed time and again. Only this week, councillors gave the go-ahead to demolish the old shopping centre, a prime site for development slowly left to decay.

We need a full, public business case plan for the new Metro, before we send the diggers in

Meanwhile in the city centre, An Bord Pleanála this week turned down a proposal to build Dublin’s tallest building on Tara Street – ironically just beside Tara Station where the new Metro is to intersect with the existing Dart and commuter train system. High-density development is central to the Metro and indeed to the wider benefits of the investment programme. Otherwise, less expensive alternatives, for example putting the link above ground, should surely be considered. Or not building a separate underground link from Charlemont on the southside underground and alongside an existing Luas route. Or even – whisper it – upgrading the bus network.

Limerick lesson

We saw another example this week of the problems which can emerge when fewer than expected people use a piece of infrastructure. The State has paid €34 million to the private operators of the Limerick Tunnel under the terms of a public-private partnership because fewer than expected have used the tunnel and paid tolls – and is likely to pay at least €200 million before the end of the contract in 2041. Realistic figures for usage are vital.

We need a full, public business case plan for the new Metro, before we send the diggers in. It needs to be a lot longer than 28 pages and have a full economic analysis as part of the input. It needs to be based on realistic population projections.This would be the most expensive tunnel we ever built – we have to get this one right.

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