Should Metro North survive the cutbacks

Double Take with Frank McDonald and Ciarán Cuffe

Double Take with Frank McDonald and Ciarán Cuffe

It's time to cut our cloth on these mega transport schemes and the Dart Underground offers far better value,writes FRANK McDONALD

THERE ARE two rail-based “mega projects” in the Government’s revised capital spending programme – and one of them surely has to go. Given that Ireland is now teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, we simply can’t afford to build both Metro North and Dart Underground.

These immensely expensive schemes were conceived in the white heat of the economic boom, when we thought we had money to burn, whereas Luas – a relatively modest project – was planned in the early 1990s before the authorities had entirely lost the run of themselves.

We have not been told how much Metro North would cost, because that’s still a State secret.

All we know – only because the figure wasn’t sufficiently blacked out from a document released under the Freedom of Information Act – is that an estimate in 2004 put it at €4.58 billion.

This eye-watering price-tag may have fallen since as a result of the general decline in tender costs. But whatever the figure is today, all we would be getting for it is a single 18km line – 10km of it underground – running between St Stephen’s Green and Belinstown, north of Swords.

Dart Underground, on the other hand, is a much more strategic project that would knit existing suburban rail services into a regional network by linking Heuston Station with the Docklands, via the Civic Offices in Wood Quay, St Stephen’s Green and Pearse Station, Westland Row.

Furthermore, this project – estimated at €2.5 billion – would cater for 67 million passenger journeys annually (183,000 per day), compared with Metro North’s 34 million (93,000 per day). As anyone can see, this works out at twice as many passengers for half the capital cost.

Of course, all of these projections were made during the boom, when it seemed as if everything would continue to rise – including population growth and transport demand. But even if the figures have fallen, Dart Underground offers better value for scarce money than Metro North.

As far as we know, based on the limited data available, the metro line had a (very low) cost-benefit ratio of 1:1 – in other words, it would merely break even economically. It is highly improbable that this is still the case, given the much higher cost of borrowing Ireland now faces.

Furthermore, one of the key assumptions that underpinned the project is that there would be enormous levels of development and population growth along the corridor that Metro North would serve, particularly in Fingal. This is also unlikely to be realised any time soon.

Construction of Metro North would also have devastating impacts on the city centre. The northwest quadrant of St Stephen’s Green would be be turned into a huge hole in the ground and all the statues and fine monuments on O’Connell Street would have to be taken down.

By coincidence, another 18km public transport route is now being promoted by Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council – a dedicated bus rapid transit route from (close to) Sydney Parade Dart station to Sandyford, running via St Vincent’s hospital, RTÉ and UCD in Belfield – known as the Blue Line.

The big difference with Metro North is that the Blue Line’s estimated cost is a snip, at €33 million. And it is for that very reason that this modest proposal is not being included in the plans for Dublin being drafted by the National Transport Authority; it is seen as subversive of the mega projects.

The time has come, however, to cut our cloth according to the measure.

  • Frank McDonald is Environment Editor

Metro North, a vital piece of infrastructure 10 years in the planning, will benefit the city for generations to come, writes CIARÁN CUFFE

NOW IS the time to invest in public transport that will serve the capital city well into the next century. Metro North will run from St Stephen’s Green to the airport and on to Swords. The line will have a final design capacity of roughly 20,000 passengers per hour, based on one 90m train every two minutes. Figures of €5 billion to €15 billion have been thrown out as the cost for building Metro North. These are way off the mark.

Assuming An Bord Pleanála approves the project, the real cost will be less than €3 billion. The exact figure isn’t publicly available because the State remains in a competitive tendering process. Construction prices are good value in today’s environment. Costs will be spread over a number of years so that they do not impact immediately on the balance sheet.

The Government has secured loan funding from the European Investment Bank for €500 million to part finance the project. An economic analysis for the project yielded a benefit-to-cost ratio of two to one, so for every euro the State invests, it will get back two. During construction, 4,000 direct construction jobs will be created as well as 2,000 indirect jobs.

We face the twin challenges of climate change and energy security in the decades ahead. It is crucial that we take a long-term view of our public transport and planning needs. In our towns and cities, public transport will have an increasingly important role to play as our communities and workplaces are located closer to rail and bus corridors. Examining a map of Dublin, many residents in north Dublin have no rail option.

For Fingal, the country’s fastest growing area, a fixed rail connection linking Swords, Dublin airport, Ballymun, the Mater hospital and the city centre, makes sense.

Together with Dart Underground, Metro North will be a vital backbone to an integrated public transport system for Dublin encompassing commuter rail, light rail and bus. One of the aims of Smarter Travel, the Government’s transport policy is to reduce the number of car-based commuting trips. With annual passenger journeys projected at more than 30 million, Metro North will play its part in this. A failure to balance the investment in road infrastructure with comparable investment in high-quality public transport will see a return to a gridlocked M50 in years to come.

Metro North, a vital piece of infrastructure 10 years in the planning, will benefit the city of Dublin and its inhabitants for generations to come. It represents integrated transport and land-use planning.

Daniel Burnham, the American planner who produced the Chicago Plan in the 19th century, once said: “Make no little plans, they have no courage to stir men’s blood and probably will not be realised.

“Aim high in life and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram, once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency . . . think big.”

Now is the time to aim high for Dublin.

  • Ciarán Cuffe is Green Party TD for Dún Laoghaire and Minister of State for Sustainable Transport and Travel