John FitzGerald: The draft rail strategy is fun but most of it is fantasy

When it comes to big infrastructural initiatives there needs to be a decent margin of benefit over cost to make a project worthwhile

I’ve been a train enthusiast all my life, having travelled on every train line in Ireland, most recently under the Phoenix Park to Hazelhatch. I still have my Thomas the Tank Engine books. When I was bored, stuck in bed with an illness aged 10, my father gave me a copy of the CIÉ train timetable. My task was to be the “fat controller” and calculate how many trains a day I could get on the single-track line from Dublin to Galway. I had to work out their speed and where they could pass. From there, I plotted a string of new rail lines to gladden any small boy.

Thus, I read the latest draft strategy on train travel for Ireland with enthusiasm. However, it rapidly became clear that, like my childhood planning, it was a fantasy.

Any major infrastructural investment must be underpinned by a study that compares the costs with the likely benefits —looking not only at expected cash returns but also at the value of benefits like lower emissions, faster journeys and reduced congestion. Only when likely benefits exceed likely costs is an investment justified.

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The detailed study underpinning the draft rail strategy shows that, with the exception of more intensive use of existing track, none of the other projects involving either new rail lines or a doubling of single-track stretches are likely to show significant net benefits to society. Given the experience that, in most cases, major infrastructure comes in well over the expected cost, there needs to be a decent margin of benefit over cost to make a project worthwhile.


In connecting our cities, the motorway system now allows relatively fast bus connections. When I travel from Dublin to Galway or from Belfast to Derry, if I have time I go by rail. However, if I am in a hurry, I take the bus. Unfortunately, as the draft rail strategy makes clear, speeding up the intercity rail system is likely to be hugely expensive. Alternatively, it will seriously affect commuter rail services that use the same tracks and that really do reduce car journeys.

If we want to run hourly trains from Dublin to Belfast, that would mean restricting commuter trains on the line, both at the Dublin and the Belfast end, unless expensive new lines are built to separate the main line from commuter trains. The strategic rail review shows that to substantially increase the speed on the line between Belfast and Dublin we would need a new tunnel under Dublin. That’s in addition to the delayed plans for a metro tunnel and for the Dart underground. Given it is exceptionally expensive to dig tunnels, it is not surprising that, unfortunately, the economics of reducing the journey time between Dublin and Belfast with a new tunnel don’t stack up.

The rail plan avoids the wider issue about the sustainability of dispersed development

The rail strategy has a small number of projects that upgrade some existing track and infrastructure, at moderate cost. Those pay their way and are justified.

The projects in the new rail plan, at best, would only come on stream from 2040 onwards. By then, we expect that our electricity system will have been almost fully decarbonised and that most road transport will be using clean electricity. From a climate perspective, it won’t matter by then whether people travel by road or by rail.

The rail plan avoids the wider issue about the sustainability of dispersed development. The latest census results show how development has sprawled in commuter counties around Dublin, with growth in commuter mileage. Over the next couple of decades, until we decarbonise, this will raise emissions from transport.

Over the long run, such dispersed settlement is still a problem, as many places lack the critical mass to site key services close to where people live. Under the National Planning Framework, the State has signed up to clustering new developments in denser cities, with more sustainable lifestyles. It is disturbing that the draft strategy ignores that framework and instead envisages a substantial increase in medium-distance journeys by rail.

I would like to see the State bringing to fruition the public transport plans that are on the stocks for years, including BusConnects and the Dublin metro. Along with that, Dublin and our other major cities need more intensive development. As our population continues to grow, we need to halt the spread of suburbia further and further across rural Ireland

The draft rail strategy is fun — but most of it is not for real. Let’s instead make our National Planning Framework a reality, and get Dublin’s key transport investments done.