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Michael McDowell: Nostalgic fantasies about rail travel won’t change reality. What we need are roads

Giving up on the national roads network is unjustified in a country with a rapidly expanding population that needs balanced development

I was heartened when John FitzGerald, a self-confessed railways fan, wrote in his column that the recently published strategy for the development of rail services across the island of Ireland lacked a serious cost/benefit basis for many of the projects envisaged. The strategy document seemed to adopt a 30-year time horizon for some of its more ambitious projects.

I am also a fan of rail transport. Whether that stems from a childhood fascination with trains and toy train sets, or a sense of loss when I see maps of 100 years ago featuring an Ireland served by many railways that have since been abandoned – perhaps it is a bit of both – it always saddens me to see abandoned railway infrastructure, even when it is repurposed as greenways.

But there is little point in being nostalgic about our present-day transport infrastructure needs. We must be realistic.

And that is why I am really worried about the whole political and planning process that is driving current decision-making in relation to developing our transport networks.


I wrote here recently about the Public Accounts Committee report which detailed hundreds of millions of euro spent on planning projects in the last two decades that have been abandoned. That report expressed some anxiety that the Dublin MetroLink project for an underground rail service from Swords to Dublin Airport to Grand Parade on the canal might eventually cost us €20 billion.

It is still awaiting planning approval. But it is being chosen in preference to other transport projects, including the Dart Interconnector project linking Heuston station underground via the city centre to the east coast rail corridor. Proceeding with MetroLink means that a very light rail surface network like Luas will not be built for most of Dublin. Instead the BusConnects project is being progressed at a projected cost of €3 billion. But it is only now going for planning approval.

We never see a transparent process whereby democratically elected politicians engage in a public discussion of the alternative approaches that are available to voters, and where the choices are articulated and costed at the level of principle first and the chosen option is then planned and implemented.

Who decided and when that the Dart Interconnector should be shelved? Was it the National Transport Authority (NTA)? Was it the Department of Transport? Was it the Cabinet? Did ministers really choose between the Dart Interconnector and MetroLink? Were both tabled before them as costed alternatives?

Or is it the case that NTA/TFI (Transport for Ireland) develop detailed proposals costing many millions of euro and put them forward to the Department for Transport, and that the Minister for Transport t then brings his shiny new project to the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure, and then puts it into a much broader national development plan document which is laid before the Dáil and the public for a yes/no decision?

I remember when the Green Party were vociferously opposing the widening of the N11 at the Glen of the Downs during the three-year Save the Trees campaign from 1997 to 2000, which involved protesters setting up camps in trains. I remember when the motorway to Navan was being obstructed by New Age protesters, some of whom had convinced themselves that the Tara/Skryne valley was some kind of holy or spiritual space, and others including academics and historians. The motorway shifted traffic further away from the historical remains at Tara.

Even if all road transport is made electric or run on renewable fuels including hydrogen in the next twenty years, there is a need to complete the motorway network

But the still-uncompleted motorway projects must surely be reckoned as the most significant infrastructural investments made by the Irish state. Even if all road transport is made electric or run on renewable fuels including hydrogen in the next 20 years, there is a need to complete the motorway network. It may be done to full motorway or dual-carriageway standard, but Ireland needs road investment.

Railways simply cannot duplicate the advantages of road transport. They are inflexible. If freight is carried by trucks powered by hydrogen, why bother attempting to divert it to trains on lines that are yet to be electrified? The same applies to hydrogen-powered bus services.

And these considerations lead us to asking whether our transport plans have been hijacked by a new anti-mobility agenda. I fully understand that involuntary mobility such as lengthy daily commuting is neither necessary nor sustainable – economically, environmentally, socially or psychologically. That is why we have to reimagine our cities. But giving up on the national roads network is unjustified in a country with a rapidly expanding population that needs balanced development spread across the State.

Rail transport is justified on some corridors between urban centres and within some larger conurbations. It is not justified as the main or principal means of transport for most purposes. Donegal needs road connectivity. So does Kerry. The Dublin-Derry-Letterkenny motor route needs to be developed. Galway needs its bypass circular route.

Nostalgic fantasies about rail projects are no alternative to meeting our transport infrastructure needs now.