Planes, Trains and Automobiles

I do not have time to fully develop this point but there have been several media reports in recent times on the adverse impact of Ireland’s improved road network on the demand for inter-city air travel and train travel within Ireland.  These reports focus on the negative impact on the suppliers of air and train travel and the requests for increased public funding to upgrade air and train networks to compete.  However, the more direct public-interest interpretation is that part of the payoff to the major investment in the road network is that fewer resources need to be absorbed by providing air and train links where the road network now dominates. (If it turns out that environmentally-optimal road pricing would call for more trains and planes, that is a valid argument. But to justify extra investment just on the basis of losing market share to the road network is not a strong argument in itself.)

47 replies on “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”

Right now the roads are grand. But what happens when maintenance is due. Has the long-term cost of maintaining the new motorways vis-a-vis rail been factored in?

Flashback to 1820 and a discussion in a hostelry on Dame St. This lumper potato is wonderful. It’s far more efficient than the other spuds. We’ll move all production over to it. What could possibly go wrong ?

@Phillip – you have put your finger on something very important i.e. that we have been subsidising multiple modes to get from A to B. However, I doubt that a reduction in the subsidies to other modes was ever considered as projects are not usually evaluated against feasible alternatives (a point I have made for many years)!

Indeed to make my point that these investment decisions appear to be made in isolation it is interesting to note that the tax payer appears to have indemnified the operator of the M3 PPP against lower than expected traffic volumes, while it was (is?) government policy to connect Navan via a rail link to Dublin (which presumably will reduce the level of traffic on the motorway).

In fairness to the Department of Transport, it carried out a pretty decent value for money review on regional airport expenditure in 2010. It showed that the subsidy per flight on subsidised routes is considerably larger than that for rail, but of course rail is nevertheless heavily subsidised. Of course roads do not come for free either.

In general if we need to subsidise a transport mode we should pick the one that requires the lowest subsidy (after carefully considering why we need this subsidy in the first place).

@Edgar Morgenroth
If it is the operator of the M3 motorway is the only one that Government has indemnified, that might be bearable.

Although I have not checked it, I suspect it applies to all other motorways and other facilities provided under the PPP funding mechanisms.

I presume that in the recent traditions of these matters, details of these PPP cannot be released under commercial confidentiality something or other.

This contrasts very poorly with earlier practices in this Republic. IDA Annual Reports used to list all grants paid (under different programmes) to all companies during the period being reported on, together with the total amount approved and the total paid to date.

This practice does not appear to have harmed the promotion of FDI.

But I imagine it has ceased, like other similar measures offering transparency eg. the abandonment of the practice of having non-civil servants on the Top Level Appointment Committee

Of course, the Dept of Transport looked at regional air subsidies. These were having an impact on other state-owned businesses (eg. Iarnrod Eireann, Bus Eireann).

Was there a similar value of money review carried out on subsidies paid to these state-owned businesses through non-transport programmes eg. school buses, free travel

Note that we have
– a carbon tax on petrol and diesel
– a vehicle registration and motor tax that differentiates for potential CO2 emissions
– a fuel efficiency standard (or rather a piecewise linear tax)
– mandatory blending of bioethanol/biodiesel with petrol/diesel
– subsidies and free fuel for electric vehicles
We used to have a car scrappage scheme that also worked to improve fuel efficiency and cut emissions.

Methinks that the environmental externalities of private car transport therefore do not justify subsidies on public transport.


That is predicated on the carbon tax’s being at the socially-optimal level, given political constraints.

@Donal – wasting 10s of millions does matter even if it were just one project. Unfortunately it is my understanding that there are others. One of the supposed benefits of PPS is risk transfer!!

Good point about other similar reviews – it is possible although with some work, to extract the subsidies for other state owned public transport (remember there are some privately operated bus services).

Great anology Seafoid – economic or natural world specialisation which may appear as more efficient is more likely to lead to extinction in the long run.
Besides as I have said before – the true cost of road based travel is not expressed directly on the fiscal books – the money lost to the internal economy from a great need for imports of both cars , oil , loss of agricultural land must be enormous.
Also for most of a private cars life it just stays put and depreciates unlike public transport , taxis etc which provide greater employment using less energy.
Ireland it seems is always last to the table for new developments only to be left behind because of the huge upfront costs to a technology investment that is now dying in the west.
This fiscal fetish that is common to Irish economists who see the public debt numbers but do not make the effort to truely understand the real physical economy behind this metrics will lead to another period of non investment in a country that does not produce oil or car parts similar to the post independence era (The Ford Factory is gone folks…………)
Also not sure high speed line improvements is needed in Ireland given our small scale – On a more parochial Cork republic line has CIE done a study of only half completing the old line to Youghal ?
Is it efficient to only run Half of the line which perhaps has 2 thirds of the population catchment ?
Surely you would get more passengers starting their Journey from Kent station and therefore a more efficient use of the existing line if the 2 extra villages beyond Midleton and Youghal became the terminus ?
We don’t set out to half complete roads in this country do we ?

I went to a very interesting presentation at the ETH in Zürich a few weeks ago . The subject was the future of cars , presented by Prof. Daniel Wiener .

Modern car design is not fit for a world of declining oil supply. Cars are too heavy and waste too much energy. Only 40% of the energy produced in an engine goes into propulsion , per the Prof. He said fuel efficiency needs to be multiplied by 300% for cars to start to make sense.

The current model is wonderful in a world of unlimited resources but we don’t live in such a world. Our current transport system isn’t even remotely sustainable. Or efficient.

In Switzerland 44% of car emissions are produced by 20% of drivers. The ones who drive more than 20,000 km per year. Most of these people want a comfortable car and one that demonstrates to others how wealthy they are. This sort of thinking has no place in a sustainable transport policy.

Basing transport policy on cars is like basing the economy on the sale of houses.

Yes Edgar I Know – the malinvestment cake is baked.
I am just trying to come up with cheap rail investment ideas that will perhaps stich some of our more significant market towns together before they die from linear development mistakes.
The Youghal line is still in Public ownership unlike the west cork line – it will be not be that expensive to rebuild.

Even though infrastructure projects may have cost more than they should have in the past, at least there there is some value left as the poltroons would otherwise have flushed excess funds down a sink hole if they hadn’t been used for that purpose.

Despite some moaning about Dublin Airport’s T2, I recently thought that it was quite impressive and a change from the past teeming humanity in T1.
Heuston Station, for long a depressing drab place, is a big improvement, as is the train service.

A few years ago I had to book Ryanair to get from Dublin to Cork on St. Stephen’s Day as the trains weren’t running.

Apart from 12 country exceptions, Ryanair had a scam where on inputting the country of residence, they required a payment of €12 for ‘visa processing’ – – I guess for the time spent in checking the visa on a non-EU passenger’s passport. I tried to reverse out of the screen a number of times but the system jammed and ended up paying an extra €12.

So long live the train service!

In Asia, the high risk to pedestrians in urban areas is promoting a move to motorised transport.

As regards train travel or travel by car in Ireland, value of time for work and or/ mental and physical energy conserved should also be accounted for.

Regional air-routes cannot compete with new motorway network so long as internal flights are treated the same as international flights. The security and other delays encountered at terminals(especially in Dublin) make road transport more time efficient in addition to other benefits. Regards

@ Dork

What’s your take on electric cars. Once the range issue is resolved, then the more energy the country produces from wind the less that goes to the Arabs. Of course the turbines and electric cars cost money but due to the less moving parts in e-cars they’ve potential for being cheaper than their petrol equivalents.

@ MH

I came across another Ryanair scam recently. “Win €1 million on a Ryanair scratchard.” There will be one lucky winner who gets the €1 million scratchcard.

The winner then gets to go to Dublin for a special draw where there are 125 envelopes. 124 contain €2000 and one has €1 million.

The margins must be very juicy.

Not a fan I am afraid – its just too capital intensive per passenger , although the Great Elon Musk and his Tesla motors venture is interesting.

When this is all over I believe only the upper middle class & above will be able to afford a private car whether fossil fueled or not – my emphasis would be introducing more heavy trams & light trains on the old Edwardian line / modern road network and of course keeping the vital bus network to feed into these railway nodes.
Isolated houses and their cars that are not on working farms are toast in my opinion – the only reason you would live in them is expecting the cities to break down both socially & economically – however it does not have to be that way , all is not lost ………… yet.

@ John Foody re. electric cars for private passengers

Complete scam John. The range/weight issue limits the nature of the vehicle, the number of passenger it can accommodate and the max load it can carry. Developers have reached the technology limits – despite all the hype. Laws of thermodynamics rule, KO!

In addition there is the topography over which the vehicle moves (flat or hilly, urban or open road). Electrical vehicles should only be used for mass transit.

Brian Snr.

Don’t know the status of this new estate in the old railway village of Mogeely since this was a old blog entry but would it not pay to invest in basic transport utilties to save these investments ?

Incidentally this little village is withen 5 minutes drive of the significant market town of Castlemartyer.
The next train former train station has also experienced significant development.
Of course the Youghal Town at the lines terminus is experiencing a very deep depression now.
Are we to destroy the remaining bits of rational nodal development to save broken bank balance sheets ?
I have traveled many times on the Scottish west highland & highland line which have much lower population densities & decent roads yet are still viable.
Why are these Irish lines not viable ?

@ Brian Woods Snr

‘Developers have reached the technology limits’ Do you have any papers supporting this?

I read a lot of technology blogs and my impression is that there are constant breakthroughs in battery technology, efficiency etc It appears to me that the financial services industry isn’t stealing all of MITs best.

It might be a reach at the moment but there is potential for the use of eCars as part of a proper smart grid. Depending on want kind of smart meters are rolled out of course.

Why can’t we have both an excellent intercity motorway and railway network? Not everyone has a car and not everyone wants to travel in one all the time. It’s good to have the choice of either getting in your car and driving from Galway to Dublin or getting a train. As well as that we saw last year in the snow that rail transport was the most reliable. Our roads were covered in snow and the gritters couldn’t keep up with it hence 3 hour journeys across Dublin. Meanwhile the trains kept running and got people to and from work, school and college with little delay. Moreover its good to have redundancy in a transport system – what if there was a devastating crash on the Dublin/Galway motorway which completely held up traffic and there wasn’t an alternative means of transport? Similarly, what if there was a derailment of a train and the road couldn’t take the extra users? Having both rail and road networks of the highest quality means that we are prepared for an accident on either system.

Its that money thing.
We should concentrate on old rail lines that have not been cut to pieces by the new road network…. its very cost effective that way.

We have used the train service from Cork to Dublin quite a lot over the last 12 months. Now that petrol is so expensive and parking too, the train comes out much cheaper. Surely there is less of carbon footprint with rail travel as well.

On a recent trip to Dublin airport, a car journey would have cost circa 80 euros in petrol, 75 in parking for 12 days. The train cost 70 euros for a family of 2 adults and 3 children. Immensely more civilised and obviously less draining than driving all that way (from west Cork). If all that we do is based on technocratic solutions to our problems, then we will end up creating private sector monopolists.

By the way, I’ve seen the PPP model described as “legalised corruption”. Having seen one operate up close, I would tend to agree. PPPs have essentially subsidised construction of motorways.

As for Ryanair, on numerous occassions they have come out more expensive than their rivals when I checked. Michael O’ Leary promised to beat the train service from Cork to Dublin in terms of frequency and price. He never did either and now they’re gone.

Long live the train service.

If we only had the sense to follow a policy that promoted development focused around the train stations, IE wouldnt need subsidies so much. In fact they might even make a profit.

Buses don’t get much of a mention in this discussion. I wonder is it because they are generally the cheapest long distance travel option in Ireland, usually the slowest and therefore used by the less well off.

Motorways have improved journey times on buses Buses are much more flexible than trains and cost a lot less. Buses are the way to go IMHO.

@Brian – good point about buses. That is why I talked about ‘all modes’. The choice comes down to passenger volumes. With our dispersed population buses tend to make more sense than trains.

I wonder why everyone is ignoring bus coaches here?

Not only are bus coaches the cheapest form of long distance travel in Ireland, but they are often faster then the train and are actually greener then trains!!!

That is right, let me repeat that bus coaches release less CO2 into the atmosphere then Diesel trains. So if you are worried about the environment you should be supporting bus coaches.

So it isn’t Motorways + cars Vs Trains, it is Motorways + cars + bus coaches vs Trains.

Let me give you a real world example of bus coaches vs trains. I recently took Go Bus to Galway.

– Bus €20 return vs €46 by train
– Bus 2h 30min to O’Connell St vs 2h 45min to Hueston
– Bus was quieter and smoother ride then the train
– Bus had onboard toilet and free wifi

Having experienced this, I’d never take a train again.

The question I have is why haven’t the government licensed private bus operators yet to operate direct, non stop express bus services along the new Motorways to each of our cities of Cork, Limerick, Waterford?

The only answer I can come up with is that they aren’t licensing such services to protect Irish Rail who just can’t compete with such services.

And why such we continue to subsidise Irish Rail, when such private services require no subsidy * and provide a cheaper and more environmentally friendly service?

* Yes they do benefit from an indirect subsidy of road maintenance, but that is a strawman argument, as even if we had the best rail network in the world, we would still need motorways for all those private car users and thus maintenance.

So the question is, should we be maximising the use of the motorways by licensing private bus operators to use them? And if we do that, is their still a need for heavily subsidising Irish Rail?

@ Brian K

‘Bus was quieter and smoother ride then the train’
I’m not sure about this point, perhaps it’s true but you generally have far more space on a train. In addition one can be more productive on a train (power sockets, tables, coffee and sandwiches).

There’s also a higher chance that a bus could get delayed due to traffic and/or bad road conditions. That’s why people love the luas so much, it’s predictable.

I have a few friends on cowper road in Rathmines who don’t even know what number bus stops right out side their home, in fact they totally ignore the bus service in favour of the luas for this very reason.

John Foody, as a regular user of trains (Cork to Dublin) the bus is definitely quieter and smoother. The latest train carriages IR bought are significantly bumpier and noiser then the old carriages. In particular it is a problem with the new rail cars run on all routes but Cork as each carriage has it’s own engine. So a lot of noise in the carriage. There is plenty of talk about this over on some train forums.

As for productivity, the seats on Go Bus are about the same size as IR and have fold down tables with plenty of room for a laptop. Also they have free wifi which is obviously very good for productivity.

Yes the buses don’t have power at the seats, but then neither do the Cork trains and the power is currently not working on the railcars either due to bad design of the breakers which are currently being replaced by IR!! Anyway with journey times less then 3 hours to most places in Ireland, most laptops should last that anyway.

I’ll give you the point that rail may have a dining carriage on board and there is more room to walk about.

But are you really suggesting that we continue to subsidise Irish Rail to the tune of 200 million a year plus capital expenses they keep looking for (175 million being the latest) just so you can stretch your legs and get some food!!!

Hardly a convincing argument.

I certainly give you that if rail and bus are the same price, people generally prefer rail. But if the bus is 4 to 8 times cheaper then rail, for much the same speed, then I’m certain most people would take the bus. Just like what is happening on the Galway to Dublin line where the train has been crucified by Go Bus and City Link.

@Brian K
Not too worried by the Co2 thingy but are you not ignoring road surface friction vs rail friction and also the constant acceleration deceleration seen in road travel albeit much less in Motorway travel.
Also frequent stop trains rather then express trains have a added advantage over motorway Buses as these must come off these new roads to enter market towns.
Also many train lines frequently do not follow these new roads and enter towns many miles from a motorway.
Think of the Macroom to Killarney county bounds road section vs the Millstreet Killarney older road / rail section ( the bus route must split routes to cover these 2 different routes)
Also is this comparison per person or single bus relative to single railcar ?
Also these old train stations are not as busy as they once were because they have lost much of their feeder service
Think of a past Youghal traveler who wants to get to Dublin via the Cork to Dublin rail route , in the past he would be transported direct to Kent station – now he enters the bus station and must cross the river – a short journey but awkward with baggage.
Our train stations do not fit together as they once did – although in many cases these smaller lines were loss making routes they made our big city routes more viable

I accept that trains are more comfortable than buses on longer routes, and possibly Luas is better than Dublin Bus. However those of us living in rural Ireland don’t have the luxury of choice. The only, non intercity, rural public transport is the bus and the choice is getting more limited. Too many people with bus passes using a particular bus can result in that particular bus being taken off the timetable (quietly).

Here in the west some of our transport problems are of our own making, the campaign for the Western Rail Corridor being a good example. We would have been much better off with a good road from Sligo to Limerick with a frequent bus service. Now we end up with a motorway from Limerick to north of Gort , near enough to Galway; a train service from Limerick to Galway which is underused; and poor and in parts a very poor road from Galway to Sligo and rusty empty tracks between Galway and Sligo with no train in sight.

As for airports, at last the madness has stopped with the subsidies to Galway and Sligo withdrawn. Hopefully this will allow Knock and Shannon to become viable and offer a good choice of flights without us having to go to Dublin or Belfast.

“That’s why people love the luas so much, it’s predictable.”

You should try the Red line.

Why are you only comparing train with private car? The motorway has given the opportunity for much faster, more comfortable coach/bus journeys. These even operate on 26th December between Dublin and Cork, no need to fly! Intercity coaches are attractive on price, journey time and comfort for typical distances within Ireland. Motorways create new competitive public transport options.

“In particular it is a problem with the new rail cars run on all routes but Cork as each carriage has it’s own engine. So a lot of noise in the carriage. There is plenty of talk about this over on some train forums.”

You have to be kidding me? The Intercity railcars are the quietest railcars around – you would barely notice the engines on them.

Noise certainly is not an issue on the ICR sets.

@ Brian K

I haven’t travelled Go Bus so I can’t comment. They look good though. Irish rail have been running 10-15 euro each way, so they’re not necessarily that much more expensive at all times.

One point, Internet access isn’t exactly dependant on the mode of transport though, considering the prevalence of mobile ‘broadband’ these days.

On subsidies I’d prefer to see the money going toward Dart underground. I don’t think ‘The roads are better so the Trains should be improved’ is a good enough argument. IR would gain competitivness from the Dart Underground, from those who travel to St Stephens green or anywhere along the Dart line from Cork/Mayo/Limerick/Galway/Waterford.

@ Brian Mercer

I agree on the Sligo to Galway road, it’s terrible. Considering Sligo and Galway are suppose to be ‘key’ (or was it strategic?) cities. A better road or at least a few bypasses, would also facilitate the argument for more centralization of western medical services at Galway.

But to justify extra investment just on the basis of losing market share to the road network is not a strong argument in itself.

This one is definitely relevant to the current discussion:

If anyone’s interested Colm McCarthy’s article in the Farmers Journal today is on this topic ….. Also I was just wondering on the topic of Metro/DART underground and the argument that we can’t afford them at present .. am I right in thinking that in the 80s the DART proposal failed a CBA and by that logic shouldn’t have gone ahead. Has the DART been a failure? Surely quality of life benefits, reduced traffic congestion etc. as a result of it would help its benefits outweigh the costs. FWIW I would go for DART underground ahead of MN, as noted above greater linkages possible between different routes etc. Of course it is a bad sign that there’s no published info on potential costs etc.

We are cursed with Dollar bubble economists in this country – this now passing 100 year monetory era did not accuretly compute the energy externalties in economies for American nationalistic reasons.
The beginning of the end of the dollar era during its most dramatic hyperinflation phase in the 80s made even the DART seem a waste !! despite the obvious commonsense of the project.

In fact the waste was deferring expenditure on sustainable capital projects so that we could use the now passed tempory surplus to engage in consumerist dreams.
It seems only a full break down crisis will teach them the error of their ways.
Enemies of the dollar hegemony who could not engage directly with the monetory malice such as the French treasuary fought bravely against the waste with much derision from the Anglo boys , unfortunetly they mostly gave up by the early 90s but are left with a far more sustainable infrastructure then our net negative extractive work to sustain the car to get to work culture.

@Anon – The fact that ridership is high does not necessary imply that a project is a winner as one has to be careful to account for costs. What is needed, is some proper ex-post evaluation.

Internationally quite a few papers have been published that look at cost and ridership predictions and the general finding is that there is optimism bias when projects are initially evaluated. In these international studies rail projects seem to suffer from the highest optimism bias.

@ Edgar – understood. Is there any partilcuar amount that one is typically looking at in terms of optimism bias. E.g. 20% or 50% over statement of passenger numbers. If so surely you can allow for that when calculating benefits. Or is that too simple a view?

@Anon Econ – in the UK it is considered best practice to make an explicit allowance for optimism bias at the evaluation stage i.e. to add a fixed percentage to the costs for the purposes of a cost benefit analysis. Of course that runs the risk that cost estimates are adjusted accordingly. This is something that to my knowledge has not been tested yet but there should be enough data to check if the bias has become worse or if this practice has reduced cost overruns (by the way it is always good to remember that the fact that something comes in on budget is no guarantee that it is good value).

The UK Department of Transport published an interesting set of guidelines. For example if you wanted to be on budget with a 50% certainty you should increase the estimated costs of a rail project by 40%. If you wanted to be 80% certain to stay on budget then you should allow for 57% (and 68% if you want a 90% chance of staying on budget). This reflects the finding that there are a large number of projects for which the cost estimates were very significantly below the actual final cost. The variance is large and the average bias for rail projects is 40%. By the way the bias on IT projects can be considerably worse and the UK DoT recommends uplifts of between 10% and 200%!!

As part of getting us off fossil fuels, further electrification of Dublin’s rail network can be done with less complexity than placing tens of thousands of charging points on the grid for cars used for a few hours a day. Where things get shaky are cross-country regional routes. However, *Irish Rail’s problems are principally a management issue rather than a statement on the viability of rail per se*.

Under John Lynch as both CIE and IE Chairman IE went through a series of catastrophes. For Broadmeadow alone he should have been dismissed rather than the comfortable exit he enjoyed.
* First and foremost – failure to be upfront about objectives which means millions being spent on refurbishing track such as between Campile and Rosslare (which was then mothballed). Similar refurbishment is being done on the Nenagh line and the Clonmel line – stay tuned.
* They issue press releases about passenger numbers which… well let’s just say Alan Clark had a good phrase for it.
* They refused to retain value in the Mark 3 carriages by a refit, sending them to rust out and be vandalised while over-ordering railcars from Korea, the last of which are trickling in. The equivalent age carriages in Canada are being refurbished for 20+ years of further service, but now IE is facing a glut of railcars and is tendering the Mark 3s abroad as the final stage before the scrappers torch
* They were suckered into the property game but endured repeated failures at Tara St and Cork Kent and the much needed redevelopment at Galway was also a prisoner of the property game and now will be delayed by years.
* While IE owns Rosslare Harbour due to a historical quirk, they refused to aggressively timetable to benefit ferry services and even moved the passenger halt to a location a long walk from the terminal – the Port can’t even handle railfreight! Indeed, the most significant investment in railfreight recently was Dublin Port who spent their own money to reinstate sidings there.
* CIE permitted BE to directly target IE services by means of the X services which is killing what little viability there is on some IE routes.
* IE rushed to scrap not only freight routes but freight infrastructure such as cranes and sidings – but are now scrambling to regain freight markets as passenger revenue tanks
* IE made Aer Lingus’ mistake by trying to compete with buses on price rather than provide a superior service to justify higher fares.
* After BE made an alliance with GoBus there was a window where IE could have demanded similar rights to ally with private bus services to enhance their network coverage – fat chance. Instead, when the Waterford-Rosslare route was discontinued the replacement bus service was handed to BE to add to their Waterford hub not serve the railway station
* They bowed to political pressure in not only restoring the Ennis-Athenry railway but by doing so as a stopping rather than express service between Limerick and Galway, and are even now slowing the service further by applying for a station at Crusheen
* The prioritisation of the reinstatement of Ennis-Athenry delayed projects like Midleton-Cork which Cork County Council had devoted planning policy to for years. It also jumped over Clonsilla-Navan, which had it been open would have allowed much of the effect of the Broadmeadow Viaduct collapse (trains trapped on the “wrong” side from their depots, Tara Mines trains cut off from North Wall etc) to be routed around – instead a stub was completed where you basically have to pay motorway tolls to access the Park and Ride!
* IE remain responsible for hundreds of miles of rural track and alignments which they haven’t earned a bob on in decades, such as the overbridge on the Kingscourt route a lorry demolished a few weeks ago – most of these should now be greenways
* Horrific industrial relations which accordingly to Rail Users Ireland haven’t always been the unions fault notwithstanding the Brendan Ogle years

I could go on and on and on and on but I’ve gone on long enough already.

Excellent rant Mark , I love informative rants – the Rosslare harbour thingy is indeed very strange , why did they have to limit their brief to commuter traffic at a major seaport ?
There is something deeply dysfunctional with even the most basic Strategic ? maybe even Tactical planning in this country.

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