Philip Lane posted on this topic earlier in the week and it was my subject in this week’s Farmers Journal too:
Without breaking the speed limit, it is now possible to drive from the outskirts of Dublin to Cork’s Dunkettle roundabout in a little over two hours. Similar time savings have been made possible on the other inter-city routes and the country has, for practical purposes, become smaller. The improvement of the national road network is one of the few unambiguous dividends from the bubble.
On the busiest routes between the capital and the main provincial centres, car journeys are just one option: you can also fly, take the train or catch a bus. The improved road network is good news for bus operators, who can now offer a far better public transport alternative to the car. But it is very bad news for internal air services and for the loss-making Irish Rail. These two options have become markedly less competitive with either car or bus, an outcome which was both predictable and predicted. A rational government would have planned for increased reliance on inter-urban bus services and would have avoided costly, and pointless, subsidies to air and rail services that were bound to lose popularity as motorway development favoured car and bus. There is no absolute need for four different ways of getting to Cork.
Rationality however dawns slowly in the make-believe world of Irish transport policy. The government has presided over a massive investment programme in the railway. No less than €2.5 billion has been spent on mainline rail investment over the last decade. The result is that Irish Rail has provided large increases in frequency and capacity despite the obvious threat to passenger numbers. On Dublin-Cork, fifteen trains per day now operate, compared to half that number a decade ago. They offer journey times that are now quite uncompetitive with the car.
Air services between Dublin and Cork are not provided by a state-subsidised operator and the reaction has been very different. There will shortly be no scheduled service at all between Cork and Dublin. Ryanair have pulled out, following previous exits by Aer Lingus and Aer Arann. At one stage there were up to a dozen flights a day between the two cities. Ryanair cited passenger migration to the new motorway as a principal factor in its withdrawal announcement.
All three airlines which have operated Dublin-Cork services over the years are commercial companies which cannot sustain loss-making routes and their decisions make perfect sense. What precisely is the point though in pouring €2.5 billion into rail investment when a motorway network connecting the same towns and cities is under construction? Did nobody in the Department of Transport foresee what was going to happen?
In addition to enormous chunks of free investment capital, the railway enjoys large operating subsidies and a highly restrictive licensing regime for competing bus services. If you fancy running an express bus from Cork to Dublin, without subsidy, forget it. You will not be granted a license. Irish Rail continue, remarkably, to campaign for yet more capital ‘investment’ in the railway – on the grounds that it has become less competitive on inter-urban routes!
The government has wisely curtailed capital spending and withdrawn operating subsidies at some of the regional airports, of which far too many were built. The same logic now needs to be applied to the railway. The sheer expense of rail-based public transport systems is invisible to the travelling public, who pay only a portion of the operating cost in fares and none of the capital cost. But the bills of course arrive at the door of the Exchequer.
Over the next few weeks, ministers will resume their consideration of the options for cutting expenditure in the years ahead and should assess with a jaundiced eye the rail schemes for Dublin. The most notorious of these is Metro North, a plan for an underground railway through Mr. Ahern’s former Northside constituency serving Dublin Airport. This scheme has been in the plans for many years even though no cost estimate is available. The construction bill would run to several billions, plus the inevitable operating losses. All of this despite the fact that Dublin Airport is easily accessible as things stand, with a road tunnel, built at a cost of €700 million, providing a new link from the city and non-Dublin users able to use the upgraded M50.
There are also schemes to build a new underground railway in the city centre and plans for more tram lines. Sizeable sums have already been spent on designing and planning these projects. But there has been a noticeable drop in traffic congestion in the city recently and parking is easier. The government is flat broke and all of these fancy rail investment schemes should now be put on the long finger, or just abandoned altogether. It is not clear they ever made sense, even when we thought we could afford them.