We may now be on right track but the delays will have cost us dearly

SEE them strolling along the platforms of Heuston Station with smiles so wide it almost hurts to watch because you’re sure their faces are hurting too. They’re announcing the Metro North project which they themselves binned four years ago.

We may now be on right track but the delays will have cost us dearly

Or as Transport Minister Paschal Donohoe put it on Tuesday, “It had to be deferred”. As if some power other than the Government had done the deferring. But that’s not what happened. This Government deferred Metro North.

Oh well, you’re saying, they had very little money in 2011 and it was just a delay of four years. But that’s not the case. Even in our darkest days, Metro North did not die. The project stalled during the financial crisis but Metro North was in the four-year plan written by the previous Government and approved by the Troika.

The planning and funding were in place for the Metro North project in 2010. The European Investment Bank had agreed to lend us €500m. Four consortia had had teams working on the project for up to two years and were ready to prepare for the final tender for the massive project, spending perhaps €10m between them.

But when this Government came to power the Metro was knocked on the head and the tenderers went away empty-handed. It is open to question whether any of the players in these consortia will want to tender again, having lost so much. As someone who was involved in the tendering process told me yesterday, there are only so many companies which could possibly bid for such a big project but boards in Frankfurt, Paris and London may counsel against bidding again.

Donohoe — who I strongly commend for resurrecting the plan — has proposed spending €1bn less by scaling back Metro North. The trams will be 60m long instead of 90m long and consequently the stations can be smaller. There will also be fewer stations, with Parnell Square and O’Connell St having only one between them.

Whether scaling back is a good idea or not hinges on how strong the economy and the population will grow. Take a negative view and the downgrading is appropriate. Take a pre-2008 view of economic and population growth and it isn’t. And this matters a lot particularly in the underground sections which are very difficult to change later on.

I think the scaling-back may yet be seen as a terrible mistake. Having waited so long to plan so far in advance, it is stupid to limit our ambition, particularly as the previous plan was agonised over by experts for 20 years. The Metro project has its roots way back in the establishment of the Dublin Transportation Office in 1995.

They produced Platform for Change: an integrated transport policy for the Greater Dublin area 2000-2006 by which every Dubliner was to be within a 10-minute walk of an integrated public transport which was to supply the needs of nearly every daily commuter. It was reckoned that there would be an energy saving of 41% compared with car travel, as well as an emissions reduction of 34% and 35% fewer accidents. Nearly all journeys in the city were to be completed with just one change and one ticket.

The Rail Procurement Agency was established in 2001 and they developed a metro plan which became Metro North: a Link to the Future in 2003. In 2005 Transport 21 was unveiled with Metro North as the centrepiece of an integrated public transport plan for Dublin. Ironically, 2021 will now mark the starting date rather than the completion date of the metro from the city centre to the airport and on to Swords.

I suspect this Government of knocking €1bn off the price-tag for the sake of optics alone. Now they can say they are not running with exactly the plan they previously deferred and which was developed during previous administrations. It also gives them an excuse to start the planning process all over again, which they themselves made necessary anyway by delaying the project.

One expert who was involved in the original tendering process reckoned that at least €100m in development money has been lost to the exchequer because of the deferral. But the real, unquantifiable loss is that the development will now be “pro-cyclical” not “counter-cyclical”. Had the bullet been bitten even as late as 2011 it would have been constructed during a period of widespread unemployment and huge emigration, particularly of construction workers. It would have spared many construction workers the pain of involuntary emigration and kept families together. It would have kept vital skills in Ireland where they were acquired.

By constrast the new Metro North will be built – if we are to believe Michael Noonan – when there is full employment. Still more construction workers will no doubt come home to work on it but we will probably have to attract skilled workers in from other countries, thus risking blowing up the bubble of transitory immigration once again. Clearly, construction during a period of full employment will also be far more disruptive than construction when there is less economic activity.

Michael Noonan

Michael Noonan

Just think if we could have emerged from the recession with something big to show for it: if construction of the vital transport link were underway, part of a truly integrated public transport service for our capital city. It must be understood that such a service would not just serve the city of Dublin but would work like a healthy heart, pumping economic activity into the rest of the country. Whether we like it or not, the economy of the whole country depends on Dublin working well and every corner of the country suffers because ours is the one capital city in Europe without a rail link from its airport to its heart.

We have to ask ourselves why that is? Why have we been unable, as a society, to build a piece of basic infrastructure — an integrated transport system with a link to the airport — in our capital city? Do we think of ourselves as a developed country or do we think that second best is good enough for us? Second best, to Lisbon, for instance, when it comes to hosting the Web Summit next year.

When this Government bashed Metro North on the head in 2011 they got about as much flak for it as if they’d totalled the Bertie Bowl. What is in us that we don’t believe in ourselves enough to build the infrastructure we need? I hope Metro North will be built within Donohoe’s timescale but I wish he had come out and said: “We made a mistake, we lacked courage, we lacked ambition, we lost time and money… but that all stops with this announcement.” Because if we learned the lesson once and for all that you have to think big to build for the future it would nearly make the whole Metro North debacle worthwhile.

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