GERARD HOWLIN: Growth will be derailed if we don’t sort out public transport network

What’s planned and funded won’t catch up on, let alone pass out, what’s coming, writes Gerard Howlin

On the day after budget day, Transport Minister Shane Ross told the Dáil he had a three-point plan, and the first of these was “to keep our cities and towns moving”. In fact, no such plan exists.

There are certainly myriad initiatives and they are welcome; things will rapidly become worse if they are not implemented.

But everything planned for transport is less than adequate to play catch up, let alone get ahead of projected population growth. That’s the context of today’s rail strike.

It’s the bigger picture. As you may be moving more slowly today — or perhaps going nowhere — you’ll have more time to think about it (unfortunately).

Last Thursday the ESRI published a report called Projections of Demand for Healthcare in Ireland, 2015-2030.

It was based on new projections for population growth; the first centred on the 2016 Census. Like it said on the label, it was about demand for health services from an ageing but larger population.

Our population is projected to grow between 14% to 23%, adding 640,000 to 1.1m people by 2030.

In the teeth of the great recession we grew from 4.58m to 4.76m, even though we lost over 200,000 20-somethings in the same period, mainly to emigration.

Procreation and longevity are stubborn drivers of population growth. On the day that’s in it, when many are driving, cycling, busing or simply staying at home, Irish Rail this year is probably back at its 2007 peak in term of passenger numbers.

That’s about 45m people per year.

Growth will be derailed if we don’t sort out public transport network

Back to the minister’s speech. There is big money in play but the backdrop is two-fold. Firstly, we are a country with historically anaemic levels of infrastructure investment.

Modern underground systems date from the 19th century, but we don’t have one in the 21st century.

Secondly, while there was a big catch-up in the Noughties it wasn’t sustained.

We built roads rather than railways. Luas and expansion of capacity on existing networks did happen, but there was no game changer.

The two big projects planned, the DART underground and Metro North, didn’t happen.

We now have an impressive network of roads to get people around the country, but a paltry rail network to get people around in cities when they arrive. Consequently, traffic in cities is back or near to peak levels.

Bus services are significantly better than they used to be but they also compete for ever scarce road capacity in cities. This capacity is finite, and effectively full.

Now it’s going to have to be rationed. Regardless of how long it takes to face up to the reality, congestion charges are coming. Dublin will be first up.

One rail project, the new Luas in Dublin, opens later this year. Then that’s it then for another 10 years. If all goes well the Metro North project will open then, serving Dublin city centre out to Fingal — the fastest growing area in the country — via Dublin Airport and Swords. The 10-year wait in between is our lost decade right there.

Major rail projects take years to plan and build. We stopped planning and building during the recession and now demand is outstripping capacity again. What’s planned and funded won’t catch up on, let alone pass out, what’s coming.

On transport, allowing for everything that is planned, and measuring it against increased demand, we will be going backwards for the foreseeable future. Only another recession could change that forecast... in which case what’s planned probably won’t happen either.

Growth will be derailed if we don’t sort out public transport network

The consequences for the economy are enormous, and looming larger. It’s not just about transporting goods and workers. It is an essential part of the solution to the housing crisis.

Houses require land, and land use for the future must deliver density not sprawl. If all those extra people are to have services from schools to hospitals, we have to congregate as a population in a much more concentrated way. It’s the demographic equivalent of moving over in the bed to make room.

If not, somebody will end up sleeping on the floor. In a housing crisis that is not a euphuism. It’s just one consequence of bad planning, and a lack of mass transport in urban areas to better facilitate housing, and everything else that people in houses need.

In the meantime, Shane Ross says he is spending “three-quarters of a billion euro for the BusConnects programme; a transformative investment package that will finance new and expanded bus routes and greatly improve bus access through and around the capital”. That’s good. But it is also running to stand still.

And there’s more in terms of Luas and expansion of the Dart, but it is categorically not a plan “to keep our cities and towns moving”. The basic fact is that we have run out of road in our cities. Only the creation of significant additional capacity off-road will actually keep the country moving.

Growth will be derailed if we don’t sort out public transport network

The game changer would have been the DART underground, which would channel rail traffic in from the commuter towns west of Dublin under the city, directly to the centre and the docklands beyond. The scale is such that it would treble capacity and deliver more journeys than currently cross back and forth the M50 in and out of the city.

That is not just a transport plan. It’s a major housing policy. It delivers for connected cities like Cork, Limerick and Galway. The concept is well developed, but the funding is not in place and is not likely to be in the capital plan due to be announced in December.

If it happens in the plan after next and the economy doesn’t tank in between, it is more likely to open closer to 2040 than 2030. Today, apart from Luas (which is not run by Irish Rail), there isn’t a train anywhere. The company has accumulated losses of €160m. It’s close to insolvency.

The deeper deficit is in our rail capacity. For all the talk about hundreds of millions, it’s all for slower more snarled up traffic for the foreseeable future.

The private car can’t deliver the future. Single individuals squatting atop personal combustion engines while moving glacially over hours between jobs and the homes they hardly see in daylight for months at a time, is an appalling vista.

The significance of today’s strike is the dysfunction it is a symbol of. Investment required “to keep our cities and towns moving” is a multiple of what’s in hand.

It’s highly questionable, if such funding was available and prioritised over other needs, whether it could be entrusted to Irish Rail. The company has already lost Luas and Metro North. It looks even less like a winning proposal today.

What’s planned and funded won’t catch up on, let alone pass out, what’s coming


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