A fresh start for the A5 – but at what cost?

Disclaimer: being a strong public transport advocate does not stop me from enjoying the open road, gliding effortlessly past slower traffic [You don’t say – Ed] Indeed – but we all have too many things to do that cannot conveniently be done by bike, bus or train…

Mick has already considered the opportunity cost of the £75 million promised by the Irish Government for the A5 scheme from Newbuildings to Strabane, although I think that money could buy several Narrow Water Bridges with a bit of cash left over.  I therefore spoke to my friend and local expert Wesley Johnston.

Wesley reminded me that the last estimated cost of this part of the scheme was £170 million at 2012 prices, which means that the Executive will have to put up a further £95 million (at least) to make this scheme happen.  If, as promised by Sinn Fein, the Ballygawley-Omagh scheme proceeds at the same time, the Executive will have to put up a further £160 million, for a minimum total of £255 million.

Add to that total the tendency of construction prices to rise (due to methodology changes, the most recent figures of 5.7% for new road construction are for the year to June 2014) and we could be looking at approximately £300 million, or almost a year’s capital budget for DRD for this scheme alone.

A further disclaimer: in principle, I’m definitely in favour of the A5 scheme.  However, the opportunity cost worries me.

The key problem is that unless the Executive gives extra money to DRD to fund the A5 schemes, other schemes will have to be deferred.  Schemes that have the potential to make a big difference to badly congested areas.

And here I run into trouble with those who think that the east of the province has received a ridiculously disproportionate amount of funding for infrastructure – not an unreasonable opinion, because funding has certainly been Belfast-centric.

The reason for this is of course well-rehearsed.  Congestion, which happens to impact on more people and for longer in Belfast.

Will building a dual carriageway for the A5 help long-distance traffic make good progress on the open road, gliding past slower traffic?  Certainly.  It will be fantastic news for travellers on that road, especially hauliers relying on clear roads to move goods around the country.

However, £255 million also happens to similar to the combined cost of the York Street interchange and providing a dual carriageway from Randalstown to Castledawson.  If the Executive doesn’t provide extra money, other schemes will have to be deferred.

The accident record of Randalstown-Toome is atrocious.  The York Street interchange is dysfunctional – traffic for the Westlink tails back on the M2 for most of the working day and in both peaks in a way that doesn’t happen in the other direction.  Additional traffic uses city streets to avoid the York Street junction to save time, making it more difficult for motor vehicles, cyclists, public transport users and pedestrians to get about their business in Belfast.

Even if these schemes were safe, then what does the £255 million get taken from?  The repurchase of the old Waterside railway station?  New bus and coach purchases with impacts on reliability of public transport?  Routine resurfacing of roads and upgrades of junctions? (capital because they restore value to an asset already written down to nil, where maintenance stops deterioration)  NI Water?  It’s a situation that will get worse, as the proposed cut to corporation tax will exacerbate the funding situation.

So, very strongly, while the A5 scheme is a extremely worthwhile scheme (if a little premature with the N2 being well below the intended standard), if we have to choose between it and schemes which will have a potentially far greater impact on congestion and accidents, it’s the wrong scheme.

[Roll on  the day when we can afford a new A5 as well as sorting out York Street and Randalstown-Castledawson? – Ed] Well, yes, and only as part of a holistic solution that makes public transport and cycling a realistic alternative – or the only sensible choice – for more people, but what are the chances of that?

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  • NMS

    Will the Irish money be coming out of out foreign aid budget? Surely we would better off spending it on the deserving poor, rather than on a group whining malingerers?

  • murdockp

    Why do we not adopt PPP like the rest of Europe, ROI and countries like Socialist France.

    We are all used to paying road tolls in the South and most people accept this is fair, if you want good roads, you are going to have to pay to have them.

    If we did go down the PPP alternative route, it would leave more money to invest in other important infrastructure projects like the bridge.

    We need a new debate on alternative financing, outsourcing to the private sector and the positive effect this will have on economic growth.

    The reason we lag the UK is because we are too conservative and very poor at delivery of infrastructure. Our civil servants need to stand aside and let real experts deliver this for us.
    From energy security through to roads and public transport, we are literally a basket case. CBI report below is worth a read.


  • Robin Keogh

    It is important to have functional and high quality motoways reaching out from the Capital to all regions of the country. Developing the A5 will be an economically important infrastructural vein running between Derry and Dublin and it is way past time it was built. All other secondary cities such as Belfast, Cork, Galway, waterford, limerick and Kilkenny already have such projects completed or near completion.

  • Oriel27

    I know the A5 road fairly well, albeit I reside just south
    of the border.

    I agree with the OP, I don’t think there is much need transform
    the A5 in to a dual carriageway. Perhaps realign the road in several locations
    both sides of Omagh would suffice. Afterall, there is no congestion issues on
    the road (perhaps Sion Mills).

    The Irish Government would do well upgrading the Letterkenny
    to Lifford road first.

    I work in for a contractor in the roads industry in Northern
    Ireland. The TNI are very much strapped for cash as it is, there isn’t enough
    money in the budget to provide for maintenance never mind new road schemes.

    Northern Ireland
    roads are in a desperate need for investment, bordering on developing country
    status. Southern Ireland roads are now about 15 years ahead in most locations.

    Now regarding the N2 from Monaghan town it is not ready to
    meet any new dual carriage way at Aughnacloy and will not be for another 10 years
    at least. The whole issue about what the southern government’s plans regards creating
    a dual carriageway from Clontibret to the Aughnacloy border hasn’t been
    finalised yet, as far as I know the plans have been scrapped.

    So the development of dual carriageway work on the A5 is
    futile, currently the N2 road from Aughnacloy to Monaghan town through Emyvale
    is dangerously substandard.

    I think TNI should be investing in town by-passes of
    congested towns rather that creating dual carriageways on roads that don’t need

    Take the A3 to Belfast – a dangerously substandard aerial
    route in Northern Ireland. The Road from Middletown to Armagh is extremely
    dangerous. Armagh needs a bypass, it
    takes 20 minutes getting from the Monaghan road to the Portadown road. A city
    of over 20,000 people and major traffic congestion and crying out for jobs investment
    – needs a bypass ASAP. Why is TNI ignoring this issue?? The road from Armagh to
    Portadown has in excess of 20,000 vehicles per day, why has that road not been
    upgraded to a dualcarriage way yet? There was talk of it. And the shambles around Portadown, one passes
    through 5 sets of lights around Portadown to get onto the M1, why isn’t there
    an extra lane put around Portadown (widen the Shillington bridge etc…)

    Im afraid Northern Ireland is poor and just doesn’t have the
    money to invest in decent road infrastructure. Northern Ireland, a region of
    the UK, seems to have been very much short changed indeed. It has relied too much on public sector
    employment (non wealth creation) and now look at it…..

  • Ernekid

    Isn’t the incentive for the RoI govt in upgrading the A5 is that it’ll improve road connectivity for Lifford, Letterkenny and the rest of Co Donegal? It’s good that the North West is finally getting investment in infrastructure. They need to upgrade the A6 and the A4 as well

  • Korhomme

    I’d generally agree. The Troubles diverted so much infrastructure development. A5 from Ballygawley to Omagh could be like the A4 to Enniskillen (in places); widened, with occasional third lanes, clearly marked, for overtaking. The problem with the old A4 from Dungannon to Ballygawley was that a motorway became a dual carriageway for a short distance, then single carriageway, but with no clear indication of this—the problem was psychological as much as anything; but it was one of the most deadly sections of road in all NI. Perhaps a roundabout or two, as at Ballygawley, where the M1 ended would have helped.

    And Armagh is just ghastly during normal working times. The M1 to Belfast equally so, traffic almost stationary near Lisburn in rush hours. What for me should be a 40 minute run then turns into 1.5 to 2 hours. No fun, and not productive.

  • AndyB

    Well, it has to be said that the Dublin government has been less than enthusiastic to deal with its side of the border. How long has Slane been a bottleneck, to name but one, notwithstanding the N33?

    The key problem is that the A5 isn’t as much of a problem as other roads with proposed schemes, and priorities need to be considered.

  • AndyB

    I would say that if the A5 is to be done, it should be done properly. Throwing in additional overtaking lanes would just be good money after bad, when eventual growth will still require dual carriageway – we have too many schemes done on the cheap as it is.

  • Oriel27

    Robin, i like reading your informative posts most of the time on many topics, but would you not think that Belfast is the economic hinterland of Derry? The two cities use the same currency right?. At the minute, Belfast is Derry’s capital city, an upgrade of the A6 to dual carriageway status would serve both Derry and Donegal economically.
    After all, from what we seen a few weeks ago on the Nolan and Merium show, a defunct poor underdeveloped Northern Ireland is not what Southern Ireland needs. If there is every a chance of a UI, its bettter to have a sound economically developed Northern Ireland region.

  • AndyB

    The problem with PPP is that there is no guarantee that it will save money against traditional procurement, as the Government can usually borrow money a lot more cheaply, and a lot of overhead is wasted on administering the PFI process – similarly with any form of outsourcing.

    To pick up on that outsourcing comment, yes I appreciate that occasional and irregular work is better outsourced in the majority of cases. However, otherwise outsourcing has debatable benefits, because a layer of bureaucracy has to be built to run tendering processes and monitor progress, and supposed cost savings are debatable in the medium to long term as markets change – in a seller’s market, outsourcing can be very expensive.

    Outsourcing also has other effects – the public sector is in the news again for being far better paid than the private sector, something about which I have commented before, but outsourcing is partially responsible for this as low-paid jobs are frequently the ones outsourced, affecting mean and median wages.

    That, for example, is the fear in NHS England, where vast sums are being spent on the administration required to outsource clinical functions, with the result that cash savings are at best debatable.

    The classic example of bad PFI was the infamous Balmoral High School, which was firstly built on the wrong site and secondly tied into a 25 year repayment deal whether they used the school or not. If traditionally financed, they could at least have sold the premises.

  • pulling the wool over our eyes

    Solving congestion by adding additional road capacity only encourages more car dependent travel. There is countless research showing that it only increases the appeal for people like me to get in my car instead of walking five minutes to the train or the bus (which are both actual options that I don’t consider as I have a free and easy journey to work every day in my car via York Street Interchange during rush hour). Until I face tail backs I will choose the easier option which is my car. Come on, have we not got a better solution to congestion in Belfast than increasing road capacity?
    I may be biased as I am from the west but they do need better strategic infrastructure to open up opportunities for employment, business and investment. If PPP is to be considered then there has to be alternative route options for local people not wanting to pay tolls like in ROI, otherwise you have some of the most deprived parts of Northern Ireland paying more to use roads than everyone else…….

  • AndyB

    A holistic solution is required, but it will take those who have the choice of public transport to take the responsibility of actually using it for the sake of those who have no reasonable option than to drive.

    I strongly believe that getting through traffic away from the city centre (ie cars and lorries with no intention of stopping) is a necessary part of the solution for Belfast.

    I am curious to know how anyone can have a free and easy journey via York Street Interchange during rush hour!

  • Korhomme

    In the longer term, I’d have to agree. But, when I look at the traffic (by driving along these roads) between Dungannon and Ballygawley, and then on to Omagh and Enniskillen, I doubt if at present such roads would be justified.

  • Korhomme

    Trains are very limited in NI. Suggestions such as the reopening of the line between Portadown and Dungannon, and beyond, are no more than pipe dreams. As for the buses; for many, the local, rural service is very limited. Out in the sticks, if you don’t have a car, you are isolated—there are so few alternatives.

  • Zig70

    Isn’t that the thing, I’d be positive that the north (as in including Donegal) is going to develop and we are going to use our assets to their potential which includes areas of low population. If we don’t build it then we have the excuse that it doesn’t have the infrastructure. Getting to Donegal is a pain, I’d rather drive to Cork.

  • 23×7

    You mention that you are concerned about the opportunity cost of the A5. Has any opportunity cost analysis been performed? Connecting the west of the country properly to the most important economic area on this island is crucial and will deliver significant long term benefits to the economy.

  • 23×7

    You don’t go through Slane anymore if you are travelling from Derry to Dublin.

  • 23×7

    Yes connecting Donegal is the main reason for the Irish govt investment.

  • 23×7

    You obviously don’t know the A5 very well. Congestion around Omagh and Strabane is terrible. Strabane to Derry road is a joke. Unless you think car travel is going to decline the road should be dual carriageway.

  • 23×7

    You seem to be driving along the A4 not the A5.

  • Damien OConnell

    As someone who drives on the A5 road at the moment it is an absolute disgrace and in a worse condition than many 3rd world countries. The section from Derry to Strabane is especially shocking and we can only hope that the road is built ASAP to limit the amount of deaths which will surely occur if it is left in its current condition. Secondly it connects the west to BOTH Dublin and Belfast and is badly needed for Derry. Why would one of the 1000s of new companies that have set up recently in Dublin consider setting up business in Derry when in order to get there you have to take your life in your hands trying to overtake tractors and cars driving at 40mph on twisty roads? So yes it is far more more important than the west link!!”

  • murdockp

    it is easy to point out the bad ones in NI, as the civil servants did a pretty poor job and the deals were bad. In the UK it is a much more mature market and many have worked well. The cost of government money argument does not wash as when risk rests with the public sector bad management in NI happens as the costs start to spiral. Casement Park, add £20m on the current budget and you might start to get closer to what it is going to cost. If the private sector is used correctly the risk is completely moved from the public purse.

    We need to embrace alternative financing and outsourcing if we want our economy to grow.

    All I am suggesting is don’t use £300m of public funds when you don’t need to, lets use the £300m for something else. If people want to use the fancy new roads, let them pay at tolls, what is wrong with that.

    Or should I brace myself for the most vulnerable in society line….

  • 23×7

    Yes. Often forgotten in the discussion is that it will improve connections between Strabane, Omagh and Belfast.

  • AndyB

    PPP relied on the lie that risk would be transferred to the private sector. It’s now established that risk remains with the public sector, as they have to carry the cost regardless.

    As for bad deals in NI, I imagine you might find that they were administered as per Treasury guidance.

  • AndyB

    @Damien OConnell:disqus Last time I drove it, it was similar in standard to the A6 (without the congestion from Randalstown to Toome) or the A75 in Scotland without the ferry traffic…

    The A5 doesn’t have thousands of cars at a standstill every day due to inadequate road capacity. It may have a need for more driver patience, which is certainly a problem on the Glenshane Pass and the A75, but that is a matter of behaviour, not engineering.

  • AndyB

    The A5 goes to Omagh.

  • 23×7

    Indeed it does. However the poster mentioned driving from Dungannon to Ballygawley.

  • AndyB

    And then on to Omagh.

  • 23×7

    Cars are at a standstill in Omagh and Strabane every day during rush hour periods. Holiday weekends in Summer are also a problem. One farmer on the road between Ballygawley and Omagh creates a major tailback. Not sure the discussion is advanced any by comparing the A5 to other inadequate roads.

  • 23×7

    Not sure where he was going because he was then headed to Eniskillen which wasn’t the A5 either. He seems to basing his argument on limited experience of the. a5.

  • AndyB

    Everything’s relative, not that the phases proposed at this stage (Newbuildings to the existing bypass at Strabane and Ballygawley to the existing throughpass at Omagh) will do anything to help your town centre congestion – all it will do is deliver people to the back of the queue more conveniently. I’m well aware of the overtaking lanes available on the road.

  • AndyB

    Failing to address congestion in Belfast is almost certainly costing the economy a great deal more than a couple of tractors on the A5 (or the A6!)

  • AndyB

    Please do @korhomme:disqus the honour of reading his comment properly. He said both Omagh (ie A5) and Enniskillen, and was making the point that on current traffic volumes, you couldn’t currently justify proper dual carriageways for either of them, particularly with reference to traffic levels on the existing dual carriageway from Dungannon to Ballygawley.

    My point of course was that if it’s being done, and I’d like to see it being done, it should be done properly now rather than having to be done all over again in a few years.

  • AndyB

    Now that raises a question. If connecting Donegal is the main reason, why is the focus on the Strabane-Newbuildings section when much traffic for Donegal will be leaving at Strabane? Why isn’t Omagh-Strabane being prioritised?

  • 23×7

    But is it reducing the potential for inward investment and economic development? Opportunity cost analysis needs to consider more than delays.

  • 23×7

    So your argument for not upgrading the A5 is because it will be done in phases? You do know how these projects work?

  • 23×7

    Absolutely agree with tolls however they would need to be rolled out on existing as well as new motorways.

  • AndyB

    Straw man. Read everything I’ve written properly.

  • AndyB


  • murdockp

    The public sector has to pay rent and utilities, the same way all occupiers do, all perfectly normal.
    Our civil Servants are still not administering procurement using best practice, Lyric Theatre? is a small example.
    The UK has many bad deals too, the question is where the project teams that were put together the best they could have been?
    In NI there are far too many civil servants with no relevant experience.
    You will find the civil servants don’t want to engineer their own demise so still manage costs and delivery of projects but many have no relevant experience in either discipline and just fallen into the job.
    You have district councils who now think they are developers just wasting public money on projects society does not need.
    Take a look at the Casement Park project team and the representatives from the civil service / government bodies, each individual’s profile says lots of great things using a particular style of unintelligible language to the layman, but when it comes down to it none of them have built a 38,000 capacity football stadium before. Hopefully it will never see the light of day, but when it starts, if I was a betting man, I would suggest you stand back and just watch the costs start to spiral as building an oversized structure in a housing estate is (1) silly & high risk and (2) as ill qualified ministers start to interfere in the process.

    This is the same with lots of projects, time and time in NI they run over budget and are delayed, many never see the light of day despite millions being spent.
    Some of NI’s best contractors are working using best practice procurement in the UK, but not here where their excellent experience is never tapped into. The ministers and civil servants should talk to them and start to learn, but they wont.
    Back to my original argument, we need as many projects happening now as we can to create economic growth and we should be using every mechanism we have to leverage finance to get them started.

  • 23×7

    And where is this analysis?

  • 23×7

    I have. You can’t seem to make up your mind whether the A5 upgrade is a good thing or not. On one had you say it is. Then you indicate that the money might be better spent elsewhere. Then you seem to have an issue with the fact that it will be done in phases even though all major road projects are done in phases.

  • AndyB

    No, I was pointing out the weaknesses in your arguments.

    Is the A5 scheme a good thing? Of course.

    Is it the most urgent thing? Definitely not.

    Will the priorities indicated do anything to address the traffic in Strabane and Omagh? No.

    Is access to Donegal going to be improved by the work to Newbuildings to Strabane? No.

    If access to Donegal is the priority, why is Omagh-Strabane being done last?

  • 23×7

    Of course it’s the most urgent project. This is a legacy project from the troubles. It connects two of the major cities on this island properly for the first time and I don’t see the south putting up money for another projects in the North. It also connects one of the poorest regions on the island to the strongest performing region in the country. The project itself will also be a major job creator.
    Your other comments are irrelevant as it was inevitable that the project would be done in phases. I’m not aware of the southern govt. threatening to pull their funding if the Donegal link isn’t addressed first. So I’m not sure what your problem is.
    The Strabane to Derry section is probably the worst section of the route so I’m not surprised it is being done first. There may also be political and planning reasons why it is being done first. Either way once it is started it will be completed. That has to be a good thing.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I think some people are simply too hasty to judge Sinn Féin’s Northern Transport policy on the basis of believing its connection to a certain Wolfe Tones song.

  • Damien OConnell

    AndyB you need to get out a map. The newbuildings to strabane section will benefit Derry AND Donegal. Have you ever heard of Inishown in Donegal? You must go through Derry from Dublin to get there! Leaving that point aside the fact that many more people will arrive alive at the destination with the new road is the most important point! The road is a danger to anyone who has the misfortune to have to drive on it on its current state. One would think it was a back road to a village instead of the main route south from Northern Ireland’s second city. Just take a look at the state of the art road network out of smaller cities like Galway, Limerick or Waterford and then compare it to the third world up here in the north! No wonder Derry has no economic activity worth speaking of.

  • AndyB

    It’s quite true that Inishowen has to be accessed via Derry, however that is only part of the traffic for Co Donegal. Traffic for Fanad, Rosguill, Letterkenny, and all of western Donegal will have taken the A38 to join the N14 or N15 at Strabane – in the case of southern Donegal, at the very latest.

    You might also want to look at main roads in Scotland.

  • Damien OConnell

    So it’s still a benefit to Donegal but far more importantly (in my book anyways) it benefits over 100 000 people who live in Derry City.

    As for citing examples of bad roads elsewhere as what we should put up with here is a terrible rationale. Northern Ireland needs to look forward and Derry will never prosper, if in order to get in or out of it you have to sit behind a tractor!!

  • 23×7

    You mentioned straw man earlier. Surely mentioning roads in Scotland is a classic example of the type.

  • Am Ghobsmacht


    Just a thought but is there potential for a park & rail ride at that spaghetti junction where the M2 and M5 split near the shore road?

    I can’t recall the precise layout but is there potential to build a train station cum multi story car park there (with retail space for eateries and coffee shops)?

    I’m just thinking that such a thing could shave a lot of users off of the bottle neck stretch by having people park there and jump onto extra train carriages (using the park & ride profits and shop rents to partly subsidise the trains?).

    Very idealistic I know but that’s what comes of a youth misspent by playing too much Sim City…

    (Also, those dedicated airport buses, could they not double up as Antrim express buses? Imagine if every one picked up a load of Antrimites every 20 mins as well as flyers then perhaps they’d be more inclined to leave their cars at home thereby slightly alleviating the Belfast commuter traffic too).