Railway radicalism beats motorway madness… but new high-speed lines are off the menu

From Michael Rafferty, PhD student in Geography at the University of Luxembourg.

The Salmon of Data deserves credit for his punchy, intriguing provocation on a radical but somehow arguable idea: a new high-speed rail link from Derry to Dublin. While this particular proposal is several bridges too far, there is significant merit in the concept of expanding rail, even to the North West—and with some (fairly major) alterations it deserves serious and timely consideration, particularly in comparison with current infrastructure projects.

The Salmon gets some things completely right: a major process of urbanisation is underway around Greater Dublin as it approaches the 2 million population threshold without commensurate improvement of infrastructure in and around the city, while speculative property markets and the cost of living drive people further and further away from their workplaces.

The strategy of successive Irish governments since the childhood of the Celtic Tiger has been to position Dublin as a magnet for global flows of capital at the expense of other urban areas and large sections of the city’s population. Currently, 200,000 Irish workers have commutes of more than an hour just to get to work, the majority in what is broadly defined as Greater Dublin.

This is worse than the drudgery endured by the average worker in New York, London and rivaling that of Paris. The rents are almost as bad and as the major employers in finance, tech and professional services aim increasingly at international recruitment, which exacerbates an already unsustainable housing situation.

Viewing this process perpetually as “regional inequality” is the prerogative of Canute holding back the tide: Ireland is urbanising around Dublin (and to a lesser degree, Belfast) in the coming decades whether we like it or not.

Could rail expansion be a solution? Yes, partly. But there are some problems to consider in relation to this proposal.

Firstly (and speaking for it), it’s not the only mad infrastructural idea in the market for this geographical area. The third iteration of the public inquiry for the beleaguered thirteen-year-old plan for the A5 Western Transport Corridor (the St Andrew’s Agreement side-deal for a dual carriageway between Newbuildings and Aughnacloy, oft-described as a motorway to from Derry to Dublin) has trundled along without illuminating any serious legal or financial path to completion.

In the end, €1.5 billion for a nearly-finished road seems poor value when set against the Salmon’s €6 billion for a top-flight bullet train from city to city, whoever is paying. But no matter: the abiding philosophy on roadbuilding in Northern Ireland is ‘no U-turns, ever’. The only partly-funded 2007 A5 scheme has already outlasted three ministers’ tenures without an inch of road being laid, yet it is still the “highest priority” for its main political backer, Sinn Féin.

Secondly, ‘high-speed’ rail is a non-runner in Ireland, not least because it simply isn’t necessary—standard 160km/h rated rail infrastructure makes Dublin accessible in about two hours from any station on the island. Apart from that, high-speed rail (i.e. at the 300 km/h level proposed) requires economies of scale in energy and land resources which are, for reasons of geographical scale, basically unattainable in Ireland.

Even Britain struggles to develop only its second high-speed railway line proposal for similar reasons—this is a model relevant only to highly-populated continental-distance routes where power and passengers are plentiful. Ireland (the island) secured itself an exemption in 2013 from implementing a European Directive on electrifying existing rail infrastructure, meaning that it could continue its very gradual improvements using diesel locomotives, which render anything above standard inter-city speeds technically impossible.

In any case, the current limits of the ‘commuter belt’ cannot extend much further into the midlands (never mind to Derry…), and the main inter-urban corridor on the island will continue to be between the two major cities: Belfast and Dublin.

Thirdly, cutting a new route through the midlands is unnecessary and sub-optimal—the real value lies in connecting the west of Northern Ireland to the main Belfast-Dublin line at Portadown and radically improving this line, as part of what is currently recognised by the EU as a section of a major transport corridor from Belfast-Cork (itself proposed for a high-speed upgrade only last week by the BBC’s Joe Lynam).

Addressing the Derry-Portadown gap is already partly feasible: the 12 miles of what is now the downgraded B34 at the end of the M1 to Ballygawley becomes available for conversion to rail following the A4 dual carriageway upgrade completed in 2010 (not to mention large sections of the old GNR rail route).

Fourthly, the real impetus for developing railway links in Ireland should be made around freight first, passengers second. Despite the endless discussion of how Brexit would affect every aspect of Irish life via logistics, the point that practically none of Ireland’s freight is currently carried by rail seemed to go unmade.

Had a significant portion of the island’s goods been transported via rail rather than by road, the question of border traffic-jams and countless checks might not have seemed so intractable. International rail freight currently crisscrosses customs borders In Europe with relative efficiency, sometimes non-stop. Intermodal loading technologies and modern port infrastructure make rail freight far more efficient than more senior readers might remember was the case beside Belfast’s Adelaide stop up until the 1990s.

Still, today not a single tonne of freight is shifted by rail in Northern Ireland and Iarnród Éireann’s current involvement in freight is only marginally higher, and unlikely to change considering the enormous cost of the road-based logistics panacea represented by Dublin’s Port Tunnel. If you wanted a solution to crammed, unsafe roads, rail freight in ports at Belfast, Dublin, and Rosslare would be a good place to start.

Last, and certainly not least, the environmental weaknesses of current road-based infrastructure planning in both jurisdictions could be substantially addressed by extending the railway line from Portadown to Derry for both passengers and freight. The 120km of track (all in NI) needed would be a snip against the public sector gains from industry use and the alternative environmental and financial costs of endless roadbuilding and road-based haulage.

The first high court ruling based on the Paris Agreement shelved Heathrow’s third runway on the basis of its inevitable contribution to further carbon emissions and therefore climate change. This ruling’s relevance to road expansion projects such as the A5 WTC, Narrow Water, and the York St Interchange should not be overlooked by any responsible Minister of Infrastructure.

The New Decade, New Approach funding deficit foolishly signed up to by the political parties of the Executive occurs as Translink is vulnerable to collapse. As far-out as an expansion of the railway network might sound, it won’t sound quite as deranged as sacrificing public transport for (potentially illegal) spendthrift road-building in a time of climate crisis.

In any case, in a rhetorical world of bridges to Scotland and digital customs borders, it’s best to keep serious infrastructural ideas proportionate so as to maximise their chances of being taken seriously, even if it does disappoint would-be rail enthusiasts in Clones or Virginia.

By Milepost98Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

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