On high speed rail in Ireland (again)

Any time I hear the phrase “let’s build high speed rail in Ireland” I find myself able, without undue effort, to restrain my enthusiasm within the bounds of public decorum. This is not because I’m against the idea, but rather because politicians here have a habit of talking a lot about it while never actually doing anything to progress it. It has been in the news a few times lately, most recently following yesterday’s north-south ministerial council meeting; it also formed part of the New Decade New Approach document (although interestingly it was not among the infrastructure projects mentioned in the new draft programme for government – a fact no northern politicians chose to draw attention to at the time).

At this stage, this debate has become a cliché. I have been using the Enterprise since I was still at school in the mid-1990s. I remember back then that politicians talked of a Belfast-Dublin journey time of 90 minutes. This idea was floated as far back as the 1970s. Yet in reality this journey time has barely improved since the service was first launched in the late 1940s, when it was hauled by steam.

You might expect that given the economic growth across the island, the arrival of powersharing and enhanced cross-border co-operation, and indeed the four-year ministry of a Sinn Féin MLA from a border county in the relevant department, that the cross-border railway service between the island’s two largest cities would have been enhanced. Instead, this period has coincided with a marked decline. The Belfast-Dublin journey time has slipped by between 10 and 20 minutes, depending on the service, since powersharing first began. It has received no investment other than a modest (and excruciatingly slow) mid-life refurbishment of the rolling stock. This is, very simply, because the politicians who are now calling for high speed rail have failed to use their influence or decision making powers to invest in the service and make it fit for a growing economy.

The most egregious example of the kind of showboating we have come to expect on this matter was on the part of the members of Belfast City Council’s growth and regeneration committee, which decided (tweet) to spend a five-figure sum commissioning a report on delivering high speed cross border rail about 18 months ago. Their objective in doing this remains somewhat unclear given that the council has no powers and extremely limited influence on regional transport spending priorities. Moreover, we already know what it will say, not just because the challenge is already quite well understood, but because Translink and Irish Rail produced an outline strategic proposal for cross-border rail six months before the council announced that it would produce its own.

The problems with the Enterprise and how they might be solved are well understood by industry watchers and by the infrastructure departments of Translink/NIR and Irish Rail.

The first is track quality, which is a problem almost exclusively on the northern side of the border. Railways are complex civil engineering structures that require ongoing regular maintenance, including semi-regular refurbishment, to ensure stability of the track and enable safe operation at speed.

The Northern Ireland direct rule administration refurbished sections of the Belfast-border railway during the 1980s from its own budget, converting them to continuously welded rail running on concrete sleepers. These renewed sections were not included in the mid 1990s refurb and are now in comparatively poor condition. Poor drainage and other problems in sections between Lisburn and the border have led to speed restrictions, which impact the timetabling of the service. Track quality on the southern side of the border seems to be generally good, reflecting ongoing Irish government investment on what is a major commuter route into Dublin, with speed restrictions mainly in place through certain stations and over major bridges.

The second problem is a much more difficult one, and it is to do with congestion in the Dublin region between Connolly station and Malahide. This section is operating close to full capacity with DART and regional commuter services. For political reasons (which likely explain the absence of this issue in the strategic report), Irish Rail appears to prioritise the service standards of these slower local trains over the Enterprise, which means that Enterprise services must proceed slowly through this region.

Solving the track quality problems in the north is mainly about resource allocation. However, the congestion problem around Dublin is much more difficult. It can only be properly solved by installation of at least one additional track between Malahide and Clontarf. This is far from straightforward owing to the number of high-value residential areas that back on to the railway line southwards of Clongriffin, which will make it expensive to acquire any necessary land and difficult to install new sections of track without disrupting services. This problem is set to get worse with the Irish government’s plans to extend the DART to Drogheda.

Solving these problems, and implementing the ideas in strategic report, could cost at least €1bn but would bring the service to the point where it is capable of running hourly and delivering something close to a 90-minute journey time. These measures are the minimum necessary which would at least make the service competitive with the private car or bus.

When people talk about “high speed rail”, however, this is generally taken to mean services that operate at speeds higher than 125mph (the track and rolling stock of the current cross-border service is limited to 90mph). The only way to deliver this is to build entirely new and  electrified track from scratch. It is hard to say how expensive this would be, as no new railway lines have been built anywhere in Ireland for well over a century (excepting the cross-harbour and Bleach Green-Monkstown direct curve projects near Belfast). Recent projects in Italy have cost around €60m per mile to construct, suggesting a cost of around €6bn, and around €10bn for the Dublin-Cork section. It would almost certainly have to run underground to reach Connolly station, which would increase the cost significantly especially given that the port tunnel already exists in that region.

A proper, feasibility study and cost-benefit analysis would be required to bottom out these figures but they give a rough idea of how much it will cost. Even then, COVID-19 represents a complicating factor in calculating the business case for an upgrade, as it appears that the era of the mass commute may be drawing to an close, suggesting that all kinds of transport-related infrastructure projects require additional consideration.

But if politicians are serious about advancing this project, they must be up-front with the public about the options and how much cash will be required to see it through. If they are not prepared to try to find this kind of money, it’s long past time they stopped talking about it.