Think-tank challenges €5bn Metro North plan
There's hardly a house in sight, but that's where the trains will run to
GREEN fields stretch for miles and there is hardly a housing estate or apartment block in sight. Yet, the sparsely populated rural hinterland of Belinstown in north County Dublin is the last stop on Metro North, the most expensive transport project in the history of the State that got the green light from the Government last week.
The estimated €5bn suburban rail line, conceived during the boom, was intended to serve not only passengers to Dublin Airport but a burgeoning workforce and a thriving population in a landscape of industrial parks, apartments and housing estates which planners envisaged along the Metro route.
But the economic downturn has stalled development and the projected explosion in north Dublin's gainfully employed population -- which would justify the billion-euro extension of Metro North into north County Dublin -- is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
Critics say the projected passenger figures no longer add up and have called on the Government to re-evaluate the whole project.
A transport expert with the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) said the projected passenger numbers of 35 million were doubtful and that the Government should re-evaluate the project.
Edgar Morgenroth, associate research professor at the ESRI, said the original cost-benefit analysis "cannot stand up anymore" in the current economic climate. "We require another cost-benefit analysis that is independent and which will ideally be published," he said. "They should assess this again."
Dr Morgenroth said he also doubted projected passenger numbers supplied by the Rail Procurement Agency (RPA), which is managing the project. "Everything hinges on those ridership numbers and they come out of a black hole as far as I can see."
The Metro North will run from St Stephen's Green to Dublin Airport and will continue on through north Dublin suburbs for an additional 7km. Although Swords is densely populated, other areas served -- Fosterstown, Estuary, Seatown and Lissenhall -- are not.
With the cost working out at €277m per kilometre, adding up to the €5bn estimate of the project, that section alone could cost €1.9bn.
Part of the justification for Metro North comes from an economic study which estimated that the population of Swords would increase by 59,000 to 128,100 by 2025. It also forecast a doubling of employment in the region from 29,600 to 66,700.
Fingal County Council unveiled plans for an economic corridor of commercial parks and housing schemes along the Metro route, which sparked a land-buying frenzy by some of Ireland's biggest property developers.
Several key landholders along the route are now Nama bound, including Joe O'Reilly of Castlethorn Construction, Michael and Joe Cosgrave, and Bovale Developments, owned by Michael and Tom Bailey, who were investigated by the planning corruption tribunal. They bought up lands in Swords and Lissenhall, where they plan a huge development with its own Metro stop.
Hendrik van der Kamp, who heads the School of Spatial Planning in Dublin Institute of Technology, said the Metro North extension was "largely justified by the development of an economic corridor".
If emigration continues and the recession lingers, then obviously it will be very difficult to see major development taking place along the route, putting the Metro North project "on a different place".
The RPA said its projected passenger figures for the year 2025 had been revised downwards to "reflect the fall in economic growth".
According to its revised figures, in 15 years' time 5,000 passengers will get on or off the Metro North in the Fingal area during morning rush hour, while 1,800 will do likewise at Dublin Airport. Another 10,400 will commute to St Stephen's Green.
"The RPA continually updates its cost-benefit analysis to reflect changing forecasts and the case for Metro North remains very strong," a spokesperson said.
The Government pledged last week to spend €5.7bn on Metro North, an underground Dart and other public transport projects between now and 2016. The actual budget for Metro North has never been disclosed because of "commercial sensitivities".
The Government has also refused to publish a cost-benefit analysis.
Leading economists, such as Colm McCarthy -- who chaired An Bord Snip Nua -- have called on the Government to release the cost-benefit study.
In the past Mr McCarthy warned that Metro North could run over budget by 40 per cent and that it would fail to meet passenger targets by 50 per cent.
Professor Sean Barrett, an economist at Trinity College Dublin, has questioned if a Metro from the airport to north Dublin is required at all.
The Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport has given the Metro North its qualified backing.
Chief executive Colm Holmes said: "We are supporting it on the basis that the business plan stacks up."
An Bord Pleanala is expect to make a decision on the project in August.