Wednesday 25 April 2018

Home truths: One track solution to housing crisis

Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

Rail has always loomed large in my life despite the fact that I never got a train, a Luas or a Dart anywhere on a regular basis. Rather I have always been waiting for rail services that never arrived - or at least never on time.

I grew up in a typical suburban Dublin estate of lego-build semis constructed in the 1960s and located six miles from the city centre.

Most of the couples who lived there had bought their first home when they were in their 20s. Typically they got engaged in the 60s, saved hard for two or three years, got their mortgage, bought their first house, had their children and stayed there after the kids had grown up and flown the nest. Because property prices have increased so much relative to wages since the 60s, they couldn't do that today.

They paid for their homes on one salary because mothers mostly quit their jobs when they had children. You couldn't do this today either. What it meant was that our generation didn't know what a crèche was. It meant we could run free in the summer holidays.

We didn't have a train but we had a railway line - the overgrown 30ft deep and endlessly-long gulley that was the old Harcourt Street to Bray railway line - closed down by Fianna Fail's Todd Andrews in 1958 after running great steam engines back and forth for over 100 years. For some reason everyone called this line 'the banks'.

By the time we were losing ourselves in its densely-wooded thickets, or climbing up and down on its steep rock walls, the line had been abandoned for 22 years.

The irony was that right after it got mothballed, the area it had serviced absolutely exploded with housing developments right through the 60s, 70s and 80s. Residents ended up facing into overloaded road routes that took you to the city centre at a snail's pace day-in day-out.

It took 90 minutes to travel that six miles to the city centre in a car or bus in peak traffic. Three hours both ways. It took an hour to walk. Cycling was best.

So when I bought my first house (a small terrace) I made sure it was closer to town by two miles. It had the same abandoned railway line running behind it and we all prayed that one day it would open for business again.

Plans were hatched and abandoned from the 80s and remained uncertain until the Luas finally opened in 2004. But by 2000 I had already traded up to another three-bedroom estate. I bought in an area which was also part of a 'live' transport plan - the Metro West which pledged to run a Luas-style service close by my new house.

Four years later when the Luas Green line finally opened, there was a brand new station five minutes walk from my parents' home and 30 seconds from my own first-bought home (the neighbours at the latter all got €14,000 disturbance costs!).

Today the journey to town from my mum's is 17 minutes rather than 90. From my own first-bought home you can now get to St Stephen's Green at rush hour in 12 minutes.

So not surprisingly the relative values of homes on the line shot up by 20pc in the first few years. But in the longer run, this has probably risen to about 30pc to 35pc compared with non-rail linked properties in similar areas. In London, a recent survey showed that locations on the new Crossrail service are likely to increase in value by 8pc in less salubrious locations and by up to 54pc in the case of better-regarded areas like Whitechapel. So we know that new or improved rail links hike values.

But rail can provide another function to priced-out citizens of cities - it can take them to more affordable homes located further away.

So while the Luas has done wonders for my two former homes, that other long awaited rail plan - for the Metro West - was quietly dropped.

While it now takes me over an hour to get to work (about five miles away) I learned to some chagrin that commuters who live 30 miles away in Drogheda can get in and out of work in Dublin City Centre in rush hour in pretty much the same amount of time.

Drogheda has a decent regular rail service. And in Drogheda, a bustling town with all the amenities you could require, you can today buy a good three-bedroom family home for €130,000 - almost a third of what you'd pay in most parts of Dublin.

So why don't I and so many like me flog the traffic-bound suburban semi, move to Drogheda and cash in the chips? Smarter Dublin-born first-time buyers have already been acquiring cut-price family homes (by city standards) in the busy Louth town.

The mortgage expert and radio pundit Karl Deeter went a step further when speaking to me recently by asserting that the housing crisis in Dublin could be solved with a high speed European/Asian style rail service (think of the Japanese 'bullet' trains).

In other countries, such high speed rail services long ago became necessary to bring in workers who are vital to the running of big cities (nurses, police, civil servants) but who also can't afford to buy homes there. The high speed trains, which run at between 100mph and 200mph, get them in from 100 miles out in less than an hour.

This sort of service could get Drogheda commuters to Dublin in 20 minutes and bring them in less than an hour from places like Carlow Town, Mullingar and Athlone - all locations where a decent three-bed semi can be bought for about one third of Dublin prices.

And all these locations are already rail linked.

The towns would likely benefit from the population boost and the money brought in. As a solution to Dublin's housing crisis, could fast rail be just the ticket? One thing is for certain - the prices would go up.

Indo Property

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