Wednesday 17 July 2019

Colm McCarthy: Metro Link figures simply don't add up

Is spending all that money on another Luas line good value? That amount would build seven hospitals, writes Colm McCarthy

Big plans: Tanaiste Simon Coveney, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister Heather Humphreys at the launch of Project Ireland 2040. Photo: Kyran O’Brien
Big plans: Tanaiste Simon Coveney, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister Heather Humphreys at the launch of Project Ireland 2040. Photo: Kyran O’Brien
Colm McCarthy

Colm McCarthy

The biggest single project in the National Development Plan released last Friday is a new tram line for Dublin, formerly called Metro North and re-christened Metro Link. This will be a Luas line, not a full-gauge railway, from Swords into the city.

The project is scheduled to cost €3bn, making it not only the largest component in the overall plan, but also the largest investment project ever proposed in this country. The previous cost estimate was €2.4bn: the increase is apparently due to a route revision, which will see a longer tunnel under the city centre intersecting the existing green line at Charlemont, almost 2km south of the Liffey. The trams would then be able to travel on to Sandyford and points south already served by the green line.

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin queried what he inferred from the initial reports as a second line to Sandyford, which would have made little sense. He is to be forgiven for the confusion though, since the map that reveals the new routing is buried in the voluminous documentation that accompanied the plan. Anyway, he is partly correct. The new route will indeed duplicate some parts of the green line, recently extended with the opening of the Cross City section.

What will citizens be getting for their €3bn? The answer is essentially a new tram line from the city centre to Swords, now re-cast as a northward extension of the existing green line. The former plan, which was to cost €2.4bn, would not have connected: its terminus was to be underground at St Stephen's Green.

The Government has not committed irrevocably to the Metro Link project. It cannot, because of something called the Public Spending Code, which has supposedly governed the assessment of capital projects since 2005. This requires the Government to calculate the costs and benefits of any project costing €20m or more, and to weed out any which are not worth the money. The published plan is quite explicit about this: "Departments must ensure that individual projects and investment proposals meet all relevant appraisal processes and value-for-money tests." So the Department of Transport will have to find some consultants who will conclude that the benefits of Metro Link exceed the costs. Notwithstanding the considerable ingenuity consultants devote to this type of challenge, they will struggle to make the numbers stack up.

The reason is that €3bn is an extraordinary amount of money to spend on a single tram line to a city suburb. The Swords line will be roughly the same length as each of the existing red and green lines. These lines, including the bits added on since their original construction, cost a total of €780m, say €400m apiece. Even if the new Swords line attracts somewhat greater patronage than the Tallaght (red) or Sandyford (green) lines - and it could - it is going to cost 7.5 times the bill for either.

There have been four big transport investments in Dublin in recent times. These were the red and green lines, the new cross-city line and the Dublin Port Tunnel. This is what they cost:

- Red/Green lines: €780m

- Cross City line: €368m

- Port Tunnel: €739m

- Total: €1,887m

The single line to Swords is set to cost €3,000m, considerably more than all four of these major projects combined.

It is perfectly fair to point out that the €3bn number is an estimate prepared by the project champions, the Department of Transport. All four of the listed Dublin projects came in significantly above the initial cost estimates, which is a common occurrence with urban transport investments around the world.

Given that the red and green lines, at roughly €400m each, are both about the same length as the proposed line to Swords, how can this single line be so expensive?

The answer is simple: the existing lines are entirely on the surface, while much of the Swords line is to be underground.

Tunnelling under cities is horrendously expensive. The Dublin Port Tunnel is only 4.6km long - about a quarter of the distance envisaged for the line to Swords - but it cost almost €800m. It was also relatively straightforward, since it did not have to go under the Liffey, and some of the work was cut-and-cover through a public park, so was less costly. The route envisaged for the Swords line has long underground sections and must go not only under the Liffey but also under the old core of the city.

Even if Finn McCool's bones are not encountered along the way, the scope for cost over-runs just goes with the territory.

One of the arguments advanced by enthusiasts for the Metro Link is that it would serve Dublin Airport. There would quite likely be a busy station at the airport, which would boost passenger numbers. However it is simply not the case that passenger numbers at the airport consist mostly of people going to, or coming from, the city centre.

Dublin Airport is a national facility rather than just a local airport for Dubliners. Its front gate is on the M1 and the motorway network makes it accessible from all points on the island. It handles 85pc of all air traffic in the Republic and draws customers from around the country and from Northern Ireland. Surveys show that about 30pc of Irish users are not even from the province of Leinster. They also show that central Dublin districts are not a substantial origin or destination for airport passengers - as some seem to believe.

Dublin Airport is also the busiest bus station in Ireland. The percentage of users who avail of public transport, around 36pc, is actually fairly high by international standards. The public transport share at Manchester, which has both tram and rail service as well as buses, is lower. Vehicles with rubber wheels are also a form of public transport, just like ones with steel wheels. At Dublin Airport, buses are popular with users, it would appear, and most towns in Ireland, including Northern Ireland, offer regular airport connections operated by both private and public bus companies.

The airport is also well served by bus routes from the city centre and from around the suburbs. Many routes use the Dublin Port Tunnel and journey times are no more than about 20-25 minutes from the central area.

The Swords Luas line would not offer any improvement on this score. The current journey time by public transport from Dublin Airport to the city centre is shorter than is the case at most major European airports, even ones with rail connections, because the airport is quite close to downtown.

Wouldn't it be nice, though, to have a tram link from the terminals straight into the city for any passengers headed in that direction? It would indeed be nice, but would it be €3,000m worth of nice, a sum that exceeds the balance sheet value of the entire airport? You could build six or seven large hospitals for that money.

If you live in Swords, don't break out the champagne just yet. Metro Link has the potential to become a Bertie Bowl on wheels.

Sunday Independent

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