Rubber wheels trump steel ones in eyes of the travelling public
With Dublin in line for a revolution on the buses, perhaps it's time that MetroLink was buried
Despite the enormous investment in Luas and Dart services in Dublin over recent decades, the most popular form of public transport in the city is the bus system. The two State-owned operators, Dublin Bus and the suburban services of Bus Eireann, carried twice as many passengers in 2017 as did the Luas and Dart services combined.
There are several private operators of city bus services as well, notably Aircoach and Swords Express. When these are added, buses carry almost three times the number of passengers travelling by rail or tram in the capital. Cork is the only other Irish city with a suburban rail service, but the bus share in Cork is over 90pc.
These high market shares reflect the geographic reality of Irish cities. Sprawling, low-density urban areas offer an unpromising market for fixed-line public transport, which cannot reach a substantial portion of potential users without inordinate capital and operating cost. The buses reach the entire market and their routings are flexible. Many of them operate without subsidy and they can offer high frequency on the busiest alignments.
It is surprising that so much policy debate about public transport in Irish cities displays an obsession with costly rail systems, as if only vehicles with steel wheels qualify as public transport. Last week the National Transport Authority (NTA) released its latest iteration on its bus plans for Dublin, a project called Bus Connects, recognising that vehicles with rubber wheels count as public transport too.
The project would see dedicated bus lanes provided on 16 radial routes covering essentially all districts of the city, with potential time savings of up to 50pc. The plan will be costly, since roads will have to be widened, but the total capital cost would be lower than the recent MetroLink scheme which would add extra service on just one new Dublin radial route. While the NTA seems to regard Bus Connects as a complement to further investment in the Luas system, it could also be seen as an attractive alternative, less expensive, delivering real improvement throughout the city and capable of early implementation.
There will be inconvenience for those affected by the construction works and an estimated 1,300 householders would lose (with compensation) several metres of their front gardens in the suburbs. Cue agitated politicians eager to decry the scheme - the same ones who demand affordable housing and object to every planning application in their neighbourhoods. Neither the Bus Connects scheme nor the MetroLink have as yet been subjected, at least in public, to a proper cost-benefit appraisal, without which neither can go ahead. The Government remains committed to the Public Spending Code and the code is clear: the Department of Finance will have to give the thumbs-up before either scheme can commence.
For both the Bus Connects and Luas (Metro, if you prefer) proposals, the detailed routings and cost estimates have not been finalised. When this has been done, there is every chance that the bus plan will trump the underground MetroLink to Swords, costing perhaps no more than half in upfront capital and delivering more benefits for more passengers. If the bus improvements on the Swords and Dublin Airport alignment come to be implemented, the underground line begins to look very expensive.
The essence of the bus plan is the provision of dedicated routings to all points of the compass, ensuring priority access to scarce road space for buses at the expense of motorists. MetroLink, estimated to cost between €3bn and €4bn, would deliver just one additional link to the existing Luas system, an underground line via the airport to Swords, versus 16 radial bus routes costing a lot less, up to €2bn. One of the Bus Connects routes is to, you guessed it, the airport and Swords. Which raises the obvious question: does the bus plan for this specific route, the major benefit of MetroLink, undermine the case for the more expensive underground proposal?
On the face of it, the answer could easily be in the affirmative. The NTA document states that bus journeys from Swords to the city centre take up to 70 minutes at present and that this could increase to 80 minutes if nothing is done. But this is rather misleading. The stopping service through the northern suburbs is indeed slow: the buses must navigate overburdened streets through Whitehall and Drumcondra. But the Swords Express, offering eight departures per hour in the morning peak, goes through the Port Tunnel (built and paid for) and does the trip in 40 minutes. Departures from the airport on the Dublin Bus 747 service and the Aircoach also use the tunnel and offer journey times of around 25 minutes to the city centre, with departures from one or the other company every five minutes at peak (with even a 24-hour service at lower frequency).
To be clear: the existing bus services from Swords and the airport into the city are both fast and frequent. The stopping service through the intervening suburbs is not so good, but that is the case throughout most of the city and will be addressed by the Bus Connects project. Specifically it includes a new bus priority route, which will require road widening and will cost money, through the same northern suburbs. It will greatly improve service on the routes which do not take the express option through the tunnel. What then is the point spending €3bn (or is it €4bn?) on an underground line serving these very same markets?
Dublin Airport is already the busiest bus station in Ireland (you read that right - busier than Busaras) and there are frequent services to various points around the city of Dublin as well as to almost all provincial towns and cities, including Northern Ireland. The percentage of passengers using public transport (buses) at Dublin is actually higher than at some European airports which also have train and tram connections. Manchester, for example, an airport almost as big as Dublin, has trains, trams and buses, and a lower public transport share than Dublin. The bus share at Dublin has been increasing in recent years and several companies are considering new routes. Developing good bus connections has long been a conscious policy at most large European airports. Most people know that Heathrow is Europe's busiest airport. It is also the biggest bus station in Britain.
It should be conceded that the MetroLink project promises more than just a new connection to the airport and Swords. It would also see extra capacity on the southern Luas line connecting to Sandyford, but at substantial extra cost. Bus Connects has an answer here too - one of the 16 routes proposed serves the same southerly alignment and would deliver better journey times and frequency at lower cost to the suburbs along the way.
Congestion on radial routes serving the city centre is not the only traffic problem in Dublin. There is a good case for an outer orbital road to the west of the M50, now the main street of the city and running out of capacity, costing extra on top of Bus Connects. Is it wise to spend three or four thousand million on MetroLink as well?