Buses are public transport vehicles, with rubber wheels. Trains and trams are also public transport vehicles, with steel wheels. To address congestion in cities and excess carbon emissions everywhere, policy seeks to encourage people towards public transport. Whether rubber or steel is the best option is a critical question, to do with costs and benefits, engineering and economics.
This week, transport issues, including some choices between rubber and steel, fall to be considered by Fianna Fail and Fine Gael as they negotiate on Green Party demands. If a programme for government emerges, on past form it will assume scriptural authority for politicians and public officials, always predisposed to deliver on whatever commitments these documents contain, until reality intrudes.
Reality will intrude soon. Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe insisted last week that the emerging budget deficit is not sustainable, and the Taoiseach has echoed his concerns. Interest rates will rise and selling bonds will get tougher, especially for those trying to sell too many.
Relying again on past form, if the post-Covid axe falls on public spending during the lifetime of the new Dail, it will fall most heavily on the capital programme, rightly or wrongly. The capital programme contains ambitious transport projects, not all of which will get off the drawing board and priorities will have to be identified.
Which is best for Ireland, buses or trains? This is a sparsely populated country, with just one large city. The city has foolishly been permitted to sprawl, California-style, creating a hostile environment, both in Dublin and around the country, for rail-based public transport.
Fixed-line systems are costly and cannot reach dispersed markets, urban or rural, as readily as buses. Not surprisingly, most of the public transport demand in Ireland is catered for by the bus companies, of which the largest are the State-owned Dublin Bus and Bus Eireann.
The figures in the table show the shares of the different transport modes for the daily trip to work, school or college, from the April 2016 Census, based on the responses of almost three million commuters. The table separates the country into three categories, the city and suburbs of Dublin, the aggregate of the provincial cities, towns and villages, and rural Ireland.
For the whole country, less than 3pc of daily commutes are undertaken by train, Dart or Luas, mostly in the Dublin area. The bus share nationally (including coaches and minibuses, public and private) is nearly four times larger than rail. Even in Dublin, where substantial sums have been devoted to rail-based systems, including Dart and Luas, the bus system does twice the commuting volume of all steel-wheeled vehicles combined.
Dublin Bus also recovers a higher portion of its costs from the farebox than does the suburban railway. In rural areas the buses are commonly the only form of public transport available and reliance on private car transport is understandably higher than in Dublin or in cities and towns.
Figures from the National Transport Authority for all trips undertaken during 2018 confirm the dominant role of the bus companies in Irish public transport. Bus companies, mainly public, delivered 205 million passenger journeys for the year, versus 89 million delivered by Irish Rail (including Dart) and Luas combined, a 70/30 split in favour of buses.
The Green Party produced a policy document on transport before the election. A key component was a diversion of funds away from roads to 'public transport', which some Greens, and not only Greens, appear to conflate with rail transport.
It cannot be stressed often enough - most public transport in Ireland travels on roads. It is pie in the sky to imagine that the rail network can ever be extended at affordable cost to reach thin markets currently accessible to the bus operators. New bus services, if there is a traffic justification, can be granted operating subsidies without spending a penny of capital money.
The new rail line north from Ennis connecting Limerick to Galway cost more than €100m, loses money and delivers passengers half-an-hour slower than the far more frequent bus timetable. What exactly is the point?
To be fair to the Greens, their manifesto is commendably silent on the proposal to build a sister line north from Athenry towards Sligo. The Government has refused to release an appraisal commissioned from accountants Ernst & Young, presumably because they gave it the thumbs down.
The oddest proposal from the Greens, with no costing, is the electrification of the entire rail network. Iarnrod Eireann operates 1,660km of lines, about half of which is double track. Recent electrification costs in the UK have been upwards of €2m per single track kilometre, of which there are around 2,500 unelectrified. This single scheme would cost €5bn, maybe more. There should be a law against uncosted proposals.
The Greens support the €1bn Bus Connects project in Dublin, which would deliver 16 dedicated bus routes serving the whole city. This looks like better value than Metro North, costing €3bn for one tram line to the airport and Swords, both well served with buses through the Port Tunnel. They want Metro North as well, along with an east-west underground Dart line in central Dublin, new Luas tram lines to various points around the city, and trams for Cork and other provincial cities, all uncosted.
There will be only modest take-up of electric cars in rural Ireland, where the heaviest mileage is done, unless one of the Green proposals is pursued. Unpublished data (kindly provided by the Sustainable Energy Authority) show that 38pc of home-charger grants were paid in Dublin, which accounts for only 21pc of car mileage nationally.
The Greens want a network of fast chargers at the 1,500 petrol stations, which would need subsidy to ESB to cover likely losses. This looks necessary if electric car adoption is to be targeted for greatest impact.
Social distancing favours single-occupancy cars, and the short-term outlook for public transport operators is grim. Some private bus companies fear they may be required to operate at 20pc capacity or even less.
Operating at all could be uneconomic in such a regime.