Dublin offers a better quality of life than the UK. But can its economy withstand Brexit?

The incredibly picturesque Samuel Beckett Bridge, in Dublin. Image: Salim Darwiche

Dublin was recently ranked 34th out of 231 global cities on the Mercer Quality of Life Survey 2017It ranked higher than London, which came 40th, and every single other city in the UK and Ireland.

The city’s strength is wide-spread, and spans culture, the economy and the environment. Noel O’Connor, Consultant at Mercer Ireland, remarked that Dublin offers “an excellent choice of consumer goods, lower levels of air pollution, and a stable political and strong socio-cultural environment”.

As such, the Irish capital continues to be an attractive option for businesses seeking a base in north-west Europe, at a lower cost of living than London or Paris.

Indeed, the Irish economy as a whole has enjoyed strong growth in recent years. Last year’s 5.2 per cent growth rate meant that Ireland remained the fastest growing economy in the European Union for the third consecutive year.

Twilight for Dublin? Image: Hans-Peter Bock.

Growing pains

However, the UK’s decision to leave the EU may have already begun to hurt Ireland. Consumer spending growth slowed to 3 per cent in 2016, down from 4.5 per cent in 2015, with a significant dip in the second half of the year. Export growth was the joint lowest that Ireland has seen since 2008, at just 2.4 per cent.

The terms of the trade deal between Britain and the EU are yet to be agreed. Pat Leahy, political editor of the Irish Times, argues that the worst possible outcome would be no agreement between the Britain and the EU, meaning that World Trade Organisation rules (including tariffs of up to 50 per cent on agricultural goods) would apply. “Such an outcome would have the potential to devastate Irish exporters to the UK,” he says.

At a time when export growth is already slowing, this is bad news for the Irish economy. While Ireland’s main export market is the US, with whom it traded €26bn of goods and services in 2015, it still relies heavily on exports to the UK. However, it is worth noting that in the same year, Irish exports to Belgium exceeded the value of Irish exports to the UK.

Such a large trading relationship with the US means that the Trump administration’s preference for protectionist trade policies is of course another significant threat to the Irish export market.

Nobody's quite sure about the big stick but it looks cool. Image: Robzle.

The Home Front

On the domestic front, the outlook is far more promising. The Economic and Social Research Institute is hopeful that the renewed boom in the construction sector could bring Ireland to full employment (defined as a level of unemployment below the post-crash low of 5.6 per cent) by the end of 2018.


The ESRI report found that the housing market is now the main driver of growth in the domestic economy, and emphasised the importance of managing this growth in a sustainable way. Dr. Kieran McQuinn, the report author, commented: “We’re treading a fine line between driving the economy to produce more houses and pushing it into overheating territory.”

Danny McCoy, chief executive of the Irish Business and Employers’ Confederation, is also optimistic about the prospect of domestic growth acting as a shock absorber against uncertainty in trade relations with the US and UK. He said:

“The economy is now facing some major external threats… [but] we are facing those threats from a position of economic and fiscal strength…

We must use that position of strength to take more decisive steps to relieve competitiveness pressures which are within our control, by massively ramping up investment in infrastructure, R&D and education.”

Another gratuitous picture of Dublin. Image: Doyler79.

Invest to be the best

While Ireland is now running a budget surplus, and there are signs of strong domestic growth, it is understandable that industry leaders such as McCoy are calling for increased capital investment to protect against external shocks. Directly after the UK triggered Article 50 last month, industry leaders called on the Irish government to exert as much influence as possible to ensure that key exporters receive the best deal possible.

Paul Kelly, director of Food Drink Ireland, said: “The agri-food sector exports €4.1bn of food and drink to the UK and accounts for 43,000 Irish jobs. Agri-food is the Irish sector most exposed to trade disruption, and the Irish Government must do all within its control to ensure minimum impact to the free flow of goods.”

Despite these calls, the fact remains that, as just one of 27 EU states, Ireland has limited influence over the final outcome; this despite the significant implications for trade, immigration and the north/south border.

While the forecast for the export market is fairly bleak, the domestic economy and national budget are both strong. As this Irish writer can confirm, Dublin remains one of the best cities in the world.

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To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.