Does Dublin really need a metro network?

Concept art for the mid-2000s version of the Dublin Metro. Image: National Transport Authority, Ireland.

Dubliners have always looked to other European capitals with envy. For decades, the city’s commuters have made do with with limited bus routes, a badly connected airport and traffic congestion that all seemed hardly befitting for an up-and-coming global city.  

Today, the city has changed. A sparkling new cross-city tram has proved popular, while the government says a systematic reform of bus routes will address long-standing complaints – even if it’s been controversial so far.

Ireland has changed, too, and is now more likely to be found preening itself and strutting on the international stage. Facebook, Google and Twitter have all come to roost in Dublin; and the capital has positioned itself as the technology hub of Europe after Brexit.

Yet beneath this confidence lies an abiding insecurity. It was visible in the hand-wringing over the Apple tax decision in the European Court of Justice and was clear too from the national soul-searching when the conference once known as the Dublin Web Summit decamped to Lisbon, blaming Dublin’s sub-par infrastructure.

The proposed system. Image: National Transport Authority, Ireland.

But most of all, it’s obvious in the city’s love–hate affair with its proposed metro system. Plans were first afoot in the early 2000s for a metro to connect the airport to the city centre – until the 2008 financial crisis got in the way and put a halt to the scheme.

Yet the metro dream is still alive, raising the question: why does the government want another decade of construction and a €3.5bn bill?

The driving motivation, of course, is to connect Dublin Airport – which welcomes 80 perc cent of Ireland’s incoming flights – to the city. There are other considerations too, such as plans to encourage the growth of Fingal, the municipality to Dublin’s north, as a repository of the city’s growing population. Estimates suggest that by 2040 nearly 1.4m people will live in the wider Dublin area.

Dublin isn’t alone when it comes to an obsession with metros: for decades, they’ve been the go-to infrastructure project for aspirational cities. The EU has funded a number of metro developments in Europe and beyond as part of the promotion of sustainable urban development, while in China metros are being built with reckless abandon in cities that arguably don’t need them. In Brisbane a new metro project is just beginning in earnest after years of wrangling.


Even two decades ago, research from the Centre for Transport Studies in University College London was questioning the rationale behind the metro becoming the de facto upgrade of choice for enthusiastic city planners. One article cited a city council leader in an unnamed British city who saw the metro system in Lille and “decided that his city had to have one”.

Yet despite this growing scepticism, city planners are still making the case for metro systems using decades’ old rationales, whether by arguing that metros boost development in peripheral areas, or that they’re better for the environment.

This same logic, often taken at face value, is fuelling the debate in Dublin today. But the city’s population density seems scarcely large enough to economically sustain a metro system, while little time has been spent considering how an upgraded bus network could solve some of the problems at a fraction of the cost. If construction begins as proposed in 2021, it would also immediately follow two significant and disruptive projects – the just completed extension of the tram network and the mooted pedestrianisation of Dublin’s College Green area.

This isn’t to deny that parts of North Dublin, namely the rapidly growing Fingal area, would benefit from a metro, or that the airport requires transport links that don’t grind to a halt in heavy traffic.

But €3.5 billion and several years of disruption seems a high price to pay for a lack of imagination in urban planning. For a country that has learnt the hard way to be wary of infrastructural chimeras, the government still seems to have a one-track mind when it comes to a Dublin metro.

 
 
 
 

The tube that’s not a tube: What exactly is the Northern City line?

State of the art: a train on the Northern City Line platforms at Moorgate. Image: Haydon Etherington

You may never have used it. You may not even know that it’s there. But in zones one and two of the London Underground network, you’ll find an oft-forgotten piece of London’s transport history.

The Northern City line is a six-stop underground route from Moorgate to Finsbury Park. (It’s officially, if confusingly, known as the Moorgate line.) But, unlike other underground lines, it not part of Transport for London’s empire, and is not displayed on a normal tube map. Two of the stations, Essex Road and Drayton Park, aren’t even on the underground network at all.

The line has changed hands countless times since its creation a century ago. It now finds itself hiding in plain sight – an underground line, not part of the Underground. So why exactly is the Northern City line not part of the tube?

The Northern City line, pictured in dotted beige. Source: TfL.

As with many so many such idiosyncrasies, the explanation lies in over a century’s worth of cancellations and schemes gone awry. The story starts in 1904, when the private Great Northern Railways, which built much of what is now the East Coast Main Line, built the line to provide trains coming from the north of London with a terminus in the City. This is why the Northern City line, unlike a normal tube line, has tunnels wide enough to be used by allow mainline trains.

Eventually, though, Great Northern decided that this wasn’t such a bright idea after all. It mothballed plans to connect the Northern City up to the mainline, leaving it to terminate below Finsbury Park, scrapped electrification and sold the line off to Metropolitan Railways – owners of, you guessed it, the Metropolitan line.

Metropolitan Railways had big plans for the Northern City line too: the company wanted to connect it to both Waterloo & City and Circle lines. None of the variants on this plan ever happened. See a theme?

The next proposed extensions, planned in the 1930s once London Underground had become the domain of the (public sector) London Passenger Transport Board, was the Northern Heights programme. This would have seen the line would connected up with branch lines across north London, with service extended to High Barnet, Edgware and Alexandra Palace: essentially, as part of the Northern line. The plans, for the main part, were cancelled in the advent of the Second World War.

The Northern Heights plan. The solid green lines happened, the dotted ones did not. Image: Rob Brewer/Wikimedia Commons.

What the war started, the Victoria line soon finished. The London Plan Working Party Report of 1949 proposed a number of new lines and extensions: these included extension of the Northern City Line to Woolwich (Route J) and Crystal Palace (Route K). The only one of the various schemes to happen was Route C, better known today as the Victoria line, which was agreed in the 1950s and opened in the 1960s. The new construction project cannibalised the Northern City Line’s platforms at Finsbury Park, and from 1964 services from Moorgate terminated one stop south at Drayton Park.

In 1970, the line was briefly renamed the Northern Line (Highbury Branch), but barely a year later plans were made to transfer it to British Rail, allowing it to finally fulfil its original purpose.


Before that could happen, though, the line became the site of a rather more harrowing event. In 1975, the deadliest accident in London Underground history took place at Moorgate: a southbound train failed to stop, instead ploughing into the end of the tunnel. The crash killed 43 people. The authorities responded with a major rehaul of safety procedure; Moorgate station itself now has unique timed stopping mechanisms.

The last tube services served the Northern City Line in October 1975. The following year, it reopened as part of British Rail, receiving trains from a variety of points north of London. Following privatisation, it’s today run by Govia Thameslink as part of the Great Northern route, served mainly by suburban trains from Hertford and Welwyn Garden City.

Nowadays, despite a central location and a tube-like stopping pattern, the line is only really used for longer-scale commutes: very few people use it like a tube.

Only 811,000 and 792,000 people each year enter and exit Essex Road and Drayton Park stations respectively. These stations would be considered the fifth and sixth least used in the tube network – only just beating Chorleywood in Hertfordshire. In other words, these usage stats look like those for a station in zone seven, not one in Islington.

One reason for this might be a lack of awareness that the line exists at all. The absence from the tube map means very few people in London will have heard of it, let alone ever used it.

Another explanation is rather simpler: the quality of service. Despite being part and parcel of the Oyster system, it couldn’t be more different from a regular tube. The last (and only) time I used the line, it ran incredibly slowly, whilst the interior looked much more like a far-flung cross-country train than it does a modern underground carriage.

Waiting for Govia. Image: Haydon Etherington.

But by far the biggest difference from TfL is frequency. The operators agreed that trains would run between four and six times an hour, which in itself is fine. However, this is Govia Thameslink, and in my experience, the line was plagued by cancellations and delays, running only once in the hour I was there.

To resolve this, TfL has mooted taking the line over itself. In 2016, draft proposals were put forward by Patrick McLoughlin, then the transport secretary, and then mayor Boris Johnson, to bring "northern services... currently operating as part of the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise" into TfL's control by 2021.

But, in a story that should by now be familiar, Chris Grayling scrapped them. At least it’s in keeping with history.