Why Dubliners are right to be sceptical about the new metro plans

A tram in the snow near Cherrywood, south of Dublin. Image: Getty.

Dublin’s transport plans bemuse and befuddle me on a daily basis. The transport authorities appear to chop and change proposals with abandon – and without fully explaining why they’ve made certain choices either (apart from the standard issue “the economy went bust and it costs too much” excuse, of course). For anyone living in this city, you’d be forgiven for wondering whether those in charge of our daily journeys are just making it up as they go along.

Over the past two decades, government proposals for a fully integrated transport network have included a new two-line electric train system – expanding the existing DART service outwards from the coast – as well as a tunnel underneath the city centre connecting major central stations. But this scheme, known as DART Underground, does not appear in the new transport strategy for Dublin, part of the national development plan announced last week. 

Some proposals – the Luas tram network, the Port Tunnel, Docklands station – have been realised, either in full or reduced form. The more costly and ambitious ones, however, have until now been left dead in the water. That includes Metro North, a plan for an underground train system connecting Dublin Airport and the swathes of commuter hinterland beyond it to the city centre. 

For those of you who may not be familiar with the excruciating history of Metro North, it’s the phantom transport plan that haunts the city’s dwellers to this present day – a carrot frequently dangled in front of us and then abruptly snatched away by our representatives.

The proposal was first made public to great fanfare in 2005, put on hold by then transport minister Leo Varadkar in 2011, and subsequently reannounced in 2015. And it’s gone through a head-spinning number of permutations and combinations since it was first proposed by the Dublin Transportation Office some 17 years ago back in 2001.

The latest plan for ‘Metro Link’, as it’s now known, sees much of it move underground. It will also extend beyond the city centre, and connect up with the Luas green line to serve the suburbs of south Dublin: a portion of the southbound tramline will be upgraded to overground metro track as part of the scheme.

If the work had commenced as originally planned back in 2010, our city would now have had a metro for several years. As it stands, Metro Link is currently set for completion in… 2027.

Click to expand: one of the many out of date and misleading maps of the Dublin transport network you can find on the internet. The Luas Green line has now been extended; the other dotted lines are mere phantasms. That no up to date version of the map is available feels telling, somehow. Image: Wikipedia.

Transport proposals for Dublin change so fast it’s hard to keep up. So much so that many have just stopped caring, and instead sigh, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

So the people of Cabra, Broombridge and Phibsborough must have been pleasantly surprised in December last year. They had been singled out from other suburban northsiders, to benefit from a newly extended Luas green line towards well-connected south Dublin. Perhaps it was simply down to the helpful existence of an old railway track. Maybe it was a nod of approval towards Phibsborough’s creeping gentrification. Either way, what a treat that it actually got finished.

 Of course, for all other northsiders  – apart from those lucky enough to be in and around the financial district on the Luas red line – commuting across the River Liffey became a nightmare overnight. The introduction of trams along this route meant they faced delays of up to seven minutes crossing the city as their buses, now jostled for space with the Luas, cars, taxis and cyclists. Near O’Connell Bridge and into D’Olier Street towards College Green, traffic slowed to a tortoise-like trickle during peak hours.

There appears to have been a distinct lack of foresight when it comes to Dublin Cross City, as this extension of the green line is known. The month after it opened, 17 buses had to be routed away from College Green, the area worst hit by the subsequent chronic congestion. This month, authorities were forced to divert 10 more.

Indeed northside dwellers would be forgiven for thinking they’ve drawn the short straw when it comes to public transport over the last two decades. After the announcement of LUAS Cross City, many asked, “Why don’t they just build a metro?” or, “Why is this being prioritised over a link to the airport?”

As Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole recently pointed out, of the 20 busiest airports in Europe, Dublin is the only major city that still lacks a direct train to its city centre.

Large working class and lower middle class areas such as Swords, Dardistown, Finglas and Ballymun have also been completely ignored by all recent public transport developments. This is surprising when you consider their size: Finglas is a rapidly growing, socially deprived area with a population of over 30,000 people, many of whom are young. Yet it still has no rail or tram links.

But this is likely less to be an actual conspiracy against the northside’s inhabitants, and more likely to be simple absence of planning, future proofing and general consideration for citizens north of the river. Indeed, it seems as if their exclusion from recent projects has been depressingly incidental – and largely due to a move away from more expensive and complex projects.

We can hope the new metro plan has been more carefully evaluated so as to take into account the way these particular areas have been overlooked. But on this, some understandably have doubts. A Dublin City University professor recently complained to the Irish Independent that the public were yet to see a cost-benefit analysis for any of the metro project’s three feasibility studies. One of the main changes to the route since 2015, notes the Irish Times, is to eliminate two stops on the airport side of the city.

North or south, all any of us in this city really want is a well-connected, comprehensive and efficient transport network. Fingers crossed, a decade from now, that’s what we’re finally going get. But you can’t blame us for being a little sceptical.

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What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.