UNLESS IRELAND invests in higher-speed rail to compete with faster journey times on new motorways, it will face a “progressive closing of the [railway] network” in the near future, according to a leading transport expert.
Prof Austin Smyth, lead author of a mid-term review of Transport 21 for the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport, said the Belfast-Dublin line was “almost a basket case now” due to competition from the M1 motorway and “the same will happen elsewhere”.
The next government would have to decide between three options for the future of the railways – to invest more with the aim of making journey times more competitive, to continue subsidising loss-making services in decline, or to close key routes.
At an institute symposium on the review, Prof Smyth noted that 75 per cent of the money invested under the Transport 21 programme since it was launched in 2005 had gone on roads, with the inter-urban motorways accounting for 89 per cent of this expenditure.
He said it was “not unreasonable to attribute part of the growth in Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions to the improvements in inter-urban roads, which also had negative consequences for spatial development – in particular, by facilitating suburban sprawl”.
Referring to rising oil prices, he warned: “You ain’t seen nothing yet. In 10 years time, today’s prices will seem very cheap.
“Petrol prices of €4, €5 or €6 per litre are not inconceivable in the near future, and transport investment needs to be considered in that context.”
Dick Fearn, chief executive of Iarnród Éireann, said it was “committed to making journey time improvements” on the railways with “relatively modest incremental expenditure to eliminate speed restrictions”, and he believed that such a programme could be funded.
“Ten years ago, we didn’t have a rail infrastructure that was sustainable,” he added.
“We have come a long way and now have a very modern intercity fleet. It’s not yet sufficient. We are now uncompetitive on some intercity routes and need to spend some more money.”
Pat Mangan, who recently retired as assistant secretary at the Department of Transport, said an average of €100 million a year had been invested in the railways. “That needs to continue if we are to not face further restrictions in speed and level of service.”
However there was now “a lot less money for transport than before”, with a “sharp decline” in the annual capital allocation from €3 billion last year to just €1 billion in 2014. This “new reality” might mean imposing more road tolls to raise money for transport investment.
“The first priority is to protect what we have already got,” Mr Mangan told the symposium. Money would have to be spent on the maintenance of new roads, including local and regional roads, as well as ensuring that improved rail services did not deteriorate.
He said the next government needs to make early decisions on major transport investment projects such as Dart underground and Metro North and “stick with them”. Instead of having Ministers “navel gaze”, they should “get on with it” by delivering key projects.