Monday 19 September 2011

French rail system thrived as we took the wrong track

THE SNCF website has been in a celebratory mood this year, with colourful balloons and clinking glasses of champagne to celebrate “TGV-30 ans!” – the 30th anniversary of the Train à Grande Vitesse, which revolutionised passenger transport in France and inspired other countries to follow its example, most recently China.

I’ll never forget being on board one of the earlier TGVs as it whizzed through the French countryside like an orange streak from the Gare de Lyon in Paris to Le Creusot, more than half way to Lyon. As everyone who has used high-speed trains in France knows, it’s an exhilarating experience that puts Irish railways in the ha’penny place.

The TGV network has expanded considerably since then, with entirely new railway lines running to the north, south, east and west. Travel times from Paris have been dramatically reduced – to less than two hours to Lyon, just over two hours to Lille, slightly more to Bordeaux, and less than 3½ hours to Marseille.

In Ireland we have put our faith in motorways rather than railways. With the major inter-urban road network completed, it is now quicker to get around by car than it is by train. A recent trip from Cork to Dublin in a congested people-carrier took just two hours and 10 minutes from the Jack Lynch Tunnel to the Central Bank on Dame Street. The fastest train would have taken 2½ hours.

Similarly, the M1 has bled the Dublin-Belfast Enterprise “express” of passengers, particularly in first-class, because it’s just as quick – if not quicker – to drive between the two cities. The same phenomenon is being repeated for journeys between Dublin and Galway, Limerick and Waterford.

In the US, Broadway and Hollywood stars used to travel by train between New York and Los Angeles; Union Station in Chicago was then the great meeting point. But the interstate highway programme championed by Dwight Eisenhower and, later, the availability of intercity air travel reduced the railways to residual services.

Perhaps the danger of us repeating what happened in the US occurred to someone in Iarnród Éireann before it put forward a modest proposal that the Government should invest an additional €175 million to deliver journey times of under two hours for services between Dublin and Belfast, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford.

This would not “put us in the high-speed rail class like the TGV”, as the company’s spokesman admitted, but it would place Ireland “among the best of conventional railways” in the EU, with speeds of up to 160km/h. The new(ish) trains we’ve imported from Spain and South Korea could do that but sections of track still need upgrading.

The cost would work out at just over a fifth of the price we paid to run the M3 motorway through the landscape of Tara – to cater for projected traffic volumes that haven’t materialised. The ghost motorways are also costing us year on year. Because ludicrously optimistic traffic projections have not been realised, the National Roads Authority (NRA) is already paying compensation to the PPP (public-private partnership) consortiums that built these roads to make up for the paltry revenue they are currently raising from tolls.

Week after week, it seems, we learn more and more about squandermania during the boom – and its bitter legacy. The truth is that the Fianna Fáil-led government lost the run of itself in 1999 when it junked the NRA’s proposals to upgrade existing main roads and opted instead for five greenfield motorways.

Similarly, plans by the Dublin Transportation Office in Platform for Change (2000), proposing massive investment in a whole series of rail projects, including metro, Dart, suburban rail and Luas lines to create a mesh of public transport services in the capital, were approved by the same government that baulked at linking up the Luas lines.

The focus then switched from surface-running light rail to building the mainly underground Metro North – as a PPP project, naturally.

The likely cost became a closely guarded secret, but was deduced by The Irish Times to be €4.58 billion (in 2004). Some €200 million has already been spent on the project but it’s now unlikely to go ahead.

Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar is on record as saying that only one of the four “big ticket” transport projects for Dublin will proceed – Metro North, Dart Underground, the Luas link in the city centre (extended to Broombridge) or a rail spur to Dublin airport from Clongriffin (on the Dart line) serving nowhere along the way.

Varadkar has already cancelled more than 20 road plans, including a dual carriageway running right across south Wexford.

The wonder is that nobody in authority before now had the common sense to stand up to engineers with overblown projects – other than on the relatively few occasions that they were shot down by An Bord Pleanála.

But let us return, finally, to France. While we wasted money on nutty stuff like that and spent up to €22 million per acre acquiring slivers of land in yet-to-be developed Cherrywood for the Luas extension to Bride’s Glen, Bordeaux got on with building a surface-running light rail network that transformed the city into one of Europe’s finest.

And, naturellement , it’s also served by the TGV.

Irish Times

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