Saturday 26 April 2008

The tearing of the Green

Plans for the Metro North line entail excavating a large section of St Stephen's Green at huge cost. But some are questioning the wisdom of using the Green as a transport hub, and worry that the work will forever alter the character of the park. Frank McDonald Environment Editor reports

ON NOVEMBER 1ST, 2005, at the Government's fanfare launch of its €34 billion Transport 21 investment programme, then minister for transport Martin Cullen announced that St Stephen's Green would become the capital's key transport hub. "It will be to Dublin what Grand Central is to New York," he said.

A discreet veil was drawn over the environmental impact of this radical proposal, particularly on the much-loved park that was given to the people of Dublin in 1880 by Sir Arthur Edward Guinness, Lord Ardilaun, under an Act of Parliament entrusting its long-term care to the Commissioners of Public Works.

Although the route of Metro North - the proposed line linking St Stephen's Green with Dublin Airport and Swords - is shown on maps that are publicly available on the Railway Procurement Agency's website (, the detail of what is being planned in and around the Green is not immediately evident.

However, design drawings seen by The Irish Times clearly show that at least a quarter of the park would be devastated by the scheme. It would, in effect, be turned into a vast construction site, requiring the removal of the landmark Fusiliers' Arch at its northwestern corner, dozens of mature trees and a large part of the lake.

In order to create the underground concourse and platforms for the proposed "Grand Central" station, a huge hole more than 20 metres deep and 160 metres long would be excavated at this location, extending beyond the railings from a point opposite the Fitzwilliam Hotel to a point opposite the St Stephen's Green Club.

This "cut-and-cover" project would take at least three years to complete, requiring some traffic diversions in the area. Excavated material would be removed by trucks using an access point on the north side of the Green and running down Dawson Street. Operation of the Sandyford Luas line would be unaffected.

To facilitate the movement of Metro North trains at their terminus station, the twin tracks would be burrowed under the middle of the park towards its southeastern corner and there would also be a large turnback loop, which is apparently to be tunnelled using the same "drill and blast" technique common in coal mining.

The St Stephen's Green station on CIÉ's planned rail interconnector, or "Dart Underground", linking Heuston Station with Spencer Dock, would also have a negative impact at ground level. A 200-metre stretch along the northern side of the Green would be turned into a construction site, with the loss of more trees.

Its station would be constructed on a transverse axis, partly beneath the Metro North station, using more "drill and blast" excavation underground, requiring the removal of some 8,000 truckloads of material. However, it is unclear at this stage whether these two projects by rival agencies will proceed in tandem.

Even after the park is restored with replacement trees and the Fusiliers' Arch and lake are reinstated, the character of St Stephen's Green would be permanently altered by visible - and discordant - elements of the two stations above-ground, including ventilation ducts, emergency escape stairs and other accoutrements.

For example, the drawings prepared by the RPA and consultant engineers Jacobs International show a cluster of air vents on the island in the park's lake which is a refuge for ducks and waterhens.

No wonder the Office of Public Works (OPW) was "aghast" when it was first shown the plans, according to a source.

When the Sandyford Luas line and its current terminus on the west side of St Stephen's Green was under construction, the OPW was so protective of the park and its curtilage that it wouldn't even permit any encroachment on the footpath outside. Now, it is faced with the prospect of much of the Green becoming a building site.

"It beggars belief that four decades after the battle to save Hume Street they're now planning to demolish St Stephen's Green," said one engineer who examined the detailed drawings. "But it's clear that the Green was selected [ for construction of the station] because it's a wonderful works site, a big open space."

IN 2006, THE Green was shortlisted for the Academy of Urbanism's Great Place award. The academy's poet in residence, Ian McMillan, wrote that "every city needs a green like this/To pause for a moment in the city's throng/This green is a smile and this green is a kiss/ And Dublin is the city where St Stephen's Green belongs".

An OPW spokesman said it was liaising with both the RPA and CIÉ to mitigate the environmental impact of the metro and rail interconnector works. He also pointed out that, technically, the park is now vested in the Minister for the Environment and said an amendment to the 1877 St Stephen's Green Act would probably be needed.

John Costigan, managing director of the Gaiety Theatre, has also expressed concern that one of the twin-bore metro tunnels would come perilously close to its fly-tower, which was rebuilt in recent years on steel piles with a depth of 10 or 11 metres, and that the theatre could be affected by vibrations from the metro.

It is clear that the "Grand Central" plan was driven by the Sandyford Luas line terminating on the west side of St Stephen's Green. But since the Luas line is to be extended northwards, via Dawson Street and College Green - as originally planned, until the Government ditched it in 1998 - it would be duplicating Metro North.

THE COST OF the 17km metro line was estimated at €4.58 billion in 2004, though this was never publicly admitted by the RPA. With construction cost inflation since then, plus the addition of a new station at Parnell Square and agreement to put the line underground in Ballymun, the figure could now be as high as €6 billion. That would work out at €353 million per kilometre for a single line which, the RPA admits, would carry elongated Luas-type trams rather than heavy rail metro trains. This contrasts with €60 million per kilometre for the extension of the Tallaght Luas line in Docklands - the most expensive Luas project to date.

Even on the basis of that high figure, the RPA could build more than 100 kilometres of street-running Luas lines for the price of Metro North - and a lot more at a lower cost per kilometre. Such a change of plan would give Dublin a light rail network, serving many more areas than the limited Swords-St Stephen's Green corridor.

Given Metro North's price tag, which the RPA has been trying to reduce by cutting back on station design, it would make more sense to terminate it at O'Connell Bridge or, better still, underneath Tara Street station. If this was done, the rail interconnector's cost could also be cut because it wouldn't have to swing south to Stephen's Green.

The cost of Metro North could also be reduced by substituting a surface-running Luas line between Dublin Airport and Swords. Another obvious cost-cutting measure would involve boring a single tunnel wide enough to carry trains in both directions, rather than the separate tunnels for each track currently proposed.

The RPA is in the process of selecting a "preferred bidder" for the Metro North project from a shortlist of four consortiums and preparing an environmental impact statement, with a view to making a formal application for a railway order in August. By then, the design of the project will be set, sealing the fate of St Stephen's Green.

THE PROPOSAL in this week's Green Paper on local government that the Dublin Transport Authority (DTA) is to be chaired by whoever becomes the capital's first directly-elected mayor will compensate only partly for a significant democratic deficit in the authority's composition.

The Minister for the Environment, John Gormley, said he had got the agreement of his colleague, Minister for Transport Noel Dempsey, that the mayor would chair the DTA - in 2011; as currently framed, this powerful new body would be headed by a ministerial appointee.

The Dublin Transport Authority Bill, published last week, provides that none of the 10 members of the authority would be elected representatives, and that only four of the 12 on its advisory council would be members of the Dublin and Mid-East regional authorities. The rest would all be appointees of the Minister for Transport - chosen, the Bill says, on the basis of their expertise in "relevant disciplines", such as finance, transport or planning - as well as ex-officio members such as Dublin city manager John Tierney.

Lest there be any impression that the DTA is not a creature of central government, there are no less than 230 direct references to the Minister in its 78 pages - mainly dealing with his powers to order the affairs of the authority; in this respect, it is par for the course. Establishment of the DTA, according to the explanatory memorandum, "will ensure, for the first time, that there is a single, properly accountable body with overall responsibility for surface transport in the Greater Dublin Area" (GDA), which includes Meath, Kildare and Wicklow.

Its general functions will include strategic transport planning, provision of public transport services and infrastructure and traffic management. It will also take over responsibility from the Railway Procurement Agency (RPA) for the thorny issue of introducing integrated ticketing. But the RPA will stay in business, with continuing responsibility for the delivery of Luas and metro projects. Indeed, the agency fought an evidently successful bureaucratic battle against an earlier, apparently firm proposal that it would simply be subsumed into the DTA.

The only body that is to be dissolved under the legislation is the Dublin Transportation Office, which has performed a co-ordinating role for transport in the region and was also the originator of the metro plan - now causing "wigs on the Green" as details of its design emerge.

The DTA's first duty will be to prepare a six-year transport strategy for the GDA - in consultation with the local authorities as well as the wider community - covering investment in infrastructure, and the procurement and integration of public transport services. In preparing its integrated implementation plan, the DTA will get written guidance from the Minister on "multi-annual funding arrangements", though it will be obliged to have "due regard" for "the most beneficial, effective and efficient use of Exchequer resources". Where possible, the DTA is required to secure the provision of public transport infrastructure through existing agencies, such as the National Roads Authority, the local authorities, Iarnród Éireann and the RPA - though it will have "step-in" powers, if any of these fail. However, the Bill does nothing to liberalise or open up the Dublin bus market. The "exclusive rights" of Bus Éireann, Dublin Bus and Iarnród Éireann to operate the services they currently provide are reaffirmed, and the DTA is obliged to award them direct contracts.

One of the most significant provisions of the Bill is the land use planning powers it gives the new agency. In future, there will be an onus on the GDA's seven local authorities to ensure that their development plans are consistent with the DTA's transport strategy. The Dublin and Mid-East regional authorities, though largely powerless, will also be required to include a statement in their regional planning guidelines "explaining how there will be effective integration of transport and land use planning", the memorandum says.

Furthermore, the 2000 Planning Act is being amended to give the Minister for the Environment power to direct any of the GDA's local authorities to review or vary their draft development plan to ensure that its objectives are consistent with the DTA's transport strategy.

Another amendment to the Planning Act will make it easier for the local authorities to refuse planning permission for any development that would be inconsistent with the transport strategy, because they wouldn't risk having to pay compensation to disappointed developers.

The Irish Times

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