Sunday 30 May 2010

It's simpler and cheaper to just join the dots

Dublin has the unique distinction of being the only city to have two free-standing light rail lines that don’t link up.

THE PEOPLE of Nantes must have been thrilled in 2004 when Time magazine described it as “the most livable city in all of Europe”. And one of the main reasons was that it has a first-class public transport system, something Dublin doesn’t have and is unlikely to get any time soon.

France’s sixth largest city, Nantes is as bourgeois as Bordeaux, with a fine legacy of historic buildings – notably the chateau of the dukes of Brittany. But it’s hardly the Breton city claimed by Cllr Louisette Guibert at a two-day colloquium on Ireland’s landscapes, organised by the Société Française des Etudes Irlandaises.

There was a ripple of laughter among the French participants over that notion – and another ripple when I told them that Dublin had the unique distinction of being the only city in the world to build two free-standing light rail lines that still don’t connect, six years later. They simply couldn’t believe that anyone could be so stupid.

In Nantes, everything is connected – in a metropolitan area with a population of 600,000. The city claims to be the first in the world to have organised an omnibus service – as early as 1826 – and its example was followed by Paris, London and New York. Nantes also began operating tramways in 1879, although these were all closed in 1958.

That mistake was rectified in 1985 when it became the first city in France to reintroduce light rail transit, or “new generation” tramways, followed by Grenoble (1987), Paris (1992), Strasbourg and Rouen (1994), Lyon, Montpellier and Orléans (2000), Bordeaux (2003), Mulhouse and Valenciennes (2006), and Le Mans and Nice (2007).

It was largely the success and sleek lines of the new Nantes and Grenoble tramways – as well as the clunkier Manchester Metrolink, inaugurated in 1992 – that inspired the adoption of light rail in Dublin, giving us the Luas. Dithering by the government delayed and compromised the original plan, which took nearly 12 years to deliver.

Compare that to Bordeaux. Two years after Alain Juppé’s election as the city’s mayor in 1995, plans for a tramway network were adopted, and by Christmas of 2003 – just six years later – the trams started running on three lines. Further extensions came into service in 2005, 2007 and 2008, giving Bordeaux an overall network of 44km.

I have written before about the remarkably civilising effect this entirely street-running tramway has had on the city, allowing most of its historic core (designated by Unesco as a World Heritage Site in 2007) to be transformed into a wonderfully liberating and enormously attractive pedestrian zone. Truly, Bordeaux is a sight to be seen.

It has even pipped Nantes for the honour of having the longest tramway network of any city in France. The one-time capital of Brittany, whose wealth in the 18th century was built on the slave trade, has three modern tramlines with an overall length of just over 41km. If the city’s dedicated Busway is included, however, this rises to 48km.

The Busway – it has even been trademarked by the Nantes area transport company, Tan – effectively operates as Line 4 of the tramway network. Introduced in 2006, it provides a fast route for articulated buses every four minutes at peak times (six minutes, off-peak) between the city centre and the outer ring road, to the south.

Unlike Dublin’s quality bus corridors (QBCs), the Nantes Busway runs on its own reservation in the middle of the road and has tramway-style stations rather than mere bus stops – all of which show the time the next bus is due. Tickets (€1.50 for any journey, valid for an hour) are also transferable between buses and trams, and all the lines link up.

The network operated by Tan includes the Busway and three tram lines as well as numerous bus routes (one has Bobby Sands as its destination), an express bus service to Nantes Atlantique Airport, three navibus lines on the river Loire and four suburban rail lines, which are operated by SNCF, the French national railway company.

Trams and buses run until 1am on weekdays and until 3am at weekends, to cater for late-night revellers. But the real value of having an extensive tramway network is shown by the fact that 63.5 million journeys were made on it in 2007, compared to 28.4 million on the two Luas lines in Dublin, even though Nantes has only half the population.

Almost nothing in Dublin is integrated: not the two Luas lines, nor the Dart and other suburban rail services, nor even the bus services (such as they are). Yet now the State is planning to add another disparate element, Metro North, to a non-existent network, and at vast expense, probably €5 billion, or €277 million per kilometre.

An Bord Pleanála has held 37 days of hearings on this project by the Railway Procurement Agency, which is intended to link Swords with St Stephen’s Green, serving Dublin airport along the way. It is being considered under the Strategic Infrastructure Act, and the board has now set itself an objective of making its decision by July 20th.

In these financially straitened times, the Government needs to consider what the country can afford. Despite the recent pledge by the European Investment Bank of a €500 million loan for Metro North, even the Greens should baulk at its cost and opt instead for much more affordable alternatives such as linking up the two Luas lines in the city centre, more street-running light rail and/or Nantes-style busways.

Irish Times

No comments: