Sunday 14 August 2011

Metro North and Dart Underground 'deferred'

METRO NORTH and Dart Underground are to be dropped by the Government next month following a comprehensive review by Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar of “big ticket” transport projects.

According to well-placed sources, the two schemes will be “deferred” indefinitely on the basis that neither can be funded in the current climate, even under public-private partnership (PPP) arrangements.

Even though construction costs are considerably lower than they were during the boom and estimates for Metro North were a closely guarded secret, it is believed the scheme would cost at least €3 billion.

Given that Dart Underground – billed as the “missing link” that would transform Dublin’s disparate suburban rail services into a network – was likely to cost €2 billion, the combined total would be €5 billion-plus.

For political reasons, the term “deferred” will be used, rather than “abandoned” or “cancelled”, with Mr Varadkar holding out hope that both could be built when economic conditions improve.

CIÉ’s proposal for a rail spur to Dublin airport from the Dart line at Clongriffin in north Dublin is also widely seen as a non-runner. “It’s a daft idea and the cost would be enormous,” one source said.

But the Railway Procurement Agency (RPA) is optimistic that the Government will go ahead with plans for a city centre link between the existing Luas lines, with a spur to Broombridge on the Maynooth line.

The link, known as Luas Line BXD, has already been the subject of an oral hearing by An Bord Pleanála and the board’s approval for a railway order to facilitate its construction could be issued as early as next month.

It would run from St Stephen’s Green via Dawson Street, Nassau Street, lower Grafton Street, College Green, Westmoreland Street, O’Connell Street and then on to Broombridge on a currently disused rail line.

The line would be split in the city centre, with southbound trams running via Marlborough Street across a new bridge to Hawkins Street and College Street before rejoining the main route in College Green.

“If there are no further cutbacks, BXD would fit within the reduced capital spending envelope for transport projects, primarily because of its affordability,” an RPA source told The Irish Times yesterday.

“The Government is keen to stimulate the engineering sector and BXD could be done from its own resources. But the bigger capital projects [Metro North and Dart Underground] will have to be deferred,” he said.

Another source said PPP projects for the metro and Dart schemes would involve “crazy money” to service the debt. Interest rates would be “prohibitive”, especially with the financial markets in turmoil now.

This is recognised by the final two bidders for the Metro North PPP, the Celtic Metro Group, which includes Mitsui and Barclays Private Equity, and Metro Express, which includes Bombardier and Macquarie.

RPA chief executive Frank Allen, whose term of office was due to end this month, has had his contract extended for a further year, pending the agency’s proposed merger with the National Roads Authority.

The RPA has spent nearly €200 million on preparatory work for Metro North, which would run from St Stephen’s Green to Swords, via Dublin airport. The project was finally approved by An Bord Pleanála last October.

Irish Times

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