Be prepared for a quarter of St Stephen’s Green to be dug up and turned into a huge hole in the ground if the government goes ahead with its revised plan for a “metro” line to Dublin Airport and Swords.
Metro North, shelved in 2011 for lack of funds, is now back on track, instead of the much more strategically important DART Underground, largely because so much money has already been spent on the project – €170 million, according to Minister for Transport Paschal Donohoe.
With €40 million spent on DART Undergound – an interconnector that would integrate all suburban rail services – Donohoe seems to have concluded that he could leave it on the shelf, while ensuring that the much bigger sum invested in Metro North would not be wasted.
There was some irony in the government’s choice of Heuston Station as venue for the launch of its capital plan, given that ministers had already decided that DART Underground – Iarnród Éireann’s most ambitious investment project – would not now be going ahead.
Although Heuston and Connolly stations are linked by the Luas Red Line, the real value of DART Underground is that it would bypass the Loop Line bottleneck and provide a high-capacity route running via Christ Church, St Stephen’s Green and Pearse Station to Spencer Dock.
The minister told the Irish Times that much of the money already spent on designing, planning and carrying out preparatory works for Metro North “will be used again to enable and support the design works that will take place” in advancing the latest version of it.
Metro North Mark II would have fewer stops/stations, its trains (Luas-style trams, in effect) and platforms would be shorter than originally planned, and there would be no undergrounding in Ballymun – reducing the tunneled length of the 17km line from 10km to 8.5km.
Metro North Mark I had already been subject to a “value-engineering” exercise to reduce its cost from the original estimate of €4.58 billion – a figure that had been blacked out of a Railway Procurement Agency report, but could still be read. Now, it’s to have even fewer “frills”.
What Dublin would be getting for the €2.4 billion Metro North Mark II is estimated to cost is a line that would serve the airport and the still-developing Swords area. It would link up with the Luas Green Line in St Stephen’s Green and the Maynooth line at Drumcondra.
Excavations for an underground station would mean digging up the northwestern quadrant of the green, with the loss of trees, pathways and part of the lake, as well as the removal of a number of monuments. At one stage, even the Fusiliers’ Arch was to be taken down.
Building an underground station at O’Connell Bridge for Metro North Mark I would have required dismantling the O’Connell monument, but that threat has been lifted. If the Mark II metro station is to be created in Upper O’Connell Street, the Parnell monument may have to go.
A Mark I metro station at Parnell Square, which would have served the “cultural cluster” of the Hugh Lane gallery, the Dublin Writers’ Museum and the proposed city library at Coláiste Mhuire, is not part of the Mark II plan; instead, the next stop after O’Connell Street would be the Mater.
An estimated €20 million was spent installing a station box beneath the new adult hospital block, so at least this “stranded asset” would be brought into use. But the biggest saving would be to run the line at surface level, rather than underground, through Ballymun.
Altogether, the savings amount to €1 billion compared to the estimated cost of Metro North Mark II, according to Donohue. But since it’s following the same route as the Mark I version, it is inexplicable that the six-year construction programme won’t even start until 2021.
Politicians will deny it, but there can be no doubt that there is a political element in the government’s decision to opt for Metro North rather than Dart Underground, and its pledge to electrify the railway line as far as Balbriggan. That’s all about winning votes in Fingal.
As the Irish Times editorialised, “if the French had dithered like we do over major investments in public transport, they would not now be enjoying the benefits of TGV high-speed trains, the RER commuter rail network in Paris and sleek light rail systems” in many of their cities.
The problem is that the timetable for building major public-transport projects doesn’t square with the short-termist calculations of Irish politicians from one general election to the next. Indeed, there is no guarantee that the next government won’t change its mind on the priorities.