Investment in railways has potential to help get climate targets on track

This article appeared in the Irish Times on the 26th of October 2023.

We don’t often associate the island of Ireland with world-beating public transport technologies. However, we can boast of some important milestones in the development of railways.

The Dún Laoghaire and Kingstown railway, which opened in 1834 and later became the Great Southern Railway before being incorporated into CIÉ in 1945, was the world’s first commuter railway. Besides being Ireland’s first passenger railway, it claimed the first use of a passenger tank engine; and was the first railway company to build its own locomotives. It also operated an “atmospheric railway” for 10 years until 1845 that used differential air pressure to provide power to propel the carriages between Kingstown and Dalkey.

It is hard to imagine now, but in the 19th century, railways criss-crossed the southwest and northwest of Ireland with hundreds of kilometres of track. At its peak in the early 20th century, almost every town in Ireland was served by rail with a maximum of 4,200km of track in the 1920s.

Iarnród Éireann now operates just 1,944km and Northern Ireland Railways another 357km. The high cost of coal during the second World War, alongside the decision by the government of Northern Ireland to unilaterally close most of their lines in 1957, meant that the cross-Border railways linking Belfast, Derry, Letterkenny, Monaghan and Castleblayney all became uneconomic and were closed. Today, the island of Ireland’s rail network is centred on Dublin and, to a lesser extent, Belfast.

These closures have left a gaping hole in the island’s rail network, with large areas between the northwest and the midlands untouched by railways, and no rail service at all to large towns such as Letterkenny and Monaghan.

For regular rail users, services are expensive and infrequent. The fact that timetables are not integrated makes connections awkward and journeys unnecessarily long. If brought back into use, the western rail corridor or the south Wexford line would transform connectivity in those regions: at the moment, it would take six hours to get from Wexford to Waterford by train (and you’d have to go to Dublin first) whereas a car journey takes just an hour.

Yet the thing about railway infrastructure, like many other large investments that take years if not decades to plan and build, is that it requires bold and far-sighted policy. Wavering public support and a political system that seeks short-term electoral rewards means that projects with years of design work behind them get mothballed easily (such as the Dart underground project) in favour of public expenditure on roads and road improvements that can be delivered within an electoral cycle.

It is no surprise then that Ireland is one of the few countries in Europe to have no rail connection to any of its airports, and extremely limited use of rail freight with no rail freight services at all at Rosslare Europort – which is actually owned by Iarnród Éireann.

Decades of short-sighted decision-making means that Ireland and Northern Ireland are now facing significant barriers to the decarbonisation of transport because, quite simply, rail is the most carbon-efficient way to move people and goods around, and we just don’t have enough of it. According to Arup, the carbon footprint of a passenger rail journey could be as much as 80 per cent lower than an equivalent journey by an electric vehicle.

Because of the way that transport infrastructure shapes where development ends up taking place, we need to see the investment in new routes and more frequent services as an opportunity to prioritise transit oriented development over roads, which inevitably stimulate car-based development patterns and the higher energy use that entails.

As the draft All-Ireland Strategic Rail Review – published in August this year – notes, when planning the future of rail on the island of Ireland we need to be thinking far into the future, and be thinking about what type of transportation system and settlement patterns we want to end up with, not just in 2050 but in 2100 and 2200.

It is encouraging to read that the draft strategy published in August proposes a raft of improvements including new lines and track upgrades to the railway network so that 700,000 more people would be able to live in a railway station catchment, with faster journey times and more frequent services. The report estimates that there would be a €20 billion boost to the island’s economy and that two-thirds of the island’s freight could be served by rail, which in turn would remove thousands of polluting heavy goods vehicles from our roads and urban areas.

As the backbone of a sustainable transport system, rail can support a growing and ageing population, enable housing growth and development, mitigate congestion in cities and deliver more equitable outcomes for all regions of the island. The cost of implementing these recommendations is an eye-watering €32 billion. However, the cost of inaction is more congestion, sprawl, air pollution, rural isolation and transport poverty. I know what I would choose.

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