Investment in rail in Ireland is a bit more complicated than nostalgic maps

Comment & Analysis / Beyond Cycling: Most people seem to have heard about the Dutch Tulip Mania. The problem is that researchers now think that what we know is largely fictional or at best exaggerated. There’s no evidence that people went bankrupt because of the tulip mania or that people drowned themselves in the canals over it or even that the Dutch economy was affected.

But how did the myths catch on? In a 2018 BBC article, it’s outlined how the 17th-century Tulip Mania myths were popularised retrospectively by the 19th-century writer Charles Mackay, who “loved a juicy story” and is “not taken seriously as a historian”.

The BBC reported: “Ironically, Mackay himself was caught up in a bone-fide financial mania: the British railway bubble of the 1840s, which some scholars regard as the biggest technology bubble in history, followed by one of the biggest financial crashes.”

IMAGE: Nostalgy is powerful. Looking out the window of a modern intercity railcar to a push-pull train carriage.

A 2012 paper from Andrew Odlyzko at the School of Mathematics in the University of Minnesota said: “This paper argues that Mackay’s sins of commission were dwarfed by his sins of omission. He lived through several giant investment manias in Britain, yet he did not discuss them in his books. An investigation of Mackay’s newspaper writings shows that he was one of the most ardent cheerleaders for the Railway Mania, the greatest and most destructive of these episodes of extreme investor exuberance.”

Unlike the Tulip Mania, the 1840s Railway Mania which Mackay was involved in promoting was deeply destructive — resulting in actual bankruptcy, suicides and imprisonment of people caught up in what would today be seen as a mass scam.

Writing in 2019, Dr James Moore, Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Leicester argues Light Railways Act of 1896 stimulated a new “railway mania”. The transposition of that law into Ireland, not the original mania, kickstarted many of our historic train lines.

The Railway Mania might not have hit Ireland as hard but some observers say that our historic railway network was born out of if not it, a later rail mania.

It’s worth stressing: Just as in the UK, most of the railways built were solid projects and, like Ireland, their problem is we haven’t invested enough in rail since. Although some of the lines built and others planned were very close to what could be seen as fantasy projects, I defelly not saying the whole rail network was just the result of a mania.

Trains — and more so electric trains — and trams are the most environmentally sound vehicles after bicycles. Like the humble bicycle and also the electric version, the benefits are claimed to be taken as a given, but it’s really not the case. The benefits of sustainable transport are often undermined and misunderstood in general media discourse.

It’s unclear what the current figure is, but over two decades ago the Irish car sales industry was spending nearly €30 million on advertising alone, which excluded sponsorship and marketing. We’re bombarded with messages about how buying new cars will improve our lives.

So, I feel the need to say: The efficiency of a vehicle travelling on a rail is many times greater than a car, bus or truck on fat tires; trains have a life span of decades and refits are possible after that, and trains can have a direct connection with the grid, meaning the need for batteries should be reserved for little used lines.

But the focus is often on the wrong thing or, more so, there’s not enough focus on rail investment.

Last year I wrote how as both a cycling and rail nerd, debates on railways vs greenways do my head in. The local and national media discourse on railways in Ireland is also driven far too much by what will always be marginal lines in overall passenger terms. Some or even most of these lines are worth talking about, but it’s their dominance of the discussion that’s the issue.

The media likes pitting sustainable transport projects against each other.

Meanwhile, talking about double tracking lines is just a footnote or passing remark for the media and beyond. Advocates of reopening lines talk about the potential network effect of those lines when they rarely mention the need to fix bottlenecks on the current network which constrain service expansion and hugely affect reliability.

For example, the line serving Galway and Mayo is just a single-track line east of Athlone before it meets the Cork-Dublin mainline at Portarlington. Reliability is already affected and there’s little scope to increase the numbers of trains per hour, this blocks passenger and freight expansion.

Funding was seen as a no-brainer for widening the M7 into Dublin, it was claimed it would save people a huge amount of time and the media lapped that lie up despite it being proven wrong again and again in Ireland and around the world.

Meanwhile, Naas, Newbridge and Kildare have a combined 60,000+ people along along a distance of 20km on the Cork-Dublin main line, but the four-track railway ‘Kildare Route Project’ stops 20km short of this at Hazelhatch and Celbridge.

It’s actually depressing that the four tracks out to Hazelhatch were built in 2009, for Dart expansion, but there’s been little or no media pressure in making it usable anywhere near its potential.

Even if double or four tracks can be somewhat brushed away as a nerdy detail, the fact that Dart carriages are falling apart and that the third and fourth phases of Dart+ have been delayed is hardly that. But near radio silence from the national media on that too.

Large rail projects like Dart+and MetroLink — both of which have solid transport planning and economic grounds to be built decades ago — are treated with disdain by much of the media.

A possible peak for this group think was Frank McDonald, a former Environment Editor of The Irish Times, recently making the incoherent claim that MetroLink “won’t integrate”, and will “lay waste to chunks” of Dublin City Centre. His claims are clearly not true.

We’ve also had to challenge similar non-factual views on cycling from another Irish Times writer, John FitzGerald, whose views on cycling don’t align with facts or good transport planning.

The nostalgic images shared on social media of what could be described as Ireland’s former railways mainly built to transport cattle, troops and beach-goes don’t help the debate on railways.

There’s many projects needed, including electrification of the national network will cost more than a billion euro, but rail is to play a key part in decarbonising longer-distance trips it needs to be electrified. It will also make rail cheaper to run, and allow for the faster acceleration of trains.

No serious look at the climate and wider environmental impacts of batteries will come to the conclusion that putting batteries on trains is the way forward even for the medium term where there is a viable alternative. And, if electrification is to happen, it needs a plan for that now. Again, trains last decades, so, need to know if any new trains from here out will be easily converted to full electric running.

That doesn’t mean the Government must start the buildout of wires before much-needed urban and suburban rail projects.

But, while it’s understandable that electrification of the national rail network hasn’t gripped the attention of the media, that’s far less the case for parts of projects like Dart+ which is going ahead using hybrid battery electric trains.

I’ll know the Government is starting to get serious about rail as part of decarbonising transport in Ireland when I hear announcements about what are boring things for most people — such as double tracking and electrification of the current national network. But we’ve also already been to a stage where both Metro North and Dart Underground had planning permission but were never built, so a real sign of progress will be shovel in the ground.

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