Comment & Analysis / Long-read: How can the media be so unaware of its role in delaying and increasing the cost of sustainable and public transport projects?
Yesterday in The Irish Times Cliff Taylor wrote an article titled “It takes 10 years to build a road in Ireland, 20 for a rail line, 30 for a MetroLink. What are we doing wrong?”
I’m writing this directly to Cliff Taylor: You are part of the problem.
For those who don’t know: Taylor isn’t just a columnist, he is the managing editor of The Irish Times, and was editor of The Sunday Business Post between 2004 and 2014, when the newspaper took what could easily be called an anti-metro/rail slant to their coverage.
“Perhaps someone knows the projected costs and benefits of the Dublin MetroLink, now that the cost has shot up and can still show it makes sense?” Taylor wrote yesterday.
Whatever about costs, Taylor is still — in 2023 — questioning the benefits of a metro line in Dublin. This should be seen as nothing short of stunning given that there are so many cities, with overall similar density to Dublin, who are still adding metro lines to their networks.
Taylor refers to Danish professor and mega project consultant Bent Flyvbjerg — and he’s a good person to reference when talking about delays and how to get projects back on track. From my reading, Flyvbjerg isn’t the best on benefits.
In a 2021 Medium article, Flyvbjerg wrote: “An economic and financial ex-post evaluation of the Channel tunnel, which systematically compared actual with forecasted costs and benefits, concluded that ‘the British Economy would have been better off had the Tunnel never been constructed’.”
But in a 2019 article published in the Journal of Mega Infrastructure & Sustainable Development, Hugh Goldsmith and Patrick Boeuf of the European Investment Bank argue how that evaluation of the Channel Tunnel is wrong. They argue that while there were problems with the private financing of the tunnel, the project should be seen as an ongoing endeavour which has been a great success.
Taylor, looking at Flyvbjerg’s work as a checklist, wrote “check” after each without any examples why they apply rather than why they sound like they might. Let’s evaluate MetroLink under the checklist.
“Big projects chosen at least in part for political kudos” — Nope. You could argue the Metro North, the predecessor of MetroLink was routed via Drumcondra because of one famous resident and then leader of the country, Bertie Ahern. But the same isn’t true of MetroLink. The project overall is transport-planning-led, has been in transport plans for decades, and has been diverted from Drumcondra to more-or-less the originally proposed route for some type of high-capacity line.
If you value our journalism, please subscribe today.
Serving lands primed for high-density development and areas built with the promise of better transport, and now with an interchange with Dart+ lines and buses at Harts Corner in Glasnevin; with the Luas and Dart at locations in the city centre, with buses and coaches at the airport, MetroLink ticks most high-level transport planning boxes. All the more astonishing that in another recent Irish Times article, Frank McDonald, a former Environment Editor of the newspaper, claimed that MetroLink was not integrated.
“Poor initial scoping of the projects and unrealistic costing” — if there’s something wrong with the initial scoping of the project after all of the time spent on Metro North and MetroLink, people like Taylor need to come forward and tell the world what that is. The level of pre-planning and planning scrutiny has been immense. The cost is another issue — the lack of clarity around that is an issue.
For both “Largely ignoring the risks…“ and regarding stopping things from going wrong, the MetroLink project team are already looking at these issues proactively. Transport Infrastructure Ireland, the agency planning MetroLink, is already collaborating with Professor Flyvbjerg and Dr Alexander Budzier on these issues.
And, finally, but maybe most importantly: “Unrealistic assessments of the net benefits” — nope. The benefits of not just metro lines but metro networks in cities like Dublin have been well-established. It’s quite outrageous to claim otherwise without at least presenting your case against it… except from some weird perspective which puts “wider benefits” in quotation marks.
The benefit is basically getting a whole new transport corridor which is fully electric and high capacity that allows for greater mobility and densification in an environmentally sound way. Linking to Dart+ and Luas gives network effect gains too.
In a 2018 article for The Irish Times, Taylor wrote that “I’ve been Metrosceptical for a long time”, but he added: “I’m willing to be persuaded it is the right thing to do, in some shape anyway.” A proposition that feels a lot like a devout Catholic or atheist saying they are all ears.
Sustainable transport is basically my journalist beat — I’m not a transport professional or academic but I have some expertise in the field from such a focus on the area. People can often disagree on approaches or with different elements, and that’s ok. But the problem is when people talk about well-established or highly studied things as if nobody else had thought of them.
So, for the following, I nearly feel like I’m picking on Taylor unfairly. Just to stress: His thinking on this is very common among people in media and economic circles.
In his 2018 article, he wrote: “High-density development is central to the Metro and indeed to the wider benefits of the investment programme. Otherwise, less expensive alternatives, for example putting the link above ground, should surely be considered. Or not building a separate underground link from Charlemont on the southside underground and alongside an existing Luas route. Or even – whisper it – upgrading the bus network.”
In transport and planning terms, the above shows a lack of understanding of metro projects generally and the history of this project. Unlike Taylor — I’m going to support my reason for saying that.
Putting more of MetroNorth above ground in Glasnevin and Ballymun was considered and residents, politicians and the media had a field day, so that idea was parked. Putting much more of a metro route overground in the city centre or around the airport is a non-runner. A metro cannot run at grade in such environments and an elevated line would not be tolerated.
Regarding the link to Charlemont, once you have the tunnel boring machine in the ground, the extra distance is not that great. There are questions if using the Luas line is be the best idea. Of if it’s an idea from transport agencies stuck in a poverty mindset who feel they aren’t even allowed to whisper the concept of another route, with a longer tunnel, being more expensive but worth it.
But the worst part of that paragraph is “Or even – whisper it – upgrading the bus network.” I mean, come on.
The suggestion that a metro line can be replaced with buses is just not tenable in Dublin with high wages (fewer passengers per driver vs no drivers on MetroLink) and a road network which cannot support higher-level Bus Rapid Transit. It feels that despite writing about the subject more than a few times now Taylor hasn’t done basic research.
That’s a disservice to readers and public awareness for the same old issue to be repeated again and again when the answers are freely available if journalists read the documents, look at the extensive research or just talk to transport planners or academics rather than people from the Doheny & Nesbitt School of Economics or whatever is the post-Covid equivalent.
Often large-scale projects can be accused of not examining alternatives, but that’s just not the case for MetroLink. The Fingal/North Dublin Transport Study (2015) — is freely available online and referenced by MetroLink documents — and goes over all the realistic options.
So, that brings me back to my original question: How can the media be so unaware of its role in delaying and increasing the cost of public transport projects? IrishCycle.com recently reported how the Irish Rail chairperson used the company’s annual report to hit out at bureaucracy delaying the approval of rail projects and new trains.
It is quite something for a chairperson of Irish Rail to be making the statements he did in a dry document like an annual report — there was some damage control attempt to claim he was only referring to the planning system but he clearly wasn’t. Criticism of the planning system alone doesn’t tally with what he said. No other media outlet has covered the issue.
On mega projects, Flyvbjerg outlines: “Nine out of ten such projects have cost overruns. Overruns of up to 50% in real terms are common, over 50% not uncommon.” While people like Flyvbjerg should be hired to control this, the truth is that people with Taylor’s mindsets would never approve of large projects. Needless pontification delays projects. Any delay to a large-scale project is a huge cost issue.
But the problem isn’t that simple. The Irish media has cheerleaded large-scale road development in both unquestioning reporting and comment articles, but cover walking, cycling, bus and rail projects as if they are a threat to humanity, often parroting the daftest claims. This shapes the public and political realities. RTÉ aren’t the only ones who need to reexamine their outlook on these issues.