Everybody is a “rail fan”, but John FitzGerald deserves sharper criticism than Michael McDowell

— 1970s traffic engineers also said that motorways were good for public transport.

Comment & Analysis: Michael McDowell has what can only be described as a stone-mad article in today’s Irish Times against proposals to expand Ireland’s railways, but the enabling article in the same newspaper by John FitzGerald last week deserves far sharper criticism.

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As reported recently, the draft All-Island Strategic Rail Review would cost €36.8 billion to implement and it long-fingers much of the promised new infrastructure works until after 2030, with unclear timelines for most of the planned changes.

It lacks ambition on delivery and also regarding a lot of the proposals — we’re told we are in a climate emergency now but the proposals include a post-2040 network where half the tracks are not electric and there are still sections of the Galway to Dublin line with single track.

“The rail strategy has a small number of projects that upgrade some existing track and infrastructure, at moderate cost. Those pay their way and are justified,” FitzGerald writes as if we should be so lucky if these projects were delivered within the timeframe of the project. The reality is much of the projects that upgrade existing routes could be carried out quickly and are the perfect thing to use some of the surplus corporate tax that the Government has. But McDowell and FitzGerald do their part in trying to kill off any ambition or vision.

McDowell’s article is not just daft but it’s without any substance — in summary: he says he’s a “rail fan” but then spends the rest of the article directly or indirectly arguing against rail investment. He even wrote “It always saddens me to see abandoned railway infrastructure, even when it is repurposed as greenways” but then argues against the proposal without really going into any detail as to why except to say we also need roads. He also pits two much-needed projects against each other.

McDowell adds in a few truisms and stirs it up with some shadow boxing — nobody “is forgetting about the national road network”. Saying most new investment should be focused on sustainable transport is not forgetting about roads.

He wants a balance, he tells readers. A balance sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? When McDowell was in Cabinet nearly all of the balance was tipped towards motorways. That’s partly why the collective action of successive Governments needs correcting now.

Near the end of his article, he cannot help himself and adds in “And these considerations lead us to asking whether our transport plans have been hijacked by a new anti-mobility agenda.” Translation: Sustainable transport is a woke conspiracy.

But John FitzGerald’s article last week is worse than all of McDowell wrote and is the linchpin that opens up McDowell’s ranting — “I was heartened when John FitzGerald, a self-confessed railways fan, wrote in his column that the recently published strategy for the development of rail services across the island of Ireland lacked a serious cost/benefit basis for many of the projects envisaged.”

FitzGerald’s article differs a bit from McDowell’s — FitzGerald is more careful in having a mask of respectability about these issues. FitzGerald is on the better scale of high-profile economists, but I’m not sure if that’s saying much.

If you can sum up McDowell’s argument as “I’m a rail fan, but we need more roads”, FitzGerald’s argument can be distilled to “I’m a rail fan, but buses can use motorways anyway and, sure, cars will soon be all-electric anyway”.

IMAGE: The image from the draft All-Island Strategic Rail Review showing the rail network proposed for post-2040. See the map ‘explainer ‘key’ in the image — as an overview: Red tracks are to be electrified, while green tracks are not to be, and the thickness shows double or single track, and darker colours show new lines.

FitzGerald on the one hand argues that “The rail plan avoids the wider issue about the sustainability of dispersed development” but then goes on to claim that by 2040 “we expect that our electricity system will have been almost fully decarbonised and that most road transport will be using clean electricity. From a climate perspective, it won’t matter by then whether people travel by road or by rail.”

FitzGerald was at this nonsense when he was chair of the Climate Change Advisory Council — the climate impact of cars includes the dispersed development that mass car use promotes, land use, road building, road maintenance, the manufacture of cars, the manufacture of replacement batteries, etc. If only the only climate impact of cars was the tailpipe emissions.

He also wrote: “The strategic rail review shows that to substantially increase the speed on the line between Belfast and Dublin we would need a new tunnel under Dublin. That’s in addition to the delayed plans for a metro tunnel and for the Dart underground. Given it is exceptionally expensive to dig tunnels, it is not surprising that, unfortunately, the economics of reducing the journey time between Dublin and Belfast with a new tunnel don’t stack up.”

This is the same kind of thinking that has the High Speed 2 project being watered down while it is already under construction. Nobody builds a new railway for speed alone — not a metro, not a suburban train, not an intercity line and not even a high-speed line. The key investment reason is capacity. Speed is secondary. This is clearly misunderstood about High Speed 2 and also commonly misunderstood about Dublin’s MetroLink project.

On speed, none of these projects stack up. The media generally, newspaper columnists and economists all get caught up in focusing on speed. Any rail expert will tell you about capacity.

FitzGerald wraps up by outlining how the focus should be on delivering Dublin public transport projects with a mention of our other major cities too.

FitzGerald wraps up by outlining how the focus should be on delivering Dublin public transport projects with a mention of our other major cities too. He implies this will go some way to “halt the spread of suburbia further and further across rural Ireland”, yet, he has been one of the strongest promoters of electric cars as a solution ahead of intercity and regional rail.

That just doesn’t add up. To borrow a word from him, it’s fantasy.

While researching for this article I re-read my 2020 article about other views FitzGerald has propagated about transport. He went to Amsterdam then came back and told Prime Time he mainly noticed the electric cars, not the city’s mass number of bicycles or public transport. He’s a (former?) cyclist who’s dismissive of the potential of cycling in Dublin and now he’s also a “train enthusiast” who’s arguing against rail proposals in a climate crisis.

The problem with McDowell’s article is that it’s all surface level, there’s no sign of him really thinking about the issues at stake in any meaningful way (we need more roads!). The problem with FitzGerald is the opposite — there are signs of deep thinking about critical issues, but his conclusions have scant regard for good planning generally, transport planning or climate action.

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2 comments

  1. Would love to see the rail review finished in my lifetime but we all know changes in ministers every 5 years will mean most will be watered down to non existence. Look at what happened when the malahide induct collapsed the alternative route could have been used if the last couple of km was joined m3 parkway to navan but the former transport ministers wouldn’t allow the original proposal of extending m3 to navan so hence why I worry how many of these lines will happen

    Reply
  2. Those two articles really irritated me when I read them last week. It’s more of the ‘do nothing’ or ‘do something else’ attitude that often greets proposals to address a problem in this country. We hear it a lot whether it’s to do with sports facilities, greenways, wind turbines or public transport. Even right down to local level there are always people on committies that seem to thrive on being more against an idea than having any positive initiatives themselves.

    We really can’t afford to let these people influence things anymore. The timelines and estimates of the report may be lacking but at least it’s a plan to begin addressing the problem.

    Reply

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