Capital Investment Plan – less to it than meets the eye

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The Irish Government’s Capital Investment Plan announced yesterday (29th September 2015) has been largely welcomed in the Irish news media. We have seen exciting maps of the proposed Metro North line to Dublin Airport and Swords, lots of discussion about jobs generated by the plan and a general sense that at last, something is being done about the nation’s massive infrastructural deficit.

Or is something actually being done?

Those of us with longer memories of similar announcements by past governments can allow ourselves to be somewhat cynical and maybe even predict much of what is being proposed may not actually come to pass. We have, after all, been here before.

Remember “Dempsey delivers”? Former Fianna Fáil Minister of Transport Noel Dempsey launched “Phase 1” of the Dublin-Navan railway line with some flourish at a similar event many years ago. Since then, the Clonsilla-M3 Parkway branch has remained cut off from its intended destination and the new plan announced yesterday makes no mention of any Phase 2 to finish the job and get Navan a long awaited passenger service. Of course when the present government came to power in 2011 Phase 2 of the Navan line was “deferred” and may now never see the light of day. You can be guaranteed in Irish political life of two things; first, no infrastructural project has ever gone beyond Phase 1, and secondly, if a project is described as being “deferred” it is in fact cancelled.

And this is the reason why the Metro North proposals outlined yesterday may not happen. Not only have the Fine Gael-Labour coalition kicked the proverbial can down the road to beyond the life of the present government, they have kicked the can down the road to the government after the next.

It doesn’t take a clairvoyant to predict that any incoming government will review the Capital Investment plan and make changes. After all, following every single change of government in the history of the State each incoming government rips up or at least significantly changes the previous governments plans. The Capital Investment Plan will be no different. Even if Fine Gael emerge from the upcoming election as the largest party in the Dáil, their junior coalition partners may well be different as the Labour Party are likely to lose a significant number of seats. Fianna Fáil, the Social Democrats and Sinn Féin have all come out with strong criticisms of the plan. While Sinn Féin are almost certainly not going to be in coalition with Fine Gael after the election, Fianna Fáil, the Social Democrats and the Renua Party could well be. The plan as it stands at present will almost certainly be changed.

Where the plan is weakest is regarding Heavy Rail. It is ironic that the Government chose to launch the plan at Heuston Station when Irish Rail are clearly the losers in the plan as it stands. Although the plan provides for necessary funds to finish the City Centre Resignalling Project and a dedicated new home for Central Traffic Control, the only real commitment to Heavy Rail is to electrify the Northern line from Malahide to Balbriggan to extend the Dart. The only commitment the plan makes to further Dart expansion is to fund the planning stage of the Phoenix Park tunnel-Hazelhatch and Connolly-Maynooth electrification projects. There is absolutely no mention of extending to Dublin Airport, even though this is a far lower cost proposal than the Metro North plan and would bring with it a significant Benefit-Cost ratio. A commitment to conducting a feasibility study into expansion of rail freight is good news and brings new hope to those campaigning for expanded freight services on the Foynes-Limerick line and the Athenry-Claremorris line. It would seem that these lines are therefore safe and protected from any further attempts to rip the lines up for an unnecessary and wasteful greenway.

The abrupt cancellation of Dart Underground may well come back to haunt Fine Gael. What is now needed is for a review of the plan when the next government comes to office and for that government to make a clear decision to properly integrate the nation’s transport infrastructure. We need Dart Underground and a Heavy Rail connection to Dublin Airport because the rail network will never operate at its most efficient while it remains fragmented and Dublin Airport urgently needs a national rail connection, not just a local Dublin rail connection. We need a new deal on rail freight and maybe, just maybe, we could have new thinking about providing the backbone infrastructure to develop the West of Ireland for business and tourism and not have it languishing as a forgotten hinterland waiting for handouts from the occasional tourist.

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