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Brian Hanson

Frank McDonald maybe naive about railways but compared to Kevin Myers…

An Irishman’s Diary

What is the charm of the long-distance train? Why are societies in thrall to it everywhere? It is an incompetent, obsolete, inflexible and unbelievably expensive way of transporting people between cities, asks Kevin Myers.

Yet everywhere, the train bewitches governments into subsidising its gargantuan follies and its monumental ineptitudes.
Trains made sense before the invention of the tarmacadamed road, before the internal combustion engine, before the light diesel engine, before the pneumatic tyre. But what is the sense in having cities connected by a railway service that at best runs every two hours or so, and which is utterly inflexible?

Consider the cost of the railway. In terms of land used, it is the biggest single user of capital in Ireland, and just about every other country in Europe. How many hundreds of thousands of track-bearing acres does CIE own? What is the capital value of that land? And when people talk about the utility of the railway, do they talk about the capital subsidy of the land, and the almost sinful extravagance involved?

Take our longest, thinnest line: Dublin to Sligo. Even by the standards of the crazy world of railway economics, Sligo-Dublin is utterly insane. You cannot have a sensible railway system between a low-population region and a city. For a railway to make sense, traffic must essentially be generated equally at each end: otherwise, you simply have empty trains on one leg of the journey. And the money being spent on transporting thousands of tons of empty metal from one part of the country to the other could be far better spent on a school or a hospital.

But Sligo would fight with witless ferocity for its railway. Its railway is what defines it. No politician would survive if he or she proposed ending the immoral waste of money that is the Dublin-Sligo rail connection, even though it is doing Sligo no good at all. Never mind the thousands of tons of empty metal trundling back and forth each day; how many trains are there per day to Sligo? Four? Six? So there you have about 120 miles of track, constituting a vast capital expenditure in terms of land, rail, sleeper, and signal, all worth many hundreds of millions of pounds – and all used less than a dozen times a day.

Sligo is an extreme example: Dublin-Belfast would be the opposite extreme, where you have two large population centres which meet the necessary criterion for size. But even the old Great Northern Railway under-uses its capital assets scandalously.
The land-bank CIÉ owns around Amiens Street, containing the station, sidings and track, is perhaps the largest in Dublin, totalling several hundred acres. It is worth billions. Moreover, the land corridor it monopolises through the north city suburbs, through to Skerries, Drogheda, Dundalk, probably has a capital value that could be measured in the billions also.

How many trains use this capital every day, in each direction? Ten, maybe. When the train is moving slowly perhaps it takes two minutes to cover one particular section of track; when it is going quickly, less than a minute. Maybe each section of track is in use for 20 minutes in any given 24 hours. For the other 23 hours or so, the capital slumbers; but it still has to be maintained for safety purposes.

Further insanity is in operation at either end, where each station has to cope with sudden surges of many hundreds of passengers arriving and departing within a few minutes: and then maybe an hour or two hours of nothing.

So why this fixation with an iron wheel running along a track? This was fine for the 19th century, but what sense does it make now? Why should we be imprisoned by the intellectual and technological limitations of the extraordinarily inflexible railway system, when we long ago mastered altogether more versatile forms of machinery? Why do we not simply lay concrete over the tracks, and turn the old railway network into a high-speed bus-only corridor? This would not merely mean that the “railway” would be used far more often by smaller units, but those units themselves would be capable of leaving the track system and going onto the roads, if need be.

Moreover, the central stations in Dublin would not then be slave to the behemoths arriving every two hours or so, with their dam-bursts of passengers monopolising all their services and their space for a few minutes. This would free Amiens Street and Heuston stations to attend to the Dublin suburban services throughout the day.

The virtues of public transport would thus be preserved. Buses would be taken off the main roads of the country and given access (on certain stringent conditions, of course) to the bus corridors. Buses to Sligo or Cork might take a little longer than the train; but they would still be far faster than the car, and what we would lose in added journey time would be more than offset by the vast flexibility gained.

It all makes sense – unlike the railways, which don’t. Yet across Europe, national railway systems have become a totem of public piety, consuming billions in subsidy annually. The apotheosis of this insanity was the Channel

Tunnel, a shameful extravaganza of expenditure for expenditure’s sake, which was economically unjustified even when airline cartels kept air travel unnecessarily expensive. Today, the tunnel is utter lunacy.
So what is the argument against turning our railways into bus corridors? There is only one. The Government would still have to find some way or other to incorporate them all into the Red Cow Roundabout.

© The Irish Times

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