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Rocky road to getting Dublin moving

IRELAND: TRANSPORTATION - Dublin's rapid economic growth has outstripped its transport system. Long traffic jams and inadequate alternatives to the car present massive challenges to the city's planners, as NCE reports.

Dublin may be Europe's fastest growing capital, but it is suffering from severe growing pains. The inner city's largely Georgian and Victorian street infrastructure is choked with bumper-to-bumper traffic, the result of a dramatic increase in both car ownership and economic growth.

Dublin also suffers as it is home to around a third of the Republic's population, and centre to much of the country's economic growth. For ordinary people, getting to and from work each day is a challenge in itself.

A recent study by the Irish Small Firms Association put Dublin's traffic misery in perspective. In a league of 20 international cities, Dublin came second last in an experiment to measure how long it takes to transport 5kg of goods 5km. Singapore came top, taking just nine minutes while London, surprisingly for those who live there came third, on 13 minutes.

Dublin at 53 minutes just pipped Frankfurt by four minutes, with Calcutta taking 270 minutes.

While these figures are remarkable, they must be measured against a period of incredible growth. A good illustration is the 1995 Dublin Transportation Initiative, which set out the integrated strategy for the city until 2011. It is already well out of date, as a review by the Dublin Transportation Office (DTO) noted last year.

The city's population forecast for this year was exceeded in 1997 and now stands just short of 1.5M; car ownership per 1000 people was 292 in 1996 and 342 in 1999, way above the estimate of 288 for 2001, and approaching the European average of 450.

Unemployment, forecast for around 17% this year, hovers nearer to 3%, while the number of people in jobs predicted for 2011 was already reached by 1996.

Total peak hour journeys increased by 45% between 1991 and 1997 to 250,000 trips and are now running at around 300,000.

Average journey times increased from 31 minutes to 43 minutes between 1991 and 1997. Most of the increase is due to car travel.

Apart from the massive costs and economic damage, the sheer misery of trying to get around Dublin has not surprisingly catapulted the issue to the top of the political agenda. The government last year approved a staggering IR£14.2bn (£11.4bn) programme of bus, rail and road schemes developed by the DTO to get Dublin moving.

These include a complex network of rail and light rail covering most of the city and a new Metro system - an unrecognisable image compared with today's rail infrastructure, which consists of a north-south line on the eastern edge of the city near the sea, and two lines extending south west and west. Work has already begun on the LUAS light rail scheme - with two lines under construction to bring commuters from the south and south west of the city to the centre - and is due for completion in 2003.

This is not 'pie in the sky' says DTO chief executive John Henry.

'This plan has been accepted by the government, and much of it could be implemented by 2012 or 2013, depending of course on how the economy performs and availability of funds.

'But it will take a long time to deliver. The lead time for projects here is very long, because of objections, inquiries and the planning process.'

But action is needed immediately, and a key aspect of the strategy has been to look at ways of accelerating what can be done most quickly, rather than waiting for schemes relying on new construction which will not come on stream for years. 'We are trying to speed things up, and because of this, we have presented a short term action plan to the government, ' says Henry.

This is likely to require the government to dig into its pockets again. Around IR£4.4bn of the country's mammoth National Development Plan has been earmarked for the DTO's IR£14.2bn transportation schemes up to 2006, leaving a large bill for the remainder. Money for rail improvements to improve capacity, cash to proceed as quickly as possible with planning and design work for the Metro project work, and funding for bus and traffic management initiatives are expected to be top of the shopping list with the government.

Improvements to rail such as signalling remodelling and longer platforms can take place without public objection, allowing for more frequent and longer trains.

Dublin Corporation in 1999 introduced a network of 'Quality Bus Corridors' or uninterrupted bus lanes from suburbs to the city, and the network of these is continuing to expand. Attitudes at first were mixed, with some motorists and motoring organisations greeting them with bemused hostility as it meant less road space on the already logjammed roads. But they have been strictly enforced as part of the Garda's Operation Freeflow, with motorists now resigned to taking second place to the bus. Cyclists have also benefited.

Car ownership has always been a high priority in Ireland and the economic boom has increased ownership to record levels, while Dublin's bus service was seen as unreliable.

Things appear to be changing.

'People will use buses if they are clean, efficient and reliable and more people are using them.

Half of our increase in bus patronage has been from previous car users. It would seem that the suits are getting back on the buses, ' says Henry. Articulated buses have arrived on Dublin's streets, while it is planned to increase the current bus fleet by 400 to 1500.

But longer term proposals for Dublin centre on rail, where real cash will be needed. Not everyone is in agreement as to how to proceed.

The Metro system, costing IR£5bn, will feature higher speed trains segregated from the streets and light rail. This will have long spurs to the south and north, with a section orbiting the west of the city. Long stretches are planned to be underground, meaning expensive construction.

This project is already moving at pace. A team at the Dublin Light Rail Office is working on the alignment of the stretch from the city centre and Blanchardstown to the airport, along with consultant WS Atkins. So far there have been 33 expressions of interest in the PPP contract to run the line, with hopes that the tender process will begin in the autumn. A positive response from the government could see work starting before the 2006 date previously suggested.

However, some argue that the metro scheme is taking on a momentum of its own, and will be too expensive and take too long to deliver. 'We need to concentrate on deliverable projects, and should go hell for leather on light rail projects. These can be delivered much more quickly and cheaply, ' says Professor Simon Perry, head of the department of civil, structural and environmental engineering at Dublin's Trinity College. Perry insists that a scheme linking the airport to the city centre using a disused line from Broadstone, just north of the city centre, could be completed more quickly and at lower cost.

Dublin's footprint extending to the surrounding countryside now approaches the size of London, with many new developments consisting of housing estates built with the car, rather than public transport in mind. Such developments make provision of rail services much more expensive for less return on passenger volumes.

But with limited capacity on the roads to be further reduced by bus lanes and light rail schemes, not surprisingly additional road projects are also on the transport menu. Around £3bn of road schemes are pencilled in as part of the DTO's plans, including a massive IR£1bn for the eastern bypass motorway.

'The challenge facing Dublin is substantial. The plan has been right in looking not just at public transportation initiatives, but at roads as well. Dublin needs both, ' says Babtie director Bob Duff. Babtie has been appointed by the Irish government to implement Public Private Partnership initiatives on light rail, and is working on other road projects in the city.

But tender inflation, running at over 12 percent, could shorten the wish list of Dublin's transport planners. 'Because budgets are being squeezed by tender inflation, prioritisation may be required, ' says Duff.

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