The Irish ghost road

Two weeks ago I went to Ireland to speak at a meeting against what seemed like a crazy road scheme, a 50 mile dual carriageway through County Tyrone in Northern Ireland but it links two parts of the Republic, Donegal and Dublin. It is half funded by the Republic, to the tune of £400m, with the rest coming from Westminster.

I have written about it in the forthcoming Transport Times and everything I found out there reaffirmed my view that this was the type of road project which simply could no longer be built on the mainland because it would elicit too much opposition and simply does not accord with this more environmentally-sensitive age. The A5 road it is designed to replace is by no means particularly congested and it would only save 20 minutes off the journey from Dublin to Donegal, for a cost of £800m.

I did wonder how the scheme,which apparently has a pretty modes benefit cost ratio of just 1.7 could possibly have passed the tests required to get Treasury approval. I wondered, too, why the Department for Transport was supporting it and now I have learnt that it has nothing to do with the UK Department for Transport as it was devised by the Northern Ireland roads service and pushed through as a result of the St Andrews peace agreement. I just happened to mention the road to Lord Adonis the other day and he told me it was the first he had heard of it! I suspect the same is true of Philip Hammond, who, at least, will read about it in Transport Times and perhaps he will manage to persuade the Treasury that it would not be money well spent.  Remember joined up government? What a laugh.

  • RapidAssistant

    Given that we are now helping to bail out the Republic from its own banking mess we may have well have funded the sections south of the border as well.

    Having travelled extensively in the Republic (all by car), it’s amazing the number of white elephants of roads that were built during the boom years when Dublin was raking in the cash from Brussels…large and expensive dual carriageways that have relatively sparse levels of traffic were slapped down, whilst serious bottlenecks (Ennis in County Clare being a good example) where major arterial routes go through tiny towns and villages, yet no bypasses on the cards.

  • Perhaps they’ll let the British government start building railway lines in Ireland as well.

  • Iain Dunross

    Trust the Irish to talk the Brits into a good deal

  • Greg Tingey

    Meanwhile, how much money for re-opening the GNR(I) from Portadown to Armagh & Omagh???
    And would be better value, too!

  • Matt

    I’d guess it’s funded because Northern Ireland is what you might call a special case.

    It has a very high percentage of public sector jobs, and investment, as it is seen as strategically vital to keep the economy moving, to keep the population prosperous, and to deny terrorists a hinterland of economically disadvantaged communities.

    The normal rules don’t apply over there.

  • Dan

    Matt’s correct I’m sure – but it says a lot when the solution to these problems is ‘if in doubt – build a road’ – shows how the road lobby has won the arguments over the years. After all – there would be various strategies to tackle these issues, and road building would not always be no 1 priority (in theory)

  • Mizter T

    Rather surprised that Christian thought the DfT in Marsham St would have anything substantive to do with this – has he not heard of devolution?

    Plus, as Matt points out, there’s the unique backdrop of the NI situation and of the Irish peace process at play here too.

  • Christian Wolmar

    Good point, Mizter, except I had thought, obviously naively, that there would be some input from the DfT using its ‘expertise’ to advise on such an expensive scheme. But clearly I was wrong.

  • Peter

    Sounds like a really awful scheme. The words that come to mind are “pork” and “barrel”.

    Good news for construction companies and a few other vested interests – bad news for everyone else and the Irish economy at large.

    Japan has been plagued by this type of thing – think bridges to nowhere – for ages.

  • robert.b

    A short section of the A5[about3miles] was only opened to traffic this spring.with the proposed newA5 planned to run parellell to it under half a mile away.Makes a lot of sense with both governments a bit short of cash.!!

  • Have a look at Donegal airport also. When I was last there, we were the only users; red carpet treatment, staff of ten fussing around, £10-12 million provided by the EU….. for one scheduled Shed a day from Glasgow. Nice work someone!

  • JG

    This is obviously a political project so actual benefits, costs etc are irrelevent, as for the UK generously bailing out Eire to the tune of 7 billion this has more to do with safeguarding RBS and others liabilities which we are now directly responsible for due to the nationalisation of the banks!

  • Malcolm Bulpitt

    Mizter T has the most relevant feedback above.

    NI is in practice more devolved than Scotland, and there are still the spin-offs from the peace process coming through the system. Also schemes that cross international borders also get special finncial treatment from Europe. Not sure about “only” a 20 min. saving. As any one who has tried to get from Donegal to the remainder of the Republic will know at some times the trip takes far too long. There are also the environmental savings for places on the “All Ireland” route through the thin strip of the Republic. Like many things associated with the border in the north of Ireland it is all a bit too complex for simplistic comment. Work there and some of your pre-conceptions rapidly change.

    Regarding the construction of dual carriageways in the Republic that are seemingly little used, there are some good background reasons for these as well. Firstly, prior to the the recent financial crisis, the Finance Ministry in the Republic took a much more long term view when planning National transport projects than our shortsighted Treasury has ever done. They set out to provide sufficient capacity for future growth so that they would not have to keep coming back and upgrading schemes at vastly increased cost than had they been tackled in one action. Secondly, the Republic had one of the worst records of head-on crashes on single carriageway roads in Europe. We (I worked there) tried new wide single c’ways, but we then simply had to cope with double or even treble overtaking manoeuvers and a rise in KSIs. We tried single c’ways split into alternating 2+1 sections but to make them work we then had to introduce (at great expence, and inconvienience to local accesses) wire rope barriers – as in Sweden – to segregate the oppsing flows. Although was a pallitiave it was not a sustainable long term solution and at the end of the day was costing almost as much as a low-standard dualling whilst being less safe. So the Republic’s Government bit-the-bullet and decided that as D/Cs were far safer that was the way to go. Our DfT are now thinking of reinventing new wide D/Cs to save first costs, but we will then have to live with the long term safety issues.

    Before people critisise the Republic too much over their road building programme first study the reasons why things were done, and also remember that they are also spending more pro-rata on new and reopened railways than our politicians are.

  • Lynne Smyth

    @Malcolm Bulpitt: Well I live here – I use the A5 most days. I disagree with you Malcolm. Roads are not the future – they are the past. The future – if there is going to be one – has to be low-carbon. The big issue of the future will be food production without ‘oil miles’. So tarmacing some of the best farmland in the country is pretty daft. As for safety – we, the inhabitants of Co Tyrone, would still have to use the old A5 because the new one would have limited access – designed to keep us off it. The old road will still be dangerous (though I suspect that’s more the fault of the drivers than it is of the road). The new road is designed as a Tyrone bypass – the time saving is a myth as both ends of the road join single lane roads in villages. The roundabout proposed beside Strabane is supposed to be linked to a bridge which no one can afford to build. As for the roads in the south – there is not enough traffic on them to repay the private companies who built them. The Celtic Tiger has left and the young people of Ireland are following. So much for future growth! The population of Ireland before the potato famine was 8million – before this recession it was 5.5million. So American-style highways were never needed here and – in a world faced with climate change and peak oil – they never will be. Check out

  • Tom

    “whilst serious bottlenecks (Ennis in County Clare being a good example) where major arterial routes go through tiny towns and villages, yet no bypasses on the cards.”

    Eh? Ennis has got a bypass, and had one two years ago when I travelled from Limerick to Galway by bus through it. The area outside Limerick I’d been staying at was being turned upside down to build an extension to the N7, too.

  • RapidAssistant

    Indeed it was Tom….I was aware of this. I’s been 5 years since I was last in the Republic.

    My post was more a general obseration on how money from Brussels appeared to be being spent in the wrong place.

    Maybe I didn’t make this clear enough.

  • ThePotter

    20 minute time saving. Hugely expensive. Poor cost benefit ratio. Poor environmental case. Sounds like HS2….

  • Malcolm Bulpitt


    Prompted by Christian I have read your comment with interest. You are correct in noting that roads are not dangerous – it is how they are used by individuals that causes danger. I do wish that politicians and the media would also realise this. I have spent a working life trying to engineer-out potential problem areas on roads from Singapore to Sligo only to be frustrated by the human genome finding new ways to to do manic things with motor vehicles. The wide single carriageway roads that the Republic invested-in for a time should, in theory, have worked fine but given the opportunity to drive into each other some motorists chose that option. We tried to tell our Irish colleagues that it would happen, as we had the same issues in England 20 years previously, but the politicians would not listen until the toll of deaths and injuries became too great. Given that even a sub-standard dual carriageway with a physical barrier down the middle (often costing little more than a wide single carriageway design) keeps vehicles and their drivers from having head-on impacts at combined speeds often approaching 300kph they must be worth it even if the design often seems excessive with lowish first day flows, but we should be building for the future not for yesterday.

    The future. Yes we should be looking towards a low carbon one, but that future will still need to cater for unrestricted personal mobility – a genie that has been let out of the bottle and which will not easily be persuaded to return. If we could find an easy way to do this then there would have been less hot air generated at Kyoto, Kobenhavn and Cancun. Politicians may want to save the World, but most have a more personal interest in saving their majorities! The world we live in runs on transport and in the Island of Ireland with its scattered population the majority of movements will be by road. It is doubtful if any railway in Ireland ever made any money. The GNR(I) lines that served Co.Tyrone never did. You may have walked or cycled home from the store with the computer you use to input to Christian’s pages but it was delivered by road and originally it was probably flown in from the Far East. I too try to think locally regarding the supply of food and services but I realise that we live in a global economic environment. If the transport infrastructure is not there to serve them towns and regions will atrophy and their residents, and the politicians that represent them, will not be best pleased with others whose own local agendas appear to deny them a slice of the economic cake, whilst commiting them to use infrastructure that is less safe than it could be. Life is too complex – but there is not any going back as there is no black and white any more for we exist with shades of grey.

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