The political road

There is a very long and expensive road scheme that has escaped the cuts. And, indeed, any virtually any attention which is surprising given that at 50 miles long and costing £800m, it is one of the most expensive highway projects in Europe. It goes through a beautiful unspoilt area of countryside and yet so far no Swampy-type figure has been rushing to set up a camp in the beautiful countryside that it will despoil. In fact, the scheme is little known outside the area affected and despite the cost is being pushed ahead without delay.

 The reason for the lack of interest is that the road is in Northern Ireland which attracts little coverage in the mainland except when some mad bomber decides to play with Semtex. And the explanation for the fact that the money is still available is that, remarkably, the scheme is being part funded with 450m Euros by the Irish government. Yes, the very same Republic of Ireland government which, as I write, is struggling to piece together a bail-out which, inter alia, involves reducing the minimum wage and putting all sorts other very worthy projects on hold, and raising taxes through the roof.

 The road in question will speed travellers between Dublin and Donegal, which of course are both in the Republic, through County Tyrone which is in Northern Ireland. The plan is for a high speed dual carriageway – 70mph rather than 60mph- that will replace the existing A5 which is considered inadequate, despite recent improvements to several sections.

 As the new road cuts through unspoilt rich agricultural land, which is by far Tyrone’s main industry, and would spoil the rather remote atmosphere which is attracting a growing number of tourists, there is predictably a big campaign mounting against the plan. This is unusual for Northern Ireland where normal politics were in suspension for more than a generation during the troubles with most decisions being made by government departments based in Stormont, but often merely siphoning through policies developed in Whitehall.

 However, the protesters have got the bit between their teeth, and a meeting at which I spoke in late November attracted more than a hundred people on a bitterly cold night. There is no shortage of reasons for objection. The scheme is going to a public inquiry, but the protesters face an unequal task. The Northern Ireland Roads Service will have the full panoply of lawyers at the hearings while the protesters will have to scrimp and save to be represented.

Nevertheless, they are likely to put up a good show.  On the face of it, with demand at just 12,000 cars per day and, from my observation of a several hours spent on the road, no sign of overcrowding, there cannot be any justification for such a massively expensive scheme with such damaging environmental consequences to reduce the journey time between Dublin and Donegal by just 20 minutes. Indeed, the killer point is that according to a consultant employed by the protesters, the scheme has a benefit cost ratio of just 1.7, far lower than would be the benchmark for a similar project on the mainland where 2 is an absolute minimum and 2.5 a more likely target. Moreover, there is compelling evidence that good road connection suck development out of an area as much as being the catalyst for it. As the protesters point out, the Celtic Tiger roared while there was a grossly inadequate transport network, and now that the Republic has a gleaming set of new roads, it is in a state of collapse.

 There is, too, the possibilty of an alternative, as there is an old rail alignment. The line was closed 40 years ago, but would provide a far more attractive alternative to the burgeoning tourist trade, but the idea does not even appear to have been assessed by the Stormont government.

 The explanation for drive to push the project through in the face of such obvious shortcomings is that bigger politics are involved here. The road was part of the St Andrews final peace agreement for Northern Ireland and that is why the Republic is putting up the money for a road not on their territory (which, incidentally, may be open to legal challenge since it is questionable whether the Northern Ireland Roads Service can vest land for the main purpose of allowing Republic traffic to speed through with no benefit to its own population).

 The outcome of the A5 road inquiry is not only crucial for transport in the province, but also a wider test of politics of Northern Ireland. On the mainland, the Department of Transport would not put up a plan to build such an environmentally insensitive road through greenfield land because of the opposition. Indeed, virtually all road schemes in Britain are now widening of existing routes or alterations to existing alignments. It has long been recognised that it is impossible to grow the road network to met increasing demand, what Professor Phil Goodwin termed some years  ago as the New Realism.

  So here’s a word of advice to both the British and Irish governments. If you want to save a rather large chunk of money – unfortunately £32m will have been spent already by the  time of the inquiry – revisit the plan for the road which looks like foisting a discredited transport policy on the unfortunate Irish.

  • Farci

    “…There is no shortage of reasons for objection. The scheme is going to a public inquiry, but the protesters face an unequal task. The Northern Ireland Roads Service will have the full panoply of lawyers at the hearings while the protesters will have to scrimp and save to be represented…”

    Apart from the (dis)merit of the particular road scheme this is the real issue and not just in transport planning. Despite national politicians waxing lyrical about The Big Society and ‘all politics is local’ ordinary punters trying to level the playing field against the massed ranks of national or even local government need a legal defence fund administered by ??? to disburse funds for worthy punch-ups

  • Greg Tingey

    RE-OPEN the ex- GNR(I) line from Portadown to Armagh & Omagh … (?)
    … and through to (London)Derry – cheaper, AND more useful.

  • Malcolm Bulpitt

    If you do not mind being confused with some facts then read my responses posted on “The Ghost Road” item on Christian’s site, as well as those below. I have no involvement in any of the proposals – just a bemused observer with 45 years in the business.

    Reopening long disused railway lines is not a cheap option as the Scottish Government is finding out. Good luck to them though as at least they are trying to try and engineer some modal shift. However, where they are doing this it is in a totally different socio-economic environment that exists in this part of Ireland. The scattered land settlement pattern, and the comparatively small urban settlements in this region, serve make rail a non-starter unless there is a bottomless subsidy pit. The GNR(I) never made a profit on its lines in this area even when there was no road competition. Building a new road costs a lot, but if you get it right there is little on-going demand on the public purse. NIR may be happy to see IR operate such a drain on resources but would the Republic’s Exchequer be happy to underwrite such an exercise – doubtful in the current financial climate.

    Time savings on the Donegal- Dublin route are not the only issues that need to be addressed when considering this scheme. There will be safety benifits for users of the existing routes, not just the one in the North but on the one through the Repubic as well. With less traffic on the “old” A5 there will be an improved level of service for local people as well. Although there will obviously be some environmental downsides with the proposed off-line alignment of a new road there will be major improvements for those who live on the old route. These things are very difficult to value though.

    I read elsewhere that one action group is suggesting that the capacity and journey times on the existing road could be improved by introducing sections of 2+1 working, or just widening the existing road. Again they seem to forget the safety implications, and in this case fail to look South. The Republic tried 2+1 roads from the mid-2000s onwards. The big problem with sporadic overtaking lanes was at the end of the overtaking sections, when both sets of drivers thought they had right of way or tried late overtakes. These poor decisions resulted in crashes with up to 300kph impact speeds, and not too many survivors! The Republic then tried Swedish system of wire rope barrier down centre of the wide single c’ways needed for 2+1 operations but (as I noted in my earlier “Ghost Road” comments) this system cost a small fortune and in some cases it would have been cheaper to build sub-std D/Cs (i.e. no hard shoulders and scaled down interchanges). It stopped (almost) the head-ons but resulted in a massive on-going bill to repair the barriers that were (and still are being on the sections still in place) hit on almost a daily basis. Another issue was that 2+1 roads, with or without barriers, imposed access issues for frontage properties.Widen the existing road? The Republic tried this too. You increase traffic speeds, offer more opportunity for high speed collisions following ill-judged overtaking manouvers, and will probably increase traffic to a level where that road will need further improvement. As I have I worked on safety engineering projects for road authorities both North and South of the border I have a good idea of the implications.

    Like it or not in our mobile society traffic will continue to grow and in the rural areas of the Island of Ireland there is little opportunity for any realistic replacement for the car and truck to make daily life work. The almost total relaince on private transport in Ireland is not only due to the historic land use and settlement patterns but is also a spin-off from the lassaire-faire Planning Policies of both Governments. In very few places in Europe where Governments and their Planners are trying to encourage sustainability would they allow the continued scattered housing development that occurs either side of the border. Build a hacienda-style bungalow in the middle of a field and you finish-up by generating anything up to ten-or-more vehicle movements a day. Traffic is only people and the local economy on the move.

  • Jon

    You sir are a typically ill informed mainland commentator that knows little about the real situation on the ground her in North West Ireland. It may be better to inform yourself properly, put your brain in gear before opening your mouth.

  • RapidAssistant

    So what IS the real situation then Jon…???..it is equally ill informed to accuse someone of not knowing the real situation when you don’t specify what that neans yourself.

  • Malcolm Bulpitt

    Jon. Strong words. A Mainland Commentator uninformed about Irish issues whose brain is not in gear? Perhaps, but lets go through some points.

    Not knowing the NW of Ireland? As a young engineer my first visit to Ireland was to Donegal in 1967. At various times over the last 43 years I have worked in most Counties on the island. In recent years, amongst a lot of work other work in the Republic, this has meant spending some time with collegues from the Garda, Donegal, and the National Roads Authority looking at safety problems and crash sites in that County. In the North I have undertaken similar work with the PSNI and the Road Service as well as working at RS Area Offices and running safety engineering courses around the Province. Not knowing about safe or unsafe road layouts in Ireland? I wrote the initial monitoing report on the use of 2+1-lane roads as against Wide Single 2-lane roads for the NRA. Not knowing about land use and development issues? I have studied Economic Geography, worked on rural transport planning issues and been an expert witness at Planning Inquiries. Being unaware of Irish safety and environmental issues? I was part of the team that wrote the Republic’s Road Safety Audit procedures now a statutory part of the Irish Government’s assessment procedures for new roads. I could go on.

    I have no personal or financial interest in the proposed road. I am just a professional with some knowledge and experience of your part of the world who is observing from the sidelines whilst trying to interject some potentially useful information into the debate. If this is seen to be unhelpful I am sorry.

  • Mark D

    As one who has lived most of my 51 years here, apart from 11 spent in Scotland, I trust that my support of Christian’s comments will not also be dismissed as siding with “a typically ill informed mainland commentator….” Too often the views of GB residents are portrayed as being out of touch and yet local opinion here can be remarkably short on detail and wedded in the past. Regrettably I missed the recent meeting at which Christian spoke whilst visiting on this side of the water.
    To my mind, the real situation on the ground is that too many vested interests are at stake in the A5 project for it not to happen. The politicians both north and south, hindered by their short sighted views and puffed up with self importance, are rooting for it with an eye to this year’s elections in the Dail and at Stormont and are encouraged by Roads Service officials living in cloud cuckoo land and who travel everywhere by car. If even half as much support and finance was to be given to improving public transport here, with better integrated bus / train services, well located P&R schemes and logically thought out bus lanes, we’d be in a far better position than rebuilding the A5 could ever deliver. Regrettably, in my crystal ball I don’t see this happening and probably the A5 project will proceed regardless of the cost to the environment and the public purse.

  • Thomas Carr

    You are right : the road building strategy in Ireland has more to do with self aggrandisement and cheap money from Brussels than the money saved by the reduction of congestion and journey times.
    Recent Irish motorway construction is impressive and out of all proportion with the size of the population – resident or visiting. Last May in the Irish Midlands we enjoyed an open road that I had not experienced since using the autoroute between Le Havre and Abbeville.

  • Chris Bird

    Well I think Jon, you have done nothing to argue the case for this road or for any other proposal. What do you actually think?

    Not directly connected, but an indication of attitudes, is my observations when visiting Ireland a few years ago. On the first visit we arrived in Dublin on the ferry from Holyhead and immediately ran in to appalling traffic jams – the only plus point – it made it easier to read a map (no sat nav then) and find our hotel. On subsequent investigation it would not have been particularly easy to connect with public transport if we had been foot passengers. We were heading to Cork after a stay in Dublin.
    On the second visit we arrived in Rosslare to find that the Railway Station had been moved to the perimeter of the Port area, presumably because the old station divided the site. There wasn’t any transfer facilities and the single platform was devoid of any shelter.

    These two examples underline the thinking that public transport does not really matter and would certainly be a considerable deterrent to repeat journeys.

    Even if it means subsidy, some form of public transport is essential for people who for one reason or another cannot or do not want to drive. If services are good, even people who do drive may well use public transport for some journeys and this should be encouraged.

  • Malcolm Bulpitt

    Thomas and Chris,

    Please read my comments regarding this project under “The Ghost Road” on a parallel CW page, as well as those above, before simply accusing the Republic of building roads for self aggrandissment. If your first visit to Ireland was within the last 10 years then you have no idea what the Irish road system was like prior to the development of the present network. As Chris hints above congestion was chronic and long cross-country trips would easily average less than 50kph. I remember in the 60s literally writing off a day to drive from Donegal to Dublin via Sligo – no easily cutting through the North then. Thanks to little investment in the inter-urban road network over the years, and with even medium sized towns lacking bypasses, (Ireland was a poor country until the 1980s) even into the 1990s the Republic had one of the worst KSI (killed and seriously injured) crash records in the EU. Such work as was undertaken prior to around 1995 often only served to exacerbate their problems as they were generally locked into basic on-line widening schemes that often resulted in more collisions than existed previously. Incidentally, this is apparently the approach that those questioning the new A5 route seem to be proposing.

    Chris, as I have noted previously, outside the major conurbations providing public transport with the Republic’s scatterled settlement pattern is a real financial and logistical challenge. Ireland is simply not the same as densely populated Engalnd, or parts of Mainland Europe, so simplistic comparisons in this area of transportation provision are invidious. For example the recently closed Rosslare to Waterford railway line only generated €20,000/annum in income but it cost €2,000,000/annum to operate. Overall, for every Euro in fare income Irish Rail generates the Irish Government has to find another Euro to keep the Nation’s services running. Anyone over 66, or a person with a disability, also gets free travel so pro-rata there is probably more Government support for rail transport in Ireland than there is in the UK. Also km for km the Republic is building, or reopening, more railway track than the UK is, and they have invested in the youngest fleet of rolling stock in Europe.

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