Photo Credit: Ciaran Cooney – eiretrains.com
Effective public transport – something that all of us, irrespective of our ideological positions, should be able to agree that every modern country needs. Public transport is absolutely integral to the daily running of this nation and the functioning of its society. I for one have to take public transport every day of the working week, a task shared with almost a million others. Many people are totally dependent on it for their travel necessities given the cost associated with car ownership and the unfortunate state of our road network.
Given the integral nature of public transport to the functioning of the country, we are rather lucky that it is not actually that bad, at least currently. It certainly has issues, and those issues grow by the day, but for the most part it still suffices and covers most of our transportation needs in a somewhat effective and comfortable fashion. The real problem is the uncertain future that awaits it, and the fact that the government is not effectively addressing that.
Our lovely capital city Dublin is something of an oddity, it is known as a ‘primate city’ – which means that it is disproportionately large in comparison to other urban areas and the overall population of the country. Given that the greater Dublin area contains some 1.9 million people out of a total of a mere 4.8 million nationally and 6.6 million on the entire island – that description rings true. Then consider that both the population of Dublin and its role as the national economic hub have grown immensely over the past few decades and are set to continue to do so, meaning it becomes quite obvious that a solid public transportation system is needed for such a city.
Currently there are three main modes of transport serving the greater Dublin area: Buses, rail (the DART especially), and finally our tram system the Luas. For the time being these increasingly crowded services are managing. Whether they can continue to cope in the coming years, given both our uncertain economic situation and the policies of our government, is something that desperately needs debate.
Of course one must not forget the lands outside our exalted capital – public transport in these regions is a disaster. The rest of the country is served by an ever decreasing amount of bus and train services as the government tries to cut its losses and centre everything on the economically convenient Dublin area, leaving farther afield commuters deserted and abandoned by a Dublin based ruling class that evidently couldn’t care less about their needs.
On the subject of our much struggling bus services, we see in the case of both publicly owned Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus that they are in uncertain if not dire financial circumstances. Therefore the government continues to hike prices, cut jobs, slash funding, and now lately is attempting to privatise certain routes. Rural routes in particular are getting hardest hit, with their low passenger numbers and long distances making it near impossible to profit from them. Unfortunately these services are a lifeline for many thousands of our citizens and cutting them often results in forcing upon these people the terrible choice of either joblessness or making the move to expensive Dublin.
How exactly can we expect to have a well-staffed and efficient bus service if the government cuts the wages of the drivers and at the same time hikes fare prices all while discontinuing routes? Either our fiscal planners are incompetent or they have a dangerous and uncaring agenda. If we want to keep our bus services running or even improve them (which will be needed in the coming years), then quite simply they need appropriate levels of funding, much in the same way as schools and hospitals do.
With increased (and more efficiently managed) funding, rural routes can be kept alive and more opened. The alternative is dangerous privatisation which would surely see them ended. After all it is the duty of a government to look after all its people, abandoning and isolating its rural citizens for the sake of the budget is a betrayal and shows the true colours of those in power.
In regards to our aforementioned rail system, what little we currently have actually works quite well. Certainly prices are far too high, sections of it are beginning to show their considerable age and it is living under the constant threat of cuts, but ultimately it gets us where we need to be every day. We have relatively modern well equipped trains even if the infrastructure they run on is aging, and the service is generally fast and timely – but it is also very limited. Rail travel has an illustrious history in Ireland, and looking to the past we can see that a disaster befell our rail industry, just as another threatens to befall it now.
This island was once criss-crossed by thousands of kilometres of train tracks, with lines extending from the far northern reaches of Donegal to virtually every major town in the south and centre of the country. The ghostly remnants of this once magnificent system are still visible to this day; fallen bridges, overgrown viaducts and rusty track are hidden all over Ireland. Left to stand as monuments to an industrially developed and professionally serviced country that could have been.
Every man, woman and child in Ireland was never further than a short distance from a station. Now whole swathes of the country are devoid of rail. These lines were closed quite simply because they weren’t profitable, and therefore they provide a look into what could happen to our public transport in the coming years. From the perspective of simply caring for the country and as a rail enthusiast, it has always greatly saddened me the decline that the Irish rail network has suffered.
So here is a radical idea: public transport doesn’t need to be profitable. The key is in the world ‘public’ you see. Does public healthcare have to be profitable? Do public schools? No. Although I’m sure our neoliberal elite wish they did. Public transport is part of why we pay our high taxes. The government takes a considerable portion of our money, and in return we are supposed to get quality services. Instead what seems to be happening is that our tax money gets used for the nigh unpayable debt we accepted in order to please the EU or wasted on nonsense projects such as Varadkar’s spin unit, all while our public services – from transport to policing, languish slowly dying, abandoned and rusting like our rail routes of yore.
The recent developments in transport, such as the extension of the Luas and the ridiculous ‘Ireland 2040’ plan are nowhere near enough, they’re pathetic actually. Even leaving out the idea of importing a million more people into the country which would further overburden the system (among other things), the plan for our transport network is an insufficient embarrassment.
A couple of motorways, one short metro line, and a few Luas and DART extensions (along with various other smaller health and education projects) – in twenty-two years and for the insanely inflated cost of €116 billion? Most other countries have built more in only a fraction of the time, the Russians are building an immense road-rail bridge over 19km of rough sea for a mere €3 billion. The Apollo Programme which took humanity to the moon in eleven years cost less than ‘Ireland 2040’, even when adjusted for inflation. Yet our government thinks we’ll be impressed by this exercise in wastage, obfuscation, and incompetence. They must take us for fools.
This country needs vast motorway upgrades, multitudes of new rail lines, a city-wide metro in Dublin and many more well-funded bus routes both rural and urban if it seeks to remain functional, competitive and provide adequately for its existing population as well as any natural growth. Why should we settle for anything less? A quality long-term plan for public transport that actually serves the needs of the public is something that the current government seems utterly incapable of. This country has immense potential which is routinely squandered by myopic politicians whose planning abilities stretch only as far as their next election campaign and who place their own interests ahead of those of the Irish people.