THE public transport options available at Dublin’s striking airport do not do justice to its growing passenger numbers and status as an important long-distance hub. The only current connection with the Irish capital’s bustling city centre are two double-decker bus services. They complete the journey in around 25 minutes, although regular congestion on the M50 highway can impact reliability.
This situation will change in 2027 with the opening of a direct metro link from the airport to the city centre and beyond. As well as an enhanced airport-city centre link, the new line will provide much-needed connectivity for Dublin’s steadily increasing population: the Dublin region is set to become home to 1.4 million people by 2040, an increase of around 25%.
The long-awaited north-south Metrolink project took a critical step forward in March with the announcement of a preferred alignment.
Under the plan, the 26km line will run from Estuary, north of Swords, via the airport and the city centre, terminating at Sandyford in the south of the city. The line will have 25 stations and will include a 12km underground section. This will run from Fostertown beneath the airport and the city centre, continuing to Charlemont via a new main line railway station to the west of Cross Guns Bridge and the city centre. The line will then join the existing Luas light rail Green Line alignment to Sandyford, which will be upgraded for metro operation as part of the project, with light rail operation continuing from Sandyford to Brides Glen, and north from Charlemont to Broombridge. The metro line is expected to operate 30 trains per hour in each direction and use trains of more than 60m in length, carrying 15,000 people per hour per direction at peak times and around 15 million passengers per year.
The government has set aside €3bn for the project in its 10-year Capital Plan announced in February, although Ms Anne Graham, CEO of National Transport Authority (NTA), says it is her organisation’s expectation that the cost of the project will come in closer to e3.5bn.
“We are looking at this stage in round figures but we still need to do a little more work on the design to put the detailed cost together,” Graham says. “At the same time, we produced a very high-level cost-benefit analysis, which is very important when considering a project of this scale and with that kind of expenditure and whether it did still warrant it in terms of benefits. It had a very positive benefit ratio of between 2.5 and 3 depending on the cost.”
Metrolink is not the first attempt to make Dublin a metro city. The November 2001 Platform for Change report by the Dublin Transport Office recommended the construction of three metro lines, including a north-south line from Swords to Shanganagh via Dublin Airport and the city centre. It soon manifested itself as two separate projects: Metro West, which was planned to run from Santry south of the airport to Tallaght, and Metro North, which would link Swords with St Stephen’s Green.
“The Metro North project got to a certain point - it had a Railway Order and the procurement for construction was quite advanced - but unfortunately the crash happened and the country just couldn’t afford to build it at that time,” Graham says. “Although we can use a lot of the designs and lessons from that earlier project we thought it would be best to look at it afresh, in terms of the statutory transport strategy and also in terms of what funding was available.”
NTA is a statutory body which is responsible for transport planning for both Greater Dublin and some national projects. It began work in December 2009, taking over certain functions from the Department of Transport and the entire role of the Dublin Transportation Office. Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII), which is responsible for infrastructure development, will take the metro project forward once the final design is approved. “We have been working together because from a strategic planning point of view we want to make sure it is the right project,” Graham says. “They will then take it over, proceeding with the Railway Order and coordinating construction.”
Graham says no major problems are expected with tunnelling on the project - the 4.5km Dublin Port Tunnel, which was the longest urban road tunnel in Europe when it was completed in 2006, providing a good reference for ground conditions. No decision has yet been made on whether the rail tunnel will be single or dual bore, with Graham stating that all options are under consideration in order to minimise construction times and costs.
However, the major challenge facing the project is tying it in with existing railway infrastructure. In particular, linking up with the main line station at Glasnevin, which is served by the Maynooth and Kildare lines, is considered tricky and is a change from the original plan for Metro North, which was designed to serve the station at Drumcondra.
“By putting a station at Glasnevin it meant that we could interchange with two heavy rail lines rather than one,” Graham says. “When Metro North was considered it mirrored the Luas Green Line, but we felt why would you put an underground directly beneath the overground? We wanted to spread the benefits of both so that was the reason why we looked at a station at St Stephen’s Green and why we wanted a connection with the Dart at Tara station.”
Results from the public consultation on the preferred alignment, which closed in May, revealed a further complication for the plans at Glasnevin: the proposal to redevelop sports fields used by Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) clubs. In addition, the Dublin Chamber of Commerce expressed its reservations over the location of the airport station, which they say is a considerable distance from terminals 1 and 2, suggesting the construction of an underground tunnel from both terminals to the station as a means of improving access.
Graham says that NTA and TII will go through the more than 7000 responses received and are expected to publish a report and select a preferred route in the third quarter of 2018. An application for planning permission through a Railway Order will take place in the third quarter of 2019, which is expected in 2020. Construction is then anticipated to begin in 2021.
“We are putting every effort in to get every document you need, but the planning process is always difficult,” she says. “The fact that it has gone through and there has been a successful Railway Order in the past gives us comfort even if the legislation has changed and we are proposing an amended route.”
Metrolink is not the only rail scheme benefitting from the 10-year infrastructure plan. Dublin Area Rapid Transit (Dart), the region’s commuter service, is also set to receive major investment.
The Dart network is currently operating at capacity, with trains packed at peak times, and struggling to meet steadily-growing demand: Dart and Dublin commuter services carried 32.77 million passenger in 2017, which compared with 30.95 million in 2016 and 28.12 million in 2015.
Several infrastructure improvements are in the pipeline to support this growth. However, Graham says earlier plans to prioritise a new Dart tunnel from Heuston station, Dublin’s main line hub, through the city centre to Docklands, have changed. With studies showing that construction of the tunnel before electrification would provide only limited economic benefit and not meet immediate demand for capacity, the plans were flipped.
“We are proposing to purchase the fleet that can be used on electric and diesel traction, starting with that procurement by the end of this year, and then move slowly to build up the electrification that is outlined,” Graham says. “The Dart underground tunnel would be the last part of that process.
“The government has set aside €2bn in its capital plan to allow us to purchase the fleet and to commence but not complete all of the electrification that is outlined. I think it is going to take us until 2027 to complete that, which means the Dart underground tunnel would be part of the next capital plan.”
NTA and Irish Rail (IE) are expected to order 100 bi-mode vehicles and Graham says that NTA is open to leasing the fleet initially. However, with delivery of the new trains not expected until 2021-22, they will be supplemented with a fleet of 12 refurbished two-car class 2700 regional DMUs. These vehicles were built in the late 1990s but taken out of service in 2012 and will offer an immediate increase in peak capacity.
Introducing the bi-mode trains will enable Dart to extend services north to Drogheda and west to Maynooth before these lines are electrified with further electrification planned on the line to Hazelhatch. Signalling upgrades are also underway to support the upcoming increases in frequency of service. This includes the €120m City Centre Resignalling project, which IE is delivering in-house and is increasing capacity on the Grand Canal Dock - Howth Junction line, one of the busiest sections of railway in the country, where Graham says the goal is to run 20 trains per hour in the future.
The reopening of the Phoenix Park tunnel to passenger traffic in November 2016 created a new cross-city link between Grand Canal Dock and the Kildare line, providing a cross-city passenger service for the first time in more than 100 years. For Graham, the success of this project is testament to one of the few advantages of an economic downturn: looking at how existing assets might be reused and improved at a affordable cost. The project cost just €13.7m and while it is only used by peak trains at present, Graham says work is underway to extend operation throughout the day.
The success of the project is also indicative of the growing appetite for rail services as a whole, further exemplified by the popularity of the Luas Dublin Cross City Line extension, which opened in December 2017. This €368m project added 13 stations and 5.9km to the Luas network, extending the Green Line from its terminus at St Stephen’s Green, north to Broombridge, crossing the Liffey River via the O’Connell Bridge and interchanging with the Red Line for the first time at O’Connell Street Upper and Abbey Street.
“When we opened the line, passenger numbers grew faster than we expected,” Graham says. “We had some problems initially with serving that because we were at capacity. But we have added some 55m-long trams and lengthened the platforms at some stations to accommodate this. We have plans to lengthen some more trams to further increase capacity.”
The extended trams have boosted peak capacity to 8000 people per hour per direction on the Green Line through the city centre. And while no expansions of the light rail network are planned in the current 10-year funding period, Graham says the opportunity will be taken to assess priorities and to draw up detailed plans for the extensions to include in the next capital plan once work on the alignment for Metrolink is complete. This is likely to include alignments for the planned extension of the Green Line from Broombridge to Fingus and from Cherry Wood to Bray; and the Red Line from Docklands to a neighbouring special development zone at Poolbeg. Work will also start to extend Luas to Lucan.
A decade on from the darkest days of the economic downturn, momentum is returning to Ireland’s economy, which inevitably is translating into greater demand for transport. Ultimately the plan is for sustainable public transport to account for 55% of all journeys within Dublin, with rail accounting for 35%. And while Graham admits that the country is playing catch-up, she is confident that with government support now forthcoming, that the plans under development can deliver what Dublin and the surrounding area will require.
“It is not good when you see passenger numbers dipping and the economy struggling and we have fallen behind in terms of where we would like to be and the number of people using public transport,” Graham says. “However, as we have seen when you deliver a project like Luas cross-city people respond and we expect that they will continue to do so,” she says.