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West=On=Track -News

Rail attack brings sense of déjá vu

Western People 13/06/06

by James Laffey

SOME things never change. Last week this column wrote about RTE's series of programmes on the astounding transformation of Ireland - both economically and socially - in the twenty years since 1986. But one aspect of Irish society that has not changed is the begrudging and covetous attitude that exists in Dublin when it comes to western development. The last seven days tells their own story.

Readers of the Irish Times will be aware that last Wednesday the newspaper published the private deliberations of a working group that was established in 2004 to investigate the viability of a re-opened Western Rail Corridor. The findings of the working group and the Railway Procurement Agency were typically shortsighted.

Apparently, there is no "critical" population mass to sustain the Western Rail Corridor, which will need an annual subvention of euro10 million if it is to remain operational. In addition, the cost of re-opening the defunct rail corridor will amount to a total of euro365.7 million, with the section from Claremorris to Collooney described as "extremely expensive" to restore. In fact, it would be "very difficult" to justify the restoration of the line, according to Pat McCann, the chairman of the working group.

The upshot of the Irish Times story, which was penned by the newspaper's Environment Editor, Frank McDonald, was that the Government was preparing to embark on a costly infrastructural project that would have minimal benefits for the people of the West. The newspaper continued its theme in an editorial on Friday when it stated that the Government should "stop trying to fool the people of the West" and tell them bluntly that the re-opening of the Western Rail Corridor would not be viable for the foreseeable future.

This was classic Dublin 4 balderdash; replete with the infuriating condescension that is so often employed by those who want to deprive the people of the West of Ireland of their basic entitlements. One could almost imagine the denizens of Ballsbridge and Donnybrook nodding their heads sagely as they discussed what should be done with those pesky peasants in the West who have got above their station by demanding their own rail-line, if you don't mind!

But, fear not, the Irish Times has a solution. According to the editorial writer, the money that has been earmarked for the Western Rail Corridor should instead be spent on 'proper' infrastructure in the West: new-fangled concepts like roads, education, broadband and even some high voltage electricity for industry!

Isn't that just fantastic? The good people of Dublin - as represented by the Irish Times editorial writer - want to give the citizens of the West a few new roads to drive on and a couple of modern schools in which to educate our children. Aren't they the dacent folk! Please remind me to doff my cap to the good burghers of Donnybrook and Ballsbridge when they are visiting their holiday homes in Mayo in the coming months. They really are too kind to us unenlightened peasants of the West who should apologise profusely for our occasional delusions of grandeur. Who are we to know anything about rail transport or the possible viability of our own western rail corridor?

Aren't we the same people who built an airport on the top of a bog!

And, thus, I come to the kernel of my dissertation on the Western Rail Corridor. If ever one wanted evidence that Dublin's attitude to the west of Ireland has changed not a whit in the last twenty years it was to be found in the pages of the Irish Times last week. This was Knock Airport all over again. The same cynicism, the same lack of vision, the same petty begrudgery.

I would hazard a guess that if one were to source a copy of the Irish Times from 1986 the same sort of nonsense would be found on its pages in relation to Knock Airport.

What the cynics failed to understand in 1986 - and what the Irish Times has failed to understand in 2006 - is that industries can change dramatically in the space of twenty years. Take the aviation industry as an example. Twenty years ago, flying was not a matter of choice, it was a matter of necessity. Very few people could afford sun holidays and the notion of a weekend in London or Manchester was off the radar altogether.

There were two primary - and inter-connecting - reasons for the aversion to flying. One was the prohibitive cost of air flights and the other was the lack of money in the Irish economy. The Celtic Tiger was to have an enormously positive impact on the aviation industry in this country but the arrival of low-cost flights was to be the telling factor in the success of the aviation industry. In less than a decade, flying became a populist activity, no longer the preserve of the elite in society. And, thus, the success of Knock Airport was born. A facility that had been ridiculed as a "white elephant" and the "ultimate example of Government profligacy" suddenly became a key infrastructural cog in the West of Ireland.

It is highly ironic that only two weeks ago the Western People published a supplement on Ireland West Airport Knock which included excerpts from the autobiography of former Fine Gael Minister, Barry Desmond, who was one of the severest critics of the airport project. In his book, Mr Desmond claimed it would have made a lot more sense to use the £10m that had been "frittered away" on the airport for a "vastly improved road network to and from the West". Does that sound eerily familiar? Would it even be possible that Barry Desmond penned last week's editorial in the Irish Times!

There are some remarkable parallels between the Western Rail Corridor and Ireland West Airport Knock. The rail industry in Ireland in 2006 is as inefficient and unambitious as the aviation industry of the mid-1980s.

Iarnrod Eireann is the Aer Lingus of the 21st century: a semi-state monopoly that has been carefully cosseted by politicians and civil servants since the foundation of the State. It is singularly one of the most ineffective and uninspiring rail companies in the developed world and anyone who has ever had the misfortune to take a train from the West to Dublin will vouch for that.

It is interesting to note that most of the findings of the working group on the Western Rail Corridor were based on figures provided by Iarnrod Eireann, which showed that the re-opened rail-link would attract as little as 750 passengers per day, thus requiring annual subvention of between •5 million and •10 million. It doesn't take a genius to read between the lines: Iarnrod Eireann doesn't want to re-open the Western Rail Corridor.

It's high time the Government took on the vested interests in Iarnrod Eireann and it's high time newspapers like the Irish Times saw the bigger picture when it comes to rail transport. Ireland needs a reliable, efficient and consumer-friendly rail network if it is to have any hope of developing its economy in the 21st century. Iarnrod Eireann - in its current monopolistic form - will not deliver such a network. It is Iarnrod Eireann - and not the Western Rail Corridor - that needs a radical reappraisal. And let no-one - not even the esteemed Irish Times - tell you otherwise.








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