Rail attack brings sense
of déjá vu
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
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