Time to get back on the bus

9th November 2005

Some 16 billion euro will be spent on rail in Ireland in the next 10 years. That’s according to last week’s much-hyped Transport 21 plan which aims to end gridlock by getting us out of our cars and onto public transport.

In Dublin, the plans include things which should have been done 20 years ago. There will be a north-south underground from Swords to Stephen’s Green running under the Airport. And there will be an east-west tunnel from Heuston to Connolly also calling at Stephen’s Green. The Dart will effectively be extended to Swords, Maynooth, and Celbridge.

Funny enough, this is remarkably like the plan thought up in the 1970s and of which only the present Dart lines were built. Since then we have built on the success of the Dart by ignoring it as a template.

Anyway, let’s not be mean. If these new heavy rail lines are built they will make a huge difference.

Of course, we won’t see any of this until the ten years are nearly up. That’s the first bad point about this plan. The second is that huge swathes of Dublin will be untouched because not enough emphasis is being put on the bus system.

As it stands, about four times as many people use buses as use rail. And because of the sprawl of this city, that is unlikely to change much. When you consider that it cost e800 million to build just two Luas lines, the debate about rubber wheels as against steel wheels needs another outing.

We simply can’t build a rail track to every district and every industrial estate in Dublin. Rail lines can’t be moved as traffic changes occur. Yet, if we are to replicate the car journeys that 50% of commuters make that is precisely the type of services we have to provide.

In the last ten years there has been a revolution in new bus technology. Low floor buses and new hybrid engines (electrical/ diesel) have blurred the differences between trams and buses.

What is required is additional capacity in the city center and at other centres around the city. The obvious solution is to go underground. So far this has only been considered for Luas and rail. But it makes even more sense to provide underground capacity for buses.

Shallow cut-and-cover tunnels immediately beneath the road surface and running between the canals would transform the reliability of the bus system in Dublin. There would be no need to provide stations – the buses would simply surface in a number of streets along the way.

Although this might sound a little barmy at first, systems like these are being brought in around the world. In Brisbane the South East Busway includes 1.6km of tunnel and 2km of elevated roadway. In its first 12 months it carried one million extra passengers on core services. Two thirds of Brisbane’s buses use part or all of the system.

The thing is that we are going to spend big bucks. Dublin is not a typical European city due to its sprawl. Dart can provide a spine for the public transport system but the system also needs to be flexible and dispersed at local level.

Bus Rapid Transit allows for progress up front. For more places and for more people.