Modelling by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests that Ireland’s 2030 targets for emissions reduction will be exceeded by very large margins unless new policies are implemented in transport, agriculture, home heating and other areas.

These new policies will not be popular – there is great resistance to extending the ban on solid fuels and there will be more trouble when the carbon tax goes up in October’s budget. There are fears of emissions limits in agriculture, which could hit farm incomes.

Ambitious national emissions targets were announced in advance of the policies needed to achieve them, never a wise timetable. The detailed policies, including sectoral emissions limits, are due in a new climate action plan whose publication has been deferred into next month, according to Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Eamon Ryan.

At the Green party think-in on Monday last, Ryan focused on transport, a distinct department for which he is also minister. He favours a major investment in rail, with reduced emphasis on the road system.

It is Government policy to decarbonise the electricity system and to convert much of the road vehicle fleet to electric propulsion, so one of the traditional motives for hostility to roads, namely that road transport is responsible for substantial carbon emissionss, is set to diminish. Traffic on the roads consists mainly of private cars rather than public transport vehicles, but the minister must be aware that most public transport passengers in Ireland travel by road in buses.

According to the 2016 strategic rail review, just 16% of all public transport trips nationally were by rail, including DART. Even in Dublin, the only city with an extensive suburban rail system, buses carry more passengers than trains. Outside Dublin, rail network coverage is limited and services are often infrequent.

The provincial network is 150 years old, much of it is single track and the east region around Dublin accounts for 83% of all rail passenger journeys in Ireland.

Outside the greater Dublin area, rail is just not a terribly important component of the passenger transport system. Even in Cork, the second largest city, suburban rail is a small player. Under 1% of freight volumes nationally are carried by rail and there are just three freight depots still in operation. The collapse in rail freight volumes in recent decades followed a decline in market demand, not a deficiency of supply. According to the minister, the country ought to have high-speed service linking the main cities, north and south of the border. With his Northern Ireland counterpart, he has commissioned the engineers Ove Arup to conduct an appraisal of the possibilities and announced that a high-speed link from Donegal to Cork, via Belfast, was on the agenda.

High-speed rail

It is not clear what Minister Ryan has in mind when he speaks of high-speed rail. He appears to believe that high speeds can be achieved on the existing alignments. If the existing Victorian alignments are to be used, they will have to be double-tracked, as well as electrified. And Ove Arup will no doubt inform the minister that they cannot be high-speed.

As routinely employed, the term ‘high speed’ implies speeds of around 300km/hour and the Dublin-Cork train would overturn somewhere around Inchicore, a few miles out of Heuston.

High-speed lines must be constructed anew and in straight lines. Victorian engineers did not foresee speeds at 300km/hour and the curvature of the track, not the traction technology, determines the speed limit.

New high-speed lines around Europe have been costing up to €100m per kilometre in built-up areas close to cities and €30m upwards in open country. In capital cost alone, building a brand-new national rail network to cater for very high speeds, would crowd out the rest of the public capital programme. Many of the lines in France and Spain, the countries which have spent the most on high-speed rail, do not cover their operating costs, never mind capital.


A single train seating 500 passengers (standing is not advisable) costs around €30m. A fleet of 10 long-distance diesel buses seating the same number would cost only around €3m, using roads already built and paid for. If people are to be persuaded onto public transport through increasing capacity, it is far cheaper and far quicker to do so with buses.

Even if saving emissionss with electrified rail for Ireland’s low passenger volumes was financially affordable, as to capital and operating losses, what is the cost per tonne of carbon saved?

The bus companies are already experimenting with electric and hydrogen-fuelled vehicles and these may well become an economic proposition well inside the timescale for building a new rail network.

It is depressing that ministers continue to commit publicly to enormous capital projects before anyone has done the sums.