Dublin’s Gresham Hotel has been the venue these last two weeks for hearings at An Bord Pleanála about the proposed MetroLink, a scheme that would see a new 19km rail line, mainly underground, connecting central Dublin northwards to the suburb of Swords via Dublin airport.

There would be 16 stations in total and more recent cost estimates range from €9.5bn upwards.

Underground railways are not often retrofitted through the central areas and inner suburbs of modern cities. Some are lucky enough to have systems dating back to the late 19th century, over 150 years ago in the pre-automobile world, but for the others, the costs of new-build underground railways are usually deemed prohibitive.

Alternatives include busways and bus priority, on-street trams, congestion charging and restraints on through traffic and under-priced parking.

All of these options are available in Dublin, several are under consideration and all would cost far less than MetroLink.

The bill for MetroLink is enormous, roughly five times the cost of the National Children’s Hospital (NCH) nearing completion in the southwest of the city, where the Government has just admitted a cost of €2.24bn. This is an overshoot of €1.4bn on the capital expenditure allocated as recently as 2018.

There has been no great public outrage about this latest overshoot. Oireachtas committees and the popular media have been obsessing instead about careless expenditure involving around €5m at State broadcaster RTÉ, a tiny fraction of what has gone astray at the NCH.

Long history

The overshoot at the NCH is the largest ever recorded in the long history of the State capital programme, almost 300 times the amounts reportedly mis-spent at RTÉ.

Resignations at RTÉ dominate the news coverage and one ex-minister has called for the dismissal of the entire board. There has not even been a hearing at the Oireachtas about the latest revelations from the NCH.

The capital cost of MetroLink could be more than the €9.5bn most often cited by journalists. Consultants to the project promoters, a State agency called Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII), have indicated a new figure of €11.9bn recently, although it may not be directly comparable to the earlier estimate.

When the “preliminary business case” was released by the promoters’ consultants, the engineers Jacobs/IDOM, two accompanying assessments from a group called Jaspers, a European Union affiliate, and the Major Projects Advisory Group, a committee of officials which assists the Department of Public Expenditure, were also released.

Both drew attention to assorted risks of cost escalation above the promoters’ figure and the eventual cost, bearing in mind the likely 10-year time-scale to commissioning, could be €20bn or even higher.

To this must be added whatever conditions might be imposed by An Bord Pleanála if they give the green light.

The bill for the Exchequer will have to be recomputed if An Bord Pleanála gives the go-ahead before a definitive cost-benefit analysis can be undertaken

They might require changes of route, a twin-bore rather than a single-bore tunnel, they might restrict cut-and-cover designs for stations or they could restrict night-time or weekend construction work, adding to cost.

Planned tunnel

They could also shorten the planned tunnel at the city end, which might avoid some cost.

The bill for the Exchequer will have to be recomputed if An Bord Pleanála gives the go-ahead before a definitive cost-benefit analysis can be undertaken, as required by the Public Spending Code for all major projects.

In evidence to the oral hearing last week, the present writer argued that MetroLink is most unlikely to survive a proper cost-benefit assessment and that the scheme, on which €300m has already been spent on design, consultations and public relations, should be abandoned.

The costs, even without further overshoots, are just too high and the benefits too low, either nebulous or capable of being delivered at lower cost without the colossal expense of MetroLink.

Dublin airport, unusually close to the city centre, has excellent bus services throughout the country and a public transport share comparable to many European airports that do have rail links.

Journey times to central Dublin, not in any event a big share of airport origins or destinations, are quick since the buses use the Port Tunnel, already built and paid for. So do buses from Swords, which has quicker public transport connections to the city than many other outer suburbs of the capital.

The project promoters have cited journey time savings from both Swords and the airport to the city, which are not credible given today’s bus timetables.

There are 1,000 scheduled bus services every day at the airport reaching every one of the 32 counties.

There is a long and well-documented history of megaprojects around the world seeking approval, and sometimes succeeding, based on under-estimation of costs and exaggeration of benefits.

The MetroLink looks like the latest, and by far the largest, example in Ireland to date, a solution in search of a problem.