August 20, 2007

From Dublin to Paris…via Belfast?

The summer is a time for mad ideas, they say. So as summer turns into autumn, here is one slightly mad, visionary idea involving cooperation between Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and beyond. A Dublin reader of this ‘Note’ has pointed me towards a recent article in the Economist1 about Europe’s new high-speed (above 250 kilometres per hour) continent-wide rail marketing network, stretching from Seville to Stockholm, from Naples to Glasgow.

According to this article, Europe is “in the grip of a high-speed rail revolution,” led by France and Germany’s state-owned railways. With international passenger rail services being opened up to competition from 2010, the writer believes that “the prospects for Europe’s trains have hardly been better since the great age of steam.”

My Dublin reader remarked on the map accompanying the article, which showed that the only country in Western Europe not connected to this network was Ireland. Noting that the closest point between Ireland and Britain is the North Channel separating Northern Ireland and Galloway in south west Scotland, he suggested that a high-speed rail link could be built between Dublin, Belfast and Glasgow, via a bridge or tunnel across that narrow seaway (21 miles wide at its closest point), thus connecting Ireland, via London, into the European network.

The arguments against such a hugely ambitious proposal can be easily listed, led by the extremely high cost of building a bridge or tunnel between two under-populated and peripheral regions of Britain and Ireland. The 22.5 mile road bridge between Shanghai and Ningbo (believed to be the longest sea-crossing bridge in the world), which is due to open in 2009, is costing around Stg£750 million in a country with one of the industrialised world’s lowest labour costs – although a more relevant comparison might be the €5 billion (Stg£3.4 billion) the Irish government is proposing to spend on a 10.5 mile rail link from Dublin airport to the city centre. The Stranraer-Glasgow line would also have to be expensively upgraded.

But the arguments in favour are worth hearing too. Firstly, such a link would provide a massive boost to economic and social links between both parts of Ireland and Scotland, something a lot of people, including the Taoiseach and both the Northern Irish and Scottish First Ministers, view as an unadulterated good. Secondly it would take pressure off Ireland’s increasingly overloaded, and therefore unsustainable, airports (one statistic: there were over 21 million passenger journeys from Dublin Airport last year, equivalent to each person in the country making five air journeys, and almost half of these were to the UK).

Thirdly it would open Ireland, North and South, up to much faster, and therefore greater, British and European trade and tourism opportunities. And fourthly it would give an enormous boost to the idea of the Dublin-Belfast corridor as the vehicle for the next stage in the island of Ireland’s economic development.

It could even go further. It could facilitate what the Dublin architects Heneghan.Peng, in an exhibit as part of Ireland’s prize-winning contribution to the last year’s International Architecture Biennale at Venice, call the ‘ElastiCity.’2 This is a futuristic city that instead of clustering around a traditional dense urban core, would stretch as multi-centred metropolis composed of a series of nodes along an infrastructure link like a river or a railway. It would avoid the kind of unguided and unsustainable urban sprawl that Dublin has experienced over the past decade, the architects claim. Their idea is for an east coast linear city between Dublin and Wexford stretching along a new high-speed rail link from Dublin to London, via a bridge linking Rosslare and South Wales.

Our northern version of the east coast linear city has two clear advantages over this. Firstly, the bridge to Wales would have to be 50 miles long, making it the longest bridge in the world by a distance and almost certainly an engineering and financial challenge too far. Secondly, the development of a Dublin-Belfast economic corridor through existing major urban areas such as Drogheda, Dundalk, Newry and Craigavon is already a 15 year old working concept, enthusiastically espoused by spatial planners in both Irish jurisdictions.

If our northern ‘rail crescent’ dream comes true, the outcome by the year 2030 could be something like this: the European commuter or tourist could take a 300 kilometre per hour train from Dublin’s Connolly Station at four in the afternoon (and Belfast Central at 4.40) and arrive at London’s King’s Cross at 8 pm and Paris’s Gare du Nord at 11.30 pm. Now wouldn’t that turn even the most sceptical Ulsterman into an enthusiastic European?

Andy Pollak

1 European railways form an alliance to promote swifter international travel, The Economist, 5 July 2007
2 Sub Urban to Super Rural, Irish Architecture Foundation, 2006