THERE has been much talk in recent times about the possibility of a light rail system for Cork, stretching from South Lee to North and the Docks to Curraheen and beyond.
While light rail is seen as an effective solution to a growing problem, the costs and lengthy timelines associated with implementing it have been highlighted.
Speaking to The Echo, Dr Jerry Murphy, Director of the Research Centre for Marine and Renewable Energy Ireland (MaREI) and professor of Civil Engineering at University College Cork, explained: “Construction of light rail systems are very disruptive to a city and are expensive.
“In laying rail through a city, existing underground services need to be moved, roads are dug up, re-laid and overhead electrical power systems constructed.
“The construction process takes years and causes much pain to city centre traders who see reduction in business,” he added.
“The end product of the tram system has huge benefits to city traders and houses served by the tram leading to increased property prices, increased city centre footfall and overall improvement of city life.
“However, the tram routes are fixed and improvement in town planning is limited to the areas served by the tram.”
Dr Murphy explained that there is another solution and one that would suit Cork.
“A TramBus, also known as Bus Rapid Transit, is a tram without rail,” he said.
“It looks exactly the same as the light rail but it is not powered directly from electricity via overhead lines.
“The TramBus in Nimes is an electric hybrid with on average 80% of the fuel from biogas and 20% from batteries,” he explained.
“Use of biogas incorporates a circular economy system.
“For example, if we treat the food waste of a city through anaerobic digestion we would create a sufficient quantity of biogas to power the city bus fleet. Alternatively, the TramBus in may operate on hydrogen such as in Pau, France. London Bus envisage hydrogen buses with the hydrogen produced from an offshore wind farm in Kent, with the buses produced by Wrightbus in Ballymena.”
Dr Murphy explained there are many benefits to the TramBus system that are not there when it comes to light rail, including flexibility and cost.
“The TramBus is flexible — any fuel can be used and the route is not fixed,” he said.
“The construction costs have been suggested as up to 10 times less than a light rail system.”
Far from being a stopgap for an eventual light rail system, Dr Murphy explained that a TramBus system has the potential to be a long term solution.
“The TramBus is a cost-efficient means of carrying out all the functions of light rail,” he said.
“The construction costs and time are far less.
“It has greater reach than a conventional light rail system, as it is not dependent on rail in the ground,” he added.
“It can use any fuel, though obviously climate-neutral fuels produced in Ireland with minimal impact on air quality, such as biogas or hydrogen hybrid battery systems are preferable.
“It must be planned in an integrated manner including for restrictions on private cars, enhancement of cycling infrastructure and optimisation of street layout for pedestrians for the overall enhancement of city life to city dwellers.”
Dr Murphy explained that, to attract people out of their cars and into a TramBus, it must be attractive to the commuter.
“It must be incorporated into a wider integrated town planning system, with exclusion or limitation, of privately owned cars from city centres,” he said.
“This can be affected by either a car exclusion zone or expensive congestion charges as in London.
“The main entrances to the city would be served with a number of park-and-rides outside the exclusion zone,” he added.
“These must be of high standard, similar to the Black Ash, and include for cycling infrastructure, charging points for EVs and stops for the TramBus. The TramBus needs a dedicated lane to itself which is not problematic as it has the capacity of three lanes of traffic.”
Dr Murphy explained that as well as improving air quality and reducing congestion in cities, initiatives that focus on clean transport and reduced cars have the power to prevent pedestrian and cyclist deaths.
“Oslo has replaced on-street parking with cycling infrastructure and broader footpaths, reduced access to cars and reduced speed limits,” he said.
“The output of this is zero pedestrian and cyclist deaths in Oslo.
“Studies have shown the worst air quality in cities can be found around schools, because people sit in cars with the engine running waiting for their children,” he added.
“Oslo introduced ‘heart zones’ around schools to protect students walking and cycling, including excluding cars in the vicinity of the schools during school hours.
“The Netherlands is an example of a country that has embraced cycling.
“Utrecht in the Netherlands has recently built the world’s largest multi-storey parking area for 12,500 bikes.”
Dr Murphy explained that there will be a time when we look back at the “folly of streets full of one-tonne cars, carrying one person, emitting particles affecting air quality and greenhouse gases, whilst killing 150 people a year”.
“With efficient TramBus systems, car exclusion or limitation, and managed cycling infrastructure, our cities can be optimised for people,” he said.
“We can reduce pedestrian and cyclist deaths, improve air quality and the health of our school children,” he added.
“On-street markets and outdoor restaurants can greatly improve the tourist experience.
“Trucks can be permitted for delivery of goods, taxis for tourists and those with limited movement, but the city centre would become walkable and healthy.”
As well as the environmental impact a TramBus system would have on Cork, Dr Murphy explained that the ethical reasons for supporting such an initiative must be explored.
The government’s Climate Action Plan set out a goal of having close to one million electric vehicles (EVs) on Irish roads by 2030.
“This is a very big ask considering the 12,500 EVs in Ireland now,” said Dr Murphy.
“Worldwide, there are suggestions of one billion EVs by 2050.
“Electric Vehicles have environmental and ethical impacts associated with supply of materials used in the lithium-ion batteries that power EVs, in particular, cobalt, the majority of which is produced in the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” he added.
“Mining of cobalt is associated with use of child labour in very poor working conditions.
“There are serious doubts that the materials required for lithium-ion batteries can be produced in a sustainable, ethical manner to meet projected supply.”
Dr Murphy also explained that replacing every petrol and diesel car with an EV in itself will not have an impact on traffic congestion and road fatalities.
“Town planning needs to change to prioritise public transport, cycling and pedestrianisation,” he said.
“A lane of road can cater for about 800 cars per hour; or about 1,000 people per hour.
“A tram with a capacity of 230 people and frequency of one every five minutes can move 2,700 people per hour; this is equivalent to three lanes of road traffic.”