EU cities are light years ahead of Cork

The proposal for a light rail transport system in Cork city has won many backers. DAVID FORSYTHE assesses how similar-sized cities have gone ahead with their plans, and compares their route length and stops to the ones for Cork
EU cities are light years ahead of Cork

LIGHT YEARS AHEAD: The light rail system in Brest, France, is similar to the one proposed for Cork

WITH the recent publication of the draft Cork Metropolitan Area Transport Strategy 2040, proposals for the city’s future transport network are once again being seriously discussed.

The draft plan outlines a number of ideas, among them a vastly improved commuter rail service with additional stations; a much expanded priority bus network; more park and rides and an improved road network.

The headline-grabbing proposal though was a LUAS-style light rail system linking Ballincollig to Mahon via the city centre.

The idea of light rail for Cork was first seriously raised by the Green Party in 2006, but back then it was dismissed as an aspirational idea and not really realistic for a city the size of Cork. Now, with the green agenda being taken much more seriously by all political parties and a growing public demand for more sustainable policies in general, the idea no longer seems quite so fanciful.

The proposals, however, have not met with universal support; there are those on the one hand who still see it as an extravagance for a city like Cork, while many others see it as not ambitious enough.

The proposed light rail system as outlined would not begin construction until 2031 at the earliest and would be preceded by a high-capacity bus rapid transit (BRT) type system along the same route. The route itself would run from a new park and ride to the west of Ballincollig to Mahon Point via CIT, CUH, UCC and the city centre. The 17km route would have 25 stops and cost an estimated €1 billion.

Green Party councillor Dan Boyle, one of those behind the initial proposal in 2006, has been a long-time advocate of light rail as part of Cork’s transport network. He believes the new plan lacks the ambition needed if public transport usage is to grow significantly in Cork.

“The timetable is godawful,” he said. “The proposed route makes sense, it’s along the lines of what we were suggesting 10-years ago, but the idea of a guided busway is a bad one. You have to frontload the investment in transport infrastructure if you really want to see results and of course the whole thing has to be maintained once it’s built so there is that to consider too.”

So what is possible for a city like Cork?

The reality is that light rail is nothing new here. The city once had an extensive electric tram system reaching Blackpool, Douglas, Blackrock, Sundays Well and Tivoli. It was also the centre of a comprehensive local rail network connecting Macroom, Skibbereen, Bandon, Clonakilty, Coachford, Youghal and Cobh. Only the line to Cobh survives, but as we reassess car usage, particularly within cities, it would seem that rail is no longer a relic of the past but must be central to future planning.

In Europe, urban rail has seen a massive revival in recent decades with dozens of cities building light-rail systems. Many cities a similar size to Cork already have them and many more are in the planning stage.

Brest, capital of France’s Brittany region, opened its new tramway system in 2012. The network has 28 stops on a 14km route that splits into two separate branches. Since opening, the system has been regarded as a major success carrying more than 50,000 passengers per day. Construction began in 2009, taking three years to complete at an overall cost of €383 million.

In Spain, the city of Granada had, like Cork, once operated an extensive electric tram network that finally stopped running in 1974. Planning of the new light rail system began in 2002. Construction, including three underground stations in the city centre, began in 2007. Due to the financial crisis, however, the system was not completed until 2017, five years behind schedule. The system is 16km long, includes 26 stations, and was built for a total cost of €560 million.

A little closer to home, the city of Belfast has recently introduced a bus rapid transit (BRT) system called Glider. BRTs are a lower cost alternative to light rail using segregated busways. The Glider system has two routes extending to 24.5km, using a mix of dedicated lanes and regular streets with construction costing about £90 million. It uses specially designed diesel/electric hybrid articulated buses that resemble trams, running at high frequencies. The Glider system was initially planned in 2014 and buses began running in September, 2018. According to operator Translink, passenger numbers have increased by 20% on the routes served by Glider since the system began operating, representing an additional 33,000 passengers per week.

There are many other examples of systems like these already operating across Europe and more begin operating every year.

COMPARISON TABLE

City: Cork, Ireland

Population: 210,000

System length: 17km (proposed)

Stops: 25 (proposed)

City: Brest, France

Population: 142,000

System length: 14.8km

Stops: 28

City: Granada, Spain

Population: 232,000

System length: 16km

Stops: 26

City: Belfast, Northern Ireland

Population: 340,000

System length: 24.5km

Stops: 58

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