I RECENTLY returned home to rural Ireland from college after living in Cork city for the past few months and realised what Budget 2021 may mean for the future of public transport in rural Ireland.
In this budget, which was dwarfed by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, more than €3 billion in funding was secured for the transport sector. After hearing the news, I was optimistic; however, upon further research, I cannot help but feel that an opportunity to implement better transport services in rural towns and villages has been missed.
There has been an increase in funding in the attempt to combat climate change following the demand for more climate-friendly transport options, as seen through the rise of the Green Party and climate protests occurring around the nation.
This is most apparent in the €1.8 billion funding secured for sustainable transport.
This was a very welcome change as many claimed Budget 2020 did not go far enough with the funding it allocated for public transport, let alone for sustainable methods of transport.
Unfortunately, when it comes to rural Ireland, most transport funding focuses on the maintenance of roads as opposed to establishing or developing other forms of public transport.
While it is promising to see such an increase in funding for sustainable transport, one could raise the question as to whether introducing 30-odd new greenways across the country was the correct decision.
The merits of greenways are obvious, as they do encourage cycling and walking, which is great for the environment, tourism and public health in rural Ireland, where a lot of these proposed greenways will be built.
Greenways draw crowds, but do not aid the environment if residents of the surrounding areas and tourists need to drive to reach them.
There must be more of an emphasis on providing rural Ireland with more public transport services such as rebuilding and repairing these train tracks that often accompany these greenway routes.
The Waterford Greenway has been an astounding success, which has led to the discussion of extending it from Waterford to Rosslare. While the project may seem exciting, it does also mean the abandoned railway line connecting the two will be torn up to achieve this aim. This may have consequences for both tourists and transport for rural transport activists as it cuts off the chance of connecting one of Ireland’s biggest seaports to Munster.
The extension of this greenway misses the opportunity to promote connectivity between the provinces.
Surely connecting rural Ireland with urban centres and key transport hubs such as ports is an environmental must, to encourage motorists to opt for public transport over their own personal vehicles.
When looking to our European counterparts, it is difficult not to be envious of the transport links they have linking the country’s major hubs as in Ireland we sometimes fail to link ours. The major difference between Ireland and other countries in Europe is they link rural towns and villages to major hubs through a range of public transport services such as trams, buses and even the introduction of high-speed trains. For example, even small towns such as Pont l’Évêque in Normandy have public transport links to the capital. which is located over 190km away from Paris.
As I know from my own travelling experiences during the charity event Jailbreak, I was able to get from Bojnice in central Slovakia to the capital of Bratislava over 180km away via public transport.
The most sickening thing when comparing Ireland to other European countries is that there used to be these types of services available here more than 100 years ago in the shape of the Irish train system.
I encourage the reader to look up a map of the Irish rail system in the 1920s, it shows that Ireland was more connected through rail in 1920 than the country is in 2020.
Nowadays, there are no train services to Donegal and very limited services to the north-west in general. The West Cork region has also lost all its train services and it has led to the people here being dependent on Bus Éireann, who have been criticised for the expensive fares they charge to even get to towns such as Bandon and Kinsale, let alone the likes of Glengarriff and Bantry.
The loss of our rail system should be considered a major blow to both rural and urban Ireland.
While it may appear like a losing battle to get public transport in rural Ireland, there is a glimmer of hope, in the form of the introduction of the Local Link bus schemes from the National Transport Authority in 2007, which has become more common around the country in the last decade.
These buses have been rural Ireland’s saving grace when it comes to providing public transport to small towns and villages. A great thing about them are their affordable fares, for example most adult tickets cost €3 one way for an adult ticket and €1.50 for students.
Are these local link buses the answer to getting Ireland connected again?
Undeniably, there have been positives from Budget 2021, but I fear we have missed a chance to bring more public transport to rural Ireland which would cut down on emissions caused by motorists and provide rural villages and towns with much needed transport links.
So perhaps the fundamental question here when looking at the greenways versus public transport argument, is why must rural Ireland settle for one over the other. Why not both?