Irish Rail have announced plans to upgrade their rail network with the aim of bringing down travel times between the major cities to under two hours.  This move would require a state investment of an extra €175 million between 2012 and 2016.  This follows a similar scheme previously implemented, which brought down travel times between Dublin and Cork to less than three hours.  The plan to enhance the service will presumably involve additional tracks and upgrading of the fleet.

Irish Rail suggest that this investment is necessary because, with the shorter travel times offered by the new motorways, they cannot compete with car journeys.  The company suggested they have noticed a decline in passenger numbers, which will need to be counteracted through providing faster services.

As a regular rail user this announcement does not instil me with confidence that my experience on Irish trains will greatly improve.  Rather it strikes me that this investment will be misplaced.  It seems to me, from my own perspective and from speaking to others, that the most prohibitive factor to rail travel is not travel times but price.  A return ticket between Dublin and Cork, a journey I regularly take, now costs around €80.  You can do the same journey (albeit somewhat less comfortably) by bus for around €20.  More significantly perhaps, you could make the trip in a (small) car for the cost of around €50 in petrol.  It simply does not make sense that travelling on a train with a few hundred other passengers would be significantly more expensive than travelling alone by car.  Over the last number of months, the cheaper seats that Irish Rail had introduced to bring up passenger numbers on certain trains have been steadily withdrawn.  While ticket prices remain this expensive, I believe, passenger numbers are unlikely to go up regardless of improvements in travel times.  There is very little incentives to use public transport in Ireland.  If an investment of this sort were to be made, perhaps a better use of this money would be to subsidise ticket prices, thus allowing Irish Rail to increase their passenger numbers with the view to making these lower ticket prices more sustainable if more people were to be convinced to use the rail network on a regular basis.  Of course, economies of scale play a part in all this.  Countries with more efficient and cheaper rail networks often tend to have larger populations that Ireland.  Nevertheless, I do not believe increased speeds will play as decisive a role as Irish Rail are making out, and if anything may result in further increases in ticket prices thus making rail usage more and not less prohibitive.

Cian O’Callaghan

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