The folly of restoration

Update March 2011: para added about the Royal Canal

The Irish Times of 31 January 2011 carries an article by Frank McDonald about the Enda Kenny (leader of the Fine Gael party) and the western rail corridor. The first sentence sums it up:

FINE GAEL leader Enda Kenny has lent his support to plans for a walking and cycling “greenway” on part of the western rail corridor, implicitly ruling out its reinstatement as a railway.

Part of the western rail corridor (the old Waterford, Limerick & Western Railway) has already been restored. Regular passenger services ceased in 1976 but a partial service between Limerick and Ennis resumed in 1988 and was gradually expanded. Services to Athenry and thus to Galway were reinstated in March 2010 at a cost of €106.5 million. Iarnród Éireann now wants to build two more stations on the route.

However, it seems likely to run at a loss. It is in competition with (and, I believe, slower than) the bus services run by Bus Éireann (which, like Iarnród Éireann, is part of CIE) on the newly-improved, publicly-funded N18/M18 road. Initial passenger numbers were said to be above “expectations”; that’s a standard approach in the Irish public service, where you frame your press release to highlight the good news that your performance is “above expectations” to distract attention from the fact that you’re still losing money (official statements on the economy passim). And, as on the waterways, you can expect higher numbers in the first few months as sightseers take once-in-a-lifetime trips.

On 10 March 2011 the Irish Times reported that passenger numbers were at about two thirds of the level assumed in the “business case”. A business case, like that produced for the Ulster Canal, is not a cost-benefit analysis.

So, despite the urgings of the enthusiasts, I hope that the government won’t be able to waste any more money on this scheme, and especially not on the northern end, which seems even less likely to pay for itself than the southern. As Brendan Quinn says:

[…] let’s use the track bed for something useful. The greenway idea will deliver something very cost-effectively and very quickly.

Wasting money on waterways

As with railways, so with waterways. The urgings of enthusiasts, and of the engineers who would get paid to do the work, have to be subjected to proper cost-benefit analysis, especially when the country is broke. Previous Irish restorations (the Lough Allen Canal, the Naas Branch of the Grand Canal) have not been shown to have justified the investment. I am not aware of any full study even of the most-used of the restored waterways, the Shannon–Erne Waterway, and I greatly fear that the investment in the Royal Canal will never be recouped.

In fact, I cannot see why the government ever committed itself to the restoration of the Royal. A look at the traffic levels on the Grand would surely have shown that there are very few canal enthusiasts who are willing to move their boats more than once or twice a year. The completion of the Royal would be justified only if the resultant availability of a ring route were to produce a major increase in the demand for boating on Irish canals, and such a demand (after the enthusiasts had completed their voyages in the first few years) could come only from the availability of a substantial hire fleet with considerable marketing to British narrowboaters. Meeting their needs, though, would need special arrangements to overcome certain obstacles. And for both aspects a usage plan would be needed, but I have seen no evidence that such a thing exists. As a result, I argue that it is now time to fill in the Royal but, for anyone determined to complete the ring, I offer some suggestions about how the trip might be tackled.

I have argued at length here that the Ulster Canal should not be restored. I hold the same view of my beloved Limerick Navigation: even without any cost-benefit analysis, I can see no point in having the old route restored to navigability, especially as there is already an under-used waterway to Limerick via Ardnacrusha. There might be a case for enabling boats to get through Parteen Villa Weir to travel as far as O’Briensbridge and perhaps Castleconnell (rowers and anglers permitting), but it would have to be shown to be a good investment.

Using waterways wisely

This is not to say, though, that old waterways should be ignored; the very existence of this website shows that I think they are worth visiting. I favour ensuring that the routes are in public hands, with walking or cycling routes provided (bypassing the houses, and respecting the rights and privacy, of people living along the routes, especially on the sites of old lock-houses). Where sections of waterways are in water, I favour keeping them open for small boats. I favour recording and conserving the artefacts (Waterways Ireland has already had the Shannon surveyed) and helping people to interpret them and their significance. And I favour marketing the routes and encouraging both domestic visitors and tourists: the industrial heritage market is ignored in the Waterways Ireland/Fáilte Ireland Lakelands and Inland Waterways Strategy.

But restoration? No. I’m open to being convinced, of course, and I support those engaging in voluntary work on waterways, but I see no future for large-scale publicly-funded waterways restoration projects in Ireland.

29 responses to “The folly of restoration

  1. Brian,when you boil down any restoration project to cash ,then nothing would get restored.Old houses,cars,barges,boats,canals ,would all be left to rot . Their heritage,rarity,amenity,aesthetic values to the local community or a wider inter/national public would not be taken into consideration. Boiling something down to just money is the work of accountants. Why do you own, maintain,and use an old barge?
    There is no doubt that the country has been dragged down by greedy people.The so called developers have contributed nothing only generating huge debts. The logic that ordinary taxpayers have to bail these people out is incomprehensible
    By downgrading canal and other projects to c.b.a., you also downgrade the many volunteers who work on restoration projects. They do this work because they have a dream.
    Yes ,the state has no spare money. Yet it has money for an Underground to the
    airport,rent for all those warehouses that store evoting machines etc. .
    There is always money. When the clamour for public money becomes a roar ,politicians always find money.
    The long term benefits of a restored canal cannot be measure in money terms. One has only to look at the formerly derelict villages along theSEW to realise the catalyst that the restored canal has been.
    Regards, PJN

  2. P J, with the greatest of respect, you are talking through your hat. I have no objection to your using your own money to restore or maintain your old boat, or to my wife’s using her money to maintain her old boat (or old husband), or to anyone, individual or group, using their own money or other resources, including their labour, to amuse themselves or to provide pleasure to others. What I object to is the use of misleading stories to extract money from taxpayers for purposes that simply don’t make sense. The government (I spit on its grave) has never claimed that it proposes to restore the Ulster Canal for its heritage value; indeed some folk think that its heritage value would be reduced by demolishing and rebuilding locks and by removing towing-paths from under bridges. The government seems to think that building a canal to Clones will convince Unionists that cross-border cooperation is a good thing, which is nonsense. And it is pretending that the Ulster Canal is a good investment, which its own figures show it isn’t. It is also, I would argue, in danger of misleading potential investors into thinking that canal-related businesses will be good invesstments, which I don’t think they will be.

    That the government is wasting money on all sorts of other rubbish doesn’t make it right that it should waste money on this. I know little about undergrounds and warehouses; I do know a bit about canals, so I’m making my contribution to saving the state (or reducing the interest bill) by tryng to stop the waste of money on the Clones canal.

    There is always money, but it has alternative uses. In this case, we still don’t know where the Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs proposes to get the money. It could borrow it from the IMF at around 6% or on the bond markets at around 9%. The Ulster Canal would be a good investment only if the return on the money, counting and valuing all benefits, exceeded the cost of the money. None of the government’s own reports shows such a return, and the Northern Ireland Executive has (quite rightly) refused to have anything to do with this proposal. Furthermore, there is an opportunity cost: there may well be other investment possibilities that will provide a higher rate of return, so the government should pursue them instead of this.

    It seems to me that you are starting from the position that derelict waterways must be restored and that you are inventing justifications for taking money from the taxpayer to support your hobby. The idiotic buying off of interest groups is what got this state into its present position; I suggest that we need more rather than less discipline in investment appraisal. And we also need to be careful about quoting the SEW as an example of the benefits of waterways restorations: it is arguable that most of the increased prosperity in the region is attributable to Sean Quinn.

    As for downgrading volunteers, were the citizens of Clones to start digging, I would applaud them. But I’m not going to be deterred from stating what I consider to be the truth by the possibility that I might hurt some people’s feelings.


  3. Having been involved in the Fifty year campaign for the restoration of the Droitwich Canals I have witnessed the complete change in public opinions from downright sabotage to 15,000 people attending the wonderful opening ceremonies on July 1st-3rd. 8o boats arrived bringing trade to the towns pubs and shops. It is now forecast several of the closed shops will be open in twelve months bringing considerable new trade to the town. Get on and restore the lost waterways and experience the benefits. Max Sinclair

  4. There are several restored waterways already. The benefits are exaggerated. But the cost-benefit ratio would be different if (as at Droitwich) there were considerable volunteer work and fund-raising. That won’t happen with the Ulster Canal, and volunteer input to the Royal has been insignificant in recent years. bjg

  5. Hi Brian,

    Food for thought in these tight times… from a ‘blow-in’s’ persepctive it would be a shame to see these restored waterways now be allowed to return to mother nature…
    If the G&S can captivate me as it has then I’m sure many more will start using the canals… non boat use will increase… hopefully making it all worthwhile!

    Vossie aka AJ

    PS, may I palce a link on my blogroll please?

  6. On the linkl: by all means; I’ve done the same.
    On waterways: it would indeed be a shame to see a restored or functioning waterway dried out, but it would be wrong to spend money maintaining something used by only a handful of people. As far as I know, WI has no plan to increase use (I’ll be very glad to hear of it if it has). bjg

  7. While your economic argument is utterly sound it is inevitable that money saved by a sensible analysis of canal, railway and other restorations would be gobbled up by equally wasteful causes like public sector increments or toner cartridges! The only way to win in this broken system is to be selfish and fight for your own interest no matter how hair-brained it may be.

    P.S. Have you ever visited Kilkenny to see the remains of the Canal that never was? There are a few bridges and features that would fit in nicely on your site.

  8. The tragedy of the commons …. I continue to hope that challenging lunacy can make a difference.

    I have material on the Nore in preparation (amongst many other topics) but haven’t got all the Kilkenny features photographed yet. Kilkenny County Council has been doing a heritage audit of the Nore and has accumulated much material. bjg

  9. Pingback: ULSTER CANAL CLONES | FisherBelfast's Blog

  10. Hi Brian, et al. I initially blew cold, then luke warm for a period, but now cold again on the sense of restoring the Ulster Canal. I find myself in agreement with much of your analysis.

    I was similarly unsure of the Royal but was impressed by the waves of enthusiasm from folks and groups who had campaigned over many years to get it reopened, however idealistic it was rather than logical. It does indeed seem to be a white elephant with little traffic opportunity on the horizon after the short lived and well predicted reopening traffic and the ‘green and silver’ voyages. However it is there now so ‘selling’ it as a destination to overseas narrow boat users may have some merit, but I can’t see the figures stacking up.

    The proposed restoration of a short segment of the Ulster canal only as far as Clones seems an insane waste of money considering it will always be a cul-de-sac generating little traffic traffic. The funding to complete it as far as Lough Neagh is never going to happen. Any analysis of Lough Neagh usage does not suggest it would generate traffic for the UC. Lough Neagh’s unpopularity in the boating community despite its close proximity to Belfast is a separate and complex topic. The aspiration to reopen the UC seems more inspired by ideology and emotion than logical reasons and measurable benefits. We already have a phenomenally extensive and beautiful inland waterways infrastructure that has received incredible investment in the past 15years. Why do we demand and expect as some sort of moral or heritage right, to have more added, when what we have already is under utilised. I always felt quality is better than quantity. I realise in some well intentioned quarters it seems like ‘heresy’ to suggest the ‘folly’ of some restorations, but the UC to clones would be a bridge too far. The numbers do not and never will stack up no matter how eloquently or evocatively the case is put. Better to maintain and develope what we have already. Noel

    Ps. I realise this is a very very dated response.

  11. Noel

    Greetings; thanks for the comment. Your reply may be dated but it is still relevant as the proponents of the Clones Sheugh continue to seek funding and, in Limerick, some folk want the Park Canal restored for a water bus to the university. And, without your efforts and those of Pat Lysaght, Limerick would see even less boating traffic than it does.

    I agree about the Royal: it is now a sunk cost so the best option is to try to get it used more, but there is no case for any more restorations. The absence of financial records of the full cost of the Royal means that there is no evidence (as far as I know) that restoration of any Irish waterway has ever been worthwhile. (The SEW might have been, but I would want to see a proper economic study.)

    I am interested in what you say about Lough Neagh and would like to know more about its unpopularity.


  12. I’ve just recently found your very comprehensive and entertaining site. I find my opinion on restoration of waterways very close to your own. I’m a volunteer navvy on the Newry canal who thinks it should be restored first of all the derelict canals in the country. I’m happy to help do the digging and don’t expect government to fund everything. I don’t support spending tonnes of money on re-building the Ulster canal especially in the manner currently proposed. Building a new boat motorway makes no sense whatever. Those using the Ulster as a cross border tool would do better to think about road building/upgrade. The Newry canal on the other hand does have restoration merit and could be done relatively cheaply as the line of the waterway is intact and a lot of its infrastructure is usable. Our industrial heritage has been largely ignored in Ireland when compared to England and the Newry has impeccable heritage credentials being the oldest summit canal in the UK and Ireland. I don’t believe that the Newry canal needs to be restored to accommodate big white motorboats or even the heritage barges that were built in Portadown foundry and might once have used the waterway. I want to see it restored to a usable condition for canoes and small boats. Leave the bridges in Newry as they are, don’t bother trying to widen the waterway to its original 45 feet. Just get rid of the overhanging trees and weed growth, reinstate the locks and get on with using it. The reinstated towpath sees 200,000 visits a year, admittedly a lot of this is repeat business but it does show high usage by local people. I’m a member of the IWAI and there seems to be this idea at the top of this association that the Ulster canal must be done first, then the other lobby groups can fight over who’s next. Surely it makes more sense to start with the easiest and get it used. Maybe that would generate enthusiasm in the citizens of Clones etc to get their own shovels out.

  13. Phew! Someone who [at least to some extent] agrees with me! Is this a first?

    Seriously, I may say that I have a lot more time for those like the Newry/Portadown folk who are out there themselves with shovels than those seeking taxpayer funding for everything. I am glad that many peopole walk the line of the Newry; it is some years since I last visited it but I was impressed by the information boards explaining the canal: something we could do with more of on other canals.

    The future of the canals (if they have one) depends on driving down the costs and driving up both the revenue and the other benefits. I don’t see restoration to [or even maintenance at] cruising standards as meeting either of those objectives, whereas use by walkers, cyclists, canoeists and small-boat users offers better prospects.

    Here, for other readers, are links to the Newry & Portadown group website and Facebook page.

    I’m currently working on another piece about steam on the Newry Canal; here is an existing piece.

    See you on 7 March.


  14. I’m looking forward to it. 3 different visions of the future on offer??

  15. I expect so …. bjg

  16. I was pleasantly surprised that, whilst the endless blether about the Ulster Canal continues to show zero results on the ground, the Newry branch of the IWAI have quietly gone and restored the entire 4 mile summit level to of the Newry Canal to navigation for small craft! They seem very modest about their achievement – it happened months ago and I saw no press release anywhere…. just perfunctory mention in the PDF newsletter on their webpage. New working lock gates have been fitted and everything! All done with shovels and no €uromillions required.

  17. Yes indeed. That is one of the few IWAI branches that does serious improvement work (Boyne is the other I can think of, but perhaps there are more). bjg

  18. For me, this rather begs the question why similar progress cannot be made on the Lagan Navigation. We currently have the daft situation where bazillions of pounds have been spent restoring locks and putting perishable wooden gates on them (Lock 3, Lock 12) but the adjacent channel itself, whilst intact and not built on, is left dry/clogged/full of vegetation. Why don’t some stout fellows with shovels dig it clear and rewater those sections?

  19. I have no information, I’m afraid. You could ask these chaps (and tell them how to spell “principal” while you’re talking to them). Maybe they’d like someone to organise shovellers for them. bjg

  20. Thanks for your fascinating website! I was a bit surprised by your negative opinion on canal restoration. I was hoping to take a week on the Royal Canal recently, but no boats were available for hire; I am quite sure if there were boats for hire, and it were marketed effectively in UK and Europe, there would be plenty of takers and this canal and the Grand could be economically viable. Canal cruising is the ultimate “quality time”, but as an industry it does need the right kind of initial investment. You don’t have to look far for positive examples; just across the Irish Sea. It hasn’t been done properly here yet. The Royal and the Grand should be linked across the Liffey in Dublin, and the whole needs to be marketed properly in the UK and Europe.

  21. The thing is that there were boats for hire, but the business wasn’t there. There were, at one time, four hire-fleets on the Barrow (as well as a number of other waterway-based enterprises); they’re all gone, although there are individual boats available. And there are still two small fleets on the Barrow Line of the Grand. But the Main Line of the Grand suffered greatly when Celtic Canal Cruisers closed down and the Royal when Leisureways did so.

    The capital outlay required to build a self-sustaining fleet — one large enough to pay the salaries of, say, a manager/marketing person, a mechanic and an administrator/accountant — would be very high and the cost of an effective marketing campaign would be high too. You can keep going for some time as a one-man-band with on-call mechanics and temporary helpers, but that won’t get the international marketing done.

    Britain has a much higher population, with many more people interested in canals; the age profile of canal-boat owners in Britain is different from that of inland boat-owners in Ireland (I think). Even boat-owners here use the canals very little; there seem to be very few people willing to spend money in order to holiday on the canals. And the Shannon and Erne are just, for most people, more attractive and easier to use.


  22. We’ve had this debate round in circles before, and doubtless you’ve done more research than anyone else here into the actual financial side, but I have to say, having hired in England half a dozen times, and once on the Royal in Ireland (2013), that the facilities on the Royal were ridiculous – on the stretch I was on, they amounted to about one water tap and a litter bin. And we couldn’t get further cos the canal was blocked with a fallen tree and no-one had noticed.
    It’s chicken and egg, I concede, but with such underinvestment in facilities, they were never going to attract the bookings.

  23. Given that even Waterways Ireland can’t say what the total cost of the restoration was, I don’t know what basis you can have for saying there was “underinvestment”. But the facilities on the Grand are better; why aren’t there vast numbers of happy holidaymakers there?

    The investment in the Royal was a waste of money; no amount of further spending will bring about any reasonable return on investment. It would be just good money after bad. It’s now a sunk cost: write it off, close it to navigation and forget about it.


  24. You have never seemed to grasp my complaints about facilities for holiday boaters or the competance of these hire companies to even run a website to take bookings (I remember seeing several which were a couple of years out of date…).
    Maybe this ‘relaxed’ attitude is part of the unique Irish cultural experience ;) but when you are in direct competition with competent flashy companies in England, France, Germany etc, people never were going to give their €1000 or more hard-earned euros to the company that you can’t even be sure is still in business this season.
    But any time I’ve said this in the past you’ve had some flippant comment to make about why, despite basically being half-assed rubbish, that wasn’t the reason they did poor business and it wouldn’t have help if they hadn’t been half-assed. Respectfully, I remain unconvinced by this reasoning :)

  25. If you have complaints about hire companies, please direct them to those companies (if they still exist). I am talking about spending public money. Much has been spent; it has produced no useful return; I do not want more public money wasted. bjg

  26. there can never be any economic growth without investment in infrastructure. Out of interest, what percentage of its GDP does Ireland currently spend on inland waterways? You would know if anyone does!

  27. We could spend billions building round towers, or useless bridges over Carlingford Lough, or reopening old railway lines. These might be classed as investment in infrastructure but they would waste large amounts of money, just as HMG’s investment in the Shannon in the 1840s wasted large amounts of money. What you want is productive investment, stuff that might generate a return. And if there are competing projects, you choose the one with the best ROI. Additions to the waterway network (Royal Canal, Shannon through Limerick, River Suck, Lough Allen), especially dead ends, have not increased tourist business.


  28. well I’d wager that’s cos the facilities/amenities on them were rubbish, as were most of the companies trying to do hire businesses.
    Reminds me of when the facilties at that UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Giant’s Causeway, used to be one litter bin, an pot-holed non-tarmaced car-park big enough for 7 cars, no toilets, and a Mr Whippy van on August bank holidays.

    Anyways, what is Waterways Ireland’s annual bloc grant budget? And what percentage of Ireland’s GDP and of total Irish public sector spending does that represent? Do we have those figures?
    I’d be surprised if it came to more than a few tenths of a percent. And how does it compare with the budget for roads and for rail?

  29. This is the last of your comments that I will publish. bjg

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