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.