9 September, 2023
The Journal, by Paul O’Donoghue

This was already pretty obvious. But what hasn’t been clear is how it stacks up compared to other underground rail projects.

As this would be the first metro in Ireland’s history, there are no domestic points of comparison. So we have to look abroad. Happily, a recent study can help us do exactly that.

The report comes from Britain Remade, a campaign group focused on improving UK economic growth, which looked at the inflation-adjusted cost of delivering underground rail projects.

Much of its data pulls from a project by New York University, which created a database of transit project costs from around the world in an effort to discover why transport developments in New York were so expensive.

The Britain Remade study looks at 42 underground rail/metro developments, which are located in 14 countries.

These included nations which Ireland would often compare itself to – the UK, United States, Canada, Australia and several countries in continental Europe.

The figures show the projected cost for the MetroLink will likely make it one of the most expensive underground rail lines in the world once completed.

The Britain Remade study looked at the cost of developments in pounds sterling per mile.

The UK projects it examined had an average cost of £676m per mile.

This was behind just Canada (£717m per mile) and the United States, by far the most expensive at £1.25bn per mile.

However, when these two are removed, the UK’s costs far outstrip its European peers.

British projects were found to be twice as expensive as those in Italy or France, three times more expensive than Germany, and six times more expensive than Spain.

So, how does MetroLink stack up? The current most realistic estimate of the potential cost of MetroLink has been identified as €9.5 billion. Convert it to sterling, and it becomes £8.16bn.

The MetroLink’s final length is estimated to be 18.8 kilometres, much of which is to run underground. Converted, it becomes 11.7 miles.

Dividing this into the budget gets a rough cost estimate – this amounts to £697m per mile.

Above the UK average, behind just Canada and the US, and far ahead of continental Europe.

There are a few things to note here. First, the study is a snapshot, which includes several projects developed years ago.

While it uses the Consumer Price Index to adjust for inflation, it seems likely that metro construction costs generally have increased faster than inflation in recent years. However, this does still not fully account for the difference, with recently constructed projects in Spain and Italy still far, far cheaper than the proposed cost of the MetroLink.

So the question becomes – why will MetroLink be so expensive compared to countries in Europe?

First, it should be recognised that MetroLink will be Ireland’s first underground metro project, ever. Countries such as Spain, which have far greater experience delivering such developments, also have far greater efficiencies. Starting from scratch is usually harder.

Officials also seem to be struggling to get an accurate cost estimate finalised. In 2018, the cost of MetroLink was estimated to be €3 billion.

By 2022, this had ballooned to its current figure of €9.5 billion, which few would bet against rising further by the time the project is finally delivered.

The difficulty in pinning down a firm budget is likely due to another consistent problem which has plagued MetroLink – delays. A version of the project was seriously proposed in 2005. Almost 20 years later, construction is still yet to start.

There are the obvious costs of this, with an estimated €300m already having been spent drawing up, tearing up, and re-drawing up plans for the project. The time is also a factor, with each year of delay costing millions more.

This is a consistent issue. For example, in 2015, the National Transport Authority (NTA), one of the state bodies overseeing the project announced that the then-Metro North would be operational by 2026. The most recent estimates project MetroLink services will now start in 2034.

More slippage would be unsurprising and would further add to the final bill.

In a statement to The Journal, the NTA said that “no two projects are the same” and said that MetroLink costs could not be easily compared to projects internationally.

The Department of Transport made a similar argument, saying that MetroLink should not be compared with “lower-capacity and lower-cost systems such as light rail which run underground, but rather similar high-capacity lines”.

While this should be considered, even taking the difficulty with comparisons into account, MetroLink still looks expensive by international standards, even if it sticks to its budget.

And this looks unlikely. The most recent cost estimate for MetroLink was a range of between €7.2bn and €12.3bn, with €9.5bn “considered the median scenario”.

However, the Department of Transport said in its statement to The Journal: “It should be noted that these figures were provided last year and so will be impacted by inflation.”

In response to further queries, the Department said: “The NTA is currently reviewing the cost estimates across a number of transport projects in line with the latest inflation trends.

“These cost estimates will be reviewed by the Department at the appropriate points as the projects progress.”

At the very least, this review will likely see the €9.5bn figure rise by a few hundred million to account for 2023 inflation.

The government is keen to emphasise the benefits of MetroLink, which will be significant once delivered.

It will provide a rail link to the airport, will save workers commuting into the city thousands of hours which would otherwise have been spent sitting in traffic, and will open up new parts of the city to development.

And the Department’s point around comparing like-with-like is reasonable, as some of the projects included in the Britain Remain report do not need the same tunnelling work or are not as high-capacity rail.

But keeping a lid on costs is important as well. And the figures give a decent idea of where MetroLink stands internationally. Even with all the mitigating factors in mind, MetroLink’s final bill is likely to be big, and it is one which rises with every delay.