Our Co. Councillors voted last week in favour of a greenway proposal for East Cork. The plans are clear that “the proposed greenway will generally extend along the disused railway corridor” between Youghal and Midleton. There is no provision for running the greenway alongside the railway corridor.
The unanimous Council result did not reflect the divided views of East Cork residents, many of whom see no end in sight to being stuck in traffic every day. As the region is increasingly in the grip of congestion it is terribly short-sighted to put an invaluable asset for dealing with that problem out of use indefinitely.
Greenways have multiple health and economic benefits. They connect rural communities and draw revenue into local businesses. The Green Party promoted greenways long before it was politically fashionable to do so. East Cork deserves a greenway, and Youghal in particular requires much more support to fully realise its superb tourism potential. However, this initiative is coming at the expense of an essential public service.
Commuting is now a daily ordeal for thousands of East Cork residents. Those of us who drive to Cork city or its suburbs know too well the intensity of frustration and stress that comes with sitting in traffic repeatedly. We are having to leave earlier and earlier to make simple journeys to work or school or creche. The sheer waste of time and energy involved is maddening. Many of us are exhausted in the evening as we try to interact with our children. More accidents are happening because our roads are overloaded with cars.
If we do not take serious action traffic congestion is set to worsen considerably over the next three decades with projected population growth in Cork city and county of 300,000. Dublin over-relied for years on roads and bypasses to deal with its traffic problems and is now desperately trying to play catch up with public transport. Its most impressive piece of road infrastructure - the M50 - is commonly referred to as ‘the largest car-park in Ireland’. Cork is fast heading in that direction of intolerable gridlock.
A modern public transport system
We could overcome traffic gridlock by planning a modern public transport system for the region that links up Youghal with a light rail network in the city. A Youghal resident should be able to get a regular, affordable train to Kent station and from there a LUAS to Mahon or Bishopstown or UCC. This network would not only serve Youghal but a large surrounding area of East Cork, and parts of West Waterford. It would allow commerce to happen more smoothly and help concentrate population growth around urban centres. This kind of transport system is not 'pie in the sky'. It would simply bring us into line with services enjoyed by European and Scandinavian citizens.
Reducing pollution and carbon emissions
This would also reduce traffic pollution which is a significant health hazard, and help us meet our EU carbon emission targets. In 2017 the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that 1500 premature deaths occur each year in Ireland as a result of poor air quality. Car fumes are the second biggest cause of air pollution, and sitting in traffic poses particular risks to children. In October a landmark UN report warned the governments of the world to reduce carbon emissions by 50% before 2030 or face catastrophic and irreversible climate change within decades. A radical improvement of our public transport system is a necessary part of this transition from fossil fuels. Irish taxpayers will be issued EU fines of €600m per year from 2021 for our government's failure to take climate action seriously. A few years worth of these fines could revolutionise regional public transport.
Cork Co. Council has claimed that the greenway will preserve the route for future use as a railway. The opposite is the case. It is not credible that this railway corridor can be tarmacked over and somehow dug up and reconverted back for rail use at a later stage. This is an absurd proposition for which there is no precedent in Ireland or the UK. Where, in that event, would the greenway be rerouted? In any case, the railway link is needed now, not sometime in the future. Returning the railway link was committed to in numerous town and county strategic plans over the years. It was also a recommendation of independent reports commissioned by Irish Rail as far back as 2000 and 2002. These commitments and recommendations are now being cast aside.
In arguing for the greenway local representatives have emphasised that Irish Rail has no plans to re-open the Youghal - Midleton railway link. However, Irish Rail is a state body, instructed by government, and governments have a limited life-span. The decision to not invest in public transport can be traced back to our current government. A rail link from Youghal to Midleton - like all public services - would have be costly to reinstate but as the network was developed and joined up, these costs would be outweighed immeasurably by the overall benefits to society.
Sceptics have argued that returning the railway line would have taken ten years or more. Again, this is not inevitable if we had collective political will. The Metro North in Dublin, which is a major national project that will involve tunnelling underground, is estimated to take ten years. The Youghal - Midleton railway link would have required major work but the key part of the infrastructure – the railway corridor – is already there.
The Green Party in government will greatly increase investment in public transport. In so doing, we will all have a much improved quality of life and reduced EU emission fines. We will also prioritise the development of cycle lanes and greenways for our health and local economies.