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The proposed vehicles would be significantly smaller than Dublin's Luas trams. Alamy Stock Photo
Public Transport

The Gluas: Could a ‘very light' rail system end Galway's gridlock and become the city's Luas?

A feasibility study is set to be carried out but campaigners fear it will take a “Dublin-style” approach.

AFTER DECADES OF gridlock choking streets and roads, ‘traffic’ has firmly lodged itself alongside ‘tribes’, ‘arts’, ‘races’, and ‘rain’ as words that trip off the tongue when people talk about Galway city.

The N6 ring road – a long-mooted (and controversial) plan to help alleviate the chronic congestion by bypassing the city – looks set to experience “very lengthy delays” to its construction thanks to three judicial reviews.

Meanwhile, another long-proposed traffic prophylactic – a light rail ‘Gluas’ tram system – has recently gained fresh impetus thanks to technological advancements which promise cheaper tramlines with less disruptive installation works required.

This so-called ‘very light’ rail system is aimed at smaller cities and, following Covid delays, is currently undergoing prototype testing in Coventry, UK.

A rail system in Galway would largely fall under the remit of the City Council but the County Council offered its backing to the project this week as councillors considered a joint traffic review as part of the metropolitan area strategic plan.

The meeting heard calls for the line to stretch out of the city as far as Oranmore in the east and Moycullen in the west.

Transport minister Eamon Ryan has committed to carrying out a feasibility study on the project as part of a review of the Galway Transport Strategy. The National Transport Authority (NTA) confirmed this week that the process will get underway by December of this year.

The Gluas campaign – which is made up of engineers, academics, business people, politicians and Galway citizens – say a previous feasibility study was costed on a Luas-style, heavy duty, tram system and the development of very light rail is a breakthrough in providing cost-efficient rail lines in smaller cities.

The previous feasibility study, carried out in 2010, concluded that a light rail system in Galway would not be cost effective and would provide too much capacity for demand.

“We had a feasibility study about 10 years ago. They took a Dublin-style light rail, which is extremely expensive and extremely heavy duty. We’re telling them that there is a very light rail developed and designed in Coventry as we speak,” explained the chair of the Gluas campaign Brendan Holland.

“It’s innovative, cutting edge technology and it doesn’t involve heavy duty stuff like the Luas. It comes in at about a third of the price that a Luas-style system would.”

The campaign also notes that the population of Galway is set to mushroom in the coming decades as the National Development Plan (published last year) targeted growth of 50-60% in the city by 2040.

‘Very light’ rail

A major selling point of ‘very light’ rail is that its lightweight design only requires a shallow track base – just 30cm under the road’s surface – and therefore interferes less with buried utilities such as water, electricity and communication pipelines. This makes it easier to install and less expensive to build.

Coventry City Council / YouTube

The vehicles are battery powered, eliminating the need for overhead wires, and a rapid charge system for trams has been developed, which can sit at scheduled stops or at the end of routes.

The trains can typically carry around 50 passengers (20 seated and 30 standing), while the recommended capacity of a standard Luas carriage is 319 and the Dublin system’s longer 55-metre trams can carry 408 people.

In Coventry, the system has a target cost of £7 million (€8.38 million) per kilometre. Coventry City Council notes that conventional tram systems can cost upwards of £25 million (€30 million) per km and as high as £100 million (€120 million) per km in city centres.

‘To hell with the rest of the country’

Holland, who operates a newsagent in Galway city centre, says the project ticks a range of boxes; from efficient movement of people, cutting carbon emissions and improving road safety. However, after years of fruitless campaigning, there’s scepticism about political will at a national level to properly consider the proposal.

Coventry City Council / YouTube

“We’re afraid that the people who are paying for the feasibility study, namely the NTA, decide that they’re not going to be a guinea pig and they’re going to do a Luas job here in Galway and we know in our heart and soul that’s not going to stack up the books,” he said.

“They want to find out that it won’t work rather than it will work. Yet they can freely talk about spending €10 billion on a line from Dublin city centre out to the airport without any hesitation. It’s a bit like ‘to hell with the rest of the country’. If it doesn’t work for Dublin, it doesn’t work.

Anybody outside the Pale doesn’t get a fair crack of the whip.

An NTA spokesperson said: “All options to serve the needs of the area including the range of rail options that could be made available to achieve the objectives, will be considered.”

County councillor Alastair McKinstry, who is also a climate scientist at NUI Galway, claims that light rail has proven to be much more effective than buses at convincing people to use public transport instead of private cars.

“It has strong benefits because people view light rail as reliable in a way that they don’t view bus services. People will buy a house along the Luas, people will buy a house along a rail line. They will make this decision much more so than they will with a bus service,” the Green Party representative said.

They’re not likely to decide whether or not to buy a car based on whether or not there’s a bus service coming into their neighbourhoods. But with light rail they do, which is the main selling point for light rail.

“We roll out buses faster but light rail has a bigger psychological impact in making people switch over (from a car).”

The comments were echoed by Máiread O’Farrell, Sinn Féin TD for Galway West, who said public transport options need to be increased across the west.

“We need to make it regular, we need to look at night buses in Galway, we need to look at light rail and we need to see the Western Rail Corridor reinstated,” she said.

Junior transport minister Hildegarde Naughton, whose constituency includes Galway city, told The Journal that the NTA is expecting to have a draft of the updated transport strategy ready for public consultation in quarter three of next year.

The Fine Gael politician said the review will include a comprehensive analysis of changes to population projections, development density, employment forecasts and future travel demand patterns since the strategy was completed in 2016.

“This analysis will be utilised to reassess the public transport needs across Galway city and the potential role that all modes of transport, including light rail, can play in meeting those needs,” Naughton said.

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