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'This isn't about how can we get lots of EU money, it's how can we work with Europe to deliver A and B?'

The era of the EU spending billions on Irish roads is over – instead, the focus is on a standardised Europe-wide transport network.
Aug 4th 2021, 8:00 PM 20,332 32

LAST OCTOBER AND November, Irish Rail passengers experienced some disruption to services as work got underway on a major project to improve signalling on Dublin’s railway lines.

The €120 million City Centre Resignalling Project replaced old equipment that had been in operation for decades with newer technology to improve the safety and speed of trains moving through the greater Dublin area.

At the time, Irish Rail chief executive Jim Meade apologised to customers for the disruption, but said the upgrades would “deliver us a modern system that enhances customer safety”.

Earlier that year, Transport Minister Eamon Ryan announced €8.8 million worth of funding to go towards the design phase of enhancing the Kildare railway line. The enhancement is part of the planned expansion of the Dart, and when completed will significantly increase the capacity of Ireland’s rail network.

Ryan said the project would “facilitate an important reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a shift towards a climate resilient society”. 

The €8.8 million in funding, and part of the €120 million for the resignalling works, came from the EU, via the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF). 

Both projects are examples of money from the European Union being used to improve public transport in Ireland, as part of wider initiatives to increase connectivity between countries across the continent.

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Travelling across the 27 countries of the EU, from one side to the other, involves passing through many different countries. While the free movement of people across borders is a core tenet of the European Union (at least during non-Covid times), there remain many barriers to smooth travel. 

These can range from unconnected railway systems from country to country, different local restrictions and signals for driving, or the varying quality of roads and ports, among others.

The Trans-European Transport Network (Ten-T) is an EU-wide policy aimed at addressing these issues. The goal is to create a Europe-wide network of railway lines, roads, inland waterways, maritime shipping routes, ports, airports and railroad terminals.

“The ultimate objective is to close gaps, remove bottlenecks and technical barriers, as well as to strengthen social, economic and territorial cohesion in the EU,” according to the European Commission’s website

Ten-T policy goes back decades to the 1993 Maastricht Treaty, the foundation treaty of the European Union. Major and minor infrastructure projects have progressed in fits and starts since then, sometimes languishing and changing focus as national and international priorities have changed.

It is planned that the core network of transport improvements will be completed by 2030, with a wider, comprehensive network in place by 2050.

The core network is made up of nine corridors that stretch across Europe, criss-crossing all the countries in the EU, and linking up with each other at strategic nodes. 

“These are massive transport networks and corridors that often involve building a transport route that goes from one end of Europe to the other,” said Ciarán Cuffe, Green Party MEP and a member of the European Parliament’s Transport Committee, which oversees the Ten-T implementation. 

“The Ten-T networks generally involve not just road and rail, but they can involve improvements at ports or inland waterways, canals or maritime improvements.”

As well as transport, there are policies in place for trans-European networks of energy and digital networks aimed at connecting the EU.

“It can be pipelines for gas or water, it can be digital networks, and clearly if you’re building a route from A to B and you put more than one thing into the mix you can deliver economies of scale,” said Cuffe.

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Ireland’s corridor 

The reason that Ireland was able to secure funding for its Dart expansion was because Kildare sits on the North Sea-Mediterranean Corridor, which starts with the port of Foynes in Limerick, goes through Cork and Dublin and then onto France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. 

Up until this year, the UK and Northern Ireland were also part of the corridor, with the Dublin to Belfast route securing significant investment. Ireland was linked with mainland Europe via the UK.

However, since the UK formally left the EU at the beginning of the year, Ireland is now linked with the port of Le Havre in France. 

As a result of Brexit, Ireland has also this year been added to the Atlantic Corridor, which stretches across the countries of the EU’s Atlantic seaboard, connecting Ireland with the port of Saint Nazaire in France. 

Projects in Ireland

Two years ago at a public event in Mayo, then-Taoiseach Leo Varadkar responded to questions about having Ireland’s Western Arc – a route from Cork to Belfast via the west coast  – reinstated as part of the country’s Ten-T network.  

“Some people seem to think that Ten-T is a big pot of money, that we can draw down money for roads and railways,” Varadkar told Mayo News

“There isn’t a pot of European money to invest in Irish roads and railways anymore. That era is over.”

Varadkar was referring to past transport projects funded by the EU Cohesion Fund, which greatly improved Ireland’s motorways and roads in the 90s and 2000s. In the 80s and 90s, Ireland had the lowest quality roads among the then-12 countries of the EU, and received billions of euros in funding to improve its road network.

In more recent years, transport funding to Ireland from the EU has dropped off as the country has become more prosperous. The funding that remains is targeted at measures designed to improve cross-EU connectivity. 

Road building is still financed on a smaller scale, along with improvements to ports, airline connectivity and railway infrastructure. 

Under the Ten-T policy, the EU also helps to coordinate the infrastructure projects, which Ciarán Cuffe said is an important part of its contribution.

“That’s what Europe wants to do and is good at. How can we deliver added value by working on a project at a European Union level?

“In Ireland the debate has shifted from how can we get lots of money from Europe, to how can we work with Europe to deliver A and B?”

Major upcoming and ongoing projects part-funded by the EU under the Connecting Europe Facility include major improvements to Dublin, Cork and Foynes Ports and developing CNG (Compressed Natural Gas) networks through Ireland.

Funding new projects

The Dart expansion and City Centre Resignalling Project are two examples of CEF funding being used to enhance public transport provision in Ireland.

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The Dart expansion grant came as part of a €2.2 billion investment in 140 transport projects across the EU. This is part of a shift towards supporting more climate friendly, low-emissions forms of transport, as countries work to meet their emissions reduction targets under the Paris Agreement. 

“We’re moving in the right direction but not fast enough,” says Cuffe. 

“The current European Parliament and European Commission are much greener than their predecessors but we need to do a lot more. But there are still many who want to see a massive expansion of aviation and of the road network in Europe. 

“From a Green perspective we’re saying we should really be putting public transport first.”

One of the barriers Cuffe sees in increasing investment in public transport is the fact that Ten-T policy and funding “tends to focus on infrastructure”.

“In other words, the concrete and tarmacadam. It’s been difficult to push the Ten-T funds into the actual purchase of vehicles, whether it be trains or buses.

“Part of what the Green group are trying to do is to push for direct European Union funding for these low carbon ways of travelling.”

Building the future

Earlier this month, the European Parliament voted to adopt a renewed CEF programme. MEPs voted to ensure that 60% of the funds will go to projects that help achieve the EU’s climate objectives.

Ciarán Cuffe said that it is hard to pin this shift down to “particular projects” but it represents a step in the right direction.

“When you’re talking about €20 billion or €30 billion, if you can push the low carbon funding from 50% to 60%, suddenly you’ve moved €3 or €4 billion from one type of transport into another,” he said.

“And that’s a good day’s work.”

In a statement to The Journal, Péter Balázs, European Coordinator for the North Sea-Mediterranean Corridor said that the EU had committed to making Europe “the world’s first climate-neutral content by 2050”.

“Transport is the backbone of our economy and a driver of territorial integration and social cohesion within the EU. But it is also the source of around 29% of all greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.

“Ambitious and coordinated infrastructure development is indeed a key pillar of our strategy to build the sustainable transport system of the future.

“I see a real opportunity for Ireland to modernise its transport network in a sustainable way, while at the same time enhancing its connectivity and taking account of its territorial specificities.”

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here

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