10 Years On - What has happened to the Dublin Galway Greenway?
In September 2012, Leo Varadkar the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, proposed the first off-road cross-country cycle route. “Ireland doesn’t have a cross-country, off-road cycle route, and this would have significant potential to be marketed internationally and attract new tourists who may want to walk or cycle across Ireland” - Minister Varadkar said.
Ten years on, Ireland still does not have a cross-country greenway. Has the project died? Will it ever happen? What has this project delivered? What have we learned?
Back in 2012, Ireland was in the depths of a recession following the global financial crisis. Tourism appeared to be one of the only shining lights in Ireland’s economy. Leo Varadkar was a rising star in the Fine Gael party and, as a newly appointed minister, he was quick to announce various tourism initiatives such as the extension of the 9% VAT rate for tourism, the “Gathering”, a global call to the Irish diaspora to return to Ireland during 2013 and the first cross-country cycle-way. During the recession, we saw thousands of tourists visiting Ireland and attractions such as Mayo’s greenway. It seemed like every county wanted a piece of Ireland's newfound “greenway success".
With great vigour and enthusiasm, the NTA set about putting in place plans for the Dublin Galway Greenway. Much of the route from Dublin to the Shannon could be routed via state-owned lands such as the Royal Canal and the old Athlone to Mullingar railway line. However, west of the Shannon, the options for state-owned land were limited and the route would need to traverse some private land. Given the strategic importance of the Dublin Galway greenway, it appeared from the outset that a different approach would be required rather than “permissive access” which was used for other greenways. Permissive access is the basis of the Mayo Greenway whereby farmers actually own the vast majority of the route and give permission for the public to use it. A little-known fact is that there is always one day every year when the Mayo greenway is officially closed to the public. This protects the route from being considered a “right of way”. Don’t pick the wrong day to plan your next visit!
Due to the strategic importance of the Dublin Galway greenway, the authorities were looking for a different approach. Ann Phelan TD (Labour), who was a minister for state at the departments with special responsibility for rural economic development and rural transport, said that consideration must be given to land purchase by agreement, “or, if necessary, by CPO” for the proposed Dublin Galway greenway. This three-letter acronym CPO, Compulsory Purchase Order, was a “red flag to a bull” to the farming community in east Galway. In early December 2014, farmers met to protest against plans for the Galway to Dublin greenway. Local newspapers reported that Galway IFA Chairman stated that there would be absolutely no cooperation from farmers for this project until the word CPO (compulsory purchase order) was taken off the agenda. “[CPOs have] involved ESB lines, gas pipe ways and new roads but to destroy a commercial farm for a walkway is just something that farmers will not accept. This is not critical infrastructure and there are alternatives available,” said Pat Murphy, Galway IFA Chairman. The meeting resulted in the IFA pledging to fight any CPO Greenway move.
In 2014, when Pascal Donohue took over the role of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, he quickly tried to set expectations on the access models for greenways and also how funding could be made available for greenway projects. In a Dáil Éireann response to Éamon Ó Cuív, Pascal Donohue said that “In the context of developing major cycling infrastructure projects that traverse long sections of privately owned land, such as the Dublin – Galway greenway I fully support the need to consider negotiated financial agreements or, if required, CPO”. This was the first warning sign for the Dublin Galway Greenway. Rumblings of disquiet continued as progress on the project was bogged down in public protest meetings.
One wonders did Leo Varadkar and then Pascal Donohue have the right idea but followed the wrong approach. By appointing the National Roads Authority to oversee the project it was inevitable that the NRA would follow a "roads project" template. The process of route selection and CPO is "bread and butter" to the NRA. But developing greenways is a different matter altogether. There is an obvious economic dividend for landowners when a new road opens up their land for further development. The same cannot be said for greenways. Farming groups often quoted that they see little economic benefit from selling "scones or pots of jam" to visiting cyclists.
Separately in 2015, a more discrete approach was being progressed on the eastern end of the Dublin Galway greenway. Waterways Ireland started to quietly work with the various Local Authorities along the Royal Canal to push forward the idea of a “Royal Canal Greenway”. Longford and Westmeath councils were eager to capitalise on the announcement that Center Parcs had selected a site in Ballymahon and were keen to push forward with plans to develop the Royal Canal as a cycleway. In a meeting at Corlea Trackway Visitor Centre in February 2015, Eanna Rowe from Waterways Ireland presented their vision for connecting the waterways and walking routes into a series of connected trails. In further developments, Longford council issued proposals to complete the Royal Canal greenway from Longford to the Westmeath border.
Map of Greenway in Longford, Westmeath, Meath, Kildare from RoyalCanalGreenway.ie
Further good news for the Dublin Galway greenway project came in mid-2015 when Westmeath Council announced that the “Old Rail Trail” between Athlone and Mullingar would be opened to the public. Furthermore, Westmeath completed its sections of the Royal Canal greenway from the Longford border to the Meath border. The pieces of Waterways Ireland's vision for the Royal Canal greenway were coming to fruition.
Map of Old Rail Trail in Westmeath from hiker.app
Meanwhile back in Galway/Roscommon, the impasse continued, the Galway Council asked to meet the Minister to break the impasse on the Galway Route. Farming groups had suggested using the “old N6” road as the basis for the greenway. But the director of Services in Galway Council said that the “road is too fast, and would not satisfy safety requirements”. The Galway Council supported the project but called for farmland not to be divided by the project.
Faced with a languishing project in the west and proactive Local Authorities in the east, a significant announcement came from Pascal Donohue’s department in October 2015. Minister Donohue announced that he would “pause” the project in Galway/Roscommon and divert the allocated funding to complete the outstanding sections of the Royal Canal Greenway in Meath and Kildare. This was a loss for the Dublin Galway Greenway in Galway but a great win for the Royal Canal greenway. The local authorities in Longford, Westmeath, Meath and Kildare quickly jumped at the opportunity and worked closely with Waterways Ireland to build a first-class greenway along the towpath of the Royal Canal completing the longest greenway in Ireland from Maynooth in Kildare and Clondra in Longford.
Officially launched in March 2022 but unofficially open for a number of years, the Royal Canal Greenway has gone from strength to strength with visitor numbers rising every year. This greenway is gaining international recognition and was recently voted European Cycleway of the Year 2022.
So what about the Dublin Galway greenway? Fortunately, the story doesn’t end there. After a 5 year pause, the Galway to Athlone Cycleway had a fresh new start in 2020 under Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII). New consultants, RPS, were appointed under the supervision of Westmeath County Council. RPS were given a blank canvas to develop a route for the cycleway. A TII project office was opened in Ballinasloe. The first Public Consultations were held in August 2020. Five broad route corridors were identified. The second public consultation took place in January 2021, showing the route corridor options. The third consultation ran from December 2021 to 31st January 2022 to gather the public's comments on the emerging preferred route corridor. Known locally as the “Red Route-5”, the emerging preferred route goes via – ShannonBridge, Clonfert, Meelick- Eyrecourt, Portumna, Abbey, Ballinakill, Woodford, Derrybrien, Kilbeacanty, Beagh, Gort, Coole, Kiltartan, Kinvara, Ballindereen, Kilcolgan, Clarinbridge, Oranmore and Galway.
Athlone to Galway Greenway – Emerging Preferred Route Corridor from redroute5.wordpress.com
There is no doubt that a rigorous process has been followed with all the public consultations. However, there is still some concern from landowners along the emerging corridor. It could be that the concern is not against the cycleway itself but more issues with communications and transparency. The lack of information on specific details may be causing anxiety. However, it is important to note that no route has been selected yet.
What has emerged is a preferred corridor, not a route. Within this corridor, the project team are looking at the best options to use existing state land (e.g. bogs, forests, etc), public roads and avoid land severance/splitting. This corridor is sometimes several kilometers wide giving scope to investigate the exact route with landowners. It is hoped that farmers will cooperate with the process. In late 2021, a new code of best practices for greenway projects was negotiated between the Government and the IFA. A key part of the code is a once-off goodwill payment for early-sign-on and cooperation.
Despite this, several landowners have come out against the cycleway in any shape or form. However, several landowners have contacted the project team who have expressed an interest in the cycleway coming through their lands. Derek Pender, director of services at the infrastructure and operations unit, Galway County Council has indicated that the project team is not in the business of severing land and the difficulties that would bring to farmers and that their preference always has been, and always will be, to skirt around the boundaries of properties, where they possibly can.
Threading the Route from Athlone to Galway from redroute5.wordpress.com
The reason why the route selection process is taking so long is that it is like “threading the needle”. Threading is the process of finding small sections of the route that can be threaded together to form the overall route. According to David Murray of the RedRoute5 community group, “threading of different snippets of a route with positive landowner agreement is a complex and time-consuming process. It’s like a big maze where a particular thread brings you to a dead end and some backtracking is needed to find a more suitable route. This is the reason it’s hard to say for definite to any landowner that they won’t be impacted, in case further backtracking is needed. This according to the projected team is the reason they haven’t eliminated any landowner from their inquiries”.
Given this very complex process, it is very difficult to know for sure when we will see the completion of the Dublin Galway Greenway. It may be better to let the project team work away quietly and thoroughly with the various landowners and take any “heat” and “emotion” out of the discussion. It may be that the less said publicly the better. The last thing everyone needs is for the project to get bogged down in “grandstanding” from either the pro or anti-greenway camps.
A more positive development on the Dublin Galway Greenway is playing out currently in Athlone. The first new bridge over the Shannon in some time has been put in place to provide a cycleway and walkway from the Leinster to the Connaught side of the River. The steel structure of the bridge was manufactured in Seville, by a company called Tecade, and was transported to Ireland in 13 parts in recent weeks. This bridge will connect to the Old Rail Trail and will eventually provide the Shannon crossing point of the Dublin Galway Greenway.
Coincidentally, the spotlight is likely to shift to the eastern end of the Dublin Galway greenway. Currently, the Royal Canal Greenway (and therefore the Dublin Galway Greenway) starts in Maynooth, Co. Kildare. Plans to complete the Royal Canal Greenway from Maynooth to Dublin City Center are in various states of progress. After a very successful launch of phase 1 (Spencer dock) and phase 2 (Sheriff St Upper to North Strand Road), Dublin City Council has plans to complete the Royal Canal greenway from the North Strand to Ashtown (phase 3 and phase 4). Further west, after several false starts and arguments with the NTA about towpath widths, Kildare County Council are reportedly very close to starting the project to develop the section between Maynooth and Confey (Dublin Fingal Border). According to Cllr Joe Neville, there was a delay in the sign off of a licence by waterways Ireland. The tender period ran out so the contractor said they wouldn’t go ahead. The job was then retendered recently and an announcement is due shortly on the tender award.
The elephant in the room is the section of the Dublin Galway Greenway in Fingal. This project is referred to as the “Royal Canal Urban Greenway”. This section, initially proposed in 2012, has proved very contentious as it traverses through the very complex and sensitive area of the “Deep Sinking” and also passes very close to the properties of home owners that are opposed to the routing of the greenway on the north bank of the canal. After several public consultations, Fingal Council is reported to be shortly submitting their plans for the Royal Canal urban greenway to An Bord Pleanála. In an ironic twist in the story, the minister who first proposed the Dublin Galway Greenway, Leo Varadkar, has been accused of holding up the Greenway in his constituency by supporting the local residents who are opposing the preferred route option.
10 years on, a completed Dublin Galway Greenway still feels very far away. However, we must also recognise the amazing amenities that this project has delivered. We have a world-class greenway from Maynooth to Clondra, we have the amazing “Old Rail Trail” from Athlone to Mullingar and we will soon have a new bridge that will connect two sides of the Shannon. Every day local people all along the route use these amenities for walking, running, cycling and socialising etc. It may be that some of these people were opposers to the original plans in their area but now would be the first to fight to keep these amenities open. As more people use these amazing amenities, more people will see the benefits in terms of physical and mental health. This all bodes well in the longer term for the Dublin Galway Greenway project but a famous slogan from Ireland’s political past may be fitting here – “A lot done – more to do”.
Note: The Athlone to Galway greenway project team is eager to discuss any items of concern (or interest) via email: firstname.lastname@example.org or phone: (091) 509267
Also note: A good place to keep track of the various infrastructure projects in Dublin, including the Royal Canal Greenway is on this website: https://trello.com/b/dps7lepq/infrastructure-projects?filter=royal+canal