An engineer’s report released under the Freedom of Information act raises serious questions about the suitability of the controversial Waterways Ireland “Blueway” plan to replace the grassy towpath along the River Barrow with a hard-surface cycling trail.
The report is written by senior KildareCounty Council civil engineer, Gerry Dornan, which suggests that most of the towpath isn’t wide enough to accommodate two-way cycling.
The report also states that the plan to replace the natural grassy towpath over 115 kms from Monasterevin in Kildare to St Mullins in Carlow with an unbound hard core surface rolled in crushed limestone dust would be 50% more expensive than a bound surface over its lifetime.
Waterways Ireland claims its controversial plan will open up the Barrow towpath to more walkers and cyclists. Planning permission to start the work is due to be lodged with Carlow County Council in the coming weeks.
The Carlow Barrow Users Group, which is opposed to the Waterways Ireland plan, received Mr. Dornan’s report under a Freedom of Information request.
The report was in response to a plan to develop a River Barrow Barrow Cycling Trail, an earlier version of the present Waterways Ireland “Blueway” proposal.
In his report Mr Dornan - who works in Kildare Co. Council’s Transportation Department - says the model proposed in the Barrow Cycling Trail offers “a substandard and low quality facility for cyclists and will not promote mass cycling or attract international tourists”.
He added it would “create conflict with pedestrians as a result of inadequate space for cycling”.
Mr. Dornan points out that the National Cycling Manual sets the minimum requirement for two-way cycling at three metres. This does not take walkers into consideration.
However the width proposed by Waterways Ireland in their Blueway plan unveiled two years ago is only 2.5 metres, and this is supposed to accommodate cyclists, walkers, anglers and other users.
Mr. Dornan quotes a study commissioned by the Dutch government which recommends a four metre width for two-way traffic in rural areas.
He says “the most serious conflicts were observed on recreational cycling paths during the weekend, which is the type of use envisaged by the proponents of this scheme.”
Mr. Dornan says social cyclists like to ride side by side and if the Barrow Trail is to appeal to both genders, “adequate space for cycling is essential”.
According to Mr Dornan the suggested unbound surface of hard core packed with limestone dust for the cycleway is 50% more expensive than a bound one, and may be expensive to maintain.
“Many factors can accelerate the rate of wear on an unbound path which would make the costs difference even greater,” he adds. “Unbound surfacing is also dirty. In dry weather clothes and bikes are partially covered with a layer of dust. In wet weather, the results are worse.”
Mr. Dornan’s 2014 report is in response to a Carlow County Development Partnership proposal for River Barrow Barrow Cycling Trail. But the Save the Barrow Line Committee says the findings are still relevant when it comes to assessing the Waterways Ireland Blueway report, as both schemes cover the same towpath, and propose much the same width.
The Barrow Cycling Trail proposed a width of between two and three metres while the Blueway proposes a width of 2.5metres. And both plans propose the same surface.
Respinding to the report the The Save the Barrow Line group says ripping up the Barrow line and replacing it with hard surface will destroy one of Ireland’s most precious natural amenities, and wildlife and plant species threatened.
It points out that the river Barrow is a Special Area of Conservation under the EU habitats directive.
In a statement the committee says: ‘This report casts major doubts over the suitability of the Waterways Ireland’s plans to replace the beautiful grassy surface of the Barrow towpath between Athy and St. Mullins with a hard unbound surface.
“The present grassy surface, which is regularly mowed by Waterways Ireland, accommodates both walkers and cyclists, but at a pace which is safe for everybody and does not create conflict. Unlike a hard surface, the grass grows again and recovers quickly from the regular flooding of the river. “
Chairperson of the committee, journalist and broadcaster Olivia O’Leary, says the group is in favour of more boating on the river, and more walkers, cyclists, joggers and anglers on the towpath.
“But we are against the putting down of a hard unbound surface on the narrow towpath which will encourage speed which raises major safety issues beside a waterway.”
She says the proposed new surface will also be unsightly.
“We agree with Mr. Dornan that such a surface would be dusty and dirty. The existing grass surface, which is so beautiful, accommodates cyclists, walkers, anglers and joggers alike as it is.
“It ensures a pace which is consistent with the calm beauty of this riverside way, and we believe it is this unique beauty which offers the best option for developing the route as a Camino type tourist destination,” she said.