Rail Safety Report: Statements.

Tuesday, 17 November 1998

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 496 No. 6

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Minister for Public Enterprise (Mrs. O'Rourke): Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  I am grateful to the Ceann Comhairle for agreeing to my request to address Dáil Éireann on the important subject of railway safety.

Rail safety is not just my business, it is everyone's business. I know that all Deputies are concerned about rail safety and I have spoken privately with many elected Members of this House about the issue. Ireland is a small country and railways still play an important in people's lives. Rail has been the lifeblood of many rural areas. While the golden age of rail may have occurred in the distant past, as far as I am concerned we are again entering an era when rail transport will play an increasingly important role in the economic and social life of the country.

We must ensure that the rail system is safe or as safe as can be guaranteed in any form of human endeavour. I cannot wave a magic wand and decree that any transport system is or will be 100 per cent safe. No one can do so. However, I assure everyone that what is laid down in this safety blueprint will be realised during my tenure of office. The Government and succeeding Governments of every political hue must undertake to carry the burden of investment recommended in the report.

Deputies will recall that, following the derailment of a passenger train at Knockroghery a year ago, I commissioned, with Government and Dáil approval, an independent review into all aspects of rail safety. This was undertaken by a consultancy [1242] team led by International Risk Management Services — IRMS. The commissioning of this independent study was supported by the Opposition and welcomed in a Dáil resolution in December of last year.

I have already made copies of the consultants' report available to Members of both Houses of the Oireachtas and it has also been published. I will also make it available to all members of staff in Iarnród Éireann. Last Thursday I addressed Seanad Éireann on the report and was happy to note the high degree of interest shown by the Members of that House in the matters raised by consultants. I have no doubt but that Members of this House share that interest. The report is clear and unambiguous in its analysis and I urge Deputies to consider it carefully. The report is very detailed and it would be impossible to cover every aspect of it here today. I will therefore concentrate on providing an outline of the main findings and the Government's response.

There are probably few issues on which we will find greater agreement in this House or elsewhere than that the avoidance of death or injury should be the paramount guiding principle of all railway operations. I am satisfied that Iarnród Éireann is committed to this principle. Iarnród Éireann's safety performance over the years compares well with other national railway systems. That is not just my view; that statement is made by the consultants in the very first sentence of their conclusions. The good safety record of the Irish railway is due in large measure to the skill and experience of railway staff over the years, a point also acknowledged by the consultants. Nevertheless, it is clear from the report that the consultants have concluded that there is a need for significant improvement in the safety of the railway. The task, therefore, of the Government and of the boards, management and staff of CIE and Iarnród Éireann is to use the analysis, findings and recommendations of the report as a springboard to create the conditions for a major improvement in rail safety.

Railway transport has an enviable safety record worldwide and in Ireland, especially when compared to the competing mode of road transport. I believe that if ten people were stopped in the street and asked whether it was safer to travel by car or by train, they would select the latter. Besides, statistics do not lie. The last major railway accident in Ireland was in 1983 at Cherryville, 15 years ago, when seven people died. Yet similar numbers are killed on our roads every week, and sometimes over a single weekend the toll can be as great.

However, we should never allow ourselves to become complacent. We must never lose sight of the fact that, although the nature of rail travel makes it inherently safer than road travel, rail safety ultimately depends on safety conscious railway personnel working with safe infrastructure and rolling stock and relying on rigorous safety management and procedures. Even then, [1243] we can never take rail safety for granted. No matter how good the infrastructure or how vigilant the staff, it is a sad fact that even on the best railways in the world accidents happen. Ultimately absolute rail safety can never be guaranteed. The recent high-speed train crash in Germany is proof that no transport system is 100 per cent safe. That was a state-of-the-art railway system which enjoyed massive investment in financial terms. Tragically, that crash claimed the lives of more than 100 people.

The consultants' brief required them to consider the adequacy of Iarnród Éireann's safety policy, systems, rules and procedures and the adequacy of the company's arrangements for implementing these rules and procedures on the ground. They also considered the adequacy from a safety viewpoint, of the existing railway infrastructure and facilities, including track, signalling systems, rolling stock and level crossings, bridges, embankments and so on.

The consultants carried out their work in a very rigorous way. They looked at best railway practice worldwide in order to establish the benchmarks against which Iarnród Éireann's safety performance could be measured, but they did much more than that. They literally walked the line. They inspected over 60 per cent of the rail network and looked in detail at samples of all the infrastructure, including track, signalling, structures, level crossings and rolling stock. They also spoke to the individuals on the ground. Many Iarnród Éireann staff were interviewed and they talked informally to many others as they travelled in locomotive cabs with drivers or visited signal cabins. They sent a questionnaire to all Iarnród Éireann staff and one in eight replied across all departments and grades in the company. Deputies might think this a low response rate, but the consultants found it to be satisfactory for this type of study — given the numbers employed, several hundred people in Iarnród Éireann replied. The consultants were full of praise for the unstinting co-operation which they received from the company and its staff.

They concluded that the condition of much of the track, signalling and other infrastructure was poor, while the condition of the rolling stock was on the whole satisfactory. They also acknowledged that a shortfall in investment in recent years was impacting on safety. They found that a recently laid continuous welded rail track was in excellent condition, though in need of a safety management system to ensure its continuing safety over time. They concluded that large sections of the older jointed track was in poor condition, particularly on secondary lines. During the debate on Knockcroghery Deputies Yates, Stagg and I agreed that if consultants discovered that remedial work was needed that should be reported to us and to CIE and work should go ahead.

The consultants found eight serious safety failures on the signalling system when they would [1244] have expected to find none. This finding shocked them because the chances of a signalling error resulting in a serious rail crash are high. They found that much of the telecommunications equipment was in poor repair. They also identified problems with level crossings such as inadequate braking distances from the signals protecting the crossing to the crossing itself and poor signposting and road surfaces. They noted the lack of formal systems for preventive maintenance and inspection of structures. Fencing was poorly maintained in many areas. The condition of rolling stock was largely satisfactory, with no major safety concerns noted.

Contrary to the impression created by some media reports, the DART was found to be in reasonably good condition. Concern was expressed about some aspects, such as the need for greater attention to the electric power supply system as it gets older. The DART has been in use for 17 years now, so we are coming to the time when it should be looked at.

While safety related investment in railway infrastructure is necessary, it will not be enough in itself. The consultants found that Iarnród Éireann needs to urgently tackle the management aspects of safety as well. Indeed, they went so far as to say that the benefits of infrastructural investment would be transitory if not accompanied by a programme to improve safety management systems.

The most serious safety management deficiency that they found was a lack of a systematic approach to identifying safety hazards and prioritising and implementing remedial action where this is necessary. The consultants stressed the importance of improving the company's approach to safety management on the railway and of instilling a safety culture throughout the organisation that would apply from general operative to top management. They emphasised the value of better training and improved documentation and procedures. They acknowledged that an encouraging start had been made at senior management level in implementing a systematic approach to addressing safety on the railway, but stressed that much more needed to be done, especially to ensure that such an approach applied throughout the company. The consultants estimated that a 15 year safety investment programme costing in the broad order of £590 million will be required.

This overall expenditure requirement includes about £230 million for a programme of improvements to rectify safety deficiencies in the railway infrastructure — that includes track, signalling, bridges and level crossings. Of that £230 million, about £60 million is earmarked for improved management of infrastructural safety. The consultants suggested the expenditure of a further £60 million to improve safety management systems generally throughout the railway and £20 million per annum over the 15 year period for ongoing renewal of the permanent way. About £23 million of this £590 million needs to be spent [1245] immediately, and about half of the total should be spent in the first five years. IRMS concluded that this investment programme will be sufficient to restore the railways to a condition where they can operate at existing timetable speeds and with a substantially reduced risk to the safety of passengers, staff and public.

It is fine to commission a report but it is another matter entirely to do something about it. We will not be found wanting in that regard. I am setting up a high level task force — that is the second recommendation of the report. The task force is holding its first meeting tomorrow and it will report at the end of January. The report recommended the immediate establishment of an implementation group. We will continue to use IRMS as matters proceed, for public audit, advice and consultation. This is consistent with the consultants' recommendation that implementation plans should be agreed within three months of the publication of the report. It is pointless having the benefit of this report without putting in place a structure to have its recommendations implemented.

I formally presented the report to Cabinet on Monday and I met the board of CIE on Monday evening and the unions on Tuesday. CIE has been requested to begin implementation of the report's recommendations, giving particular attention to the immediate safety needs. CIE will be authorised by the Minister for Finance to undertake borrowings to finance the implementation of safety measures. CIE is a public company, owned by the taxpayers and operated by the Government on their behalf. Whether it is borrowings or Exchequer funds, it is still public money to be used judiciously for safety. There is nothing wrong with that and it is entirely exemplary.

CIE has a statutory borrowing limit of £250 million and the current figure for borrowing is £153 million. When I met the board, the finance officer was present and he spoke about the need for the company to show a profit. I am not that keen on making a profit — I want the safety recommendations implemented. One can hardly call it a profit when there is a subsidy of £109 million this year for services which Iarnród Éireann is giving to young people, pensioners and those living in remote areas etc. The finance officer did not say a profit was to be achieved at the expense of safety.

The consultants also paid particular attention to the role of the railway inspecting officer in my Department — the job is done by John Welsby, who is a miracle man of sorts. The consultants recommended a significant expansion of the functions of the inspectorate and called for additional staff to meet both existing and future commitments. We are now beginning the process of recruiting two additional railway inspecting officers, as recommended.

I am determined to make progress on improving railway safety. With that in mind, I have asked the CIE board member who chairs the company's [1246] safety committee to report to me directly at regular intervals on progress. I have also decided that there will be regular independent audits on the progress being made on implementing the safety measures. This is in line with the consultants' recommendations.

They have told us what we have to do and we have to go ahead and do it. We will distribute a large number of reports among the regional workshops. I will have meetings before and after Christmas in which we will discuss the report. I want each worker to have ownership of this report, to believe it is for his or her good and to work through it with me and CIE in order to be part of the public audit process which will show what has been done.

I see this consultative process with employees as a first step in bringing the board, management, trades unions and each and every member of the railway staff together to work, with a sense of urgency and common purpose, to implement the recommendations of the consultants. The report provides a clear framework. When I went to Cabinet with the proposal to commission an urgent railway safety report following Knockcroghery — I was extremely shocked when I drove out to Knockcroghery and saw what could have happened — people told me I would be in a great deal of trouble when the report was published because I knew what the recommendations would be. I would prefer to be a transport Minister who had issued a safety charter than to be a transport Minister who did not know what was going to happen next.

There will be accidents and the reporting group left me under no illusions about that yesterday. We must gradually implement the recommendations of the report which states what must be spent each year. We will have to work with CIE management, the board and the employees. We must have an annual public audit, and an espousal, monitoring and assessment of the work — both the hard and soft issues, though it will be more difficult to assess the softer issues despite the money allocated to them because it is more difficult to assess the full inculcation of a safety culture. I commit myself to it. I asked the Chief Whip ten days ago if he could allocate time to debate this report. I commend it to the House and I look forward to the debate.

Mr. Yates: Information on Ivan Yates  Zoom on Ivan Yates  I welcome the report and the alacrity with which the Minister facilitated the debate. While I have numerous criticisms of her, being accountable to this House and debating matters here is not among them. She is always quick in coming to put her case. I notice that in all the material circulated by her Department, the Minister did not mention the other international report by Arthur D. Little which was published in May. I am relying on both reports, carried out by English consultants.

Mrs. O'Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  This is the one I commissioned.

[1247]Mr. Yates: Information on Ivan Yates  Zoom on Ivan Yates  I appreciate that. However, it is interesting to compare routes and risk ratios in both reports. The Department, in assessing the situation, should also be mindful of the Little report.

The time for analysis of rail safety is over. I hope this debate marks that change in dealing with this issue. Action must replace analysis. The IRMS report and the Little report provide compelling conclusions that a serious train accident involving fatalities is virtually inevitable unless major investment and review of procedures takes place. If Deputy O'Rourke was not Minister, I would say the same thing — I am genuinely fearful there will be a major accident in the very near future.

Mrs. O'Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  There will be.

Mr. Yates: Information on Ivan Yates  Zoom on Ivan Yates  I take her point that, as is the case on the roads, no-one can guarantee safety. However, if an accident happens because of a derailment as a result of inadequate track or faulty signalling that is 40 or 50 years old, that could have been eliminated. As on the roads, no one can guarantee safety but it is a risk that can be eliminated in terms of a derailment because of defective track or faulty signalling that is 40 to 50 years old.

Mrs. O'Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  Exactly.

Mr. Yates: Information on Ivan Yates  Zoom on Ivan Yates  In government I told departmental officials that there would be another 26A bus, that I was only passing through and that the time to act was when the music stopped. The Minister has reached that point.

Mrs. O'Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  I am delighted to be in a position to do so.

Mr. Yates: Information on Ivan Yates  Zoom on Ivan Yates  The Minister should not do the job of rail safety officers or Iarnród Éireann managers; rather she should provide the cash for investment, something that the board and management of Iarnró d Éireann cannot do. The sum required over a period of eight years to bring the entire rail network up to the standard achieved on the Dublin-Cork and Dublin-Belfast routes is £640 million. The period of 15 years suggested by the IRMS is too long. Because of speed restrictions and traffic volumes the Athlone-Westport, Arklow-Rosslare, Limerick Junction-Rosslare routes as well as the Nenagh branch line would be left to last in any track renewal programme and services would virtually cease in the period suggested.

The A.D. Little report recommends investment of £128 million in level crossings, of which there are 2000. The IRMS recommends a figure of £15 million for this purpose. It has made an error in its calculations. It assumes that in the event of an accident and subsequent litigation liability will fall on a landowner who allows stock to stray on to a railway line. The reality is that Iarnród Éireann will be held liable for injuries to passengers [1248] and damage to track and rolling stock, as happened in the Claremorris incident in the early 1990s when the courts decided in a multi-million pounds action that the landowner was a man of straw and CIE had to foot the bill. I understand Iarnród Éireann has negotiated a package with farm organisations to upgrade level crossings but this is not provided for in the IRMS report. The Department should address this issue urgently.

Between 1955 and 1983 35 people died in rail accidents, including 18 in Buttevant and seven in Cherryville. The IRMS states unambiguously that if £230 million was spent on safety measures and £20 million per annum on track renewal, risk levels would reduce by 50 per cent over a 30 year period. We are advised that each year there are 92 derailments and 18 collisions, mainly on sidings.

Unless £640 million is spent over a period of eight years, the Government is playing Russian roulette with the rail network. Its response to date has been less than inspiring. To sanction additional borrowings of £23 million is robbing Peter to pay Paul. The Minister mentioned a figure of £153 million. The viability of CIE is constantly threatened by the cost of debt servicing. The only effective Government financial response is direct subvention or grant-in-aid for capital expenditure. There is no point in placing an albatross around its neck in debt servicing because of extra borrowings which are unsustainable.

The establishment of a task force to report by the end of January safely steers the Government past this year's budget on 2 December and next year's Book of Estimates thereby heightening the short-term risk of an accident. I was looking forward to the Minister stating that she was pleased to announce that the Government was committed to providing the necessary funds or that her colleagues had secured the additional finance necessary to fully implement the report as that is the acid test. How many more reports does the Minister need? Endless analysis is leading to paralysis.

Capital investment of £80 million per annum is required over a period of eight years. This would match the request made by CIE to the Committee on Public Enterprise and Transport at which Mr. Michael McDonnell and his colleagues indicated a figure of £650 million was required for investment in the suburban lines, of particular concern to Deputy Stagg, the intercity rail network and rolling stock. There is a risk of a derailment because of defective track and a collision because of inadequate signalling. Rail safety cannot be compromised any further. Signalling at Heuston and Cork stations must be modernised. A programme must be put in place to provide concrete sleepers, continuous welded rail and automatic signalling on the Mullingar-Sligo, Athlone-Westport-Ballina, Kilkenny-Waterford, Rosslare-Arklow and Mallow-Tralee routes. This should be done urgently.

My biggest fear about public transport investment is that by the middle of next year the Minister [1249] will have the bright idea of procuring the funds by deferring or abandoning the Luas project. This debate must be seen in the wider context of national public transport needs. A sum of £671 million is required for the Luas project——

Mr. Stagg: Information on Emmet Stagg  Zoom on Emmet Stagg  Plus.

Mr. Yates: Information on Ivan Yates  Zoom on Ivan Yates  That is the sum required before we encounter serious underground geological problems of the Wood Quay variety and the gradients which will require passengers to have a rollercoaster ride under the city.

Mr. Stagg: Information on Emmet Stagg  Zoom on Emmet Stagg  The Deputy is stealing my thunder.

Mr. Yates: Information on Ivan Yates  Zoom on Ivan Yates  If one takes £671 million as a benchmark and adds the £640 million required for the rail network and the £100 million required by Dublin Bus for the provision of quality bus corridors and new buses, one is not too far off £1.5 billion.

Mrs. O'Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  The Deputy's party never spent a penny.

Mr. Yates: Information on Ivan Yates  Zoom on Ivan Yates  The music has stopped.

Mrs. O'Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  What the consultants had to say about what happened in the mid-1980s was interesting.

Mr. Yates: Information on Ivan Yates  Zoom on Ivan Yates  What is required is a new strategic approach. At a time of declining EU resources this money cannot be obtained from the usual source, the public capital programme. Therefore, a new strategic approach will be required. Either private sector investment will have to be used to meet public transport needs or the proceeds of privatisation will have to be set aside and earmarked for this capital expenditure. I have heard many anecdotes about the Luas debate concerning what did and did not happen and what was said in Cabinet. What worries me is that I see no evidence of the Government taking ownership of and responsibility for this requirement. The Minister for Public Enterprise is in the front line when it comes to dealing with the issue. It is necessary for the Government to put it at the top of its agenda. This is ultimately a political dilemma requiring a policy solution and a new strategic, long-term approach.

There are a number of specific points I wish to raise with the Minister. She has stressed heavily that the most significant recommendation in the report is not investment but safety systems.

Mrs. O'Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  That costs money too.

Mr. Yates: Information on Ivan Yates  Zoom on Ivan Yates  I consider that to be current rather than capital expenditure because it involves such matters as additional personnel and databases. Is it the Minister's intention to examine the CIE annual subvention in the context of safety and make that funding available? Is it intended to introduce legislation on the Health and Safety [1250] Authority? Will some of the new procedures in the report which refer to the legal situation require amending legislation?

Will the Minister deal with the conspiracy theories which always abound about the relationship between Ministers and semi-State companies? She has, in her tenure, made a number of decisions. She appointed a human resources manager from Aer Lingus to deal with the difficulties with the viability plan. He is to report to the Minister directly. There is a feeling that a damaging shadow has been cast on the existing relationship structure between the board of CIE, the Minister and her Department. A watchdog was put in place for Luas who was to report directly to the Minister.

Mrs. O'Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  He is a member of the board.

Mr. Yates: Information on Ivan Yates  Zoom on Ivan Yates  Many safety officers are now also to report directly to the Minister. The conspiracy theory is that the Minister has established lines of communication which deviate from the traditional pattern and avoid dealing with senior management and the board of CIE. Does this reflect a lack of trust or a breakdown in communications?

Mrs. O'Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  Like Deputy Lowry's sacking of the board?

Mr. Yates: Information on Ivan Yates  Zoom on Ivan Yates  No, that was an entirely differently matter. I would consider that to have been a head-on row. If the Minister is not satisfied with the management of CIE, she should say so and deal with it as she thinks fit.

Mrs. O'Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  I think they are wonderful.

Mr. Yates: Information on Ivan Yates  Zoom on Ivan Yates  Indirect procedures of reporting are perhaps an ambiguous way of dealing with it and they lead to suspicion.

Mrs. O'Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  Like sacking the board?

Mr. Yates: Information on Ivan Yates  Zoom on Ivan Yates  No, I did not suggest that.

Mrs. O'Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  That is the way Deputy Lowry did it.

Mr. Yates: Information on Ivan Yates  Zoom on Ivan Yates  It was more direct communication with the board I had in mind.

The report also refers to the DART. It is striking that the DART has been in place for 14 years and no additional rolling stock has been acquired. That strikes me as a chronic failing of management, the board, the Department and successive Governments. It is one of the most successful stories of public transport in the Dublin area and yet people cram on to it similar to Tokyo because there is not enough space. The same can be said of the Arrow trains. The report signals a surprising lack of adequate maintenance and checks on the overhead electrical cables and track. This is of concern given the manner in which people are crammed into the trains. I understand seats have been removed so there is more standing room.

[1251] I suppose it is sensible given the relatively short journeys but it is also necessary given the lack of rolling stock. I met the DART management last week and I understand the earliest that additional rail cars which have been ordered will be running will be almost 2001 which strikes me as incredible given the time between planning and action.

I thank the Minister for sending me a copy of the interim decision recommendations. I too was shocked by what was found by IRMS on individual tracks. When Iarnród Éireann says all these have been repaired, I must take it as read.

Mrs. O'Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  I do not know.

Mr. Yates: Information on Ivan Yates  Zoom on Ivan Yates  I accept that. I take Iarnród Éireann at its word. Perhaps if the Minister is conducting an audit, there should be a random spot check system as part of that. This would entail a surprise visit, perhaps half yearly or quarterly, and a certain section of track being selected and studied in detail. It would mean there being ongoing reporting. It would not just be a case of implementing the systematic investment and controls but also conducting spot checks to see if there has been further deterioration in tracks.

It has been well established within two years that there is a predictable, intolerable and unacceptable risk to rail safety. In some cases, it amounts to a political decision of investment or closure of the routes on safety grounds. An investment programme must be implemented which will not only make railways safe but will also be part of a public transport solution given the inevitable limitation through gridlock of the private motoring solution. One of the solutions to the unplanned growth of Dublin could be the development of satellite towns which would be communities in their own right and which would be directly linked to Dublin by rapid rail. It would mean people working here living in designated large towns in Wicklow, north Wexford——

Mrs. O'Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  In Athlone.

Mr. Yates: Information on Ivan Yates  Zoom on Ivan Yates  ——Meath, Westmeath and Kildare. This would be done in such a way that the planning would be around railways and a commuter belt connected by it. It would move matters beyond a “Give me more” situation to one whereby we would be proactive, as on the Continent and in London, where the tube is the premier form of transport. The tube is reliable, quick, safe and comfortable. People will only be lured out of their cars and into public transport with such a service. I welcome the report. The acid test will not be the Minister's words but her cash.

Mrs. O'Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  I am not a cashier and do not ever intend to be one either.

Mr. Stagg: Information on Emmet Stagg  Zoom on Emmet Stagg  I warmly welcome the opportunity to comment upon the recent of review of rail safety by IRMS on behalf of the Minister. She [1252] has done a good day's work in commissioning the review. Its findings are of immense concern to Members, the travelling public and all committed to developing an efficient public transport system in Ireland. However, the findings of the report should not come as a surprise to anyone with an interest in rail transport or public transport in Ireland. The detail of this report reveals the appalling neglect that public transport services, especially the rail service, have endured over the past two decades. It tells the story of a rail system that has been starved of resources to such a point that there is now an urgent need to invest approximately £590 million to ensure the safety of the system for passengers, rail staff and the general public.

I compliment the Minister on taking the initiative to commission the report. We are no longer dependent on anecdotal evidence or descriptions of isolated incidents. We now have a reliable base from which a reasoned debate on rail safety and public transport investment can develop with a planned action to follow.

This report is only a first step, however, on the way to ensuring that our railways receive the investment they require over the coming years. The Minister now has the task of convincing her Cabinet colleagues, and my constituency colleague in particular, Deputy McCreevy, of the need to invest the necessary funds in our railways. Making the system safe will also allow for its orderly expansion and development.

Neither is it acceptable that State transport companies should be obliged to engage in wholesale asset stripping to raise the required finances. Such short-sighted, pawn shop action will reduce the potential of the company to create its own income stream and will prevent it expanding its services in future. The sale of the Harcourt Street line is a case in point. It is ironic that the old Harcourt Street station has now been sold and converted into a public house. I wonder if any of the patrons leaving that pub who have to wait for a bus or taxi to take them home realise they have just vacated a building that was availed of by a fine suburban rail line serving south Dublin. The sale of land for housing in Maynooth beside the railway station is another example. That land is now needed for park and ride but it is no longer available because houses have been built on it.

It is not an enviable task for the Minister, and the ideological bent of her coalition partners will not help her in this regard, but it is a battle I will follow with great interest in the coming months. Before I comment on the detail of the report I will turn to the broader issues confronting public transport policy that underline the findings of the report.

Many of our rail networks are creaking to a halt. We are now faced with the necessity of investing nearly £600 million just to ensure the existing network is brought up to a reasonable standard of safety. These facts are an indictment of public transport policy over recent years. This policy has its roots in a right-wing ideological [1253] opposition to the concept of public service provision and the very existence of public transport companies. It is an ideology that took root in the 1980s and was best exemplified and articulated by the Thatcherite regime in Britain. According to this view, public transport provision was uneconomical and unwieldy, and its role could easily be taken over by private companies operating solely on profit and loss criteria. The raft of privatisation in Britain during the 1980s was based on this view. The results of this policy are there for all to see.

That view also held sway in this country. While no party in Government pursued the privatisation route, the denigration of public transport and the companies that delivered this service was widespread. At times, the right-wing consensus was that public transport companies should operate on a commercial basis. Subsidies to public transport companies were perceived as feather-bedding by the State. If these companies could not break even in the market, they must cut their roots, their workforce and their services until they are in the black.

This is a view of public transport that neither I nor the Labour Party ever held. We do not believe the economic and social benefits of public transport could be fully accounted for by profit and loss sheets. We are in favour of efficiently run public transport where taxpayers money is spent wisely and accounted for fully. We never bought the lie, however, that the whole public transport system can be sustained on commercial criteria alone. This has not been achieved anywhere in the world.

While recognising the EU-driven imperative for competition, the Labour Party will oppose any attempt to privatise the rail system in Ireland.

Mrs. O'Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  I do not intend to do that.

Mr. Stagg: Information on Emmet Stagg  Zoom on Emmet Stagg  The chaos affecting transport reached crisis point in recent years. The reality that poor infrastructure and traffic gridlock, costing the economy money in the long-term, has eventually dawned on even the most conservative commentators. Gridlock now costs Dublin £1.3 billion per annum. Imagine what the Minister and the public transport companies could do with half of that amount per year while saving the other half for the people of Dublin. There are costs outside of Dublin also, including social costs.

The reality that efficient public transport makes a contribution to society and the economy, above and beyond the entries on profit and loss sheets, has also dawned on many commentators, including many in this House. This new belief in public transport is a welcome development on the political landscape in Ireland. The Minister's coalition colleagues are often the first to claim that every party in the State has come round to their view and their vision of society. Nothing could be further from the truth, and the debate surrounding public transport is evidence of that. If anything, parties, including the two Government [1254] parties, are falling over themselves to adopt a social democratic approach to public transport, which I welcome. I recall the Minister's late brother, Brian, who was a good friend of mine, saying in the House that he was a socialist and made no apologies for that. I am glad the Minister is following in his footsteps.

This report, and the serious investment needed to ensure its recommendations are acted upon, requires this and subsequent Governments to demonstrate their commitment to public transport. The question is simple: does the Government believe in having a railway network? If the answer is “yes”, then it is imperative that the investment of £590 million is made to ensure the network is safe for staff, passengers and the general public.

That this scale of investment is needed is not in doubt. What is in doubt is whether the Government has the political will to make the investment, and the battle now before the Minister is to convince her colleagues, and the Minister Deputy McCreevy in particular, to put our money where their mouths are.

For many years serious questions arose regarding rail safety. These concerns arose not only from reported “near misses” on the rail network but were obvious to anybody who had occasion to use the rail network. Crowded trains, with passengers forced to stand or sit in passageways, were and still are common practice. Slow train speeds due to the age of track the rolling stock passed over were noticed by all passengers. The fact that many inter-city trains were too long for platforms in mainline stations was farcical. This led to passengers having to step off the platform onto the track to retrieve bicycles or parcels from the guard room on the last carriage of the train. These are instances which ordinary passengers could notice.

The report commissioned by the Minister demonstrates that there are more serious and fundamental safety problems to be addressed. The key point that much of our rail network has been allowed to deteriorate to such a condition that passengers, without any technical knowledge, could tell that matters were getting worse is important.

We now have a sound basis on which to judge the conditions of our railways. The safety report details the failings of the rail network in a number of areas. It should also be noted that the report has confined itself to the safety aspects of the rail network. The investment in improvements urged in this report would not only improve safety but would also have additional commercial benefits for the rail system. The authors of the report made this point and it is a salient one.

The report highlights the inconsistency of track quality across the network. It rightly points out that track quality is unacceptable across large sections of the network, particularly the secondary lines. The report rightly draws attention to the safety implications of this state of play.

Above and beyond the safety reasons for [1255] investing the necessary resources to improve our quality of track are the commercial benefits. Better quality track will provide both a smoother and quicker journey for rail users. The improvement in service could attract more customers on to the rail network on the secondary routes. While the commercial benefits of increasing safety are important, however, they should not dictate our method of investment. While I doubt if one extra passenger will consider using our railways because a new signalling system has been installed in Heuston Station, the need for this type of investment is beyond doubt.

One of the most revealing aspects of the report is where it refers to the lack of a structured approach to safety among Iarnród Éireann staff. This is symptomatic of an organisation starved of funding, that has been required to operate for many years on a sticking plaster basis. The report notes that:

There is a lack of consistent application of standards and plant maintenance. Training and development in safety policy procedures was not satisfactory. There is little evidence of a strong safety culture operating across the company as a whole. Occupational health and safety issues received a low priority.

This appalling situation is a direct result of the organisation being starved of sufficient funding. Tackling these problems should be a priority, both for Iarnród Éireann and for the Minister.

Another key area examined by the report concerns regulation of the railways. Because Ireland has a different railway gauge to the rest of Europe — an historical problem we have to live with — the report notes it is unlikely that other railway companies will seek access to our rail network. However, the report makes commonsense recommendations regarding the operation of the railway inspectorate within the Department of Public Enterprise. I commend the Minister for acceding to the recruitment of two additional inspecting officers. She might be in a state of shock at the amount of praise she is receiving today, but I believe in giving the maximum credit where credit is due.

Mrs. O'Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  Thank you.

Mr. Stagg: Information on Emmet Stagg  Zoom on Emmet Stagg  On the subject of credit, the financing of this package is one of the most important issues now facing the Government's rail policy. The Minister gave clearance for CIE to increase its borrowings by more than £23 million to start work on safety improvements. Does she intend to finance all future rail safety investment through borrowing?

Mrs. O'Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  No.

Mr. Stagg: Information on Emmet Stagg  Zoom on Emmet Stagg  If so, who will repay the loans? Will it be the future passengers of the service? The Government owns the rail system and it is the [1256] duty of the Government to make the necessary investment in the company to make it safe and viable. I remind the Minister that Bord na Móna was allowed to borrow large amounts of money that nearly put it under. CIE has already borrowed heavily and it is unacceptable to add to that debt burden to deal with this problem. I am not taking away from the fact that the decision to allocate £23 million was made with speed. That is welcome, desirable and necessary but I would be worried if the trend was towards borrowing for further investment.

The returns on this investment should not be judged on the basis of an accountant's balance sheet. Returns must include many other items as well, such as the environmental benefits of the railway system as opposed to private transport, including cars, and the use of roads for freight. These items should be factored into the balance sheet.

The safety of rail passengers should be compared to the carnage on our roads where more than 400 people have died this year alone. It is 15 years since the last major accident involving fatalities on the rail system. I pay tribute to the staff of CIE, who have been demoralised by the lack of funding in their system. They have, however, still operated a system where passengers have been their prime concern and safety is at the top of their agenda. We must also factor in the economic and social benefits of the railway system for more remote communities.

When I was a child we put pennies on the railway track and the passing train would enlarge their size making them about as big as halfcrowns.

Mrs. O'Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  The Deputy got more value for them.

Mr. Stagg: Information on Emmet Stagg  Zoom on Emmet Stagg  We then tried to paint them silver and pass them off in the local shop, but it never worked. I had a devious mind even then, as the Minister can see.

The area that track ran through was bought by farmers and is now used for silage pits. Because of the excellent drainage along the railway system, the run-off from the silage pits runs straight into the river Robe and pollutes it very quickly. It is a pity that the railway to places like Ballinrobe and Clifden were not maintained or even mothballed because they would be widely used now. I would not like to see any more such closures occurring.

I welcome the Minister's decision to commission this report. She moved quickly on the report, bringing it to Cabinet, as well as on the management and unions at Iarnród Éireann, and obtaining sanction for the initial £23 million of funding. I also welcome the establishment of the required task force to implement the report.

The game of pass the parcel concerning this long neglect of the railway system, whereby everybody and nobody was responsible, is over. I am not sure who has ended up with the parcel —[1257] the Minister or her Government colleagues. The parcel has now been opened, however, and only wilful neglect will prevent its contents from being dealt with.

This debate is similar to the one we had on mental handicap recently. No one ever knew the extent of it, but we now have a database on it. We also have a database on the extent of rail safety and the need for railway development. Ministers and Governments can no longer put sticking plasters on this matter.

Mrs. O'Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  They no longer hide.

Mr. Stagg: Information on Emmet Stagg  Zoom on Emmet Stagg  There is no place left to hide. I welcome the report and the Minister's attitude towards its implementation.

Mr. Doherty: Information on Seán Doherty  Zoom on Seán Doherty  I join in complimenting, thanking and congratulating the Minister for recognising the necessity to examine rail safety in a comprehensive and studied manner. She set about doing that with urgency and the net effect is this report. As she rightly pointed out, previous Ministers would have shrivelled in the face of the report's contents. The Minister was conscious of what was likely to emerge from it. She wanted a carefully focused and concentrated analysis and examination of the situation, which she now has. In commissioning the report, the Minister was also conscious that it would not be presented to her as something to be shelved. It has to be acted upon with immediate, medium and long-term responses. The Minister has already indicated her intentions and there is little doubt about them, given that for the first time there is a sub-heading in her Department's Estimate describing public transport investment.

It would be improper for us to criticise what has occurred in the past. To be honest, very little happened and, consequently, a succession of Governments and Ministers took things more or less as they were. We have now arrived at the position where serious difficulties are associated with rail safety and interdependent matters. Safety is acknowledged by everyone as being centrally important to any public transport service. While it is stated in the report that the safety record of Irish public transport has in the main been comparable with anywhere else in Europe, nevertheless, having got away without serious accidents for many years, the law of averages suggests that the risks are there and that sooner or later an accident will occur. We all hope and pray that will not happen but we are confronted by the reality that the likelihood is there.

Recently, the Committee of Public Enterprise and Transport, of which I have the honour of being Chairman, visited Germany. Shortly before our visit, two major rail crashes occurred there, within a week of each other. The accidents happened in a state of the art rail system that we went to examine and learn from. The same thing could happen here and more than likely will. We must acknowledge, [1258] as does the report, the importance of the physical condition and safety of the rail infrastructure. We must also pay close attention to safety management systems and to the processes and procedures associated with them and we must examine the role of rail regulation. The Minister is already actively engaged in improving all these areas. Government approval has been given to Iarnród Éireann to borrow £26 million. The borrowing capacity of Iarnród Éireann is considerable. This is an immediate response which acknowledges the steps which must be taken immediately after the publication of this report. The Minister was successful in getting Government approval for this borrowing and it is disingenuous to criticise her because this funding is not being directly provided by the Government. The Minister has evaluated the safety needs of the rail network and the Government has decided what must be done and has set about doing it.

The lack of investment in the rail network over many years is now having a serious impact on safety. The crisis has existed since 1983. Now that the Minister is tackling the problem she is being given half-hearted congratulations. She must confront the problem, find the money to solve it and go about doing that in a prudent way. When this report was published the Minister immediately indicated her intention to speak to management, unions and staff. These three groups must recognise the need for closer and more realistic interaction among them to ensure that safety measures are pursued and implemented.

The report highlights signalling as an area of high risk. The signalling systems in many parts of the country are extremely dangerous. The Cork, Belfast, Limerick and Dublin suburban lines have modern and centrally controlled computerised signalling systems which incorporate the most modern safety features. The Sligo, Galway, Tralee and Waterford systems are currently being equipped with the mini-CTC computerised system. The remainder of the network, that is the Rosslare, Westport and branch lines has mechanically operated signalling systems which are very expensive to maintain. They need to be replaced. It must also be acknowledged that the Heuston Station to Cork, Limerick and Waterford lines have signalling systems dating from the 1920s and 1930s which are in urgent need of renewal. A major task has been identified and must be undertaken.

In pursuing the task of improving signalling we cannot ignore the improvements needed in rolling stock. While the report shows that rolling stock is comparable with what is available elsewhere, improvement is needed. Some people who have considerable experience in the area of transport and should know better have failed to acknowledge the Minister's commitment to provide by the year 2000, 16 additional DART carriages as well as the ten already ordered, 20 extra suburban rail cars in addition to the 27 new carriages already ordered, extended DART and suburban station platforms to cater for longer trains, [1259] the doubling of the rail between Clonsilla and Maynooth to cater for improved suburban rail services and new signalling and rail track improvements on the Mallow, Killarney, Cherryville, Kilkenny, Mullingar and Carrick-on-Shannon lines. Before the report was published, the Minister had already engaged in elements that are central to the safety formula which she now seeks to achieve. One cannot separate improvements in signalling safety from the other improvements to which the Minister has already committed massive investment. The Minister's commitment to the upgrading of rolling stock and the replacement of jointed track by continuous welded track is indicative of her intention to provide the country with a modern transport system which will attract increased usage by the public. The Minister has already observed the trend towards increased rail usage. Once again she has acknowledged that if she provides an efficient, effective and safe public transport system and can meet the requirements of the modern commuter the trend towards greater usage will continue. The Minister has achieved much in the short time since she assumed responsibility for public transport. As Chairman of the Select Committee on Public Enterprise and Transport I point out to the House that we have already made a commitment to improving the rail system which has been neglected for many years. We will soon see the public show their confidence in public transport by a massive increase in its use and an end to the days of traffic gridlock.

Mr. Gilmore: Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore  The rail system is an efficient and environmentally friendly mode of transport. At a time when the road system is in danger of choking to death my principal regret is that we do not have a more substantial rail system. Forty years after Dr. Todd Andrews cut a swathe of destruction through our railway network we can acknowledge the short-sightedness of that policy. It is ironic that 40 years after the last train ran on the Harcourt Street to Bray rail line, CIE is surveying the line, rebuilding bridges that were demolished and reclaiming the permanent way to facilitate the Luas project. Had the Harcourt Street to Bray line not been closed so prematurely in the 1950s it could have been providing the same efficient DART service as the coastal line and saving huge traffic congestion in much of the southern suburbs of Dublin.

The potential of rail to reduce traffic flows through Dublin has not been fully exploited. One does not have to be a traffic engineer to recognise that a huge element of the traffic congestion in Dublin arises from the volume of container lorries travelling to and from the port. Given that there is an existing rail network from the port to the outer suburbs, a much more serious effort should be made to get this container traffic off the streets and on to the railways.

The rail system is an enormously expensive operation and eats up the vast bulk of the £100 [1260] million subsidy which CIE receives from the Exchequer. Contrary to a widely held misconception, Dublin Bus receives only £7 million in subvention. Despite the cost, money spent on the rail system is well spent. The railways cause little environmental damage or pollution and are a lifeline to many communities along the lines. It should also be emphasised that, despite the worrying findings of the report, railways have generally been a safe mode of transport with a safety record as good or better than any of the alternative means of transport available. No mode of transport is entirely safe; people are killed in horse-drawn carriages and falling from bicycles. However, given that powerful trains carry large numbers of people at high speeds, we have to ensure that safety standards and procedures are of the highest levels possible. Unfortunately, the report suggests that this is not the case. That we have managed to avoid a disaster has been due more to luck than to planning and standards.

Even more worrying than the lengthy list of hazards and potential dangers listed in the report is the consultants' findings of a lack of a systematic approach to identifying safety hazards and prioritising and implementing remedial action. It was also alarming to read of major shortcomings in the data collected and collated by Iarnród Éireann. According to the consultants there was little information as to the extent of the injuries incurred, there was double counting of incidents and a failure to break down the data into meaningful categories. This is unacceptable in modern times. Proper statistical information is vital if we are to understand the problem and decide on appropriate corrective measures.

The consultants talk in clinical and detached terms about acceptable risk levels, intolerable risk levels and monetary values for the prevention of fatalities and injuries. For the family of a passenger or staff member killed in an accident, or for someone maimed for life, there is no acceptable risk level and no value can be put on the loss of a limb or a life.

The report states that there is a potential risk of about ten train accidents, collisions or derailments in fair-paying passenger services per year in the short-term if no improvements are made, and that these risks could result in about 7 equivalent fatalities per year. These are relatively small numbers compared to the numbers who die on the roads each year. However, as with air travel, only one major accident is required to result in huge casualty figures as we have seen from a number of train disasters in Britain and the devastating derailment in Germany this year.

A number of findings in the report caused me particular concern. Huge amounts of money have been spent improving the physical appearance and facilities for passengers at Heuston station with the opening of new shops, bars and restaurants. This is welcome investment. However, it is alarming to find that the condition of the signalling system at Heuston, probably the busiest [1261] mainline station in the country, was singled out for criticism. The signal box wiring and much of the mechanical signalling system at Heuston was found to be in very bad condition. Eight serious safety failures were exposed associated with signalling. According to the report, normally it would be expected that no such failures would be found on this kind of inspection.

Signalling is crucial to the safety of the rail system. It was a fault in the wiring of the signalling system which led to the Clapham Junction disaster ten years ago which caused 35 deaths. In addition, while people will not have been surprised that some of the permanent way on lesser used sections of the network was in poor condition, it is alarming to find that such strong criticism was made of the state of the line between Sandycove and Dun Laoghaire. This section of line is used not just by mainline trains going to the south-east, but also by dozens of DART trains each day carrying thousands of passengers. The line was rebuilt 15 years ago but the consultants found that sleepers are decayed; the coarse stone on the line is nearing the end of its useful life; many bolts were missing; and the absence of broken bolts indicated that this situation was of long standing. The report also found that ballasts was inadequate and that the concrete-bedded track had failed in several locations. Given the volume of traffic on this line, repairs and upgrading on this section must be given a priority.

The consultants found that the rolling stock was generally in good condition but they do not seem to have assessed the dangers arising from over-crowding. Virtually every mainline train at weekends has passengers standing. These passengers are often crammed into corridors and toilets. The same problem exists on the suburban line serving places such as Castleknock and Maynooth. Unlike DART carriages, mainline carriages are not designed to carry standing passengers. Should an over-crowded train be involved in a serious accident, the consequences for standing passengers would be horrific.

There is also evidence that industrial relations tensions are not conducive to tackling important safety issues. Surely safety is one area where there is a common interest between passengers, management and staff. I appeal to the trade unions in CIE not to allow industrial relations problems in other areas to prevent the implementation of the highest possible safety standards that could save lives and avoid injuries to passengers and staff.

The Minister has announced a number of initiatives arising from the report. I welcome the decision to appoint two additional railway inspectors and to establish a high level task force to prioritise the necessary rail safety expenditure requirements. However, I wonder if we are treating the matter with the urgency required. Some of the proposals will take time but there must be no delay or equivocation in implementing the report.

Apart from the issue of life and limb, there is [1262] another consideration. Having identified the shortcomings of the rail system in the report, it is likely that the courts will grant significant compensation to anyone who suffers as a result of a delay in dealing with these problems. The potential exposure to the taxpayer in the aftermath of a serious rail accident might put other claims with which the State is familiar into the halfpenny place. For all these reasons a great deal of urgency should be given to implementing the recommendations in the report and the measures proposed by the Minister. I welcome this important debate.

Mr. Ellis: Information on John Ellis  Zoom on John Ellis  I welcome this opportunity to contribute to the debate on this report. We must congratulate the Minister, not for bringing this report before the House, but for the action she took 12 months ago after the Knockcroghery derailment when she decided that there was a need for a thorough review of the entire rail system. That action led to the publication of the report before the House.

The report contains some details which are frightening and others which are positive. It is positive that CIE and its workers are to be complimented for their safety record which has been quite good. However, they are working with antiquated equipment, signalling and lines which are nearing the end of their operational life. The gridlock in Dublin has drawn attention to the lack of investment in the rail system. The number of cars entering and leaving the city mean that one can only travel at certain times or else what should be a two hour journey from the country can take three and a half hours. An efficient rail system would help alleviate some of the traffic coming into the city and the problem of rising house prices. An efficient rail system which took people to work in an hour would mean that they would be prepared to live in rural areas, including those as far away as the Minister's constituency. People would be prepared to deal with the housing crisis if there was a rail system which took people from Mullingar or Athlone to Dublin in one hour.

When one looks at the proposals in the report, a number of matters become immediately apparent. One is the condition of the rail track and signalling systems which require urgent attention. The Minister's decision to make money for this work immediately available and to monitor the implementation by CIE of the report's recommendations is to be admired. The imposition of timescales for the implementation of the recommendations is also extremely positive. These actions will lead to a better and safer rail system.

Certain sections of track have been identified as being in need of urgent work which will require cash investment. That was already recognised by the Minister and the Government. Provision had already been made for work on many of these lines, particularly the line from Dublin to Mullingar to Carrick-on-Shannon which was considered a priority. It was a positive initiative in upgrading that line.

[1263] This report signals a new beginning for the rail system. It is an opportunity to bring it from the 1940s and 1950s into the new millennium and to provide an efficient service that people will be anxious to use to a much greater extent. One often hears criticism of our rail charges but they are extremely competitive with the fares charged in the UK and in Europe. The charges are quite reasonable.

Special credit should be accorded to the CIE workers at this time. For several years operating on a shoestring they have maintained an accident free rail system. This could not have been achieved without the dedication of those who walked the lines and maintained the system to a standard that other countries had achieved only through massive investment.

Urgent investment is required in the signalling and rail system. It might be worth considering leasing systems from those who win the competition to instal them, as happened in the case of Government offices when decentralisation took place. It would mean that the capital requirement would be spread over a longer period and the Exchequer could use the surplus funds to accelerate the upgrading of other areas of the rail network. Much of the rolling stock needs to be upgraded and that must be tackled when the rail and signalling systems are brought up to standard.

I welcome the provision of extra money for DART carriages. It is most important. On the “Liveline” programme on RTE radio today, a DART driver spoke about a serious problem with regard to how people behave on the DART. Sometimes it is used as a venue for drinks parties which are held while the train travels from one end of the line to the other. That is not acceptable. The assistance of the Garda Síochána might be required by CIE personnel to prevent this type of behaviour, particularly at weekends. The problem must be tackled as soon as possible to reassure the public.

The same driver was extremely critical of the lack of investment by Fine Gael when it was in Government. I will not discuss that now; Deputy Enda Kenny can discuss it with his colleague, Deputy Yates. The driver was scathing in his comments on the lack of investment in and commitment to the rail system.

The rail system must be transformed into a system that will serve the public into the 21st century. The Minister has set about this task with a will and I do not doubt that at the end of her term of office, she will have done more for the system than any other Minister in the past 20 years. She will also have helped to ease the burden of travel on commuters into the city. Travelling in Dublin has become a major problem and all possible alternative transport means to cars and buses must be considered.

The extension of service that should be possible with the provision of a proper signalling and rail system will lead to better and more frequent [1264] train services, particularly between cities. Continuing investment in the rail system will always be required. Technology continually changes and progresses and if we do not move with technological changes, we will be left behind. Consumers will not be encouraged to use the service if it is not highly efficient and geared to the needs of its users.

The service should inspire confidence in the public. Confidence is a byproduct of safety. If people feel safe on the train, they will travel on it more often particularly if it can offer the same travel time as the car. It is less frustrating for the commuter to sit comfortably in a rail carriage than to get stuck at lights or behind a juggernaut on his or her way in and out of Dublin. The latter can add anything from five to 50 minutes to one's journey time. Sometimes the delay can be longer.

I compliment the Minister on her work. It is only 12 months since the derailment at Knockcroghery. In the meantime, the Minister has put in place a full review of rail safety which has taken into account the interests of all users, including the passengers, CIE workers and CIE management. The programme for upgrading rail safety has strict timetables for the work that is required. I have no doubt that the Minister will ensure they are followed. That is important for the development of the rail system.

If an efficient system is not achieved, there will continue to be too many cars on the roads and worse traffic gridlock. An efficient rail system would greatly enhance the lot of commuters, particularly to Dublin.

Mr. Kenny: Information on Enda Kenny  Zoom on Enda Kenny  I do not contribute to this debate to congratulate the Minister; she is not seeking such congratulations. She is simply doing her job and I commend her for her decisiveness in respect of the safety report.

I am a firm supporter of the rail system. It is possible to move more passengers per hour by rail than by any other method of transport. There is a clamour among the public for a good, efficient, safe and comfortable rail system. If there were such a system, it would be used by a huge number of people.

The Department of Public Enterprise was a weight on the shoulders of many Ministers for years due to lack of investment and difficulties in the semi-State sector. Iarnród Éireann was always one of the bodies not to be tangled with by whatever Minister had responsibility for that Department.

The rail system has a sad history. The railways and the stations were the focus of sorrow due to being linked with sad goodbyes to emigrants. Archive material shown by RTE is evocative of memories of thousands of people leaving railway stations in rural areas forever. Most were never to return. These scenes are part of our history.

The saddest sight, however, is that of derelict rail tracks and stations throughout Ireland at a time when Europe is investing heavily in rail systems. Too many of ours were not only closed but [1265] destroyed or sold. One need only think of the west Clare line, the Galway-Clifden line, the Westport-Newport-Achill line and the line from Claremorris to Ballinrobe. The latter was one of the last lines to be closed. Deputy O'Rourke has an opportunity to make progress. Just as Knockcroghery was famous and renowned because of Jimmy Murray who captained the Roscommon all-Ireland football champions, it became famous for focusing attention on the derailment which occurred there some time ago. That there were no fatalities can be attributed to good fortune. It has focused the attention of Government and Iarnród Éireann on the initiatives required to upgrade the rail system. That the Minister Deputy O'Rourke commissioned this report is valuable in itself.

I will make a few general and specific points about the line to the west. The rail system is a fundamental part of our economic expansion. One can move more people per hour by rail than by any other mode of transport. There is a huge clamour in the public to have that kind of system.

Like Deputy Ellis, I listened today to the DART driver on the local radio programme.

Mrs. O'Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  I did not. I was just asking about it.

Mr. Kenny: Information on Enda Kenny  Zoom on Enda Kenny  The Minister may not have heard it but I am sure it will be taped for her. He said that nobody after 8 p.m. pays for a DART ticket because checkers are afraid to be on duty, that young people use the DART carriages as drinking dens, abusing, mugging and interfering with passengers. In the context of a late-night DART service over Christmas even on an experimental basis, there is a need for a thorough investigation and analysis of what he alleges is happening on the line. With the population of Dublin continuing to rise north-west and south-west of the city, the rail lines will be increasingly important.

This is a good factual report. The Minister is right not to set up another task force because she knows what needs to be done. The attitude among some Iarnród Éireann staff has changed because of the perception of a financial injection into the rail lines for the future.

Page 108 of the report states that the sections where the track condition contributes the highest risk are those from Connolly Station to Mullingar and Athlone to Claremorris. We are all aware of that.

However, the situation is not as bad as people paint it. Credit is due to the staff of CIE who have carried on under enormous clouds of low morale over the years attempting to keep this system in operation. There are a number of things which can be done now without any great cost to the rail line which would enhance the public reaction to the service. For instance, if a wheelchair disabled person wishes to travel from Heuston to Ballina tomorrow, the station personnel along the route can be informed that a person will be travelling by wheelchair and the portable ramp will [1266] be provided to assist them to board. In addition, there is a space in the dining cars for a wheelchair or two. That is a start towards giving public access to a greater number of people who would avail of that system rather than use buses or cars. I used the trains for many years. However, nowadays train times do not suit me.

Trains are often late due to safety reasons. Recently a person travelling by road reported old lines thrown down beside where new ones had been put in place. He thought the line had been up-ended and reported this out of a sense of public duty. The trains were delayed for an hour and a half while the matter was checked. That the Knockcroghery incident occurred has focused a new impetus in this area.

The report states that one of the most serious problems relates to deficiencies in the line west of Athlone and there are proposals to insert continuous welded rail over the next two or three years. While it is 86 miles long, the Minister might be able to tell us how much of that programme will be completed next year and the year after.

Mrs. O'Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  I will not be here tomorrow morning but somebody will be here.

Mr. Kenny: Information on Enda Kenny  Zoom on Enda Kenny  People are willing to listen to the response of Government so long as they know the plan. Recently the train broke down between Ballyhaunis and Castlerea and it was stranded in the dark for 40 minutes. No announcement was made to the public about what was happening because the train driver was trying to start the train. There is a need to improve communication with the passengers. There should have been an announcement to the passengers to the effect that the train had broken down and it would take 20 minutes to restart it. This is what is done at airports where, because of a technical fault, one could be hanging around for four or five hours. Improved customer care is important.

With regard to continuous welded rail, the lines to Galway, Sligo, Cork and Belfast will be of continuous welded rail in about 12 months and the Minister can then concentrate on the western line. When doing it, I would expect Iarnród Éireann to address the number of manually operated gate crossings from Athlone west. These slow up trains because a driver cannot go through them at 100 miles per hour.

I would like to see a system whereby one can book seats in advance. If one buys a ticket, it does not mean one is entitled to a seat because some people who buy tickets must stand. Ticket sellers should not grossly oversell the number of places on the train. Standing is no joke even for an able-bodied person. How much worse must it be for a pregnant woman or an elderly person to have to stand as far as Athlone on a train which can be quite rocky and uncomfortable? There should be a system such as those which apply in every other European country whereby one can ring up and buy a ticket knowing one will get a seat. Overcrowding occurs particularly on Fridays and Sundays [1267] or on the occasion of a big match where there are too few carriages and there is gross overcrowding. It leads to all sorts of anti-social behaviour on the train and makes it uncomfortable.

Mrs. O'Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  There is the anti-social behaviour of the people who are left behind.

Mr. Kenny: Information on Enda Kenny  Zoom on Enda Kenny  The safe electric token system, with which few accidents occur, will be replaced with the new system. I have not understood the difference in fare structures between Westport to Dublin and Dublin to Westport. The same structure should apply east-west as west-east. I think the difference arose from a mentality that suggested that people never wanted to go west, that people always went to Dublin. The Minister might look into that and equalise fare structures.

Mrs. O'Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  I will, certainly.

Mr. Kenny: Information on Enda Kenny  Zoom on Enda Kenny  I commend the Minister for her decisiveness in this matter and for the impetus in the restoration of the rail lines. I would like to think that in ten to 15 years, there will be a decent rail system which is efficient, reliable and cost effective which will be used safely by many hundreds of thousands of people on a daily basis. I will support the Minister all the way on that.

Ms Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  I mBaile Átha Cliath amháin, is féidir linn a fheiceáil gurb é an DART an modh iompair is fearr sa chathair mar tá sé glan, is féidir brath air agus tá sé nua. The DART is only 14 years old. It provides a high quality service and is generally reliable. As there are ten DART stations in my constituency, I am conscious of the level of use of the DART from morning until evening and the great service which it can provide.

I was somewhat alarmed at some of the things which were stated in the Review of Railway Safety in Ireland, which refers also to the DART. Whereas the report stresses that the DART is in good overall condition, it highlights major faults which it has identified on a local basis. These faults seem to fall into two categories: structural problems on the line and, more worryingly, maintenance problems. On the line itself, it gives numerous examples of areas in very poor condition. The report refers to decayed sleepers between Sandycove and Glenageary and splits, loose chair screws, ballast being choked and missing bolts. It draws attention to the fact that if bolts are missing, they did not go missing today or yesterday but have been missing for some time. The report also tells us the slab track, which is bedded in concrete, along part of the route from Dún Laoghaire to Sandycove has failed.

When the DART was built a number of the footbridges had to be raised in height to accommodate the DART going under. It now appears the workmanship in those footbridges is faulty, it [1268] is corroded and the extensions added to the footbridges at the time have a major safety question mark over them. What we are most familiar with in dealing with rails and the DART are the overhead conductor lines because people are conscious not to hit them. Very often we hear news about a fault at the Merrion Gates where something has hit the lines. It is particularly worrying to read in the report that the DART has neither the level of skilled manpower nor access to equipment to cope with a system as it degenerates with age, given that it is only 14 years old. What this report is telling us is that in terms of safety the DART system is operating on borrowed time.

I welcome the fact that the Minister commissioned this report to be carried out. Had it not been carried out we might never know of the danger which could potentially exist. The report addresses problems of maintenance on the line. Sometimes structural problems might not always come to light until they are properly investigated but where there are manmade problems there are no excuses. The report found there are underlying weaknesses, including inadequate control of redundant wiring and out of date working drawings which have been subject to alteration in an uncontrolled manner. This is in a system where two bodies are working together to ensure the safety of the DART, the centralised traffic control centre and an automatic train protection system. These two groups are meant to work in tandem, yet there is no planned servicing of signalling and other vital equipment — the inadequate maintenance included defective insulated joint detectors, dirty signal lenses and poor maintenance on colour light signalling. Is it that the staff did not know these problems existed or, worse, is it that they knew and did not attend to them?

Iarnród Éireann and all of us, given that this information is available, have a responsibility to ensure accidents do not occur. The warning is there for us in this report that an accident is waiting to happen on the DART but the problems have been highlighted sufficiently in advance. God forbid that there should be an accident on the DART because the major problem of overcrowding is not addressed in the report. No matter what time of the morning rush hour you take a DART, for example, in Dún Laoghaire, you will have to stand the whole way into town. From Dalkey station into town the DART takes 30 minutes. People have to stand on the DART at 7.40, 7.50, 8.00, 8.10 and 8.20, not in comfort but like sardines jammed into a can. The usual practice is to shove passengers into the carriages so that the doors can close. If for any reason the driver has to brake, everybody moves forward in a great surge. Recently — on the one hand this has to be welcomed for safety reasons — inspectors have been getting on the coaches to remove people from the DART. This is happening when we are encouraging people to use the DART and leave their cars at home.

I visited one school this day last week, a rainy [1269] day, where 161 students arrived late for two reasons: first, because the buses passed them full and, second, they had been removed from the DART. These are people who live on the DART line, who are going to a school on the DART line and yet are unable to use it. On the one hand I welcome the fact that somebody is taking a safety responsibility but on the other the DART is not able to service the people whom it should service, those who live on the DART line. There are problems also where thousands of people emerge from the DART in such places as Tara Street and Westland Row, onto very narrow exits leading onto the street thereby causing terrible congestion.

I welcome the new initiative taken by the Minister in ordering six new DART carriages which will boost capacity by 30 per cent. I hope in ordering the 16 used carriages she will not have made the mistake of thinking that the ten which are already on order will be able to meet the needs by the time the carriages arrive. Anybody could have told whoever ordered the ten that at least 20 carriages were needed at that time. The ten have not arrived yet, but I hope the 16 will not be far behind.

I also welcome the extended platforms which will ensure that when we get the extra carriages they will be able to pull up on the platform. There has been much development in the whole DART area, particularly the new Dún Laoghaire station opened by the Minister. Some 10,000 commuter journeys start or finish in that one station alone each day. It is an important station because it is a tourist port. Very often it is the first place an overseas visitor will visit when they come to this country. Therefore, it is important that it conveys a modern and progressive image. The DART is the solution to keeping people off the roads. It should provide a good public transport service and encourage people to make the best use of the facilities.

The report presented today raises so many serious questions about the safety of the DART that now that we have the information we cannot ignore it. We are glad to have it. I have been assured the Minister will ensure accidents are averted.

Mr. Timmins: Information on Billy Timmins  Zoom on Billy Timmins  I wish to share my time with Deputies Hogan and Durkan.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Rory O'Hanlon  Zoom on Rory O'Hanlon  Is that agreed? Agreed.

Mr. Timmins: Information on Billy Timmins  Zoom on Billy Timmins  I am pleased to have the opportunity to say a few words on the rail safety report and related matters. One of the main problems here is traffic congestion and while it is particularly bad in the greater Dublin area, there is hardly a town in the country that has not been affected, especially those areas along the main economic arteries. A great deal of money has been spent on improving roads, yet they cannot cater for the increase in car numbers. Given NCB [1270] stockbrokers' prediction of an increase in car numbers from today's level at just under 1.2 million to 1.6 million by the year 2006, the future for road users is one of long queues and long hours. However it does not take a genius to realise this problem can be greatly alleviated by ensuring we have an effective and efficient public transport system. Unfortunately, this is not the case and as International Risk Management Services point out in their report, there has been a shortfall in investment in recent years, so much so that it is now impacting on safety.

If one turns on any chat show one is almost guaranteed to hear Iarnród Éireann's public relations man trying to defend the indefensible as irate users of the service vent their anger. The Rosslare-Dublin line runs through Wicklow and so disgruntled are the users of that line that they formed an east coast rail users action group. The group was formed in response to the lack of reliability of the east coast rail service and, in particular, the commuter service for Greystones, Kilcoole, Wicklow, Rathdrum and Arklow. Users are frequently stranded, uninformed of delays or cramped into overcrowded and substandard carriages. Some 1,000 users of the service in the county have signed a petition calling on the Minister to ensure that trains arrive and depart as per schedule, which is not an unreasonable request, that in the event of delays an appropriate announcement is made to passengers and that all carriages have basic standard facilities, such as light and heat. Many more elaborate requests were made.

This poor service is not a reflection on the rail workers but on the failure of the Government to make the necessary investment.

Mrs. O'Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  The Deputy's own Government.

Mr. Timmins: Information on Billy Timmins  Zoom on Billy Timmins  It has been a failure of several Governments. People who depend on that service to get to and from work are regularly let down. Children, who must travel from these towns for their education, are often forced to spend long hours on stationary carriages and waiting for trains which do not arrive.

There was great disappointment in the area when the Minister did not allocate funds, which had previously been earmarked for the Luas project, to this route. The report on rail safety classified the Bray-Arklow route as the sixth highest stretch of line in the passenger individual risk category. I hope the Minister urgently addresses this issue.

I recently received a reply to a parliamentary question in which the Minister stated that the infrastructural element of the DART extension to Greystones will be completed in the spring of 1999 and that Iarnród Éireann may run a partial service while awaiting the arrival of new carriages in the autumn of 1999. I fail to see how this can be the case given that the company cannot provide an adequate service at present. Can the [1271] Minister confirm when the new carriages will be operational as I am afraid this will not happen until 2000?

Mr. Hogan: Information on Philip Hogan  Zoom on Philip Hogan  The amount of rolling stock for commuters from Kilkenny to Dublin is totally inadequate. As the rail network is now regarded as a way of alleviating the overcrowding on our roads, it must be made more efficient. Commuter services from places, such as Kilkenny which is not too far from Dublin, should be planned and developed as they would make an enormous contribution to alleviating traffic problems. People from Dublin and other towns and cities are tired of sitting in traffic jams. We should look at developing an efficient rail service to places close to Dublin so that people can commute each day to their work.

I was disappointed with a letter I received recently from the chief executive of Iarnród Éireann, who is a Kilkenny man. He pointed out that a commuter service is not planned from Kilkenny to Dublin in the near future. I call on the Minister to intervene so that the necessary infrastructure is provided for a commuter service from Kilkenny to Dublin as soon as possible.

I am glad the report highlighted the problems recognised by those of us who use the rail network on a regular basis between Cherryville junction and Kilkenny. I was not surprised to read about the difficulties in the service. We must spend a large amount of money on our rail network to avoid human tragedy. We should increase the money provided for level crossings. Many level crossings on the Kilkenny to Waterford route, particularly at Knockmoylan, are still not automated. This must be rectified, particularly in view of the number of accidents and near misses there in recent years.

I welcome this timely report which focuses our minds on the safety of the rail system and on the fact that it has been a Cinderella service in terms of public transport for far too long. It will make an enormous contribution to planning and development and will help to provide a better service for the people. We should implement the findings of this report as soon as possible so that a human tragedy is avoided. We must provide a good and efficient public transport service so that people will not be as frustrated as they are at present.

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  In times of ever increasing road traffic, demands for extra space on the roads and traffic jams which we experience on a daily basis, it is appropriate that we turn our attention to the rail system. For a long time it has been ignored as an alternative to road traffic.

I come from a constituency in Kildare where rail safety has attracted a great deal of attention in recent times. I am glad the report has been published because it will ensure that immediate action is taken to address these issues. If that does not happen, I am afraid there may be a serious [1272] catastrophe. The potential for a serious accident increases with each passing day. Something must be done to prevent this. I hope the Minister provides the necessary funds in the near future rather than in the long term.

Mrs. O'Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  It is laid out year by year.

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  In recent years CIE and Iarnród Éireann reluctantly addressed some of these problems and brought them to the attention of the authorities. I remember that management was reticent about introducing a commuter service on the western route because it would discommode provincial travellers. The objective should have been to provide a service which was attractive, competitive and available to the public.

I noticed that in recent replies to parliamentary questions the Minister said she has no responsibility for certain aspects of the rail service.

Mrs. O'Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  Operational aspects.

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  If there is an accident, the Minister will be in the front line.

Mrs. O'Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  When Deputy Dukes was Minister, he answered parliamentary questions in the same way.

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  I hope there will not be an accident.

Mrs. O'Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  There will be one.

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  The responsibility will rest with the Minister. I ask her to speak to the authorities in Iarnród Éireann to ensure they are focused on this area and that we do not have to debate this subject in the near future.

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