Adjournment Matters. - Luas System.

Thursday, 10 July 1997

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 151 No. 14

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Acting Chairman:  I welcome Minister O'Rourke to the House, congratulate her on her reappointment to the Cabinet and wish her well. I hope she has a successful and long stay in her post.

Mr. Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris  Zoom on David P.B. Norris  I join the congratulations to the Minister. She has a very distinguished career behind her and I think has another in front. I very much look forward to that. I take very kindly that she took the trouble to come to the House to discuss this important matter. The Evening Herald also considers this to be an important matter with its headline “Hang Luas, there Mary”. The article is very much in favour of the proposal to run Luas underground in the city centre.

There was a neat piece of political footwork in that immediately I put down this motion the Minister responded with a statement.

Minister for Transport, Energy and Communications (Mrs. O'Rourke): Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  We had a Cabinet meeting that day and it was on the agenda.

Mr. Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris  Zoom on David P.B. Norris  I am glad to hear that. It looked like an interesting coincidence. I was hoping it was not a slight on this House. It has happened in the past that we have been queue jumped for [1158] political reasons. I very much welcomed the Minister's statement.

I do not think it is useful for me to rehearse everything I said before. We have had a number of important debates on this issue. I am sure the Minister has, or will, acquaint herself with what was said in the Seanad. There was a great deal of technical information. I was very well briefed by Cormac Rabbitte and Rudi Monaghan who produced the unified proposal idea. Will the Minister agree to meet them? I am glad this Minister is in place because I know she is her own woman. The problem with the previous two Ministers is that they were run by civil servants who are very professional people but they have a monomania about keeping Luas overground. No matter how we argued, logic was never allowed to prevail even though there was general agreement from all sides of this House that it should be underground.

People in other political parties like Dr. Garret FitzGerald, whose professional expertise the Minister would have a healthy respect for, magisterially demonstrated that the overground Luas light rail system simply could not shift the required number of people. It is technically, mathematically impossible to do so whereas the underground can cope with the required numbers. In addition, what we are proposing links into the existing transport networks. It struck me immediately that it was idiotic not to link-in the airport.

I would like to add a few new things for the Minister to consider. I am glad we had the public inquiry. However, I think we should suspend or adjourn it now for the following reasons. It is not possible to look objectively at the underground option while simultaneously holding the Luas inquiry. The Taoiseach's commitment to the residents of Arran Quay Terrace and businesses in that area that when in Government Fianna Fáil would not permit the Luas to drive its destructive way through their area had certain consequences. The current plan has to be withdrawn, resubmitted and go through the same process of statutory periods of objection. Other rules must be established and public consultation procedures adhered to. That means we are subverting the public inquiry while it is taking place.

In addition, the short notice of the date of the public inquiry means securing professional witnesses is problematic. I received a form, I signed it indicating I would give oral and written testimony. The form contained a slot provided for “will you call professional witnesses” which I was not in a position to do. It is difficult to contact people, to arrange to get them to Dublin and so on. That is also a drawback. The short notice and time of inquiry means that a number of key objectives will be unavailable because we are in the middle of the summer holidays. That is a pity. I think it should be adjourned.

I welcome the new Government's stance on the review of the underground option as set out in the Action Programme for the new Millennium. [1159] I give credit to Fianna Fáil for including this and giving us a commitment on it. There will be no argument with our partners because I have the same commitment form the Progressive Democrats. The Government will be unified on this.

I know this Minister is honourable and this is a decent Government. I believe the Government will stand over its commitment as set out in Dublin — A Working Document in May 1997 which said that the lack of driving space on our central city streets, the prospect of disfiguring the city centre with tram wires and the unacceptable nightmare of ripping up those core city streets has convinced us we should fully explore the underground option. If the costings add up over the long term then we think the Luas should on balance go underground in the city centre. I am convinced the costings do add up. The cost of putting in the surface connections have been seriously underestimated. The costings are already starting to go up. That happened with DART which is very successful but the estimates for the DART were completely out and increased a number of times. Fianna Fáil is right in saying that to run Luas overground would disfigure the city. The tunnelling option does not cause disruption because it is not, as the opponents of the unified proposal suggested, a cut and cover operation. It is a tunnelling operation with a number of bore holes through which the material would be extracted and dumped. There would be minimal disruption in the city centre. The Government is correct in divorcing the appraisal of the underground option as proposed by the unified proposal from CIE as it is under instruction from the Department to come up with a scheme to put Luas on-street. That was its brief. It cannot be considered independent. This would be tantamount to Aer Lingus being asked to appraise a scheme put forward by Ryanair. The supposedly independent report was done by Semaly who are an excellent professional group but they are the ones who will profit from the contracts to put the system in place. It is simply idiotic to do that. The last Government believed in transparency. There was a fair amount of transparency about that. Any idiot could see it was wrong. That is what I call transparency. The appraisal should be further divorced from the DOT as they are also proponents of the Luas. An inspector should be appointed to report directly to the Minister's private secretary. The inspector should have the power to appoint engineering consultants with experience in tunnelling and should have access to a data bank of information on soil in Dublin. Tunnelling costs can be established. It is possible to tunnel in Dublin regardless of what the people on the other side say.

We come then to the question of information to be made available to the public inquiry. From inquiries to the office of the light rail the following has been established: CIE will only submit selective information to the inquiry; every submission made to the inquiry will be made available. [1160] The implications of this are interesting. First, CIE does not have to submit any information that it does not consider helps its cause. In other words, it promotes the on-street light rail tram. Secondly this means the whole inquiry is inevitably skewed in CIE's favour. I know the eminent person chairing CIE is impartial. I am talking about the whole context in which the inquiry is being held. Other Government bodies will inevitably, unless they are held in place by firm persons like the Minister, adopt the same approach in an effort to assist CIE. The public is being denied access to the full information upon which decisions were made. Professional witnesses will not get access to or knowledge of information vital to their case because CIE will withhold it. The process is a sham. CIE will have access to everybody else's information but will retain the privilege of its own information being withheld in any circumstances where it believes it is favourable to a proper examination of the underground option. The ambiguity over whether people's costs in terms of adequately representing themselves at the tribunal should also be looked at. This should be done as a matter of urgency so that ordinary people, inexperienced in such matters, can retain professional counsel. If we are serious about the inquiry, people should be assisted in making their representations.

There are no environmental reasons the rail system should not go underground. That would be better because there would be no ripping up of streets. Contrary to what the Luas PR people say, the underground system mentioned in the unified proposal would be a bored tunnel and completely underground; it would not involve ripping up Grafton Street and there would be no hideous street furniture. An underground system would provide more opportunities to pedestrianise streets. People do not amble along tram tracks, as anybody who has been to Amsterdam, Grenoble, Sheffield, Manchester or Melbourne will realise. I go to Amsterdam from time to time and there is a very high accident rate there. It is very unsafe to have trams on streets; people get killed. Luas will permanently take away street space that could be pedestrianised.

I know the Minister is as passionate about the city of Dublin as I am, and that the Taoiseach, Deputy Ahern, certainly is, because he is a genuine Dubliner and a good northsider like myself, although I am one by adoption. People are committed to the notion of bringing people back into the heart of the city by providing living accommodation and by pedestrianising the city centre. In the 1960s the Germans ripped up the trams in Hanover and Stuttgart and put them underground so that they could pedestrianise the streets and they have the most efficient LRT system in Europe.

I want the Government to also give an undertaking that they will instruct CIE to make public all the information it has relating to the Luas project and all oral, written and electronic information and correspondence generated by the [1161] DOF, DOE, CIE, DTI and DTO when the inquiry starts again.

It would be particularly good if we had a referendum for the response of the citizens of Dublin. The Luas public relations people have said nobody wants the underground option and have produced selective questionnaires and information. Let us have a full referendum.

There are no technical reasons an underground system cannot be built in Dublin so the question of costs must be the major stumbling block. If Calcutta can afford a metro, the “Celtic tiger” can afford a metro in its capital. If Newcastle can make one run economically and make a profit, so can we. If Cork can afford a £100 million tunnel under the River Lee to serve a population of 125,000, then we can afford to service a population of 1.2 million people in the same way. If they can tunnel under a river in Cork, surely we are not such idiots in Dublin that we do not have the ingenuity of the Cork county engineers. Every capital city of worth in Europe has a metro.

On the “Morning Ireland” programme of 8 July, Dr. Garret FitzGerald said it may cost a little more to go underground but we can afford it and the Luas tram is not the appropriate system for Dublin. There is a Japanese consortium prepared to put this in on a 3 per cent loan over 30 years as long as they get the contract for running it. I do not believe CIE is in love with the Luas tram but it is intent on building a system, underground or overground, which it and it alone can operate. If this is not the case, why has it proposed underground systems in the past? I inform the board of CIE that the underground system Dublin deserves is within its grasp. It can have it, and with this Minister, I think they will get it.

Minister for Transport, Energy and Communications (Mrs. O'Rourke): Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  I thank the Chair for his congratulations. I hope he has a long future in politics. I also thank Senator Norris, an old friend from many conversations and debates on education matters when I came to this House in the past, for his good wishes.

First, I want to scotch any connection between this Adjournment Matter and the announcement on the Cabinet agenda for Tuesday.

Mr. Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris  Zoom on David P.B. Norris  My suspicions were unworthy and I unhesitatingly withdraw them.

Mrs. O'Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  They were unworthy but understandable. Nevertheless, although I am going to Cork this evening, I stayed back to deal with this matter myself.

I have read and reread the Senator's passionate discourses on this matter and also listened to many people discuss this while in Opposition. It is included in the Government programme and was the first issue I put my mind to when I took over my Department. I do not have a great technical knowledge of many things but I have sound common sense. It struck me that while there was excellent work done by CIE and the Luas project [1162] on the overground system, there was no objective study done on the underground version. I had a vision of the streets of Dublin if this project went ahead overground and if it were underground. Both were disturbing, but it seems that this modern beautiful city of 1 million people is now thankfully regaining its elegance, thanks in part to the Senator's passion for the built environment of Dublin, which had become faded. I want to be the Minister to make the right decision on this matter, unlike the two previous Ministers, who had closed minds and did not want to entertain the idea of looking at something else, which was extraordinary. The Acting Chairman's party felt strongly about this matter also.

It is always good to be informed to the greatest possible extent. I would not be an ally of Dr. Garret FitzGerald, nor would he be one of mine, but, according to him, it seems to me that Luas grew because there was a block of money to be used on a proposal. I was glad to honour this commitment as quickly as possible as we have to do something about the traffic in the city.

Since I announced this, high level Opposition Deputies have come to me and said I have done the right thing. I was amazed.

Mr. Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris  Zoom on David P.B. Norris  I am not. They were whipped into line.

Mrs. O'Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  It seems extraordinary that they were unable to make an indent on the mind of the previous Minister. There are many people who strongly support a fully on-stream system, though I have not met them yet.

The debate has centred on issues such as cost, the passenger capacity and the relief of congestion. The planned study will provide an opportunity for an objective, thorough and dispassionate view of those issues. I acknowledge the valuable contributions which existing studies have made both for and against the proposal. The Light Rail Project Team and their consultants are very motivated and got very involved in their project. That enthusiasm is a very bright characteristic that should not be undermined. The commissioning of this study should not be seen as negating or devaluing their work.

I was speaking to the Taoiseach today on another matter and he asked me to pursue this issue briskly. That is what I intend to do but we must conform to the EU tendering process and it is important to take the time to evaluate properly.

Senator Norris raised some points. I intend to meet the proponents of the unified proposal. I do not have the power to suspend a public inquiry but my Department has been in touch with Mr. Justice O'Leary. I understand there will be discussions within the next few days and I would not like to pre-empt them. I am in favour of sharing information submitted. It is only by doing so that we will reach a proper conclusion to this debate. I read the unified proposal and have read material on file.

[1163] I am glad of this formal occasion to make the proposal public, although what we will do has been in the public domain. It is proper that such an important matter is raised in one House of the Oireachtas. Although the citizens of Dublin are those most intrinsically influenced by and interested in this matter, it also concerns people who use Dublin which is the capital city, of which we are proud, and the centre of much administration in terms of Government, law and so on. I wish to keep this city fair for its citizens, those who use it and visitors. Future generations will [1164] decide if we made the right decision. I am glad we commissioned this study and trust it will be carried out quickly and properly and that the end result will mean future generations will say the right decision was taken in 1997.

Mr. Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris  Zoom on David P.B. Norris  I am glad the Minister included compliments to the Luas team, which is very bright and energetic. We do not propose scrapping the project but modifying it. I am grateful for the Minister's clear, specific and welcome response.

The Seanad adjourned at 5.55 p.m. sine die.

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