Thursday, 14 November 2002
Seanad Eireann Debate
Iarnród Éireann has been incurring losses in recent years in its rail freight activities and in the current year alone is expected to lose €14 million. The business has been severely hit by the closure of the IFI plant at Arklow which will result in a loss of revenue of €3 million per annum. The rail freight business had been under pressure for some time arising from increased competition from the road sector, rising overheads and the changing nature of industrial activity with its continuing focus on competitiveness and the concept of just-in-time deliveries.
In January 2001, a small top level group was appointed to help Iarnród Éireann face the challenges of expanding its rail network and delivering improved services to customers. The group was appointed following discussions between the then Minister, the trade unions and the chairman of CIE and consisted of Bill Attley, former general president of SIPTU, Kevin Bonner, consultant and former Secretary General of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, and John Dunne, chairman of IDA Ireland and former director general of IBEC. Dr. Edmond Molloy of Advanced Organisation and Management Development Limited was appointed to assist the group.
Among its functions are reviews of the industrial relations environment within the company and the challenges facing management, staff and trade unions to achieve maximum value for the customer and taxpayer from the major investment in the rail system over the coming years. It was also asked to review the current structures, procedures, processes and practices at all levels within the company through which it will manage the necessary changes. In the light of these reviews, the group was to make recommendations regarding the acceleration of improvements in the organisation and management of the company in order to deliver a higher quality, customer focused service as well as value for the taxpayer.
In relation to rail freight, the report recommended that a special and thorough study of the issue be commissioned as a matter of urgency. The review group suggested that long range plans would need to be established to develop the rail sector as a whole. As a follow up to the group's report, the Department engaged international rail consultants, Booz-Allen and Hamilton, to undertake a strategic rail review to examine the future development of the national rail system.
The terms of reference of the strategic rail review are to prepare a strategic framework for future rail development in Ireland over the next 20 years having regard to the spatial planning context provided by the forthcoming national spatial strategy; the extensive public transport investment programme under the national development plan; the relevant findings and conclusions of Iarnród Éireann – The Way Forward; and the desirability of rail freight services to include consideration of existing freight capacity and its potential for development.
In their deliberations the consultants were also asked to take account of the following: various land use and transportation strategies being developed by local authorities and other proposals for expanding rail infrastructure and services; the European Commission White Paper on European transport policy for 2010; passenger and freight links with Northern Ireland and relevant published regional transport strategies and plans in Northern Ireland; quantify the broad financial requirements – capital investment and ongoing operational-maintenance costs – for the recommended railway development strategy, including consideration of the implications for the Exchequer in terms of capital and current funding, the scope for alternative funding mechanisms and pricing policies; assess the costs and benefits of the recommended strategy, to include an assessment of likely usage, regional development impacts, environmental impacts and other transport impacts, including safety, congestion relief, diversion from other transport modes and other externalities.
I expect to publish by the end of January the strategic rail review which will guide me in formulating a clear strategy for the rail freight sector for the coming years in the overall context of national economic development. I understand the pressures faced by Irish Rail-Iarnród Éireann to make the necessary efficiencies in its business to maintain the rail freight activity. The strategic rail review will provide a national strategic context for defining the future of the business. I support a rail freight sector which helps reduce congestion and contributes to sustainable economic development.
I remind the House that the Government is fully committed to developing the railways. It is only in recent years that we have seen a programme to revitalise and maintain the railways. The Government is rigorously pursuing this strategy. I pay tribute to the Leader of the House, Senator O'Rourke, who led and oversaw this historic investment in our railways in recent years, who appointed the group which will bring forward the strategic rail review and who has placed Iarnród Éireann on a successful path for the future.
Mr. S. Brennan: Significant progress, which I intend to pursue, was made under the former Minister in recent years in terms of upgrading mainline track for freight and passenger services; providing significant capacity for commuters in the greater Dublin area; and making improvements to the quality of services through the provision of new and modern carriages. I am pleased that this week I have given Irish Rail final formal approval for Exchequer funding for the purchase of 67 new mainline carriages and increasing DART capacity which will represent by 2005 an increase of 100% on the year 2000 capacity. This is apart from 80 new diesel rail cars which will begin to arrive in the coming weeks.
I hope I have conveyed clearly to Senators the turning point which has been reached in recent years in terms of revitalising our railways and the Government's full commitment to continue to invest in the rail network and develop an increasingly modern rail system for the Ireland of the 21st century.
Mr. Browne: I welcome the Minister and wish him well with the enormous task he faces in the Department of Transport. I compliment the Leader of the House on the role she played in this area in the previous Government.
The Department of Transport has a huge remit. I am honoured to be Fine Gael's spokesman on transport in the Seanad and cannot get over the large number of areas for which the Department has responsibility. Perhaps it is an reflection on the Minister's enormous workload in that each morning, either in the newspapers or on the radio, there is always at least one statement regarding some aspect of transport. When one believes one has mastered them all, there is suddenly another area about which one must learn.
These are difficult times and we are hearing many words such as “cut backs”, “adjustments” and “deferrals”. The word “deferral” applies more to the Department of Transport than to any other. I urge the Minister to do everything in his power to ensure there are no deferrals. In terms of transport policy, I regard deferrals as being worse than cut backs. We are already way behind schedule in terms of our transport system. It is a great irony that, when one travels abroad, one discovers that during the past two centuries transport systems in other countries were built by Irish emigrants. If one visits transport museums in New York or London, one will see that Irish emigrants played a major role in that regard. However, Ireland does not yet have a decent transport system.
This problem is having a huge effect on the quality of people's lives. Everyone here is involved in politics in order to try to improve that quality of life. I do not believe that being stuck in a car for four hours each day is good. In that context, there is at least some merit to spending four hours on a golf course and playing badly, but there is no more futile exercise than being stuck in a car.
It is estimated that in Dublin alone traffic congestion costs €635 million each year. The average car journey has increased by 57 minutes in recent times. This means that people waste an hour travelling to work and returning home each day. As a result, parents see less of their children. They drop them to crèches at 6 a.m. when it is dark, pick them up again in the evening when it is also dark and, if they are not already asleep, put them straight to bed. That is no quality of life for families. I left Carlow at 6.10 a.m. to drive to Dublin and, even at that stage, there was a constant stream of traffic. I was not able to drive at more than 45 miles per hour on the journey, which is a reflection of the volume of traffic on the roads.
Towns such as Carlow are affected, not only by transport issues, but also by housing policy. People are being forced to purchase houses in Carlow and commute each day because they cannot afford to buy property in Dublin. In general, people should be able to live close to their place of work because they will otherwise be obliged to travel huge distances each day. The Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Harney, stated previously Ireland was a First World country with a Third World infrastructure. Everyone agrees with that assertion. The question is, what should we do about it?
In the context of the proposed cut backs or adjustments, we should consider the fact that we are spending £1 billion per year on foreign shares as part of the national pension reserve fund. We should look at the possibility of putting in place a Government bond system through which people could purchase bonds, the money from which could then be invested in infrastructural development. If we did this, we would be planning ahead and there is no doubt that we would obtain a return on our investment. When the Minister is negotiating with the Minister for Finance in the coming weeks, perhaps he could put forward my suggestion which might provide one solution to the shortfall in the public finances.
We must consider ways to invest in this area. It is ridiculous that people are investing in holiday homes in coastal towns in which they live for two weeks each year. For the remainder of the time they remain empty. We should encourage them to invest in the country's infrastructure, which would make far more sense.
We are discussing freight trains, the possible closure of ten freight depots and the associated loss of 330 jobs. The latter represents a step backward. We should be discussing reopening old depots and opening new ones. It is important to point out that use of an average freight train can lead to the removal of 50 HGVs from our roads. We should aim to achieve such a development.
There is no proper planning in this area. In the town of Ballina in Senator Higgins's constituency of Mayo €2 million was recently invested in the freight depot, which is now being threatened with closure. There does not appear to be any long-term planning. If the freight depot in Wexford was to close, an additional 100 lorries per day would have to come to the sugar factory in Carlow, via Wexford and south Carlow, each day. That would not be acceptable.
A total of 75% of cycling fatalities in recent years have involved HGVs. The Minister referred to the negative effects of HGVs on our roads. It is important to highlight a number of statistics in respect of freight which illustrate its advantage. Rail vehicles produce approximately 80% less carbon dioxide than road vehicles. Heavy goods vehicles are responsible for approximately 59% to 69% of the full costs – including social and environmental costs – imposed on society. These costs include those relating to greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, noise, congestion, accidents and death. A 40 ton, five axle lorry causes over 10,000 times more damage to road surfaces than the average car.
I went on the Internet to check what other countries are doing with regard to rail freight. England has a £4 billion ten year transport plan. Since 1994 it has increased its rail freight traffic by 50%. That is the equivalent of saving 400 million lorry miles. It is investing in gauge enhancements, new terminals and new rolling stock and capacity, sufficient to meet a projected 80% increase in rail freight by 2010. It is also planning to increase passenger numbers by 50% in the same period. West Virginia in the United States has reopened 172 miles of abandoned railway for rail freight and passenger trains. We are going against the global trend. Scotland offers a rail freight service which is double the speed of road freight.
Todd Andrews, then chairman of CIE, presided over the closure of railway lines in 1950s, although who the person was is irrelevant. While one can understand why he might have made that decision, it is a pity he not only closed the lines but that the rail lines were subsequently removed. It was bad planning. There was a line to Borris in Carlow but houses are now built on it so the chances of that line being reopened are extremely slim.
The Railway Safety Bill came before the Dáil in 2001 but has not been passed. When will it be passed? It is linked to this issue. It has also been brought to my attention that the authorities failed to give two months' notice of the closure of the line at Athenry. That is in breach of section 19 of the Transport Act, 1958. Perhaps the Minister will comment on this because it is causing much concern.
I wish to make a brief point about motorways. We cannot limit the debate on transport to rail. Motorways are important but as soon as they are built they will become congested. They will not work effectively unless there is a more long-term overall plan for them. It is important to set realistic targets for motorway projects. I welcome the fact that the NRA will become more accountable with the availability of its agendas for meetings under the Freedom of Information Act in the next few weeks. I hope the NRA will become even more accountable over time.
I am puzzled by the claims some Progressive Democrats members made before the general election, particularly in my locality. The person to whom I am referring is not present and I am not allowed to refer to absent Members. However, they made a big fuss that they would stop the motorways if they went back into Government. Perhaps the Minister would comment on that. The Progressive Democrats certainly misled the electorate in that regard in the general election campaign. It made life difficult, especially when Fine Gael supported the motorways. We believed the motorways were necessary for the greater good in order to open up the country to development.
I congratulate the Minister on the introduction of penalty points. It is long overdue and has been a great success. Everybody can see the benefits when they are driving. However, the Minister might clarify two matters. If, for example, I borrowed the Leader of the House's car and I was caught speeding, she would get the penalty points because the car is in her name. How will the Minister deal with such incidents? Where the person driving the car is not the person who is insured in the car, how will the penalty points system be administered?
Mr. Browne: There were reports in the newspapers that the Department of Transport is planning to pass information to insurance companies regarding people who receive penalty points on their licences. That worries me because the insurance companies will penalise the bad drivers but will not reward the good ones.
With regard to the €150 million payout to CIE employees, to which they are entitled under the changes proposed in recent weeks, will it affect the transport budget? That budget is already under attack. I have not referred to the transport system in Dublin as I am not sufficiently familiar with it but my colleague, Senator Brian Hayes, will comment on it. I thank the Minister for his attendance at this debate and I look forward to hearing his replies to our questions.
Mr. Dooley: I welcome the Minister. It is his first time in the House since he undertook his new portfolio. No doubt he will continue to bring the flair and enthusiasm to the Department of Transport which he brought to the many other offices he occupied in previous Governments.
In addressing this debate it is important to look at the public transport sector in general. The transport solution for citizens lies in a holistic approach. It would be futile to examine the constituent parts of the transport infrastructure in isolation. It is for this reason the Government decided to bring all transport matters within the remit of a single Department of Transport. This has been a most welcome development and, while the Department has been in existence for only five months, the Minister has made significant progress in terms of defining an overall strategy for the future of transport in a number of areas.
Undoubtedly, investment in transport and particularly transport infrastructure has been limited over the last decade. This is especially evident in rail transport. I now have confidence, however, that the decisions taken by the previous Administration together with the consolidation of all transport matters under the new Department and further investments identified in the national development plan will provide sound transport policy going forward.
While a number of my colleagues will talk about a range of issues concerning the closure of specific rail freight and passenger lines, I wish to take an overview of the rail freight situation. This year it is expected that Iarnród Éireann will lose an estimated €24 million. Of that figure, rail freight accounts for a loss of €14 million. That is more than half the overall loss. Obviously, this cannot continue and is the reason the Minister is taking a broad look at the rail transport sector in general. Rail freight needs to be examined more closely and that is what the Department is doing in the strategic rail review being undertaken by the international rail consultants Booz-Allen and Hamilton. The strategic review was recommended in the review of Iarnród Éireann commissioned by the former Minister, Senator O'Rourke. As part of the review, the desirability of rail freight services, to include consideration of existing freight capacity and its potential for development, will be examined.
I do not wish to pre-empt the report's findings so I will not dwell for long on why there are failures in the rail freight industry and why the operation of rail freight is losing Iarnród Éireann so much money. However, it is clear that the rail freight system needs to become more efficient. It needs to look at more ways of developing business either through the establishment of increased services or through the development of new markets. Iarnród Éireann has not given rail freight the focus it deserves. Irish registered goods vehicles carried 203.8 million tonnes on the roads in 2001, according to statistics provided by the Central Statistics Office. Surely some of this freight could have been transported by rail.
Everybody is aware that the lines currently in place are inter-city lines that link our larger towns and cities. Obviously not all goods are carried only between these towns and cities; a diversity of goods are transported to areas outside the main towns. We are not suggesting that new lines be laid into these areas but we must develop the land banks along existing rail lines, particularly where there are stations, and try to focus industry there, especially industries which require the movement of freight. There should be a requirement to consult other Departments, including the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, with a view to identifying foreign investors and positioning their businesses in strategic locations where they could take advantage of rail lines.
Other countries pursue a policy of transferring freight from road to rail, but that does not seem to be the case here. According to the National Competitiveness Council's annual report for 1999, which quotes the most up-to-date EU figures available, the level of rail haulage in Ireland is among the lowest in the European Union. It stands at half the EU average. This is unacceptable and we need to take action to reverse the trend.
Examining more specific examples of rail freight, it is obvious that some of Iarnród Éireann's problems stem from the targeting of niche markets. Rail freight represents a segment of the goods transportation business, but the recent closure of IFI is likely to result in even greater losses for the company, especially when one considers that IFI accounted for 11% of total rail freight traffic with annual revenues of €3.5 million to €4 million. Such a development represents a substantial loss to it. The niche approach, therefore, is difficult to pursue in these circumstances because the company, which depends on only a few freight customers, is open to market vagaries.
While the management of Iarnród Éireann is still examining the consequences for its freight operations of the loss of a major customer like IFI, there have been suggestions that loss-making lines in the rail freight section will be withdrawn. The Minister was swift to request that the company take no action until the strategic rail study was published in the new year, but it is clear that the threat remains to a number of rail lines. The company should not have put itself in a position of such reliance in the first place, but, unfortunately, this is not the only example of poor planning in its case.
The Kingscourt branch line of the rail network was used to transport gypsum to Limerick from the cement factory, but the revenue return from the volume of gypsum on offer by rail was insufficient to cover the rising costs associated with the investment required in the operation and the customer was certainly not prepared to pay the associated higher costs. Unfortunately, that was the only such service on the line. We should examine this point when targeting other industries which operate close to existing rail lines.
There have also been problems with the Foynes to Limerick line, a freight only line, which ceased operations in December 2000. Prior to that only three businesses had utilised the line and the rail service only generated £30,000 in the year 2000 making it highly unprofitable and unsustainable. It is obvious that kind of situation cannot continue. Iarnród Éireann is not even in a position to make the most of its current opportunities during the sugar beet season which lasts from October to December. Wexford Cement was forced to use the road system to transport its goods as Iarnród Éireann did not have the capacity or resources to operate both rail freight lines.
Iarnród Éireann cannot afford to continue to subsidise heavy loss-making lines, especially in these times of tighter financial control. At the same time we do not want to see any line closures as they would have a detrimental effect on regional development and harm local industry and tourism in many parts of the country. When both factors are taken into consideration, there seems to be only one way forward for the future of rail freight, that is, simply to develop more markets.
Iarnród Éireann must put more effort into expanding its range of rail freight services in addition to seeking ways of cutting the cost of such services and opening up lines to new business. In this respect, land usage is a critical factor. The company, therefore, needs to identify industries which require rail services for the transportation of goods. Market research by it would demonstrate that it could tap into a large freight market. If the freight market is properly developed, there should be no need to close lines. In fact, the company would be in a position to reopen lines that may have fallen into disrepair. I urge it to consider such an option.
If the company spent more time and effort on attracting increased freight business, it could use the Ennis-Athenry line as the main line of transport to and from Shannon Airport. That is another concern of the Minister's and one that we will be able to discuss on another occasion. I understand the line has carried no freight traffic for the past 12 months and, while there are no plans to close it, it is a matter of serious concern that the crossover in Athenry has been lifted. The matter has already been discussed on the Adjournment. In addition, we must take into account the fact that the line has not been included in the new mini-CTC signalling system.
Will the Minister consider taking a similar approach to the airports where specific areas have been targeted, including business, tourism and community interests? In the case of rail, this would amount to assisting the development and increased usage of lines in particular areas. Iarnród Éireann should identify the interest groups which could work together to ensure the best use is made of rail freight services. In isolation, its remit is to develop the railways, but we now need to look at the matter on a wider basis, examining current and potential rail freight customers. A forum comprising the company and its customers would assist in the ultimate development of freight lines which would have a knock-on effect on surrounding areas. The strategic rail review has worked closely with the committee which is developing the national spatial strategy, of which access to freight and passenger rail services is a major element.
I thank the Minister for attending the House for this important debate. In the short time he has held his brief he has introduced many important strategies. In addition, he has made great efforts to bring people together from all sides in order to find a solution to our transportation problems. Some of my colleagues will deal with specific areas of interest in greater detail.
Ms O'Rourke: I thank Senator Dooley for sharing his time. Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have excellent spokespersons on transport in Senator Dooley and Senator Browne, respectively. They are bright, interesting and know what they are talking about. On a separate issue, Senator John Paul Phelan must the youngest Acting Chairman in any parliament in Europe. Well done to him. I am glad the Minister, Deputy Brennan, has attended the House for this important debate. I congratulate him on his appointment and wish him good luck in the coming five years. I also thank him for his words of appreciation.
Rail transport is an issue about which people can become heated, as they have done both here and in the Lower House. We are discussing railways at a time when there is a certain hostility towards them from motorists. When I was appointed Minister for Public Enterprise five years ago, that hostility was becoming apparent. People would say to me, “The railways – what about them?” as they climbed into their new cars and roared away. They can no longer roar away in any direction, however, because of traffic jams. It used to take two hours to travel from Dublin to Athlone but can now take three hours.
I fully agree with the Minister's decision to introduce a penalty points system for motorists, although I will not be lending my car to anyone in case that happens. At the highest decision-making levels, however, there is a feeling that Iarnród Éireann is Cinderella and that even though the clock has struck midnight, Cinderella is still there. I am aware of this due to the endless financial battles I had to undertake to ensure we received the necessary resources for the company, which we did get for which I thank my colleagues, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance, although it was some battle.
I recall the time when it looked as if the railways would have to close because of accidents and the safety issue. Senator Higgins knows that I went to Government with a plan seeking £500 million, it took three Cabinet meetings to obtain it. That is the reason the lines are now open and safe. I am pleased to say that during my five years in office there were no fatalities as a result of rail accidents, although, sadly, there were a number of suicide attempts. The railways could not have progressed any further if we had not made that investment in rail safety. At the time the current Minister, Deputy Brennan, attended Cabinet meetings as Chief Whip and was most supportive.
There is the idea that you are dashing, cavalier and swashbuckling if you are in a car and somehow you are ordinary if you are in a train. We should constantly dispel that idea, and running down Iarnród Éireann from morning until night will not help to dispel it. The company had been starved of money. They had been in penury and they withstood it.
People like my esteemed colleague talk about loss-making. Who talks about loss-making roads when massive moneys are put into them from Kinnegad to Athlone, even before we get the bypass? Nobody says the roads are losing money every year. They think it is wonderful to be on the road, yet railways cannot exist without subsidies.
Ms O'Rourke: Iarnród Éireann should go out and look for business. They should say, “We have the rail tracks, we need freight and we want to get the going rate for it.” We should lift freight of all kinds from the roads to the rail. The cost-benefit analysis shows there would huge advantages.
We should get rid of this mealy-mouthed hostile atmosphere to rail freight. I myself fought it within the Department so I know all about it. We should say, “Let us be bright. Let us have a golden age of rail freight in Ireland again”.
The lines have been made safe. There should be no stealth measures, where it is announced that because they have to make cutbacks they must close lines. We should encourage rail freight and rail passenger transport. The purpose of the strategic plan was to open up railways, not close them.
I sound a last note of caution or advice to the Minister, if he will take it – I am sure he will because he has been always good at listening to people. We in this House, whatever about the other House, will be keeping a careful note of things he says and does, and particularly of things he does not say and do because therein lies the danger.
Let us get rid of this negative attitude towards railways. Let us be progressive and bear in mind that rather than produce the cost-benefit analysis of roads spending as a reason we should not give local authorities money to do up their roads, the opposite is the current way. The Minister should leave his right-wing economics at home when he comes to look at the situation of CIE and rail freight.
Mr. Norris: It had originally been intended that I should share my time with Senator O'Toole and he was to speak first. However, he has a series of meetings to attend but if he does manage to get back, perhaps the House would be kind enough to indulge me at that point in asking that he be allowed to take up whatever time is remaining.
Mr. Norris: It may allow more time for other speakers because I do not believe I will take up the full 15 minutes, although I always feel that and then I find that my vapid thoughts expand, like all gases, to occupy the relevant space.
I welcome the Minister to the House. This is a very useful place in which to have such a debate, particularly with the Minister present. There are a number of distinguished authorities here, in particular the Leader of the House who is a quite excellent former Minister for transport precisely because she listened to all the arguments but did not allow herself to get overwhelmed by the departmental view. She took the political risk of taking her own decision and in that she showed considerably greater courage than most of her male predecessors, especially in regard to the Dublin underground system to which I may return.
I am pleased to be a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport which, as I am sure the Minister will be aware, has had its first meeting. Although unfortunately he is not here to hear the praise, I was exceptionally impressed by the contribution from the Fianna Fáil side of Senator Dooley, who had an extraordinary knowledge, not only of the Irish transport system but also of the impact of European directives on it. It is good and useful to have this kind of all-party expertise brought together in a committee of the Oireachtas which can help to advise and present a viewpoint to the Minister. That is very much to be welcomed.
I took this to be a comparatively focused debate on the question of the proposed closure of rail freight and so forth, and I want to spend a little time on that. It is sad to hear that half the overall losses of the rail transport system come from rail freight. That is not inevitable.
We should learn from the mistakes of the past. Mention was made of Dr. Todd Andrews, who in his day thought he was acting absolutely correctly, which was following the British example as we tended to do. We were actually following what Dr. Beeching was doing in England, with the massive closure of rail systems and the putting of everything modern on the roads. The motorways were being constructed. Road traffic seemed more efficient – and of course in some ways it was at that point because it was more flexible. One of the difficulties with a rail network is that it provides an inflexible method of transport. It joins cities and large urban populations, but the distribution is only along that corridor. In the 1950s and 1960s shifting freight on to the roads appeared to give much greater flexibility for economic advantage, but the roads rapidly became clogged. Roads are much less efficient now. They are a source of danger and pollution.
On that issue, I want to ask the Minister a question to which I have never got an answer. Do lorries and public transport vehicles such as buses have to undergo a national test of any kind? As I see the Minister is nodding, it must be a very peculiar one as anybody who has travelled behind a CIE bus recently would confirm. It is astonishing to see the clouds of black smoke they emit. The same is true of lorries. I do not believe they are properly or efficiently tested.
Since I have allowed myself to go down this by-way, I want to take up the issue of the penalty points system which was raised in the debate. I also welcome the introduction of penalty points, but could we have a little rationale in that regard? Surely we should rationalise the varying speed limits, particularly along access roads to Dublin where they are completely illogical, dropping suddenly from 50 mph to 40 mph to 30 mph, although the physical infrastructure is apparently exactly the same. It is just a collection agency for fines for the Garda. We must have a fair system before we implement the penalty points system. I ask the Minister to look at that as a matter of urgency.
It seems to me that, particularly nowadays, rail freight is a very efficient method of transport in the sense that it can take up a lot of goods transport that would be on the motorways and other roads, to the great disadvantage of the majority of road users. The former Minister, Senator O'Rourke, made a point which I had intended making. It seems there has been a real failure of marketing freight. CIE ought to go out with fire in its belly and market what exists. If necessary, the Government should subsidise this to make it more attractive as a kind of start-up programme.
I understand that a review established by the former Minister is in progress. That is why to a large extent the Minister's speech was a kind of holding speech. He did not actually confirm closures. He did not say line A is going, line B is going and we are to keep line C. I welcome his stance. He is right not to make precipitate decisions in advance of this report.
I would appeal to him to take one lesson from the 1950s and 1960s, that is, to do nothing that is irreversible. We have heard from this side of the House about the permanent way being taken up in certain areas of the country and houses built upon it, foreclosing the possibility of reopening those lines. It is important that if there is a necessity, for financial reasons, to close, alter or suspend service, in all cases where it is possible it should be ensured that this is a reversible process.
This takes me to the question of the western corridor and the rail connection at Athenry. There is concern that removing this link, which is like a points system between the lines to Galway and Mayo, will end any prospect of reopening that line. That would be a great pity indeed. Concern has been expressed that the removal of the cross-over at Athenry would end the possibility of a series of other inter-city routes, such as the services between Sligo, Limerick, Cork and Waterford. I hope nothing irreversible will be done here.
It is being removed as it is currently not being used. To keep it would involve unnecessary maintenance costs as well as extra spending to include it in the mini-CTC signalling project currently being installed on the Dublin to Galway line. To include it in the new mini-CTC signalling system now would cost between €500,000 and €750,000. To add it in later if there is demand, would cost no more and would save the maintenance costs in the meantime.
I understand that it may be necessary to remove this little element of point rail. If it is not removed and the mini-CTC not provided there might be a degree of criminal liability in the event of an accident. In this matter CIE is, perhaps, being wise.
The Dublin port tunnel also affects freight by lorry. I hope the House will have a full and expanded debate on this matter so I do not intend to spend too much time on it. I wrote about this question in a newspaper and raised some questions. I got – I can only describe it in unparliamentary language – an extremely snotty letter from an engineer in CIE who said, among other things:
Through the dissemination of misinformation in your column you have brought the Dublin port tunnel project into disrepute and ridiculed Dublin City Council. A simple ‘phone call to me would have served to furnish you with the facts as set out in the attached response to the city council.
I would if I got all the facts, but I have not. I received a series of totally conflicting pieces of briefing material from the city council, the port tunnel people, the road hauliers association, from one company who said 35% of its lorries will not be able to use the tunnel and from Tesco, who are whiter than white, as usual, although one wonders what they have in the pipeline. I know Tesco have talked of buying much bigger lorries. Perhaps they will merely be longer. The situation is very confused.
Is it not possible to alter the height of the tunnel retrospectively in order to accommodate higher lorries, which may well become a feature of transport? Reference has been made to the fact that the alpine tunnels and many of the tunnel networks in Britain and on the continent are at the same level, but these were built a long time ago.
If there was not a market for these taller lorries they would not be built. They are not being built simply because the manufacturers want to have higher lorries but because they are, from their point of view, more efficient. I believe more of them will be built and will come into this country. I understand that An Post has ordered some of these lorries. It seems illogical for our own State services to buy lorries which cannot use the port tunnel, but perhaps I have been misinformed.
The question of traffic in Dublin requires another more complete debate, so I will be brief. When I raised the question of the metro at the meeting of the joint committee on transport I was heartened to find universal support for this, from the chairman down. The Minister will encounter difficulties and there will be turbulence regarding the metro. However, it is absolutely essential in the interest of the citizens. Without it we are wasting our time.
I regret having to say that the Luas is a white elephant, as I always knew it was going to be. From the beginning it was incapable of moving the number of passengers required to have an appreciable impact. We have discussed this project in debate after debate and have put the facts and figures clearly on the record of the House in intense detail. Unfortunately, we were not listened to but we did succeed in amending the Transport (Railway Infrastrucuture) Bill in order to provide for the possible development of an underground railway.
In the Minister's plan there is an embryonic underground running from Harcourt Street under St. Stephen's Green and O'Connell Street and coming up at Broadstone. It is essential to get that. Can the Minister tell us the state of play regarding public private partnership? A number of companies, including Japanese and Russian companies, were interested in tendering for this. It would be useful to know what the situation is.
It would be ludicrous to have an incompletely integrated urban transport system. I know it is one of the Minister's targets to integrate the public transport system in Dublin with a direct connection to the airport. We are one of the very few capital cities in Europe that does not have this and it is very important that we do.
Senator O'Rourke referred to the railway service, and particularly to rail freight, as the Cinderella of the transport industry. Perhaps that is true but I love travelling by train and I do it all the time. However, there are great variations between the different rail lines. I will go to Cork this weekend to talk at a charity auction and I shall take the Inter-city Gold service, which is absolutely delightful. I will have a pleasant meal, enjoy a view of the rolling countryside passing by and arrive refreshed and delighted in the second city of the Republic. However, if I were going to Limerick I would travel in luxury as far as Limerick Junction and then I would get on to a cattle train. The condition of this train is unbelievable. The windows are not even washed. Even if the company cannot afford to upgrade the infrastructure or buy new carriages it could at least keep the trains clean. They are heated in the summer but one cannot open the windows so one is boiled alive. In the winter one is frozen because the heating system which has worked all summer suddenly collapses and there seems to be no lavatory accommodation on the train. This does not encourage passengers. Irish Rail must provide good efficient passenger and freight services and must go out and market those services. Marketing is the key to the rail question.
I congratulate whoever is responsible for the upgrading of the Dublin railway stations. Some of them are remarkably beautiful. What used to be called Kingsbridge and is now Heuston Station is like a Viennese palace that has landed accidentally in Dublin. It is a joy, particularly since the surrounding area has been opened up and one has a view of the facade. The station is also more efficient and passenger friendly. Can we have more of the same and more respect for the consumer?
I know the Minister will follow the tradition of the former Minister, Senator O'Rourke, and attempt to give this kind of consumer friendly service to passengers and freight customers. I look forward to working with him, the other members of the transport committee and the Members of this House to strengthen his hand in persuading the Government to make investment where it is neccesary in the long term. This will be an awkward task in these financially difficult times.
Mr. Morrissey: I welcome the Minister to the House to hear the views of Senators, including the excellent views which have been presented already. I commend the Minister on the excellent start he has made in dealing with his new portfolio. He has brought energy and enthusiasm and has shown a willingness to tackle major issues. He has introduced the penalty points system, he is dealing with the policy of building a second terminal at Dublin Airport and he is tackling the problems of public transport. He has demonstrated a real determination to get things done and will need all that determination if he is to make a real success of our rail transport system.
It is widely recognised that the rail network was abandoned or forgotten about by successive Governments over many decades and it is only in recent years that we have had notable initiatives such as the DART, the improvement of the Dublin-Belfast line and the Dublin suburban network. These changes began only in recent years. The then Minister, Senator O'Rourke, secured from Government the funding package necessary to renew and revitalise those railway networks and the ambitious programme of work of laying new track and installing new signalling. One wonders what sort of railway line we would have now if that work had not commenced some years ago.
I heard Senator O'Rourke say there was talk of stopping rail freight in recent years. It is unimaginable, when one drives out of Dublin on any radial route, that there not a need for rail freight services. Such services can surely capture a slice of the market.
I know from my own business experience that if one uses the rail freight system, it is certain that one's goods will get to Cork by 5.15 p.m. and one can assure one's client they will be there at that time. Currently, one has to ring a courier in Dublin to know at what time he can call. First, he will determine the location, whether to come first or last in his day's work, and when he will deliver. This morning I rang somebody from Dundalk to collect from Mulhuddart and deliver to Balbriggan and he said he would leave it until Monday. It merely involved a delivery to Balbriggan on a new road network.
We have primarily a distribution service economy. That is the way the country is developing. If we are to abandon freight transport by rail, then we will have no competition and a consequent increase in the numbers and expense of heavy goods vehicles on our road network.
With regard to the commuter rail network for Dublin, it is essential that the Minister should review the Dublin Transport Office's proposals for the years 2011 and 2015, which were developed during grandiose times with plenty of money in the kitty. Those plans will now have to be abandoned because we know the money no longer exists. However, we should look at short-term measures. For example, there is a plan to extend the suburban network to Navan, but not until the year 2015. We could extend it as far as Dunboyne or Clonee within three to five years. There is no land take necessary. The line was in existence until 1953 and, with some short-term initiatives, we could see major progress. If those short-term initiatives were carried out, they would not militate against the long-term proposals of the DTO for the development of Dublin.
Regarding the Luas project, I agree with Senator Norris that there are major aspects which have to be examined. For example, I had a meeting with representatives of Luas and was given to understand that it is to be the only light rail system in the world that will have preference rather than priority over traffic signals and over motorised transport across Dublin. When a Luas tram comes to a set of traffic lights, Eoin Keegan in Dublin city will decide whether it is to stop or whether cars can get through instead. That is ludicrous if one is to encourage people to use the Luas system, even the limited version that will be in place. Also, it will be ludicrous if people see cars passing them by when the Luas is stopped at traffic lights. That is what Luas management is alluding to in Parkgate Street.
Parkgate Street is a busy intersection through which all the heavy goods vehicles are coming from the south at Heuston Station. We will have a Luas connection there every two and a half minutes. How will cars get in from Galway, Mayo, the Phoenix Park and the west Dublin suburbs if we do not have a proper suburban network developed in time to divert people from Parkgate Street? We all know what the quays are like at the moment. Can one imagine what they will be like if there is a Luas tram at Parkgate Street every two and a half minutes and cars have to stop to let them through? It will be mind-boggling. Instead of assisting the traffic flow in Dublin it will militate against it.
There are issues the Minister has to examine. Nobody is making a decision on the Luas at the moment and nobody seems to be in charge. That is why I would like to see a major new initiative such as a transport regulator. I, the Minister and others here have met representatives of the DTO on several occasions. It is not up to the task it has been given. The forecasts it has made have been continually outdated every two or three years.
It is time somebody was put in charge. For example, we have bus lanes in Dublin, but nobody is saying what level of service should be on them. We have 24-hour bus lanes. Is it correct that one third of our road space on the arterial routes coming into Dublin should be given over to bus services if there are not buses on those routes every five minutes, for example? What level of service should we have on those routes to justify giving over that much of the road network?
We are a trading nation. If we do not examine the access to Dublin Port Tunnel now we will have problems – I do not want to get into this debate today, but it is a major issue the Minister might have to address. There is no point in taking some of the trucks off our streets. If we have standards for bridges on the M50 it is ludicrous that the tunnel leading to it from the port will not allow trucks to get to it. Surely we will not have a sign on the Dublin Port Tunnel saying “Low Bridge Ahead”. If we have standards we should apply them. There should be some examination of what is happening at the Dublin Port Tunnel currently. The biggest underground cover-up in the history of this State is taking place. The Minister will have to address that, as well as the Luas system at Parkgate Street and other such intersections.
I welcome the Minister's ambitious programme of tackling CIE. There are short-term issues in which the Minister can get involved which will have long-term results and will not militate against the long-term proposals.
The metro was a grandiose plan designed two or three years ago and presented to Government. I do not know if funding was set aside for it at the time. I do not think funding was provided for the years 2005, 2008 or 2011, yet there was an expectation that we would all wake up in the year 2016 and have a metro. We might have had a metro to a stadium in Abbotstown, leading to nowhere.
To what extent can we fund a metro? It will come out of our own resources, not those of the EU. Do we have those resources and will there be a review of the metro? If there is to be a review, what impact will it have on further developments of the suburban rail network and the Luas system?
Ms O'Meara: I too welcome the Minister to the House for this very important debate. I thank the Leader and the Minister for responding to our request last week for an early debate on this matter, which arises against the background of what would appear to be a desire by CIE to close certain rail lines and downgrade and downsize the level of freight being carried on the rail lines.
There are two specific matters I want to talk about. One concerns the strategic rail review, which touches on rail freight in the wider context of public transport. The Limerick to Ballybrophy line, also known as the Nenagh line, is the subject of much discussion in the mid-western area and linked to the issue of the strategic rail review and the future of rail and spatial planning.
This is an important debate and its quality shows the extent to which Members are concerned about the future of rail. It also reflects our frustration, as public representatives, that the great potential of rail is not being used to open up communities, invite greater economic potential, especially to the regions, and ease the burden on road commuters. I have given up bringing my car to Dublin because it is unbearable to meet Dublin in Kildare on the N7. I drive to Thurles and take the train from there on what, on one level, is an excellent service. There is a regular schedule and it is possible to do business in Dublin and return home. There is also a railway station in Nenagh, but the connections to the Dublin line are so infrequent as to make it impossible for someone like me to use it. Increasing numbers commute from north Tipperary to Dublin. Given this and the increasing numbers who must traverse the country on business, we must consider the development of rail.
I wish the Minister well in this area. He faces an uphill struggle because the company charged with promoting, developing and marketing rail has given the public the impression that it does not want the job. In view of this I look forward to his response to the strategic rail review and the instructions he gives to CIE. It appears that everybody wants rail to be developed except the company charged with the responsibility for doing so on behalf of the public.
Last July I attended a public meeting organised by the strategic rail review in Limerick. My purpose in attending was to promote the development of the Nenagh line. At the meeting private companies implored CIE to get its act together with regard to providing a service for them. Companies want to use rail freight and the railway line, but CIE is preventing them from doing so. It is extraordinary. I hope the Minister's top priority is to sort out the attitude within the company regarding the future development of rail. There is a rail infrastructure, but it is not being used. To date, €15 billion has been spent on the national roads programme, yet very few roads have been built. What would that expenditure have done for rail?
The country is coming late to the development of a proper public transport infrastructure. It has been the poor relation, while rail has been ignored. I hope that when the Book of Estimates is published this afternoon, the Government will not repeat the mistakes of the past. To cut investment in infrastructure, such as rail, will set back the regions for another five to ten years. That would be a grave mistake. It was made in the 1980s and we are still paying the price. To secure the future economic development of the country, especially in the regions, I implore the Government to take account of this aspect. We cannot afford not to invest in rail infrastructure. Anybody who must commute or use the road system, especially in the eastern half of the country, will confirm this.
Given that the national spatial strategy has not yet been published, it is difficult to see how the strategic rail review can link in with it. For example, if the Limerick, Ennis and north Tipperary area is to be targeted for development, then the local rail system must also be developed. For almost two years many other public representatives in the north Tipperary area and I have urged that the Ballybrophy line be used for commuter purposes. Light rail could be easily deployed on the line serving Roscrea, Nenagh, Birdhill, Castleconnell and Limerick.
The development of a motorway from Nenagh to Limerick has been justified on the basis that the volume of traffic makes it necessary. A considerable volume of this traffic is commuter based because of the development of Nenagh, Newport and Birdhill as satellite towns of Limerick. The solution to the increased commuter congestion is not only an upgrade of the road – a dual carriageway would suffice as a motorway is unnecessary – but also the development of a commuter rail service. In typical fashion we have been told by CIE and Iarnród Éireann that there is insufficient use of the line to justify an upgrade. This is because the line is not being made available and marketed as a commuter line. The present service, providing a morning train at 11.15 a.m. from Nenagh to Limerick, is of no use to commuters. It begs the question as to what the company is about. Who is it serving? It does not serve its owner, the public, nor the Government, which has charged it with the responsibility of ensuring it functions properly. It is not working.
I appeal to the Minister to seriously consider the development of the existing rail infrastructure in the context of the national spatial strategy. This includes the development of the Ballybrophy line to commuter standard. In this context, SFADCo is anxious to see the extension of the railway line from Limerick to Shannon Airport. As a public representative from north Tipperary, I would like to see such a line extended to cover Nenagh. This would enable tourists arriving at Shannon Airport to travel to Nenagh in a convenient manner. It would make sense and assist in the future development of the airport.
There is a need for joined up thinking on this issue. Rail does not stand alone. It should be integrated with future spatial planning and the economic development of the region. Those of us in the mid-west region increasingly feel we are being left behind because of the economic situation and the concerns about the future of Shannon Airport. The region has huge potential and the railway line plays an essential role in its future economic development. The planning of the new M7 motorway link from Nenagh to Limerick appears to be at an advanced stage about which we will know more this afternoon. It is causing huge personal grief to people, which I encounter almost daily. They face the loss of their houses and farms and the division of their land. Some are elderly and unable to cope. They are among those who ask me, as a public representative, who made the decision to invest billions of euro in a motorway for which nobody asked while at the same time it is impossible to get a train from Nenagh to Limerick.
Dr. Mansergh: I am very glad to follow a fellow Tipperary Senator and, in general terms, to endorse her sentiments from my knowledge of the situation. I am delighted to welcome the Minster who has already shown he intends to be an energetic, committed and reforming Minister. He will certainly have my full support in that.
In regard to the roads aspect of his brief, I fully support the roads programme in the national development plan. We should be without illusions as traffic expands to fill available road space. One of the real difficulties is not so much the finance per se as the capacity constraints on the construction industry which have rapidly pushed up the cost of roads. Even if we had unlimited finance, there is some restraint on what we can do at a particular time.
The Minister follows a very distinguished predecessor who achieved a great deal. The last Government was the first to put its own money into rail. We all remember the attitude in the 1980s as seen in Building on Reality that there would be no more investment in railways. The level of investment was increased from under £1 million in the original Book of Estimates in 1997 to something in the order of £500 million taking all the different categories together in the past year. I hope that even if that cannot be increased at the moment at least it will be maintained.
I am a heavy user of railway and I also use buses. I thank the workers who provide those services in which, in many respects, a good service is provided, but there is also room for a better service. It is very clear that the public wants our under-utilised railways to be used to help with freight and congestion and we may have to think outside the box in this regard. I accept that we cannot simply carry on as we are.
I picked up a railway magazine this month, Modern Railways, the November 2002 edition. It relates to across the water which may not necessarily always be the best model. I will read a couple of items from it: “The Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) has made grants totalling over £5 million to help companies to move containers by rail instead of road”. It also refers to “the Government's Ten Year Plan target to increase freight by 80% and provide dedicated funding of £4 billion, largely for infrastructure enhancements”. There is scope for a radical look at how we can revive freight and halt – and this was inherent in the Fianna Fáil manifesto and I am sure in the positions of other parties as well – the retreat mentality that seems to be there at the moment.
I will not go into great detail on the Limerick-Rosslare line, as I have already done so on the Adjournment, but the Limerick-Waterford link is very important. If we are to have a national freight network the Limerick-Waterford-Wexford connection is needed. I am somewhat surprised that it is not possible to carry cement traffic at the same time as sugar beet. Is it not possible to take on temporary workers for three months in order to solve that problem?
The unions and the users have a role in making freight viable. It is all very well for the Irish Exporters Association to complain and protest but if they are not prepared to pay reasonable increases then that is a bit hollow. Workers also need to show maximum flexibility to keep viable and it does seem as if there is a very elaborate rule book in operation.
The closure of the two lines in Tipperary would involve shutting down eight out of 11 railway stations in County Tipperary and there is an enormous reaction against it. A better commuter type service needs to be provided. Clonmel is the largest inland town and it is entitled to a railway service that connects it with Dublin at appropriate times. It is similar to Ennis where a rail service has been restored.
Ports should come into use for tourism reasons, whether it be Rosslare, Dún Laoghaire or, indeed, Larne in the north of Ireland. There should still be rail links, particularly in the summer months. I accept that they are in use, but to a much lesser extent than in the past.
I am not sure it should be left to the Minister to decide on routine fare prices. Much of the financial difficulties in CIE have come from the fact that it was never politically convenient for Governments to approve fare price rises. It is correct that the Government should have to approve abnormal fare price rises that would occur in addition to normal annual increases of the order of 5% of inflation. Maybe the difficulties would not be so great now if CIE had been allowed such normal increases.
With regard to the strategic rail review, there is clearly scope for commuter services. Congestion is not just a Dublin problem but exists in every city and town. Without having to invest further in rail line in many cases, there is scope in the provision of rolling stock into Galway, Limerick and so on.
The Minister should be aware that the new DART carriages he has invested in are not as comfortable as the old and that needs to be looked at. I do not disapprove of the extra standing capacity, which is right. The DART service is not as reliable since it was extended to Greystones and Malahide. Some system of accountability such as exists in other countries is necessary so that people can get an overview of the reasons trains are late. There is a particular train that is cancelled at very frequent intervals. I hate to get into minutiae but it is the 8.50 a.m. from Bray to Balbriggan. It is a good train service when it runs but half the time it does not run for operational reasons. What are those operational reasons? They are never explained.
I warmly commend the Minister for putting the emphasis on a link to the airport. That is absolutely vital for tourism reasons and for relieving congestion. We also should remember that Dublin Airport is a national asset and cannot just be seen in the context of Dublin traffic. I disagree with Senator Norris in regard to the LUAS. When the LUAS comes it will be a great asset. My colleague, Senator Morrissey, mentioned traffic lights, but one needs to be realistic about this. Vienna has had trams for the past 50 years and has an excellent service but the trams still stop at traffic lights.
Mr. Higgins: I wish to share time with Senator Ulick Burke. I join other speakers in welcoming the Minister to the House and compliment him on the manner in which he has literally hit the ground running in terms of his portfolio. It was never more urgent that we sort out the problems that have been today articulated so eloquently in this House in regard to Iarnród Éireann. I disagree with the Leader of the House when she said that there was a hostility on the part of the public to using Iarnród Éireann. There is no hostility, there is a reluctance.
It is incredible that we are debating this motion. It is ten years into the life of the Celtic tiger and we have seen unprecedented growth in the volume of commercial and domestic traffic. Juggernauts traverse roads – even minor ones – throughout the country. We are discussing the proposal by the State rail monopoly to close its rail freight sector. It is mind boggling and bewildering. The rest of Europe is transferring huge volumes of freight from road to rail, but our State company decides to close the entire sector with the loss of 330 jobs. It should be a massive profit earner rather than a huge loss maker, but it is an abysmal failure.
The company is a loss maker because it is manifestly incompetent. It is robbing Peter to pay Paul on the Claremorris-Athenry line and this is typical of its ineptitude. Sections of railway track and cross-overs are being ripped up to be used on the Dublin-Galway line. It is doing so to enhance the mini-CTC signalling system. It is mind boggling and indefensible. It is incomprehensible that this should be done before the completion of the strategic rail review due this month.
It is indefensible because the line on which this is being done has huge potential. The Minister is a Galwegian and I regularly travel to Galway. The tailback once went only as far as the first roundabout. It then stretched to Castlegar, then Claregalway and now stretches ten miles out the Tuam road by 7 a.m. Many people from Mayo and Roscommon work in Galway and there are students who cannot get accommodation. The railway line that runs from Sligo, through Claremorris, Tuam, Athenry to Galway is defunct and is now being ripped up. A mere €200 million would provide a fast track service from Claremorris to Galway and would bring hundreds of commuters to the heart of Galway in 45 minutes, but the vision is not there. This is a fraction of what is being spent on building the concentric roads which, it is hoped, will sort out the traffic problems in this city.
Iarnród Éireann has shown a blatant disregard to its main shareholder, the Minister. Last Monday on “Morning Ireland” he said he had asked to company not to go ahead with this, yet it did. The company has shown a disregard for the commitment given by the Taoiseach that there would be no rail closures. Ripping up essential parts of the infrastructure is closure by stealth.
Iarnród Éireann's trains do not run on time. I would love to use the trains but I cannot trust them. The company cannot guarantee its customers a seat when they buy a ticket – I have stood as far as Athlone on occasion. It cannot organise crowd control at Heuston Station where a huge corral of people are held back and it is like the charge of the light brigade when the gates are opened. This company presided over the mini-CTC debacle which was to cost £15 million, is now costing £50 million, yet it is still not in place. It cannot introduce integrated ticketing or strategically co-ordinate services with its sister companies. The company promised to open a line to Dublin Airport but it remains a mere aspiration.
Iarnród Éireann only wants to close more lines. I have already mentioned the Sligo-Athenry line, it also wants to close the Limerick-Rosslare and Nenagh-Ballybrophy lines. A company that should be expanding, enhancing and developing the rail service is intent on contracting and self-destruction. Have we not learned from the past? Have we not learned from the decisions to close the Harcourt Street line or withdrawing the trams? Have we not learned from the decisions to close lines around the country? The sidings are still there and farmers now use them as grazing land.
Iarnród Éireann is a grossly incompetent company. The Minister is its main shareholder and I ask him to be strong and determined in his dealings with it. I genuinely believe those running the company, at both board and management level are incompetent and incapable of doing the job. If the companies are broken up into their component parts it will only result in more of the same. We need a new board and management. We need people with vision, enterprise and commercial know-how, not those who are presiding over the current debacle. I urge the Minister not to wait for the company to break up. He should examine its results and make the decision to remove the board. We need people who can do the job.
Mr. U. Burke: I thank Senator Higgins for sharing time and I welcome the Minister to the House. It is unbelievable that CIE went about breaking up the western rail link at 5 p.m. last Monday. The most amazing thing is the differentiation between what lies north and south of Athenry. It intends to install a new link south of Athenry, omitting it north of the town. It will cost €300,000 to €400,000 to reinstall that in the future. The company ignored the Minister's request that it wait until the strategic review was completed. Twelve western local authorities made a joint submission to the national spatial strategy in July 2001 and revised it for the national railway review. The company ignored that and went ahead in dismantling the rail link.
The Minister must realise that because of the lack of consultation the company has closed part of the national rail structure. It is necessary for a proper procedure to be put in place where declarations of an intent to close public lines are made. The company has either reneged or ignored that. It is important that the Minister dictate to the company that provision be made in Athenry for the continuation of a proper “turnout”.
A request has been submitted seeking a satisfactory meeting between public representatives and interested bodies and the Minister and chief executive officer of the NRA to clarify the position of the Garda regarding the much needed by-pass at Loughrea. The Minister stated he had the cheque in his back pocket. We want that cheque cashed in order that workers can go on site to provide this important and necessary structure in the link between the east and west.
Mr. Minihan: I join previous speakers in welcoming the Minister to the Chamber to discuss this important issue. I congratulate him on the sprinting start he has made and hope it continues over the next number of years in order that the transformation needed in our public transport infrastructure is realised. Considerable investment has been made. Mainline track and signalling have been upgraded while new rolling stock will be offered shortly. Passengers have yet to benefit from this programme of investment. Journey times on the main Intercity routes are longer than they were 25 years ago.
Rail transport offered to the public in the form of DART, regional, commuter and mainline services, needs to be revamped and repackaged. This will not happen without a major process of reform within the national rail company, Iarnród Éireann. In this context, I am glad the Minister recently announced he was prepared to tackle the issue of structural reform to put the national rail company on a sound footing. We must face the facts. Iarnród Éireann, as currently constituted, does not provide the travelling public with the range of services required by the market and the company is not sufficiently responsive to the needs of the market when it comes to introducing new services and products.
It is only in recent weeks, for instance, that automatic ticket vending machines were installed in DART stations, yet this is an ancient technology, which has been widely used for 40 years in the London tube system and the Paris metro. Ticketing on mainline routes is still a serious cause of concern. I refer to the Cork-Dublin line and the overcrowding of train services on Friday evenings. I fail to understand how, in an era when health and safety are so important, trains can be allowed to travel on a mainline route with passengers standing between carriages and in aisles when an automated ticketing system operable in all stations could indicate precisely how many seats are available and ticketing could be directly linked to seat availability. This must be addressed before there is an accident, for which we all will be held accountable.
A number of reforms are required if railways are to be used to their full potential to resolve our national transport problems. The national rail company must be established as an independent entity. The railways have suffered from being stuffed under the umbrella of CIE, which does not employ a clear and coherent decision making process essential for a modern public transport organisation. The Minister should proceed forthwith with his plans while providing appropriate safeguards under EU legislation for the employees involved. The rail company needs to get its act together in terms of delivering major infrastructural projects. There is only a limited role for rail-based public-private partnerships in Ireland. It is imperative, therefore, that the national rail company should develop the expertise and ability to bring major projects to completion on time and budget.
A new approach to quality management is required. No company, big or small, in the private sector would survive six months if it did not pay close attention to the needs of its consumers and did not do everything to satisfy those needs. A rail company should be able to offer punctual, reliable, comfortable and, above all, safe services. People are used to travelling on the rail systems of other European countries. They experience the quality standards that are attainable and expect a similar standard in Ireland.
Iarnród Éireann needs to take a fresh look at its operational strategy. Large, lumbering American locomotives designed to haul freight across the Rocky Mountains are used to pull passenger trains. The turnabout times for these locomotives can vary from one to two hours, thereby severely reducing the number of journeys each train can make daily. If Michael O'Leary can turn a Boeing jet around in 25 minutes, Iarnród Éireann should aim for a similar turnaround time.
The company should realise the significant value of its property assets and use the money to invest in the rail network. CIE is one of the largest property owners in the State with extremely valuable real estate located beside stations in major urban centres. According to estimates, the value of the property could be almost €2 billion. Can anyone imagine what could be achieved for the rail network if that money was freed up to invest in track, signalling and rolling stock?
The previous Government sold off lands owned by the Department of Defence with the intention of reinvesting the money in the Defence Forces. This proved worthwhile as the Defence Forces invested in modern equipment with it own resources. A similar approach should be taken to the CIE land bank. Ireland was one of the world leaders in rail development in the 19th century. The Cork-Dublin line, 165 miles long, was completed in little more than five years, in the era of the pick and shovel. We have fallen a long way behind the rest of the world since.
Other small countries are investing in ambitious rail development programmes. For example, Denmark is buying 125 mph trains for its intercity services while the Swiss are completing a €4 billion project that will totally transform its rail system with hourly or half hourly connections on every route. This is the approach we need to take. When planning for our public transport system, we must do so on the basis of what is needed tomorrow, not what was needed yesterday or is needed today.
As a member of Cork City Council, I was recently involved in drawing up the Cork area strategic plan and was one of the people who delayed the implementation of the so-called experts' report because they refused point blank to consider the development of light rail in the future for the south side of the city. All I wanted the developers to do was draw a line on the map of the city and set the land involved aside for the potential future development of light rail. If we want to get people off the roads, we can only do so if we provide them with a fast, efficient and reliable public transport service. That is how we must plan for the future. There have been too many examples of bad infrastructural planning based on the needs of yesterday or today. When one looks backwards, 20 years does not seem long ago, but when one is looking forward, it seems far away. However, we have paid for the bad decisions of the past.
Waste management and MRFs are the subject of much debate. I cannot understand the reason the use of the rail network is not promoted to transport waste and MRFs and recycling facilities for domestic waste are not located adjacent to railway lines in industrial areas. I congratulate the Minister on his work to date and hope he will take on board the valuable contributions to this debate. I wish him well in his tenure.
Mr. O'Toole: I appreciate the fact the Minister has stayed here for the debate to listen to what we have to say. It is difficult to address this issue without giving a couple of emotive anecdotes which seem to be de rigueur in any discussion on transport. I will try to avoid doing that, although I am sure I could add to them.
There are a number of issues to be dealt with. The most identifiable bad transport decision in the past 50 years was the closing of the Harcourt Street rail line. If the Minister asked most people around Dublin they would say that was the worst decision made. I recently read the report of the discussion in this House on the last week of June 1953 when the Dingle to Tralee rail line was closed. I do not have any doubt it is easy to get sucked into the wrong type of debate on this issue. I want to consider the issue in a jaundiced and pragmatic way.
We should rule certain things out. The worst advisers in this case are those who look at the present. As Senator Minihan said, that is bad thinking. I am pleased the Minister gave a commitment to a 20 year plan. I also welcome the new carriages which have been ordered and are coming on stream because they will make a difference. A number of things have gone wrong. We looked at whether a bad rail service could be made economical and we found it could not. Wrong decisions were then taken on that basis. I know that is a huge simplification and perhaps an unfair one.
We should look at the social needs of the country which both cost and save money. Those which save money move traffic or congestion from the roads to the railways. I would like to see the development of a 24 hour rail system. The last time I checked I found that the last train leaves Cork for Dublin at approximately 7 p.m., the last train leaves Tralee for Dublin at approximately 5.50 p.m. and the last train leaves Galway for Dublin at approximately 6 p.m. That means anyone who has business after 5.30 p.m. in those areas cannot travel by train. I have often not been able to travel back to Dublin from Cork. Perhaps the timetables have been changed because it is a couple of months since I checked them. It should be possible for someone from Dublin to go to a production in the Cork Opera House and come home by train that night or vice versa. That is not unheard of in other places. That should be easy to put in place with the new permanent way and track.
The rail links between Sligo and Limerick and between Limerick and Rosslare are in the same position now that the Harcourt Street line was in 50 years ago. People wanted to know who used it and for what it was used. I would like a hop-on hop-off tourist train to go from Dublin around the country. I would be interested to know the take-up. The Minister did not mention the passenger capacity on trains or the amount of take-up. On what percentage of their total capacity are trains running at present? We only seem to see long queues in the stations and trains on which people cannot get seats. People cannot book seats at present, although that is changing. When the new trains come on stream, we should get closer to economies of scale. I know that argues against my first point.
A variety of issues have not been examined in reports, of which one was mentioned by Senator Minihan. One of the big problems with waste disposal relates to the point at which one brings the waste. The problem with that relates to the trucks. If there was a rail head in a remote place which would take covered waste to its final destination, at least one of the problems with waste disposal would be solved.
The Minister has plans to divide up Iarnród Éireann. Perhaps instead of moving away from freight he should set up a separate freight company. What would happen if wise people sat around a table and asked how to develop the area of freight in the time available at present? That is probably where we are losing out.
Many changes have taken place since we looked at the Galway Limerick link. The biggest change is that Ennis has grown considerably. It is probably the fastest growing provincial town in that category at present. Shannon Airport has also grown. While I completely support the Minister's commitment to a rail link with Dublin Airport, there is an equally logical argument for a rail link to Shannon Airport.
We have heard much talk about the west, the commitment to rural development and the council of the bishops. The last Government appointed a Minister of State to deal with that area. However, infrastructure is the key issue. It should be possible – I say this to keep the Leas-Chathaoirleach on line – for a student to get up at 7 a.m. in Castlebar, to be in Dublin for a 9.30 a.m. lecture in UCD, if that is where he or she is attending, and to go back home that evening.
Mr. O'Toole: That rail link should take approximately two and a half hours at an 80 mile an hour average speed. That is what happens in other countries. Because that does not happen here – I could give 25 more examples – that student must live in Dublin. There are immediate effects, such as the cost, the pressure on accommodation in Dublin, congestion in Dublin and the fact that people are taken away from their roots at an important time in their lives to the detriment of everything from the local football team to eventually settling down in that area. The lack of infrastructure is denuding the west. The Minister should grasp the nettle. The Sligo to Limerick line or the Castlebar to Dublin line is as important as the N5. All the parts of the infrastructure are important and they are the way forward. The Minister should not only push to protect and save these lines, including the Athenry connection, but also to develop, promote and market them.
Mr. B. Hayes: I thank Senator O'Toole for sharing his time. I want to avail of this opportunity to make two or three suggestions about traffic congestion in Dublin. The Minister is a man of action and I fully agree with his decision during the summer about the traffic signs in Dublin. He should continue to do that. He should not take anything from the bureaucrats and petty councils which try to dictate policy. The Minister is in charge and he should continue to make the decisions.
I ask the Minister to consider two positive proposals as we move into the Christmas period. He knows the number of car movements throughout the city of Dublin over the next month will be crazy because of shopping and people visiting relations and friends. Will the Minister stop the Luas works for the month of December? I want him to reassure the Luas contractors that he will not charge them at the end of the process. He should give them another month because that would make a huge difference in terms of traders in town and in other suburban areas such as Tallaght, Clondalkin and Blanchardstown.
While I fully understand there is no gain without pain in terms of decisions that must be taken in this city, I oppose ripping up the streets of Dublin at the busiest time of the year. St. Stephen's Green is a joke at the moment. If the Minister was to order the Luas contractors to stop work for the month of December, particularly around St. Stephen's Green, it would have an immediate impact.
I ask the Minister to open the toll roads during December. Senator Morrissey will be familiar with the problems which arise in the west of the city as a result of the massive daily tailbacks on the West Link. National Toll Roads has made a fortune through contracts negotiated some years ago. At critical times of the year, when there are considerable car movements in Dublin city and county, we should open up the toll roads. While I am aware a number of organisations have made similar proposals in the past, the measure is particularly necessary in December because of the number of car movements in that month.
There would be massive support for such a decision. I call on the Minister to be firm and take on the interests which would oppose such a measure. It would make a difference. Every time one uses the West Link toll bridge, one finds tailbacks of three or four miles. That stretch of road is currently a massive car park on a par with the M25 around London. I ask the Minister to consider a positive response to both proposals as we approach December. He would receive widespread support and goodwill in Dublin city and county. He is a Minister who runs after ideas and I have given him the germ of a good idea.
I also call on the Minister to put more gardaí on the roads during December to ensure access to the city for cars. Dublin has an anti-car lobby led by certain individuals. Although everyone understands the need to make a modal shift to public transport, people want to do their business. This is being prohibited by some of the craziest decisions ever taken in this city. Deployment of more gardaí on our streets during December would make a major difference to assisting the flow of traffic in and around the city.
Ms Tuffy: I wish to share time with Senator Cummins and thank the Minister for coming to the House. He stated here and at the LAMA conference at the weekend, where I raised the issue, that he supported the retention of rail freight. While I welcome his pronouncements, action matters, not words. His view of public transport is very important. As Senator O'Toole said, it cannot be treated simply a matter of straight economics as it includes a social and environmental dimension.
The issue of safety also arises. Recently, I was involved in a traffic accident involving a truck. While I was always aware, in theory, of the damage a truck, as opposed to a car, could do, it was only after the accident that I was really struck by this. If anyone had been in the back of the car, he or she would have been killed. I am now very conscious of the increase in the numbers of trucks on our roads and, having spoken to others, of the feeling of danger they arouse among many drivers, particularly when travelling on single lane roads.
I checked the statistics for road traffic accidents in recent years. They show that the percentage of fatalities in accidents involving trucks is higher than the percentage involving cars. It is essential, therefore, to consider the cost of additional fatalities which would arise following an increase in the number of trucks on our roads caused by the closure of rail freight services. One must also consider the cost to the environment of road congestion and disimprovements in air quality. Increased traffic congestion, which will inevitably result if we proceed with the current course, will also have a detrimental effect on the economy.
It has been said Irish Rail will save millions of euro by reducing freight services. There is another side to this argument. Such a move would also create additional costs because trucks do significant damage to roads. The considerable costs of this damage, which are met by local authorities, are not priced.
Our view of public transport is what matters. If we introduce a good, environmentally friendly and safe public transport system, it will be of great value in terms of quality of life and sustaining the economy in the long term. Although this should have been done already, it is now urgent. Pending the publication of the various reports and plans and the completion of projects, such as Luas, much can be achieved now by investing in existing infrastructure. Significant investment is required, not half-hearted measures. For example, we need to open more train stations and run more buses.
As the Minister will have learned from figures published by the Central Statistics Office, the town of Lucan where I live is the fastest growing in the country, yet it does not have a train station. The train passes through Lucan because the station was closed down. One often hears complaints about our train service. I have travelled to other parts of the country by train and find it easier and much more enjoyable than other forms of transport. It is more convenient and one can read and relax. I would love to have a train service in Lucan. It amazes me that a town of its size does not have one.
The Minister should not run down the public transport system or set completely unfeasible targets based solely on economic considerations. Privatisation and public private partnerships are short-sighted approaches. Our railways are not a private service. Senator Minihan compared rail with private businesses. It is not a private business, but a public, social service which is far too important to be treated as a private entity. That is not to say CIE does not deserve a kick to get it going and provide imaginative responses to our needs or that its structures do not need to be reviewed. Nevertheless, rail is a public service and the buck stops with the Minister.
I do not oppose the idea of CIE selling off its land banks in principle. However, at a time of extensive local authority housing needs, we should first consider the possibility of providing this land for local authorities for the provision of housing and other public facilities. Local authorities are being outbid when they compete with private companies. There is value in having public services in public ownership.
Mr. Cummins: I welcome the Minister to the House and wish him well in his portfolio. I am from the south east. Members will be aware of the grave disquiet in the region at the proposed closure of the Rosslare to Limerick line. There is also widespread concern about the future of the Rosslare to Dublin line. As has been pointed out repeatedly, given the amount of traffic on our roads, we should move as much of it as possible onto the rail network. As this is a policy decision, the buck stops on the Minister's desk. It will probably be necessary to subsidise rail freight in order to get more traffic onto the network. Obviously, however, there should be no bottomless pit.
As one who worked in Waterford Port for more than 20 years and was chairman of the company on three occasions, I am acutely aware of the need for a proper rail structure, not alone in Waterford and the south east, but also throughout the country. The time for reports on rail and transport matters, of which there must be a mountain in the Department, is over. Action is required.
I now see the demise of rail freight in Waterford Port which, in its heyday eight to ten years ago, transported almost 40,000 TEUs – 20 ft. equivalent units – by rail. This figure has fallen to approximately 5,000 TEUs which amounts to a decline in rail freight traffic as a proportion of traffic in the port from 25% to 30% to less than 5%. This is a terrible indictment of CIE and the way in which rail freight is marketed. Does the company have the will to improve and properly market its rail freight section? I have my doubts about it. There are many beet growers in the south east and they have stated that if the rail line is removed there will be approximately 100 extra trucks on the road each day of the beet season. What kind of damage would that do to the environment?
Senator O'Toole mentioned what a shame it is for Dubliners that the Harcourt Street line was closed. For Waterford the shame is the closure of the Waterford-Tramore line. Tramore is now one of the biggest and fastest growing towns in the south east and if the line was still there it would do away with thousands of movements of vehicles along a seven or eight mile stretch of road. That is in the past, but we have to look to the future and the policy the Minister's Department will advocate for rail freight traffic. I could discuss the passenger aspect, but I will stick to freight.
The Minister should bring in CIE, as he may have done already, and hammer out a structure for the proper marketing of rail freight services. If the Minister and the Government have the will to expand those services, it is half the battle, but we need action rather than words. Plans and reports are a dime a dozen and there is no doubt that if the railway line in the south east is closed it will be an attack on the social and economic infrastructure of the region. It would have a detrimental effect on the ports of both Waterford and Rosslare.
The sentiments I expressed praising the Minister for his very good start in his Department are echoed by many. I was in Carlow last Saturday to hear the Minister outline his views with regard to the national roads network and tolling. Subsequently, many councillors from all political persuasions praised him highly. The Minister will recognise, however, that public utterances alone will not be the yardstick by which he will be judged at the end of his tenure in an area of nationally important responsibility. He will be judged by the degree to which we have realised the vision he has so clearly spelt out. The fact that we now have a Department of Transport which will enable a holistic approach to be taken to the transport industry overall should be welcomed and the Taoiseach and the Government are to be acknowledged for the positive effect this is likely to have in a hugely important area.
I welcome the Minister's comments regarding competition, particularly in terms of Aer Rianta. I was surprised to hear its chief executive respond as he did. Aer Rianta has demonstrated much innovation in the way it has expanded its services abroad and it should have nothing to fear from competition. If companies are properly managed, cost effective and efficient, they should welcome the competition which will help to keep them that way.
The Minister faces a major challenge with regard to his roads responsibility and it is unfortunate that, as in many other areas within his remit, there are dinosaurs which have not responded for varying reasons. I do not cast all the blame at their door, though a significant number would, but in terms of the design of our roads I am amazed to discover that we build bridges that will last 120 years while the design criteria are for 2020. In many instances roads are almost at capacity by the time they are constructed, which is a huge waste of scarce national resources. I would like greater vision in making projections to embody in the planning and design of roads the traffic requirements for 2050 or 2075. There is no reason it cannot be done effectively by economists and others. It would mean that some generation would have a transport network and an infrastructure commensurate with its needs. If we continue with the patchwork approach that has been the hallmark of successive Governments and the NRA, we will never have a network that meets the requirements of the people.
There have been objections to the decision of the Minister to break CIE into its constituent elements, but it is long overdue. It should be recognised that Bus Éireann delivers quite a good service nationally in an area where there is competition and more competition will improve company. There is a definite need to take this course of action in relation to Dublin Bus, which provides a reasonable service, and there is no compelling argument against generating competition in this area. It would be very welcome if this could be done in relation to the rail network, but it would be more difficult because of the circumstances which obtain.
This morning's debate has been good, but transport of freight by rail is only feasible for long haul distances. Short-haul rail is not cost effective because people have to transport the goods to the rail head where they have to be handled, transported, handled again on arrival and transported from the railway to their destination. The costs involved can only be accommodated if there is a sufficiently long haul to make transport by rail competitive with road transport. Much as we might like to shift much of our goods traffic on to the rail network, that is impossible to achieve without heavy subsidies. There is no reason to subsidise when there is a very good haulage industry to cope with the traffic. We should preserve rail for long haul, but we need much more innovative management and thinking.
Senator Cummins has had a long association with Waterford Port which is used by some of the biggest shipping lines in the world. They have encountered difficulties akin to those described by Senator O'Meara in trying to get Iarnród Éireann to respond to their requirements. A company which requested that Iarnród Éireann provide for long-distance freight traffic from Ballina to the port, which is ideal for transport by rail, was not impressed by the response of the operator, which did not reflect the attractiveness of the proposition or its importance.
The idea, alluded to by Senator Cummins, that one would close a rail line that transports 150,000 tonnes of beet annually beggars belief. The beet moves by night which must suit the rail network, the farmer suppliers and the factory receiving the goods. Anybody in business would welcome such volumes and the revenue it generates. My understanding is that a considerable profit of €400,000 to €500,000 is made on that traffic and Iarnród Éireann needs to be sensible in that regard.
The Minister has said that he will await the strategic review with regard to Iarnród Éireann before major decisions are taken, which is to be welcomed. There should be a good passenger rail service between all major centres of population. Many Members referred to the level of traffic entering Dublin. A great deal of business is done in the capital city and many people travel into it. These people should have a choice in terms of the mode of transport they wish to use for their journeys and rail should be one of the preferred choices. However, the service must match the requirements of the consumer. At present, the second class service on offer and the second class rolling stock do not attract customers who would probably be quite willing to use the service if it was adequate.
I recently visited a country in eastern Europe which we would probably regard as being less developed than Ireland. I accept that rail network in countries on the continent are able to connect into the international network, but the service and use thereof in the country to which I refer would put Ireland to shame. Good services should be provided between other centres of population. Services should not all be focused on Dublin.
It was suggested that we should invest heavily in marketing. The latter will only be effective if there is an efficient service and good rolling stock. There is no point in spending a great deal of money on marketing if the quality of the service and the rolling stock is deficient. That would be a waste of money because the system would still not be used. A joint approach must be taken to this matter.
Senator Norris referred to Luas. I am one of those who regrets that much of the Luas system will operate over-ground. I urge the Minister to follow his predecessor in trying to ensure that as much of this light rail system runs underground. Like every other major city in Europe, Dublin needs a metro and we should take steps to ensure that such a system is put in place. I wish the Minister well in tackling the important challenges he faces.
Mr. Bannon: I welcome the Minister. I hope he took note of the many contributions that have been made to the debate, particularly that of the Leader, Senator O'Rourke, who stated that she will be putting down markers for the Minister. Perhaps he could find a position for her as an adviser to him in Cabinet.
Throughout the country, current journey times by rail seem excessive and this reflects the poor quality of rail tracks. This operates as an obstructive barrier to the use of rail to and from various locations by industry and the general public. It is of the utmost importance that the Government should provide adequate funding to improve the safety of the network. It is also important to increase the physical capacity of the railway and improve its quality, speed and reliability.
Improving safety is related to speed and reliability. The poor quality of some tracks has forced reductions in speed to maintain safety. I have received many representations from constituents regarding delays at Maynooth, on the Dublin-Sligo rail line. People are losing confidence in the rail network. A survey carried out in February of 200 people who use the Dublin-Sligo service showed that many passengers who use this service are frustrated by the persistent delays on the route. Passengers complained that trains are overcrowded and that ventilation is poor. They stated that, at times, if they owned cars, they would be able to travel to Dublin quicker by road. Delays are frequently not explained to customers of Iarnród Éireann. One person stated that when the train reaches Maynooth it becomes dangerously full, with people packed in like sardines. That is not good enough in a country which is one of the richest in the world. It is 50 miles from Mullingar to Dublin and, at times, trains travel at less than 25 miles per hour. When people contact Iarnród Éireann to inquire about delays, they are given vague answers and informed that there are problems with the tracks which means trains are obliged to slow down.
The Government's objective must be to improve the network and not close down sections of it, as has been the case in various locations throughout the country. There must also be improvements in the quality and quantity of the rolling stock. A large proportion of the rolling stock is outdated and needs to be upgraded. Rail carriages of a reasonable quality are used on the Dublin-Sligo route, between Monday and Friday. However, additional carriages which are old and outdated are used on Monday mornings. That is not good enough for members of the paying public and other users of the service.
Investment is also required in terms of the renewal of signalling systems and upgrading of rail and bus stations. Senator Norris complimented whoever was responsible for upgrading railway stations in Dublin. However, many other stations throughout the country are antiquated.
There is a need to improve major interchange facilities. Senator Walsh referred to visiting one of the applicant countries to the EU. These states have wonderful interchange facilities, but the rail system here is still reliant on many facilities that were built in the last century.
The provision of further services to the regions is required. New infrastructure should be developed. I have attended many regional and local authority meetings in the midlands and put forward the concept of a circular line that would link all the main towns in that region to each other and to our major cities via spur lines. Consideration should be given to the provision of such a line in the near future.
If I want to travel by train from Cork to Longford, I am obliged to travel 80 miles to either Portlaoise or Dublin in order to make a connection. That is not good enough. In the applicant countries to the EU, one can catch a train in almost every village. This shows that the rail service in Ireland has fallen a long way behind those in other countries.
It was noted in the national development plan that in 20 years two thirds of national primary roads and just over one third of national secondary roads would fail to deliver the minimum level of service considered desirable to maintain an average speed of 60 miles per hour – 70 miles per hour on dual carriageways – on inter-urban journeys. This is proof that the Government is not committed to the completion of national primary routes, not to mention the secondary routes programme, within the envisaged timescale. If work in this area was completed on time, it would ensure that major towns throughout the country have the best possible access to ports and airports which would make them attractive to inward investment.
It would make good sense and would be a testament to good planning to develop the N55 which runs, north-south through the country, from Cavan to Cashel via Granard, Edgeworthstown, Ballymahon and Athlone. This is an important route and its development would have the potential to remove pressure from the national route system near the east coast. Other Members referred to traffic congestion in Dublin. Traffic travelling to and from Northern Ireland could be accommodated on the N55, which is an ideal, central route.
In order to promote sustainability in travel, public transport investment must focus in the coming years on flexible bus transportation in urban and rural areas. In many rural areas measures – including those relating to transport – are required to promote greater access to employment and services for those who live in rural areas. Many people in rural areas do not have access to public transport. This issue must be addressed. People with disabilities and the elderly cannot get out of their homes from one end of the week to the other. There is a bus service on one day each week in my parish. The service only operates on Saturday which is unsuitable because post offices, banks and other public services are closed. People are being held prisoners in their own homes due to the lack of a proper rural public transport service.
There is an urgent requirement to invest in the school transport fleet because many school buses are antiquated. Complementary measures should be put in place to assist investment in communications and information technology in order to modernise bus services.
Mr. P. Burke: I welcome the Minister and wish him the best of luck in the enormous task he has in dealing not only with rail transport but with transport generally. Senator Higgins mentioned the Westport and Ballina lines to Dublin. Great efforts were made over recent years to install the welded rail line and it is, at last, in place on this route. The installation of the welded rail, however, does not make a great difference in the time it takes the train to travel the Westport to Dublin route because the antiquated signalling system means the train must still travel at a certain speed. Travelling at full speed is too fast for the signalling system to work because the signals cannot be completed in time. The Minister must ensure a new signalling system is put in place on the route.
Every day at least one train on the Westport-Castlebar-Dublin line comprises old fashioned railway carriages. The train is dilapidated and out of date. It has no dining car, light or heat. This train has been put on the line each day over the last six months. Mayo is in the BMW region, an Objective One region which was so designated to bring the region up to the same level of development as the rest of the country. The rail service on that route is inadequate. The Minister should look the dilapidated train used at least once each day on the route. It is not good enough. CIE and others are encouraging people to use the railway system. How can one encourage them to do so when a train of this standard is provided?
Senator Ulick Burke said the link from Sligo to Limerick has been broken on the northern side of Athenry. I travelled on the last passenger train from Claremorris to Limerick a number of years ago. Ever since that line was closed the local authorities along the route have fought a campaign to get it reopened. I was shocked to hear Senator Burke say the northern link has been broken. It was broken prior to the release of the report which the Minister is due to receive in a couple of weeks. Senator Higgins made a great case for the establishment of a Sligo-Galway route. It would remove an amazing number of cars from the roads and would facilitate students in Sligo, Claremorris, Tuam, Athenry and Galway. Will the Minister clarify the position at Athenry?
The Minister should also investigate the bureaucracy between local authorities and CIE in relation to level crossings, water and road bridges and the various junctions in local authority areas. It is a nightmare and takes years to achieve any commitment or solution to the problems that occur at level crossings with traffic, dangers and so forth. I cannot understand it. I am a member of a local authority and sometimes I have to bring to its attention a level crossing which is causing danger or where an accident or near miss has occurred, especially where the new welded rail has been installed. In many cases the bridges were raised following negotiations between CIE and the local authorities.
I cannot understand why it takes so long for decisions to be made. The local authority tells me it is CIE's fault. I do not know who is to blame because one gets the same reason from both sides and nobody seems to take responsibility. This is an area where somebody should be responsible for making decisions. In many cases it will not take an enormous amount of money to widen a railway line. I know of cases where narrow roads cause difficulties for farmers who wish to bring combine harvesters or silage machines onto the farm. The machines have to be brought on enormous round trips to get there. The widening of a railway crossing could bring enormous benefit to a community at little cost. However, for some bureaucratic reason nobody seems to be able to make a decision as to whether it is the local authority or CIE who should decide these matters. The Minister should investigate this problem.
There should be an early bird train to Dublin on the Westport and Ballina routes each Monday morning. Such a service operates to Dublin from provincial towns and cities in other regions. The reason it was not available in our region was that as the train took four or five hours to get to Dublin it would have to leave at four or five o'clock in the morning to reach Dublin at a reasonable time. With the new welded rail the journey time has been reduced. I ask the Minister to look again at providing an early bird train on Mondays from Westport, Castlebar and Ballina to Dublin.
Mr. Finucane: The Minister has a far-reaching portfolio. Today's debate is focused on the rail freight sector. The Minister has engaged consultants to carry out a strategic review and their report will be available in late January. It would be unwise, therefore, for Iarnród Éireann to proceed in any direction until that report is completed. The long awaited national spatial strategy could also have an significant impact on the decisions that must be made.
Rail freight has been losing money. We must analyse why this is so. To what degree has Iarnród Éireann been commercially focused in expanding the rail freight division? I can give a relevant example, which I discussed on a previous occasion with the then Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Woods – it was when Lisheen mines were opening. At the time the developers of the mines made a decision to use the road rather than a rail link. The decision was influenced by a commercial factor. The mine would have required a spur rail line of about eight miles to bring the product to Thurles. Then it could have been shipped out. Foynes port in Limerick was chasing that commercial business and, indeed, would have been an ideal location if it had happened. For commercial reasons, however, it did not happen.
If we wish to encourage rail freight, we must deal with it in the planning process for proposed developments by extractive industries. There is one such industry at Pallasgreen, near Limerick Junction, which might be exploited again in the future for its zinc deposits. We have to incentivise this area. Capital breaks are provided for many aspects of business, including the purchase of plant and equipment. Incentives could have been given to the developers of that mine, such as tax relief on the expenditure involved in developing the eight miles of rail line.
We should stimulate the rail freight business instead of using the road infrastructure which is under desperate pressure. Statistics prove that a 40-tonne truck will do over a thousand times more damage to a road surface than a private car. At the Lisheen mines, some 45 trucks per day are completing a round journey of 300 kilometres, thus causing more congestion on the roads. Imaginative and commercially-focused decisions are required to encourage increased rail freight usage. Such a decision would have provided valuable ongoing business for Iarnród Éireann at the Lisheen mines, but that opportunity was lost when it was decided to allow the use of road freight instead. In addition, it would also throw a lifeline to the port at a time when most commercial ports are competing for their share of a shrinking market.
For a long time, brochures promoting the port of Foynes boasted a rail link that was used by Macabar, Mogul and other mining companies. Premier Molasses and many other companies transported their commodities by rail also. Regrettably, however, the line has not been in use due to a downturn in business operations. I hope the line will not be closed as that would be short-sighted. I am surprised that the Shannon-Foynes Port Company has not been vocal on this issue, particularly as a strong marketing drive was anticipated once both ports were merged into one company. I am surprised the company has not been championing the retention of the line, given the concerns locally that a decision may be taken to close it.
Inevitably, when such a rail line falls into disuse, farmers may decide to erect electric fences, with consequential problems concerning rights of way. Current legislation is not strong enough to deal with such difficulties, although a rail maintenance vehicle can remove such obstacles from the tracks.
The possibility of closing the Limerick-Waterford line has been mentioned. There is a large container depot at Colbert Station in Limerick which is currently congested, although vital employers in the region, such as Wyeth, are using the facility. The Kerry Group not alone uses Waterford Port via the Limerick access route for container traffic, but also uses Cork. If the Limerick-Waterford line closes, the M69 road, a national secondary route serving the industrial Shannon estuary area, will become even more congested. We will simply be forcing companies to use road rather than rail freight transport.
Some 90% of manufactured goods are transported internationally by container. Instead of reducing such traffic through Waterford, Limerick and elsewhere, we should be providing incentives for continued use of Colbert Station's freight depot. Waterford and Limerick are both part of the national spatial strategy and Iarnród Éireann should not be permitted to make rail closure decisions in isolation. The whole sector should be examined in advance of the Minister's strategic review, which is to be published in January 2003.
Rail freight lines may inevitably close if they are not marketed aggressively, particularly after years of financial losses due to a lack of focus on the provision of such services. Will the Minister examine alternatives if Iarnród Éireann feels the line is no longer viable in the wake of the strategic review? It would be a retrograde step to neglect rail freight services in favour of road transport. If more imagination had been used in the past, such rail facilities would be in more widespread use now.
Foreign and domestic investors would use rail freight facilities if incentives were provided for them to do so, but not enough imagination has been shown. In the late 1980s, incentives, including licensing concessions, were provided to boost offshore gas exploration. I look forward to the Minister's strategic review report and what it has to say about the future direction of our rail freight services.
Minister for Transport (Mr. S. Brennan): I had not intended to respond, given that this debate does not concern legislation. However, I would be grateful for your permission, a Chathaoirligh, to mention a few matters. I have been sitting here for almost three hours, during which time 18 Senators have contributed. I compliment them on as fine a debate on public transport as I have heard. I have made copious notes on what every Senator said. I agree with much of what has been said, although some of the suggestions could be problematical to implement. It would not be practical to go through all the matters that have been raised, but in due course I will respond to some of the common themes that emerged during the debate.
Given the recent economic growth and the way traffic volumes are increasing, it would make no sense to close railway lines. If we were to take that course we would regret it in years to come. At the same time we are pouring billions into constructing roads which are killings off railway lines in many areas. We are investing heavily in motorways and dual-carriageways, so people who might otherwise like to travel by rail are buying cars to drive on the new motorways.
The road and rail sections of my Department have now come together to provide a better planning focus. I want to state clearly that I believe in the railway system, although I am not entirely enamoured by the railway structure as it is currently established. I will be examining it closely in future.
I do not need consultants to tell me that increased numbers of commuter trains running to and from the main population centres will obviously form part of our future plans. I will, however, wait to see what the strategic review report has to say. I must take a long-term view and cannot allow day to day pressures to cloud my vision of where we should be in 20 or 30 years' time.
It is also important to note that the transport infrastructure is being paid for by taxpayers, not by Santa Claus. The EU has largely done its thing; it has been and gone. We are on our own now with regard to these funding mechanisms. Therefore one is asking taxpayers to pay. If I am asking taxpayers to invest €500 million in CIE this year, that is €10 million a week, we are certainly entitled to get something for it. It takes a lot of tax collection to get €500 million in one year. Think what you could do with that money if you did not have to do this. Much of it is investment and it must be made very carefully.
I agree with Senators' views on freight. Unfortunately there is often this contradiction between what a company wants to do and what is good for the country. No doubt it is good for this country to have a thriving railway freight sector. You do not need consultants to tell you that; you need only drive behind 40 trucks to conclude that, if practicable, these goods should be transported by rail. However, when the company says it is losing €30 million and asks for a cheque, since it is taxpayers' money we are using we have to ask ourselves how long the taxpayer will put up with that. This leads us to ask if there is a different way of operating this service that will not lead to taxpayers footing the day to day expenses. I will be looking at that. That may involve some difficult decisions. Despite what the former Minister said about right wing economics, it is a very practical way of looking at issues and perhaps we can find other ways of doing what we used to have to do from the taxpayer's pocket.
We should also think clearly about what causes congestion. There have been nine or ten years of economic growth the likes of which has not been seen in most countries and everybody has gone out and bought a motor car. I visited a secondary school recently. My daughter had been a student there and we were going back to see some people. I have a keen interest in education matters since my days as Minister for Education. As we swung into the car park, I asked who owned all the cars because I did not think there were so many teachers in the school, but she told me the students owned them.
There is a new mix needed here. Previous Transport Ministers might have lectured the country about not buying cars and using public transport, but that is changing. Everybody will probably own a car at the end of the day. You will not stop them. However, they will have to realise that they cannot use the car all the time. They will have to get out of it sometime and get on the bus corridor, get on the trains, get on the metro when we get it and get on the Luas. I am told, for example, that once the bus routes on the Stillorgan Road were the preserve of certain people but now you can get on a bus and find people in pin-strip suits, with laptops, on their mobile phones doing business, etc. I even hear of ideas about booking seats on some of those buses. The point I am making is there is a new approach to public transport which we must take into account.
I listened carefully to the 18 Senators who spoke. I suppose I would summarise what I am about in four words, I believe in investment. I believe in substantial long-term investment in the system with a clear vision about public transport for the 21st century. I believe in reforming our structures. I do not believe that because we had CIE for 40 years we must always have CIE. I unapologetically believe in competition in public transport. If Members disagree with me, I would like to hear them say so. It has not been said too loudly. I propose to open the Dublin Bus market to competition in 2004.
I am not ideological about those matters. I am practical. I want them to work. Most of all, I believe in delivery and in just getting on and getting it done. I believe in getting the investments made, getting the roads built, getting investment in the railways, getting the buses to run and delivering a 21st century public and private transport system to the country.
|Last Updated: 10/09/2010 17:38:01||Page of 8|