Wednesday, 2 December 2009
Seanad Eireann Debate
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Martin Mansergh. I wish to raise the matter of the western rail corridor. I ask the Minister of State to make a statement on the funding for the corridor and outline the timeframe for completion of same.  There is much concern in the west that the funding will be pulled in next week’s budget. I hope the Minister of State will be able to inform me of the true state of affairs.
Construction work is continuing on phase one of the corridor, the section running from Ennis to Athenry. The enhancement of the section running from Athenry to Galway for the provision of commuter services to Galway is welcome. I understand phase one is expected to be completed by January 2010 when there will be regular services between Galway and Limerick via Ennis. New stations are expected to be opened at Sixmilebridge, Gort, Ardrahan and Craughwell.
I ask the Minister of State to confirm the progress made on that section of the railway. When will services commence between Limerick and Athenry? I note that a new station is expected to be opened in Oranmore early in 2010. However, I understand the site location has not been confirmed. The location for the station is shown in the development plan but it is not known if the site has been purchased. I, therefore, ask the Minister of State to say when the station will open in Oranmore.
The Minister of State is very familiar with the benefits of the western rail corridor. It will improve inter-regional transport services and increase economic activity in villages and towns adjacent to the route from Limerick all the way up to Sligo. That is the western rail corridor and it will increase access to towns and villages along the route shown on this map. The region did not have such access previously and it will make a major difference to the economic life of the region.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: The corridor will encourage tourism and it will put smaller towns and villages adjacent to the rail line on the map. The greatest benefit is it will be more environmentally friendly because there will be fewer cars on the road. The corridor will also result in the provision of a new rail freight service which will take heavy goods vehicles off congested roads and it will be vital for balanced regional development. The corridor has my full support as it will deliver many benefits. I would like the Minister of State to confirm funding for the project is secure and to outline the timeframe for delivery.
The West on Track community campaign has worked tirelessly to promote this project and push for the earliest delivery. It stated in a press release on 10 October: “We also warmly welcome the decision to introduce an allowance per tonne for rail freight in line with climate change objectives”. The group recognises the benefit of transferring freight from road to rail transport. I would like the Minister of State to confirm the security of the funding and when the various phases will be delivered, including Ennis to Athenry and Athenry to Sligo.
Minister of State at the Department of Finance (Deputy Martin Mansergh): The Minister for Transport remains committed to the earliest delivery of the western rail corridor. I have always been a great supporter of this project and attended a West on Track conference four or five years ago. I have been in touch in various capacities with campaigners such as Fr. Micheál Mac Gréil since the late 1970s when I had an involvement in energy policy.
I am pleased to advise the House that construction on phase 1 of the corridor, which runs between Ennis and Athenry, is complete and driver training and familiarisation began on 16 November. Iarnród Éireann had intended to launch phase 1 on 8 January 2010 with full services commencing on 9 January 2010. However, driver training and familiarisation has been on hold since 18 November due to flooding at a number of locations, a subject I discussed with the Senator earlier. As a result, the opening of the line has been deferred and the company will confirm a new opening date when flood waters recede. The opening of phase 1 of the corridor will mark an important milestone in the delivery of public transport infrastructure in the west, reconnecting Limerick, Ennis and Galway for the first time by rail for passenger services since the 1970s. I look forward to taking a train from Limerick Junction, County Tipperary, to Galway.
Deputy Martin Mansergh: I thank the Senator. However, this is only the first phase of reopening the corridor which runs as far as Claremorris. The immediate next step, following completion of phase 1, will be for Iarnród Éireann to undertake a detailed evaluation of phases 2 and 3 with a view to arriving at precise costs to undertake the works. Following this, the Minister for Transport will seek to progress planning of these phases to ensure we can move speedily to construction at the earliest date once financial circumstances permit.
The corridor is only one element of the investment being delivered to enhance transport infrastructure in the west. More than €1.4 billion has been invested in national roads in the region since 2000. Despite the slowdown in the economy, more than €180 million will be spent this year on improving and maintaining the region’s national road infrastructure. The beneficial impact of this investment is evident throughout the region in the elimination of major traffic bottlenecks, leading to shorter journey times and greater journey time certainty as well as to greater economic competitiveness, road safety and an improved quality of life for all.
Work is continuing on the last part of the Dublin-Galway major inter-urban route on the N6 between Ballinasloe and Galway city, which was temporarily brought into service following the recent flooding. Phase 2 of the Limerick southern ring road is nearing completion and work is ongoing on the N18 Gort-Crusheen bypass which forms part of the Atlantic road corridor. More than €100 million will be invested this year in non-national roads in the west. This covers a wide range of projects, including such major works as the Shannon crossing, the R336 Connemara access road, the Athenry northern relief road and the western distributor road in Sligo. In addition, the Minister is providing funding for an array of smaller but significant projects under Smarter Travel, Ireland’s new sustainable transport policy, which he launched last February. The west has benefited through a number of Smarter Travel schemes which the Minister agreed to support pending the establishment of new sustainability funds. These include cycling and walking projects in counties Galway and Mayo as well as measures to promote bus travel and smaller sustainable transport projects in counties Galway, Mayo and Roscommon.
I look forward to the commencement of rail services between Ennis and Athenry as soon as possible in the new year. While the closure of the line in the mid-1970s represented the start of a challenging period for Ireland socially and economically, the opening of the line represents our confidence and commitment to a more prosperous future, notwithstanding the current difficult times. It is fortunate that the land was preserved which meant no land purchase or compensation costs were incurred. That made the project more viable. The prospects for building further phases depend very much on the success of the phases that are open. I have used the Limerick-Ennis line on a number of occasions and it has proved successful, the only fly in the ointment being the flooding problems. If the Ennis-Galway phase is successful, that will encourage people to proceed further.
Notwithstanding my earlier comments about roads investment, the railway takes people to Eyre Square in the heart of Galway city and no road can achieve that, particularly at peak commuter times. I welcome the reconnecting of the rail network. There will be knock-on benefits for the Limerick-Waterford line which has been under threat for some time and in which I have an interest. People will want to travel from further afield to Galway and they will be able to do so by rail. Rail is an efficient method of travel. I can spend time reading and working which I cannot do to the same extent travelling by road. It is environmentally friendly and I hope the corridor will be a further element in the renaissance of rail. The Cork-Midleton spur recently opened and the link between Dunboyne and Dublin city is also being built, with a second phase to Navan due. I will give my support to the corridor, even to the extent of using it. I do not have information on the station in Oranmore.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: Is no information available on the station there? I am delighted with the commitment in principle given by the Minister of State and his philosophy on the importance of rail transport, which I share. However, I am concerned about his comment that progression towards phases 2 and 3 is dependent on how well services on the Ennis to Athenry line do. We expect them to do very well. However, I was contacted within the past few days by constituents who are outraged by the proposed timetable. Five services are offered between Galway and Limerick at off-peak times, not at peak times. It will take one hour and 55 minutes to get from Limerick to Galway city. One could do the same trip by car in an hour and a half. It will be unfair if the reason the line is unsuccessful is poor scheduling by CIE. Will the Minister of State make a note of this and pass on the information to CIE? The one point in favour of West on Track is that there was unanimity that there should not be a partial opening of services between Limerick and Athenry. Everyone knew this would be a hot spot but services between Athenry and Tuam and Tuam and Sligo will be critical. Is the Minister of State committed to the entire project from Limerick to Sligo? Will he convey my concerns to CIE?
Deputy Martin Mansergh: I presume the Senator is not asking me at a personal level. This forms part of an ambitious project between Limerick and Sligo but I do not think the Government has made a definite commitment in respect of the Sligo end. That may be a long-term ambition, although one or two Ministers may have made a commitment to it. I would be misleading the Senator in suggesting the Government as a whole had made such a commitment. What I said does not represent an unqualified, immediate commitment to phases 2 and 3.
I have experience of the system elsewhere and timetabling is crucial. Services can be timetabled in order that a regional or intercity connection is provided or they are of use to commuters. If we are to make real use of a railway line, it must serve commuters by providing an aid in getting to work. I do not have details, unlike the Senator, but I would be surprised if there was not a train service arriving in Galway between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. and leaving Galway between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. I am sure there will be a train; I cannot believe they would miss that trick.
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