Tuesday, 30 May 2006
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Gallagher. He will be aware that rail services are the poor relation to our road network when it comes to investment. No new rail lines have been built in the past decade despite the millions poured into our roads infrastructure in that period.
There was finally some recognition of the potential of the existing rail network in the proposals contained in Transport 21 which were unveiled last November. There is much that is flawed about the Transport 21 plan, most of which involves a re-packaging of previously announced plans. The interests of the west, the south and the north west were not served by the failure to provide for motorways in the Atlantic corridor roads plan. The Western Development Commission's recent report underlined that the gap between the west and the east is greater now than it was seven years ago and that single carriageway roads and other bad infrastructure would cause long-term decline.
The name Atlantic corridor is a misnomer because it ignores a huge chunk of the country that faces onto the Atlantic — west Clare, north Kerry, south Kerry and west Cork. In the same vein, it was shocking to learn that the planned spend on the long-neglected western rail corridor of between €300 million and €400 million is around 1% of the total €34 billion spend.
The decision to re-open the line is a victory for the campaigners on the issue, for people who believe in train services as a viable means of transport, and for the people of County Clare and the west in general. The Minister may be aware of the success in my constituency of the re-opening of the Ennis to Limerick rail line in 1988. Many services are provided to Limerick and an increased frequency of trains travel onward to Dublin, Cork and Waterford.
As someone who uses the service from time to time I can vouch for its comfort. The rail service is preferable to driving through traffic chaos. The story of the remainder of the western rail corridor is a sadder one. Passenger services between Limerick and Claremorris ceased in 1976. Just as with the earlier closure of the west Clare railway in 1952, people were given empty assurances by the Government of the day that they would be compensated with other infrastructural projects.
I urge the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Gallagher, and his colleague, the Minister, Deputy Cullen, to sanction immediately the proposals submitted by Iarnród Éireann for the re-opening of the Ennis to Athenry section, which is phase one of the rail corridor project. These proposals have been with the Department for more than three months. The delay in sanctioning them has cast doubts on the Government's assurance that phase one of the project would be complete by the end of 2008. That was the timetable agreed by the Taoiseach when he stated that Transport 21 would be completed on time and on budget.
I do not wish to hear that the timetable for the Athenry to Tuam section is for it to be completed in 2011 and that the Tuam to Claremorris section is to be completed in 2014. I already know that. I also do not wish to hear that the cost of the project is commercially sensitive until the public procurement process is complete. I wish to hear the Minister of State at the Department of Transport state whether EU Structural and Cohesion Funds are available for the project, how much is available, whether the Department has applied for such funds and, if not, when it plans to do so. It is my understanding that the Department has until the end of this year to make an application and a further two years to complete the project.
Despite the small investment involved, this project is of great importance to the people of County Clare and the west in general. Phase one of the rail project will provide a valuable regional link between Limerick and Galway via Ennis, which will be of significant benefit to Shannon Airport.
I seek an assurance from the Minister of State that the timetable will be adhered to, that the investment will be made as planned and that the Government will avail of EU grant assistance. I also seek assurances that a bedding down period for the project will be provided when it is up and running so that passengers will be able to avail of low fares as an inducement to use the service and that, subsequently, passenger subsidies will be the same as apply to the rest of the Iarnród Éireann network.
I am delighted the Minister of State at the Department of Transport is in the House and I look forward to hearing positive answers from him in regard to this project. It is vital for infrastructure in County Clare and the west.
I thank Deputy Pat Breen for raising the issue of the western rail corridor. He knows many of the answers already. The position has not changed. We aim to ensure that the timescale of which he is aware and which has been made clear will be adhered to.
Transport 21 provides for the re-opening of the western rail corridor between Ennis and Claremorris on a phased basis and the preservation of an alignment as far as Collooney. The plan also provides for the upgrade of commuter services on the Athenry to Galway line.
When completed, the western rail corridor will provide a rail link between the cities of Limerick and Galway with onward connection to Claremorris. The new line will also facilitate the provision of intra-regional services within the Border, midlands and west region. The line between Ennis and Athenry will be the first section to be developed. Subject to progress in planning, the indicative timescale for completion of this first section is 2008.
We are the party which is committing itself to this project. We are doing it and we will deliver. The only benefit for the Opposition is to hope it may slip off the agenda.
As the Deputy outlined, the indicative timescale for completion of the Athenry to Tuam section is 2011 and the Tuam to Claremorris section is 2014. We will do our utmost to ensure that we adhere to that timeframe.
The current position on the project is that Iarnród Éireann has submitted proposals to my Department relating to phase one and phase two. These are being finalised in my Department and the Minister and I expect to be in a position to make a decision on Iarnród Éireann's applications and the allocation of funding in the coming weeks. Transport 21 includes a financial provision to cover the anticipated cost of the project. It would be wrong for me to release this commercially sensitive information until the public procurement process for this project is completed. I fully appreciate and understand this business-like attitude. I understand that the necessary steps to preserve the section of line between Claremorris and Collooney will be taken this year. Irrespective of where the funding comes from, the Deputy can take comfort from the knowledge that funding will be provided for the western rail corridor on a phased basis, which I, as a man from the north west, fully support.