Wednesday, 23 September 2015
Ceisteanna - Questions - Priority Questions
2. To ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport his plans for the future of the Irish rail network after a period of cuts to subvention and moves to liberalise rail services across Europe supported by the European Union. [32199/15]
I wish to ask the Minister about his plans for the future of the Irish Rail network after a period of cuts to the subvention and other cuts, and moves to liberalise rail services across Europe, supported by the European Union. I wish the Minister to please make a statement on the matter.
Irish Rail remains in a difficult financial situation and has incurred losses in each of the past seven years with accumulated losses of more than €150 million in that period. CIE and its subsidiaries are dependent on continued bank funding and new banking facilities, agreed in 2013, contain a number of financial covenants, all of which were met in 2014. More demanding bank covenant targets will have to be met this year and in later years. For the first time since 2008, the level of public service obligation, PSO, funding for rail services is being maintained in 2015 at the same level as in 2014. I was also able to secure an additional €101 million in funding for public transport companies in a Supplementary Estimate at the end of last year, which included €45 million for Irish Rail's network renewal investment. In July this year, I also announced an additional €100 million for my Department's capital programme. Of this, €29 million will deliver much needed maintenance on rail rolling stock and a further €9 million is being allocated towards the rail safety programme.
While there have been some positive signs, including a reduction in Irish Rail's deficit in 2014 to €2 million and an increase in passenger numbers in 2014 for the first time since 2008, the underlying financial picture remains extremely challenging. I remain strongly supportive of the efforts to secure Irish Rail's financial sustainability so that rail services can be provided efficiently and cost effectively.
With regard to the latter part of the Deputy's question concerning EU discussions on the opening of the domestic rail passenger markets to competition, Ireland, along with a number of other member states, has fundamental concerns with the proposed reforms. I met the Commissioner in Brussels two weeks ago and pointed to the difficulties posed to the Irish rail sector and indicated that Ireland could not agree to mandatory opening under any circumstances. I believe we will find a solution that will not pose risks to the Irish rail sector.
Irish Rail has been the poor relation for many years, and there have been many cuts to the rail network, in particular to the subvention. I am pleased to hear the Minister say he is at least maintaining funding at 2014 levels, but that is still a cutback because of inflation and other issues. We are not supporting the network and we need to put more money into it. What plans does the Minister have to improve and increase the rail service in future? Parts of the rail service to the west need to be improved. Is the Minister planning to expand on the service?
The EU directives are a further drive towards privatisation. The Minister said he plans to opt out of the mandatory impositions that have been introduced by Europe. If the Minister reaches a compromise, it is very likely that we will see a further drive towards privatisation because that seems to be the direction in which the EU is moving. There is much friction with workers in Irish Rail. I urge the Minister to take a hands-on approach when it comes to many of the issues I have outlined.
Last year, I secured an additional €45 million for Irish Rail and this year, I secured an additional €38 million for Irish Rail on top of the Estimates that were announced at budget time in each year. During my tenure in office I have done all that was possible to respond to the challenges Irish Rail faces. I am well aware of the challenges different parts of the rail network face. The Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ring, constantly raises with me the different needs the west faces in all of the various transport networks available to the area.
On the question of mandatory tendering of the Irish rail market, in addition to articulating my views on concerns about what the policy would mean to a rail market of the scale in this country, I travelled and met the Commissioner in a bilateral meeting and made very clear that I did not believe mandatory tendering of an entire rail network was appropriate given its scale and the way it is organised.
The Minister said he is opposed to mandatory tendering but I hope we do not go down the road of tendering out. I accept the Minister said he has been given a directive from the EU but we must find some way of stopping the drive towards privatisation.
The rail service is and should be for the people. A positive aspect of the rail network is that there has been an increase in the number of passengers’ right across the country. There is scope to develop and improve. I accept Irish Rail owes a huge amount of money. The Minister referred to €150 million. The Government should write the figure off. We should not place demands on the rail network to meet its debts. The State has a responsibility to look after the rail network, the bus routes and other transport elements. To me, that is a sign of a state that is working.
Deputy Dessie Ellis said I should write the figure off. How am I to do that? It is a loss of €150 million that is sitting on the balance sheet of an independent State company. Earlier this morning I saw that the Deputy’s party was calling for the complete abolition of the property tax, yet at the same time he is asking me to write off losses of €150 million and to find more money to put into the rail network. That is further evidence of the kind of economics that will ruin our country.
I do have a responsibility, namely, to do what I can to put the right investment into Irish Rail and where appropriate to look to invest in it. I did not see Deputy Ellis’s press release or statement acknowledging the fact that this year alone we put an additional €38 million into Irish Rail although he has asked that I would unilaterally write off the losses of a company that is currently dependent on funding from large banks.
I want to mention briefly the other point. While workers in Irish Rail are considering their future options, I want to reiterate the points I have just made. The Government, the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, and I have in recent times done all we can, where possible, to invest more in Irish Rail. My views in regard to the future of the Irish Rail network and the need to have the appropriate policy in place are being strongly represented in the European Union.