Tuesday, 29 January 2019
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Rail Network Expansion
I thank the Minister for coming in. Deputy Rock and I tabled this Topical Issue matter to discuss the pressing importance of this critical infrastructure, the metro, for Dublin. It is not just about my constituency, the inner city or Dublin Airport but the entire city. MetroLink is a project which is warranted and required by the city and will be seen in the future. We believe that the issues occurring on the south side relating to route selection will delay this project. The project is 45 years in the making. It was first suggested by Forfás in 1974 and if it was not for the economic collapse, it would probably have started by now. We have rough agreement on the proposed route alignment. While there will no doubt be some additional costs if we separate the programme, it will not be an extraordinary amount of money and it will not result in a substantial delay. It will perhaps be 12 months.
The construction of this project is scheduled to take five years so we need to get moving on it as quickly as possible. That is why both Deputy Rock and I believe that the project should be separated at St. Stephen's Green and the components which have already broadly been agreed can be delivered on in the coming years. That will require the National Transport Authority, NTA, to expedite its application for a railway order and get this project up and running. It is clear, given the extraordinary growth at Dublin Airport, which had 31 million passengers last year, with the second runway and the project for 50 million passengers in the next two decades, that it will require additional transport infrastructure to take the cars off the M50 and put passengers on trains and buses so they can go to the city centre and hop on the metro to get there in just 19 minutes. I implore the Minister to speak with the NTA and accelerate this project.
The genesis of this project is in Forfás in 1974. The most recent iteration which lives in memories such as my own is metro north, which was announced in 2007. Some 12 years later, we are no closer to getting a shovel in the ground than we were then. That is my concern and that of the north side of the city. It should be the concern of the entire city because unless we get the shovels in the ground for the metro project, this promise will remain unfulfilled. As it stands, north side communities, such as Ballymun, Santry and Swords in Deputy Farrell's constituency, and the airport are still under-served by public transport. Some 30 million passengers go through the airport, with 10 million tourists coming into our country, all of which are great numbers for the Minister's Department, and they are a credit to him. A real credit to him would be to see a legacy project such as this get a shovel in the ground immediately. Everybody in this House can see that the timelines are slipping due to a southside squabble. The northside disagreements on the route have been resolved and the route has been agreed. If this slips further, does the Minister simply intend to watch the NTA push these timelines indefinitely into the future?
Accordingly, I would like a commitment from the Minister to at least discuss with the NTA the idea of separating this project into a first phase and a second phase, with phase 1 being the north side to the city centre, or Swords to the city centre - effectively, the original metro north - and phase 2 being the city centre to perhaps Sandyford, perhaps elsewhere. This possibility should at least be explored now, while we have time, the capital infrastructure budget and Project Ireland 2040 is proceeding, to get those shovels into the ground and get this project moving forward.
I thank the Deputies for the opportunity to address this matter in the House. I appreciate their concerns for their own areas and their wish to see delivery of what will be a superb piece of infrastructure, not just for their constituencies, but for the entire city and, indeed, the entire country. Ironically, during last year's consultation on the emerging preferred route for MetroLink, northside issues initially dominated the headlines, and I do not recall southside Deputies at the time calling for the northside to be bypassed. In seriousness, though, I welcome the opportunity to update the House on the development of the MetroLink project.
As we are all aware, the national development plan, NDP, which was launched last year by Government as part of Project Ireland 2040, included the proposed development of MetroLink, linking Sandyford in south Dublin with Swords in north Dublin. There is a long history of a proposed north-south metro service in the Dublin area, with references to be found in the then Dublin Transportation Office's A Platform for Change document in 2000 and even before that. A project known as metro north was granted planning permission just as the economic and financial crisis hit. The current statutory transport strategy for the greater Dublin area, published in 2016, stated its objective to provide for a new metro north reaching from the city centre to Swords via the airport. It also stated its objective to provide for a metro south, which would extend southwards the new metro north and, importantly, a long-term, sustainable solution to the capacity issues inherent in the capability of a Luas-type service to operate along the green line into the medium and long term. In developing proposals for the national planning framework, NPF, and the NDP, the NTA and Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, combined these metro projects into MetroLink. Both the NPF and the NDP indicate Government's policy support for the development of this type of solution to both medium- and long-term public transport issues.
A metro service will provide a high-capacity, high-frequency corridor linking critical destinations across the city such as Swords, the airport, DCU, Ballymun and the city centre and all along the existing green line corridor. It will offer high-quality interchange with the commuter rail network and with our improved bus network, which will be delivered under BusConnects in the years ahead. It is because of all these fantastic advantages that I can understand the Deputies' wish for MetroLink to progress in their areas first and foremost. I have no doubt but that they made these very points as part of the public consultation process which took place last year on the emerging preferred route. Since then, the NTA and TII have been considering the thousands of submissions received with a view to developing what will be known as the preferred route. I am happy to inform the House that a further round of public consultation will take place shortly on this "preferred route". The preferred route will reflect the NTA's and TII's consideration of the issues raised during the extensive consultations held so far and allow members of the public to express their views again on the proposal.
The Deputies can understand that it would be wholly inappropriate for me to comment on particular route alignments while work by the relevant statutory agencies is under way. I encourage the Deputies to engage with the public consultation process when it opens again shortly. We are at an exciting time in shaping public transport for the years and decades to come as we deliver upon the ambition of the NPF and the NDP. I would like to think all of us in this House can agree that we need to improve continually our public transport system and support Government's efforts in this regard, as outlined under the NPF and NDP.
I thank the Minister for his response, although, with respect, we did not ask him to intervene in the route alignment. He is quite right that no southside Deputies involved themselves in the route alignment issue on the northside, but this was primarily because it was so quickly resolved. My sincerely held view is that this project will be delayed for perhaps a year because of the ongoing consultation process on the southside. This is not about my constituency, Deputy Rock's constituency or the constituency of the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, who has joined us. It is about providing 10 million tourists with the opportunity to avoid our road system, which is a nightmare at the best of times. It is about encouraging investment in the corridors towards Dublin city centre and out towards the north county, where we have an abundance of developable lands for industry and housing and other ancillary tourist attractions. This is not about constituency politics at all; it is about a critical piece of national infrastructure being delivered on time, as the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, announced at Heuston Station in November 2015. I was there with him and was delighted to see the project start up at that point, but it has slipped. I do not want to see it slip any further. That is the purpose of this debate. This is not about constituency politics at all.
Deputy Farrell has summed up the matter quite neatly. First and foremost, it is not about our constituencies; it is about the city and national infrastructure and delivering on it. We both engaged in the public consultation process - in fact, thousands of my constituents did so - and we were promised an outcome from that process last year. Last year slipped to this year; this year slipped to February; February, as of my latest discussion with the NTA yesterday, is now slipping to March, one year since the public consultation opened. The Minister suggested in his answer that we should engage in public consultation when it next opens. I would love to engage with the next stage of the public consultation but I cannot do so as it has been delayed indefinitely. That is a concern. My concern is the constant slippage and the battle now being played out via media on the southside of the city, in particular. My other concern is that the reality behind the scenes is that the NTA does not seem to have a ready-made solution for this problem. Unlike the problem on the northside to which the Minister alluded, and to which a solution was found quickly, this issue does not seem to be reaching a resolution quickly. A solution needs to be found quickly, and the best way of doing so is an instruction to split this into a first phase and a second phase.
I absolutely accept the points made by both Deputies. I presume it is just a coincidence that they want to divide the project into a north phase and a south phase and start with the north phase and that they just happen to represent northside constituencies. These things happen from time to time, and coincidences are not unusual in politics. I accept their points but I would say as a southsider that there are special problems on the southside as well. Both Deputies alluded to the airport as being very crowded and seeing a huge demand from passengers coming into and out of the city and into St. Stephen's Green. I am sure they will be aware, however, that on the southside there is also chronic overcrowding on public transport from time to time due to the bulge in population there. Both sides of the city have equal cause and equal right to a voice and to put their case for getting the MetroLink more quickly than the other. The reason it was called MetroLink, I think, was to ensure there was not this north-south divide and that this magnificent piece of infrastructure went ahead in tandem and in accordance with the wishes of the NTA. I will not interfere with the proposed route or in the day-to-day activities of the NTA but I will relate to the authority the views of both Deputies, their bias for the northside and their preference for the project to start there. I will leave it up to the NTA to make a decision.