Wednesday, 18 December 2019
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
If the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport were to use the 16.33, 17.33 or 18.35 service from Connolly Station to travel to any of the towns along the Wicklow and Wexford coast that are served by the Rosslare rail line, it is unlikely that he would get a seat after the train has left the station. As someone who has used the service, I am aware of the regular problems caused by people having to stand as far as Wicklow town or beyond. There is no service later in the evening than 18.35. It has been announced that Irish Rail is to get 41 new carriages, but not one of those additional carriages will be used on the Rosslare line. There have been problems on the line for many years because it has been allowed to run down, in effect. We need an immediate solution to address the current problem of overcrowding on trains. Additional services are needed to allow people to travel later in the evening.
We need to deal with a longer-term challenge in this context if we are to help commuters and others who travel from counties Wexford and Wicklow to Dublin. The M11 resembles a car park at certain times of the morning and evening. It is becoming more and more clogged. It has been suggested that additional lanes should be developed. It would make far more sense for us to invest in the rail network to provide a realistic alternative for commuters. It makes sense to use the rail service from an environmental point of view and from a social point of view. I have two questions for the Minister. What immediate measures can be taken to address the overcrowding problem on this service and to expand the service in the evening? What are the Minister's long-term plans for the development of the Rosslare rail service to make it a viable alternative to driving on the M11?
The railway line between Dublin and Rosslare has not been invested in or upgraded for many decades. It is not fit for purpose in its current form. Just five trains travel through County Wicklow to Dublin each day. By the time the two trains that leave Arklow at 6.03 a.m. and 6.57 a.m. get to the station in Wicklow town, there is barely any standing room left. Unfortunately, thousands of commuters in County Wicklow are being forced into their cars because suitable and affordable public transport is not available. According to the 2016 census, some 1,750 people from Arklow and 4,339 people from Wicklow town commute to County Dublin each day. They have to find work in Dublin because Wicklow has been neglected by this Government and previous Governments when decisions have been made on investment in jobs.
The Government's approach to addressing the gridlock that is being created on the M11 by commuters who have been forced into their cars seems to involve a plan that may or may not come to pass until 2027 at the earliest. The plan, which involves upgrading the M11 to a six-lane motorway, is absolutely ludicrous. The 41 carriages that have been ordered will not arrive until late 2021, at the earliest. The rail line through County Wicklow will not get any of those carriages.
It is absolutely crazy that Irish Rail has responded to numerous requests for Leap card fare-capping to be extended as far as Arklow by saying that it will not consider the extension of the short-hop zone because too many people might avail of it. Irish Rail does not have the capacity to cater for such increased numbers. It is an absolutely crazy situation.
I thank the Deputies for their questions about overcrowding on the Rosslare rail service. As Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I have responsibility for policy and for the overall funding of public transport. The operation and provision of services on the rail network is a matter for Iarnród Éireann in the first instance, in consultation with the National Transport Authority, NTA. I acknowledge that some rail services, including services on the Rosslare-Dublin route, are crowded at certain times of the day due to the level of demand. The Deputies can be assured that the safe operation of the rail network and of rail services is the overriding priority at all times for the company and for the Commission for Railway Regulation, which is the independent statutory body that is charged with overseeing the safety of the network.
Since the economic upturn, there has been a significant increase in demand for rail services across the network. The Iarnród Éireann fleet is fully deployed on scheduled services at peak times to cope with the current high levels of demand. The company is maximising the use of its rolling stock to meet demand. It has sought further investment to increase capacity. As the Deputies will be well aware, there is a considerable lead-in time from the point at which funds are made available to the point at which new carriages are brought into operation. At present, five return services are in operation between Rosslare-Wexford and Dublin Connolly on weekdays. Approximately 688,000 journeys were made on the route in 2018, representing an increase of 4.9% on the previous year. The service is primarily operated by InterCity rail cars, with the busiest peak services operated by commuter rail cars.
The ability to increase frequency on the railway line between Rosslare and Dublin is limited for various reasons, including the single track south of Bray, the tunnel sections between Bray and Greystones and the intensity of DART operations on the line between Greystones-Bray and the city centre, on which DART services operate every ten minutes. I understand that in 2020, the NTA and Iarnród Éireann will examine options for the enhancement of the frequency of train services.
I am pleased to inform the Deputy that the Government recently approved for the NTA and Iarnród Éireann to proceed with the proposed purchase of 41 additional intercity rail cars to increase capacity on the rail network. The additional stock will cost approximately €150 million and is expected to commence entry into service by 2021, providing 34% increased capacity at peak times.
I thank the Minister but I am afraid that his answer is a bit of a cop-out. It is great that we will see him announce 41 new trains and I am sure he will be smiling beside them when that happens, but the problem is that we are not even getting any of those shiny new trains on the Rosslare route-----
-----we are getting what might be left over. I am not asking the Minister to drive the trains, I am asking him to drive rail policy. He has outlined some of the challenges we have with the single-track issue, the tunnels and the DART line, but this is about setting out a long=term vision to ensure that the people use the train and it is a viable alternative for people in counties Wexford and Wicklow. We can talk about the M11 if the Minister wants, but we have to provide a real alternative. I am asking the Minister to take on a leadership role on this to ensure that we have investment in those railways and that, within the next four to five years, we have the sort of service that will take people out of their cars.
If the Government is serious about meeting its obligations to reduce carbon emissions, it needs to get serious about public transport. The Minister's response this evening shows no commitment or desire to meet those targets. He will be aware that there is an existing strategic paper carried out by Jacobs Engineering on the Greystones service improvement. There are proposals to increase the capacity of the DART service to three trains per hour, reducing the cycle to 20 minutes. That requires investment immediately but it does not even appear in the national development plan. It will not be progressed any time soon. It needs to be advanced immediately. If we are serious about this, we need to look at job creation within Wicklow. Thousands are forced out of Wicklow daily, onto the carpark that is the N11. In a survey carried out by Wicklow County Council, 70% of those said they would work in Wicklow if there were jobs there.
Deputy Brady referred to the environment. He might be interested to know that in May, the NTA and Iarnród Éireann commenced pre-qualifying in relation to a ten-year procurement framework for a minimum of 300 battery electric units with the potential for that to increase to 600 over the life of the procurement framework. The proposal forms part of the DART expansion programme. I expect to receive a business case on the overall programme next year.
I do not dispute for a moment what both Deputies are saying on overcrowding. They are not on their own saying it, there is overcrowding on trains all over Ireland. It is the result of an upsurge in demand. The Deputies will be well aware that an upsurge in demand cannot be met by buying carriages and delivering them overnight. That is not the way it works. It takes time with procurement, delivery and putting them into action. I have explained to the Deputies the orders that we have made.
This is what will happen. I would have thought the Deputies would be pleased that we have acknowledged demand and that more people are using trains, buses and public transport. Public transport in this country is a great success. The downside is that there are crowded trains, but we have moved to sort that out and we will, but the Deputies should not expect it to happen overnight or immediately after Christmas, which is what they seem to be looking for. There are alternative forms of transport. The N11 is being addressed. There is also Bus Éireann. I am sure the Deputies are familiar but I have the figures here. The Dublin-Wexford has 14 services a day in each direction.
He is taking time from me now. Wexford Bus also operates services from Wexford to Dublin. This is a commercial service. Commercial operators can apply to the NTA at any time to increase services. Both Bus Éireann and Wexford Bus also run services between Wexford and Rosslare. There are also Local Link services operating on the route. We acknowledge the problem, are addressing it and will sort it out.