Tuesday, 22 June 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
The rail freight service from Ballina railway station to Dublin Port normally takes between five and seven freight trains per week, servicing some of the biggest industries in the west. It is a core part of our attractiveness as a location to invest in Ballina. It is served by a superb team at Ballina railway station. The Ballina freight depot is one of the busiest in the country. However, since Christmas there have been a number of disruptions to services and in recent weeks the service has stopped completely. A wonderful company called International Warehousing and Transport, IWT, has been running the service. It has shown huge ambition in terms of developing the service and it has further plans for it. The service has come to a halt because of difficulties at Dublin Port that relate to Brexit and the need for space and some other issues which have put a stop to trains going into Dublin Port.
It is ridiculous that Dublin Port, the biggest port in the country, is no longer open to rail freight. We passed the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021 in this House last week, during which debate we heard much talk about lowering emissions. We are failing to lower emissions yet a freight service which catered for between five and seven freight trains per week and took freight off the road is stopped. There does not appear to be a huge amount of urgency in terms of resolving the issue.
I know that work is under way and that the Department of Transport is engaging. It is a very minor operational issue. Dublin Port is engaging with International Warehousing and Transport, IWT, and Irish Rail but urgency is needed.
I acknowledge the engagement of the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, on this matter. I know she cannot be here this evening. I put it to the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, that the Department of Transport needs to get serious about rail services in the west. It does not believe in them. It treats rail services as an item under "any other business". This service works and is profitable. It delivers in so many ways and yet there is no urgency in the Department to resolve the issue. It is typical of the Department's approach to rail transport in the west.
I thank the Minister of State for taking this debate this evening. I know this is an issue which is very close to Deputy Calleary's heart. He has argued the case for Mayo very well and very strongly at a number of forums. I was astounded to read an article in The Irish Timeswhich stated that freight services through Dublin Port were to be discontinued. I had assumed that we would be going in the other direction in every sense. In fact, when the new Government was formed last year, I spoke to the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and to the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, about this and expressed my assumption and wish that freight would be increasingly directed onto rail, even aside from this particular issue, of which I was not aware at the time. I got into politics partly through the railways in a sense. I set up a group in my village of Sallins for commuters seeking to improve the rail service there. I passionately believe in the railways for the movement of people, freight and goods. It is more comfortable, environmentally friendly and efficient. There are so many benefits with regard to the movement of both people and goods that they hardly need repeating.
At a time when we have a great many opportunities, when Brexit is favouring Irish ports with increased traffic, when more and more goods are coming through Ireland as a gateway to Europe and when we are seeing opportunities in all of our ports and a spike in traffic, it is staggering to see Dublin Port suddenly deciding that the right thing to do is to close down one arm of its service. I am aware that customs posts need to be there and that various checks need to be done. I believe 5 ha is now devoted to this in Dublin Port. It is a necessary evil but the answer to an increase in business is not to contract an operation. Surely, it is to expand and to invest in it. I might regret it but I could understand it if we were all here wringing our hands and lamenting that a railway was being taken up because of a lack of business or a lack of interest but, to add insult to injury, this is a successful commercial operation. As Deputy Calleary stated, Ballina is serviced by five to seven trains a day. Coca-Cola helps with the operation and other firms may be involved. This is a successful enterprise which is being taken away and stopped at the very moment it is needed most for environmental and other reasons. We made the mistake of lifting up railways in this country before. Let us learn something from history and not go down that road again.
Gabhaim buíochas leis na Teachtaí. I welcome the opportunity to update the House on the position regarding rail freight into Dublin Port on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton.
The Minister and the Minister of State strongly believe in the potential of rail freight and think it can play a bigger role in freight transport generally on this island. Both have spoken specifically on the potential for rail freight in the west. This is why, as part of the strategic rail review, we have included a specific focus on the topic. The review will also examine how our key ports are connected to the rail network and whether improvements are needed.
The focus we are looking to bring to this issue replicate the focus at a European level, where there is a renewed push to examine rail freight corridors and their potential as part of the Green New Deal. Obviously, there are differences in terms of what that potential might be across different countries, including in Ireland, however, it is clear in my mind that we can, and should, look to increase the modal share of rail freight from an environmental perspective and with a view to reducing congestion on our roads.
Specifically on Dublin Port, the Ministers are aware of operational issues that have arisen in the port involving two private companies with regard to the facilitation of rail freight services there. This relates to capacity constraints that have occurred in a lo-lo terminal in the port that are impacting on the rail services. To give some background, Dublin Port is the largest and busiest port in the State serving the trading needs of Ireland and handling, on average, 70% of all vessels visits and over 50% of all tonnage handled by ports in Ireland. Since the end of the Brexit transition period last January, shipping services direct to the Continent from Ireland have increased from approximately 36 lo-lo and ro-ro sailings a week in the first quarter of 2020 to more than 60 sailings direct to the Continent now. The Irish Maritime Development Office, IMDO, reports that, in recent months, ro-ro volumes on Republic of Ireland–EU direct services increased by 81% while lo-lo volumes increased by 11%.
In Dublin Port, the lo-lo freight terminals are leased, managed and operated by private stevedoring companies. The rail line or spur in Dublin Port currently goes into the area where one of the stevedoring companies provides services for loading containers on and off trains. Since January, with the increased level of sailings and number of containers being handled in the port, this has led to significant pressures on space to cater for the additional freight and the containers coming in by rail at the same time and location.
Dublin Port, with an 85% percent share of all ro-ro trade in Ireland, provided 14.6 ha or almost one fifth of its lands on the north side of the river to facilitate the State services required post Brexit including facilities relating to customs, agriculture, immigration and so on. At the same time, Dublin Port is undertaking its most ambitious development programme in over a century to future-proof the port by providing additional cargo handling capacity and infrastructure for larger vessels, which is essential to cater for a growing economy. In the six years prior to 2020, and the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a 36% growth in freight volumes at the port. As it undertakes this work, Dublin Port itself is experiencing pinch points with no spare space at present which can be provided for the container services. With the completion of the capital works at the port and the introduction of a range of measure to optimise operations, however, it is intended that further growth can be facilitated in the future, along with the growth in rail services at the port.
The Minister and Minister of State are aware that discussions are ongoing at present with the stakeholders involved, including the two private companies along with Irish Rail and Dublin Port, to explore options to resolve these issues. They strongly urge all parties involved to engage constructively in this dialogue to ensure the continuation of the rail services into the port now and into the future.
I know this is not the Minister of State's Department but his response is incredibly disappointing. He spoke about the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, wanting to bring a focus on connecting key ports to the rail network. Such a connection was in place in Ballina long before the Ministers came into Government. We have a service that works well and which has massive potential but it has been stalled for reasons that have nothing to do with the service itself but, rather, with Dublin Port and the constraints there. I accept that Brexit is a challenge and that there have been other challenges at the port in recent weeks but the Brexit referendum was held five years ago. There was time to put all of these things in place. Given the size of Dublin Port, surely space and priority should have been given to rail freight if it is a priority.
This is typical of the Department's view of rail transport. We are being subjected to another strategic rail review. A rail committee in the west today published a report by Dr. John Bradley, formerly of the ESRI, into the viability of the western rail corridor. This debunks entirely the taxpayer-funded EY report, paid for and commissioned by the Department. That a private, volunteer-led organisation could debunk a State report entirely says volumes about the lack of commitment in the Department of Transport with regard to rail freight and rail transport.
Like Deputy Calleary, I am struggling to follow the reply. It seems to tell us that the port is very busy and getting busier. We already know that. That is the whole point of this debate. Why can we not use this to put more freight onto the railways? Why are we discontinuing a vital service at the very time it is needed most and when the port is in expansionary mode? I have gone through the reply a couple of times to see if I missed something. The Minister of State is agreeing with us but not proposing any solutions. I do not blame him, he has just been dragged in to take this debate, but it really beggars belief. I see the evidence of this with my own eyes. We have enough trucks on the road already. I represent Kildare North, which effectively serves as an outer M50. Trucks come off the M4 in the north and run to the M7 in the south, without bothering to go through the M50 in Dublin. They criss-cross Clane, Sallins, Naas, Straffan and all of the little villages and rat runs along the way. It is bad for north Kildare, for Ireland and for the environment. At a time when we should be expanding rail freight, this makes absolutely no sense. If Dublin Port cannot handle it, perhaps Drogheda, Arklow or a new deepwater port need a go. If Dublin Port is not up to it, somewhere else should take over.
Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit, the Department worked with the ports and shipping companies to ensure sufficient capacity and connectivity to facilitate the movement of goods in and out of Ireland. Significant Government investment has gone into the customs, agriculture and immigration inspection facilities necessary since 1 January 2021. There has been a remarkable response from the shipping sector in the context of a significant number of additional sailings direct to the Continent as a result of market demand. There has also been a sharp increase in the demand for lo-lo services.
It is important to point out that neither the Minister for Transport nor the Department is directly involved in decisions taken by the privately operated terminal at Dublin Port.
However, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Ryan, is very concerned that the question of the continuation of rail services into the port should arise at a time when the focus is on ensuring our transport modes are environmentally, economically and socially sustainable. The Minister understands discussions are continuing to explore several options to address the situation. He encourages all parties to engage constructively to ensure the difficulties are resolved as a matter of urgency so that Irish Rail can maintain and develop its services to the port.
The ultimate aim is that rail freight continues to be facilitated at Dublin Port in line with Government policy and particularly having regard to the strategic review of rail freight that is under way. It is acknowledged that freight by rail can make a significant contribution to climate action initiatives and tackling road congestion. As I mentioned, the Department of Transport, in consultation with the Department for Infrastructure in Northern Ireland and other relevant stakeholders, is undertaking a strategic review of the heavy rail network on the island of Ireland. The Department launched the procurement process in April and it is expected that work on the review itself will commence by the summer and take 12 months to complete. This will be one of the most significant reviews of the rail network on the island in many years and will provide a framework to develop a much-improved rail network in the years ahead.