Tuesday, 21 September 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
This important matter has been submitted by Deputies Duncan Smith, Ellis, Alan Farrell and O'Reilly. They wish to discuss reported changes in the national development plan, NDP, with regard to Metro North and DART+.
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte for taking the debate. With two Ministers in the Department of Transport, it is unfortunate that not one of them is here, but I look forward to the script they have sent. Hopefully it will calm the anger in the community, particularly in Swords, north County Dublin, which is based on the reports in the Mail on Sunday that metro north was going to be delayed by many years. There is such anger because over the past three years, and for the first time in this drawn-out process, the people in the town finally believed that something was happening. They were seeing ground testing works and over the past few months they were engaging in deep planning consultations with Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, on route planning. It felt that we were getting close to it. Master plans were agreed on the basis of this. This report has landed, and it has angered the community to a level I have not experienced.
I look forward to what the Minister of State will have to say. I hope this will turn out to be an unfortunate couple of days and that we can move beyond it. If it is not, then we are in major trouble.
Dublin Airport is one of the few large airports in Europe without a direct rail link to the city centre and its suburbs. The metro north project has a history of promises made and broken with delay after delay in its construction start time. Millions of euro have already been spent on consultations, designs, compulsory purchase and so on. Any further delays will add substantially to the costs. According to the Mail on Sunday, further delays are being considered and this proposal was brought to Cabinet last July. I ask the Minister of State if there is any truth in this and, if so, why it has not been made public by the Government. There must be immediate clarity on this as it is causing significant anxiety and confusion across north Dublin. It is a vital project for the environment and has the potential to remove tens of thousands of vehicles each week from our roads. It is also essential for job growth and will have a very significant effect on this Government’s housing proposals.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle and the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, for her presence at this late hour. This is a very important discussion following the concern expressed after the publication of the article on Sunday. While a great deal of clarity has been provided with the Tánaiste’s intervention this afternoon after Deputies Ellis and McAuliffe raised it on Questions on Promised Legislation, what my colleagues have expressed is completely accurate. Many people have put a great amount of time and effort, not just Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, but members of the public as well, together with public representatives of all parties and none, to get this project where it is today following the setback during the economic crisis. This project was put back on the agenda in November 2018 and has been progressing, albeit slowly, since then.
The disappointment expressed by constituents of mine and by those of Deputies Duncan Smith and O’Reilly in recent days has been quite remarkable. There have been, as has been mentioned, planning consents granted on the basis of the delivery of this project. There has been very significant public consultation and very significant housing planned across these constituencies and, as Deputy Ellis has pointed out, Ireland is the only country out of the 45 countries in the OECD that does not have a rail connection to its capital city airport, and that must change.
It is regrettable that nobody from the Department of Transport could be here but I thank the Minister of State for being here this evening. This project has been around for decades. There have been plenty of false dawns. When Fianna Fáil crashed our economy off a cliff, it was shelved and delayed. People have bought homes with pictures of the metro they might be getting on going past their door. They are now looking at their children going off to school in great traffic jams. This is not just about the MetroLink but is also about the DART+ extension out to Balbriggan and serving all those towns along the commuter line. You only have to look around - I live in Skerries - to see children queueing up every morning to get into cars and travelling miles as they commute. The M1 is like a car park in the morning. We need to be taking cars off the road.
I very much hope the Minister of State has something better to tell us than the Tánaiste did today because his response to the effect that he had read the story and he did not know if was true is not good enough. The story referred to discussions that have taken place at Cabinet. I hope somebody was paying attention and that that person wrote the script for the Minister of State this evening.
I thank the Deputies for the opportunity to address this issue in the House today. I am taking this Topical Issue matter on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and it is his Department that has written the script.
Improving public transport services and infrastructure is central to improving citizens' quality of life and addressing our climate action challenge. This Government is committed to a fundamental change in the nature of transport in Ireland. As a Government we need to provide more options to people so they can make the switch to sustainable mobility. Within the greater Dublin area, work on both DART+ and MetroLink is continuing so they can become part of those options. DART+ is a programme which comprises five different projects, each of which is moving at different speeds and is at different stages of development, while MetroLink is likely the largest ever public investment project in the history of the State.
I have seen the media reports of recent days and think it useful to clarify what the current position is with both of these proposals. Both face imminent and important milestones in the coming months and these milestones will determine the progress of each in the coming years.
First, there is the Government's approval of the preliminary business case and, second, there is the submission of a railway order application to An Bord Pleanála. There has not been any impact on either of these two very significant milestones over recent days.
On the first milestone, the Department of Transport has received preliminary business cases for both. This represents decision gate 1 under the public spending code and those preliminary business cases are under review. For major projects like DART+ and MetroLink, the public spending code requires a Government decision and the Minister, Deputy Ryan, expects to seek such a Government decision in the near future. If approved by Government, that will allow the contracts to be signed on the DART+ fleet and will also allow MetroLink and DART+ West move into the statutory planning system, subject to the completion of the necessary planning and environmental documentation.
The second impending milestone is the submission of railway order applications for DART+ West and MetroLink. Those applications require the finalisation of an extensive set of documentation, including environmental impact assessment reports, and work is ongoing on both projects.
On MetroLink, the Minister informed the House last week of his understanding that an extensive body of work remains on finalising the preliminary design, completing the required environmental impact assessment reports and closing out property referencing issues. The Minister stated his understanding that this work would be completed during the first quarter of next year and, subject to the Government decision I mentioned earlier, the project will then be ready to seek planning permission.
On DART+, the most advanced of the proposed infrastructure projects is DART+ West. The second round of public consultation on DART+ West is ongoing until the end of this month. Issues raised during this consultation process, including those raised by public representatives, will need to be fully considered by the company and appropriately addressed before they are ready to enter the planning system, and that can take some time to complete. Once that is done, and similar to MetroLink, DART+West will then move into the planning system subject to Government approval and finalisation of planning documentation.
It is the case that these two milestones, Government approval and railway order application, are the fundamentally important ones for each of these projects. I reassure Deputies that there has been no Government decision to defer construction on either project. The key focus at a project level is to get the necessary documentation finalised to allow for a planning application and the key focus at departmental level is to conclude the review of the preliminary business case. I am happy to confirm the work is continuing on both with important progress expected in the coming months.
I will mention two things. This decision gate 1 language was introduced in parliamentary question replies just before the summer. It is a nonsense. This is a political decision that was made a number of years ago. MetroLink is the only show in town and has to be delivered upon. The reply states that extensive work is needed on the railway order applications. It is not extensive. These are reaching their finalised stage if you talk to anyone in TII or the National Transport Authority, NTA. We are being buttered up by the Minister for this project to be deferred or delayed. You cannot bring millions of people in on the second runway, or build at Fosterstown and not have a MetroLink. Thousands of people cannot be condemned to the traffic and congestion on the M1 when we have a climate crisis and not deliver the MetroLink. It will be a complete betrayal of the people of Swords and of everyone who lives along that line.
I have taken into account everything the Minister of State has said in that we need the railway order and business case. These were all included to finish by 2027. The report we are getting is that MetroLink will go on until 2034. We have no clarity on that. The Minister of State has avoided the whole issue of telling us - I appreciate she is acting on behalf of the Minister - if there will be a delay. It is very clear from what she is saying and it appears to me that this is going to be delayed. That is totally unacceptable. I do not know how many meetings and consultations I have attended on this issue and I am now very sick over the whole thing.
I thank the Minister of State for her response. This project has been a long time in the making and it is very clear we are now at the very last hurdle.
Transport Infrastructure Ireland is almost ready to go to planning. My understanding is it will be in quarter 1 of next year. The planning process will take approximately 12 months and then the procurement process will take between six and 12 months. Something new was introduced in April of this year, in that the projected timeline for the construction of the process moved from six years to six to eight years. That is the expertise in TII speaking, as opposed to any political ambitions. I accept that if TII says it will take six to eight years, it will take six to eight years, but I will not rest until the Cabinet has approved this process, as was committed to and as all of us went to the doors in our constituencies, on behalf of the people.
The report in the paper said 2034. The response the Minister of State read out did not contradict that. For the people who are listening this evening and waiting to have this project delivered, all they have is the report in the paper that it was discussed at the Cabinet, the Tánaiste saying he did not know; he was not listening. I do not know what happened. The date is still 2034 and nothing the Minister of State has said contradicts that. All of the houses that are being built, dependent on this transport, and all the people who are living there and waiting on this can hear is 2034. The date in the paper has not been contradicted. I know the Minister of State is here on behalf of the Minister. I appreciate it is not her Department and I thank her for being here, but the response she has given will not satisfy the people we are representing.
They must have anticipated that is where Deputy O'Reilly would leave off, given the opening line of my conclusion. As I said earlier, there has been no Government decision to defer the project. With regard to MetroLink, there remains an extensive body of work in finalising the preliminary design, completing the required environmental impact assessment report and closing out project property referencing issues before the railway order application will be ready for submission to An Bord Pleanála. Aspects of this work were impacted by Covid-19 restrictions early in the year and it is likely to be quarter 1 of 2022 before the rail order application will be ready, with submission to An Bord Pleanála expected shortly thereafter. The submission to An Bord Pleanála will be a very significant step, but it is only after the project receives planning permission that we will be best placed to talk of construction start dates.
With regard to the DART+ West railway order application, issues are being raised as part of the current round of public consultation, which will require further consideration by Iarnród Éireann before it will be ready to finalise its railway order application. These project-level issues on the finalisation of the railway order application are, in many ways, separate to the Department review of the preliminary business cases. However, there is a link in the sense that Government approval for both projects will be required in order to allow them to move into the statutory planning system.
On the basis of the current timelines, it would appear likely the Government will consider the matter well in advance of the railway order application being ready for submission. I thank all the Deputies for raising it; the opportunity to address the House on this matter and for the ongoing interest in support of MetroLink and DART+.