Friday, 26 February 2021
Covid-19 (Transport): Statements
I echo the comments of Senators McDowell and Ó Donnghaile when they talk about reimagining our transport system. We have an opportunity to do this post Covid and particularly post Brexit. I ask the Minister to be even more imaginative. Senator McDowell referred to hydrogen fuel, but we need to look at how technology is going to shape our transport networks over the next ten years. For instance, we have seen the use of drone technology in Oranmore to deliver food. We will see drone technology used to a far greater extent. I have no doubt we will see automated vehicles in place by the end of this decade. That will require much regulation on the part of the Minister's Department.The 6G technologies that are currently being developed will allow for the greater use of autonomous vehicles. The rise of 6G will also give the conspiracy theorists something else to complain about. It is important in terms of future-proofing the transport infrastructure in this country that we look at how technology will change what we are doing.
To come back to immediate matters, with the twin whammies of Covid and Brexit we have seen our ports come under a lot of pressure but Rosslare Europort has started to boom at last. I want to hear a commitment that we will move towards classifying Rosslare Europort as a tier 1 port and that it will get the necessary investment to allow it to continue to expand. Year on year, from January of last year to January of this year, the amount of freight passing through Rosslare increased by over 440%. Critical to that, and I ask the Minister this in the context of the review of the national development plan that is happening at the moment, is the completion of the M11 motorway from Oylegate to Rosslare. A previous Senator was right in saying that motorways make sense from an environmental point of view. We are now seeing trucks and lorries clogging up villages like Oylegate, Kilrane and Rosslare. It is adding time for our hauliers travelling to Rosslare and disturbing the quality of life in those villages. That as a priority within the national development plan is critical.
In terms of the development of the railways, I would also make the case for the much underutilised Rosslare to Dublin railway. Part of the problem is that once one gets to Bray, as the Minister knows, the main interurban trains have to sit behind the DART. That delays the trains and it remains a problem.
A big challenge to which the Minister made reference is around the delays in driving tests. Those who are waiting now for their driving tests have been waiting 30 weeks. I accept those with a job in emergency services are being given priority, but young people waiting for the test are prohibited in many cases from being able to avail of certain jobs and it increases their insurance costs. Insurance costs for young motorists are already prohibitive but they are waiting 30 weeks. There has been talk about getting additional testers and so on put it place but I am not satisfied with the response to date that, as we come out of this pandemic, we will be able to address that waiting list quickly enough.
On the tourism side, we need clarification around the issue of a vaccines passport. When we move beyond this pandemic and allow travel between countries to resume, we need clarity. It is my view that we should have an EU-wide vaccines passport. My concern is that different countries would try to adapt different measures or, in the absence of governments doing it, that private companies would decide to try to offer their own system of vaccines passports. I would not be surprised if Michael O'Leary, for instance, decided to try to introduce a Ryanair vaccine passport and I am certain he will find ways to charge for that. We need a clear Government position on this issue and it needs to be co-ordinated at a European level.
The Government's approach is right that it should be data, not dates, that determine when we get through this but we also need clarity on when we will be able to allow people to start travelling again. The pressure will arise once the elderly and vulnerable are vaccinated. People will start to ask why they cannot go and travel. This will be important to the tourism sector and to the public, who will be asking each of us in this House this question.
The issue around mandatory quarantining and so on is, to me, a logistics issue. I cannot figure out why it is something else that has been piled onto the Department of Health. Why, for instance, from a transport of view, can a tender not go out to tour operators? I refer to companies like Abbey Ireland and UK and others, who are professionals in terms of knowing how to deal with large groups of people coming into the country, getting off planes and getting to hotels. It is a very vulnerable sector. Why can companies like that not be engaged to manage this process? I am concerned that something as important as this is being shoved again onto the Department of Health when, in reality, it is a logistics issue.