Seanad debates

Wednesday, 21 May 2003

Strategic Rail Review Report: Statements.

 

10:30 am

Rory Kiely (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister.

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Minister, Department of Transport; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Members of Seanad Éireann for giving me the opportunity to speak in this debate on the strategic rail review report. As they will know, the review was completed on 3 April. I thank my predecessor, the Leader of the House, Senator O'Rourke, who, when Minister for Public Enterprise, commissioned the report. Under her leadership, substantial investment was made in the rail network over a five to six year period, to the extent that over 85% of the entire track network has been renewed. That was done at the specific insistence of my predecessor, who made a substantial contribution to the future of Irish railways.

I am pleased that the review has already created a good debate nationwide. I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate as I strongly believe in the critical importance of rail for the future economic and social development of our country. The strategic rail review is probably the most comprehensive, significant and rigorous analysis of the rail sector ever undertaken in Ireland. It is certainly the only major analysis of rail in Ireland that advocates the revitalisation and expansion of the rail network.

The primary purpose of the review was to provide the Government with a basis for establishing a strategic policy framework for the future development of the rail passenger and rail freight sectors in Ireland. The review follows on from, and complements the findings of, the national spatial strategy which was published by the Government late last year. Specifically, the consultants who carried out the work were asked to: prepare a strategic framework for future Government decisions on rail development in Ireland over the next 20 years; quantify the broad financial requirements necessary to implement the recommended strategy; and assess the costs and benefits of the recommended strategy

As part of the work on the review, an extensive public consultation process was undertaken and over 150 submissions on rail proposals were received. These ranged from upgrading existing services to reopening old lines. In addition, a number of regional workshops were held with interested parties, which greatly helped the consultants in their deliberations. It was projected that the cost of pursuing all the proposals would be in excess of €10 billion over 20 years.

The review recommends a rail capital investment programme, which would cost €8.5 billion over the next 20 years, and the Government has endorsed the broad thrust of the review's key findings and recommendations. While the Government views the report as a basis for future rail transport planning, the funding implications and the timing of delivery of various projects over the period of the review will require careful consideration in the light of Exchequer demands over that period. Consideration will also have to be given to the opportunities to use alternative funding mechanisms such as, for example, public private partnerships, development levies and so on.

The Government recognises that, over the 20 year period, flexibility and adaptability will be required in respect of the strategy to take account of emerging land use and settlement policies and practice, particularly in urban areas. In addition, the Government recognised that, in light of developing business cases for both passenger and freight traffic, it is possible that the rail investment priorities might vary over time.

I am pleased that the Government also endorsed my view that elements of the investment strategy should be accelerated over the next ten years in order to alleviate growing traffic congestion, reverse increased car dependency, maintain the competitiveness of the economy with a revitalised public transport system and prioritise balanced regional development. I have already established an implementation group, which has been charged with monitoring the implementation of the programme and reporting to me quarterly on progress.

I shall deal briefly with specific proposals in the review. The proposed investment programme envisages major development of the existing network of rail services from Dublin to Belfast, Cork, Limerick, Waterford, Galway, Sligo, Westport, Tralee, Ballina and Rosslare. The combined investment will enable the railways to make a major contribution to balanced regional development and to act as a safe and attractive alternative to the private car. The recommended investment programme would provide for much more regular services, more reliable timetables and a better level of comfort for the customer. Cork and Belfast rail services, for example, would have hourly high-speed services and the other interurban services would run at two hourly intervals when the strategy is implemented.

Given the scope for growth in rail demand in the greater Dublin area, the review envisages that Iarnród Éireann should be aiming at a "turn up and go" service on the Dublin suburban rail network. It also envisages that the four main rail corridors coming into the city of Dublin should give commuters the type of service that would make their travel more attractive, speedy and reliable. It is acknowledged that planning flexibility is required because of the need to respond to the demographic changes and housing development along the four rail corridors, which are the backbone of the suburban system, that is, the Kildare, Maynooth, north-eastern and south-eastern corridors.

Such demographic changes may well lead to changes in the timing of investment, particularly in the Maynooth and Kildare corridors. My Department will work closely with Iarnród Éireann, the Dublin Transportation Office and the local authorities on these issues with a view to maximising rail's commercial performance and exploiting the benefits of rail for compact urban consolidation in the greater Dublin area.

Arising from the public consultation process and the submissions received, the consultants considered a range of new rail schemes in various parts of the country. While I will refer later to two of them specifically, I will first make a number of points regarding the generality of these proposals.

Following the analysis undertaken by the consultants, the proposals, in the main, were not included in the recommended strategy. In most cases, the consultants concluded that after considering the patronage potential, population catchments and consistency with national policies – such as the national spatial strategy – the proposals did not warrant further analysis by them. The review recognises that it may be appropriate as circumstances change to consider such proposals at a later stage. However, the development of a sound economic case, backed up by the development of supportive land use and settlement strategies by the relevant local authorities, would be needed to justify further analysis being undertaken.

Turning to two of the rail proposals considered by the consultants, the Cork suburban rail proposals were examined by the consultants in the context of the recommendations of the Cork area strategic plan and a recently completed feasibility study. The positive feasibility analysis is grounded particularly on the delivery of the Cork area strategic plan land use development strategy because, without it, the financial and economic arguments for the rail proposals are significantly weaker. The Cork rail proposals also fit well with the aims of the national spatial strategy. The strategic rail review in general affirms the positive conclusions of the feasibility study and the Cork rail scheme is included in the recommended investment strategy. I am awaiting the views of Iarnród Éireann on the feasibility study and the strategic rail review with regard to the Cork rail proposals.

The western rail corridor is the term applied to the Sligo-Cork and the Galway-Cork rail proposals. The rail corridor was identified by the consultants as fitting in particularly well with the aims of the national spatial strategy. However, the review concludes that the proposals could only become viable if the relevant planning authorities incorporated the proposals into regional, county and local development plans and land use and transportation strategies. The viability of any rail project is critically dependent on it being supported by the adoption of suitable complementary land use and transport policies, otherwise there would not be the basis of developing sufficient rail demand to justify the very significant investment involved. These are the critical prerequisites that would first have to be taken before a detailed feasibility study could be undertaken. The appropriate decisions are ones to be considered closely at regional and local level.

Recognising that the western rail corridor fits in well with the aims of the national spatial strategy, I wish to be as helpful as I can in ensuring that the relevant authorities in the west are fully aware of these prerequisites. Accordingly, I have already announced that I will make consultancy advice available to the four regional authorities who would have a primary interest in the western rail corridor. This would be provided in the context of the development by the regional authorities of the regional planning guidelines, which is now underway throughout the eight regional authorities. I also propose inviting the Western Development Commission to participate in this process.

With regard to the relationship between the State and Iarnród Éireann, the review recommends that a clear mandate to Iarnród Éireann is necessary on its role in developing a railway suitable for a modern economy and society. Following on from the recommendations of the study, Iarnród Éireann – the Way Forward, published in July 2001, the review acknowledges that major changes are necessary within the company if it is to deliver on the proposed strategy. In helping the company to adapt to meet the challenges of the review, I will shortly bring to the Government proposals for clear and defined service level agreements between the State and Iarnród Éireann.

My Department and the company will now set about establishing a long-term framework for investment and financing in light of the need for enhanced revenue and reduced cost per passenger kilometre and the need to: promote service integration to encourage a modal use, particularly in urban areas; establish the rail freight business as a separate entity within Iarnród Éireann; and explore the scope for greater joint ventures and greater private sector participation in the area of rail freight in particular. I have asked Iarnród Éireann to come forward in the coming weeks with a plan for a freight business based on these recommendations and to take particular account of the European Union Transport Council directive, which requires the opening up of access to the rail freight market to international services by 2006 and to domestic services by 2008.

The recommended investment programme will cost €8.5 billion. It is clearly necessary to consider different ways of funding it, including public private partnerships and development levies. Iarnród Éireann is also considering how to process and progress the Cork rail feasibility study and I expect to hear from it shortly on that and other issues. It is anticipated that the investment under consideration will involve further upgrading of rail commuter services in the greater Dublin area, including: the provision of increased capacity on DART and out suburban services to Drogheda, Dundalk, Maynooth, Kildare and Arklow; improving the quality, journey times and frequency of all radial inter-city routes; upgrading rolling stock; additional improvements in reliability and safety; and improving station facilities.

The strategic rail study is a valuable blueprint and input into policy, which it will help to guide. I hope the revitalisation of the railways will continue strongly in the years ahead. In accepting the broad thrust of the review, the Government does not regard it as a set of handcuffs but an input and valuable guide into our consideration of the future of the railways. I have already made clear publicly that in many respects I do not consider it to be ambitious enough. There is no mention of TGVs or bullet trains, even in 20 years' time. In that context, I have said publicly that I regard the review as an input into policy.

I am pleased that the Government has agreed to my proposal that many aspects of the 20 year strategy would be brought forward immediately. The Government is currently investing €400 million the rail service. In the past five years, approximately €1.5 billion has been invested. I am pleased to inform the House that the budget for the next five years is also approximately €400 million per annum. This amounts to an investment of approximately €3 billion over ten years. We are doing this because we believe in railways. I am a great believer in developing the railway system. Some Senators, including Senator Mansergh, will recall my electioneering and campaigning for the reopening of the Harcourt Street line.

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Fianna Fail)
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Over 20 years.

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Minister, Department of Transport; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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Over the years I have tried to convince many Ministers with responsibility for transport of the need to reopen the line.

In considering the position of Ireland today and what it may be like in ten or 15 years, it is necessary to be pro-railway. Greater economic growth will lead to more car ownership and greater congestion. No matter how much is invested in the road network, it will always be a case of trying to catch and keep up with the growth in car ownership. It, therefore, behoves us to invest in the rail system for the long term, especially in the area of freight, which will lead to a reduction in the number of trucks on the road, and in the area of public transport.

I am also pleased that the strategic rail review fits in with the national spatial strategy, about which the Minister for Environment and Local Government has spoken. I also have a message for the local authorities. Senators will doubtless refer to lightly used lines and lines that should be considered for reopening. My door is open with regard to the consideration of these projects, but the local and regional authorities must take the tough decisions necessary to realise them. There is no point in approaching me with a request to open a railway line and then agreeing at a council meeting to rezone property 20 miles away which has nothing to do with the railway. Policies must be joined up and integrated.

Contrary to the recommendations of the consultants, I have kept the door open for communities, local and regional authorities and local businesses to make a case to the Government on any particular rail in a hard-headed way that will show the investment input from the private sector and the land settlement policies, including the planning and zoning strategies, that are necessary to make it happen. We cannot have it both ways. We cannot have a wish list which includes the opening of railway lines while making decisions which fail to support that goal. I send that message loudly and clearly to local authorities.

I do not plan to close any railway lines, but I am conscious that lightly used lines represents a challenge to the marketers. If Iarnród Éireann and everyone else involved wishes to keep lightly used lines open, they will have to do better than point to 20 or 30 users per day. Sleeves will have to be rolled up to begin attracting business on these trains.

I refer in particular to the track from Waterford to Limerick. I fail to see why two of our major cities should not be able to maintain a proper rail service into the future, but to do so is a major challenge for marketers in Iarnród Éireann and elsewhere. If Iarnród Éireann cannot do it, we should discuss the matter and examine our options, though I have enough trouble at the moment without travelling down that particular track.

I thank Senators for this debate. I will stay to listen for as long as I can, but I must depart in about 20 minutes to answer parliamentary questions in the Dáil. I will take careful account of what Senators say, but my message is straightforward. This is the first report to recommend revitalising the railways. Every other report recommended shutting them down in some way or other. I am pro-railways and I want to continue to invest in them. We will put in about €2 billion over the next five years. With regard to lightly used lines and the new lines we should continue to look at, the door is open but people should only come through if they have hard-headed proposals to make things happen.

Fergal Browne (Fine Gael)
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I wish to share my time with Senator McHugh.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach:

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Fergal Browne (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. This Government has a tendency to produce reports which it believes to be the end of a matter whereas in my view that is only the beginning. There is a great deal of fine information in this report and many ideas. I am impressed by the Minister's speech in which he has admitted that some parts of the report are flawed and can be improved upon. He says he will use the report as a guideline, but it will not be his bible.

We must remember that the 2002 census figures revealed that up to 70% of the population lives within 15 minutes drive of a railway station, which is food for thought for all of us. In 2002, €1.2 billion was spent by the NRA on roads, yet only €1.25 billion has been allocated to the rail system over 20 years for the Dublin area. We need to get our priorities right. We must examine the funding we provide to different infrastructural elements and question the value for money we get. We must be realistic. We cannot put railway stations everywhere, but while we depend on cars and roads, we should encourage people to use public transport as much as possible.

I am encouraged by the reference in the Minister's speech to the zoning of land, a matter on which everyone in the House will agree with him. However, I ask him to be helpful to the local authorities involved. He should issue a letter to the local authorities, many of which are compiling new development plans, informing them of his and his Department's viewpoint. He should encourage proper zoning in the context of existing railways lines. Without that encouragement, local authorities will be reluctant to zone in advance of the construction of new stations. The Minister might give a commitment that he will ensure the opening on time of a station if a certain number of houses are built in an area. That would be helpful and it would encourage better planning.

I am very encouraged by the references to freight services in the Minister's speech. When we previously debated the issue every Member was unhappy with Iarnród Éireann's attitude. The company has basically thrown its hands in the air and declared that the service is not working, but it has no enthusiasm for making it work. I appreciate that Ireland is different in that it is an island, but there is still scope to improve rail freight services. If Iarnród Éireann cannot do it, someone else should be allowed to have a go, which is why I am encouraged by the Minister's statement regarding the possible privatisation of the freight service. It is a step in the right direction. I look forward to returning to the matter in a few years' time to see that the rail freight system has been totally revitalised and that there are far fewer problematic heavy goods vehicles on our roads.

The Minister said there was no mention of French-style TGV or bullet trains in the report. Has the idea of night trains been explored? The last train leaving for Carlow and Waterford each evening departs from Dublin at 6.20 p.m. It is a pity and later trains should be scheduled. The train leaving Carlow at 6.30 a.m. is unheated and lacks catering facilities, which is horrendous in the middle of January when it is minus 10o outside and one is frozen and tired. While Iarnród Éireann has plans to upgrade the Carlow-Dublin line, Carlow should be considered in the context of the commuter belt given its proximity to Dublin. There is a huge population from Dublin living in Carlow now, among whom is the Minister's good daughter.

The Iarnród Éireann mentality about the purchase of trains is of concern. I do not understand why the company cannot consider leasing rather than buying trains as this could save money in the long run. The Minister made reference to private sector participation in freight services. Will there be private sector participation in the general management of rail services? Perhaps the Minister will expand his comments on those issues at a later date.

I would welcome a return to this subject in the House in one year as part of an ongoing review of this report and our rail strategy. We should not leave the matter at today's debate. It would be useful to examine how we are advancing rail services.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. I am delighted he indicated at the launch of this report that he was not handcuffed to it and that he reiterated that sentiment today.

If one were a tourist from America looking at the initial map in the review, one would think no one lived in Donegal. One would think the county was a vastly depopulated area like the Sahara or the Kalahari desert.

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Fianna Fail)
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The Senator should not talk it down.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Fine Gael)
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I am not using this as a political football and this is not a political bashing session. The Minister knows that 140,000 people live in Donegal and he knows its hinterland. He has three ministerial colleagues from there and he will have heard from them on the subject. I assume I am not telling him anything new.

We have an opportunity in Donegal. Under the spatial strategy, the route between Derry and Letterkenny is highlighted as a linear pathway with gateway status and a symbolic cross-Border project such as a rail service there must be included in the strategic rail review. It is imperative to adhere to the spirit of the Good Friday agreement and to break down every political and administrative barrier between Letterkenny and Derry.

The Minister is open-minded enough to believe that consultants should not lead this country. As he said in his speech, this is about economic and social development. As my colleague, Senator Jim Walsh, knows from living in Cavan, we have been suffering along the Border from economic, political and social partition. Talk about cross-Border and inter-regional co-operation is aspirational thus far. That would change with something as symbolic as a rail service between Letterkenny and Derry, which is not a new idea. That railway track existed in the past. On behalf of the people of Donegal and Derry and of the north-west region I plead with the Minister today to replace it.

People in that part of the country feel isolated. The citizens of Donegal are asking why they are not worthy of the same train service as people in the south. It is a case which deserves consideration. The European White Paper on transportation policy refers to the reopening of existing tracks, which is being done throughout Europe. It has also emphasised that there must be cross-border regional railway projects. Therefore, I am being parochial in this regard, but not without justification because I speak on behalf of some 140,000 Donegal citizens who ask why the report does not recommend that their area be tied into the existing network.

Some four months ago, Donegal County Council unanimously passed a motion on reopening the existing track between Derry and Letterkenny. A project team has been set up under the guidance of Mr. John McLoughlin, director of roads in Donegal, and there is massive goodwill from county council engineers as well as Donegal people from as far away as Switzerland, England, Scotland and America who wish to be part of the project. May people contacted me when this motion appeared in The Irish Times.

I plead with the Minister to follow his heart. He has indicated that he is willing to listen. This is not a party political issue, because the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy McDaid, the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Gallagher, and Deputy Cecilia Keaveney will all sing from the same hymn sheet. I am glad the Minister is leaving the door open and I will give him every credit in Donegal if he opens the door for this project.

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Fianna Fail)
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I join my colleagues in welcoming the Minister to the House.

I welcome the report and congratulate the consultants, Booz-Allen Hamilton, for what is a comprehensive document. It sets out an excellent framework for the development of the railways. I do not agree with every element of it and, like my colleagues opposite, I will deal with some parochial issues later. However, it represents a good discussion document and I am heartened by what the Minister has said in relation to its not being the definitive Government policy, but rather that it provides the framework.

I join the Minister in complimenting the vision and foresight of the former Minister, Senator O'Rourke, on seeking to redress the failure of successive Governments, represented by all parties, to invest in the railways. The decision of the then Minister has made it possible to move forward in the vein we have talked about.

The review is about the answering of four basic questions. What is the current state and status of the rail network and how might it respond to the developing needs and expectations? What role will rail play in the national strategic planning of the State over the next 20 years? The Minister has referred to this, as well as the innovations which are unfortunately not included in the report but which can be added at a later stage. We are looking towards 2020 and must ask where we can reasonably expect the railway sector to be as part of a modern European economy. The Minister has identified the projected increases in road traffic. Therefore, we need to strengthen the railways to ensure we do not have the continuous congestion we are only now seeking to grapple with. How will the railway network get to where we need it to be?

The document sets out a vision for the railways to provide safe, reliable and consumer-focused transport services in support of the State's wider social, economic, environmental and land-use policies. Services will be integrated with other modes of transport and will support the economic development of the State as a whole. As the Minister has said, integration is vitally important. The review provides the framework within which the Government can implement an ambitious and realistic programme for the future development of the rail passenger and freight sectors. It lays a foundation upon which we can build to revitalise the railways and plan a modern and highly-efficient transport system for the benefit of this and future generations.

The important thing about the review is that it takes the national spatial strategy into account and identifies the priorities which have been set as part of Government policy. As the Minister has said, it is vitally important that we do not develop a railway line in isolation. It must be done in conjunction with the development principles of local and regional authorities to ensure that whatever infrastructure is put in place, the relevant development plans are there to co-ordinate with it so that it does not become a white elephant.

The Minister has identified some of the areas in the report which concern me. From a parochial point of view, I wish to refer to the Shannon rail link. While the document clearly sets out that it complies with the vision of the national spatial strategy, it questions the level of usage of the link. This is an excellent opportunity to identify a particular project that complies with the national spatial strategy and, at the same time, to lead by example. This is a chicken and egg scenario, as so many of these development are. However, when the service is put in place, the business will follow.

It is recognised that any modern and successful airport needs to have a rail link. Shannon is particularly important because it is a gateway rather than a destination, taking in Limerick city and Ennis. Given the level of traffic that uses the area, it is critical that a spur be established there. Some of the costs are of concern but there are potentially ways around them. The scheme meets many of the criteria which the Minister has identified in terms of bringing local authorities on board. Clare County Council has come together with Limerick City and County Councils and they are enthusiastic supporters of the scheme, as are those who run the airport. They see the benefits associated with having such a rail link.

A consortium owns Shannon town centre and is investing €135 million into the redevelopment of the area. The consortium has indicated that it is putting together another consortium of the local authorities, the airport authority and Shannon Development together with a construction company, Beaux Walk Properties. This group plans to put a case to the Minister in the coming weeks in support of what it believes to be a viable enterprise.

There are some 300,000 weekly trips between the three centres of Shannon, Ennis and Limerick. Based on a projection of about 15% of that business transferring to the rail network, there is a belief that this is viable. The scheme refers only to the spur because the Ennis-Limerick line has been upgraded and considerable work is continuing on it, which has been helpful in assisting the commuter link between Limerick and Ennis.

There is a belief that some of the costs outlined in this document may be exaggerated, based on the need for more detailed planning locally and this consortium is putting that together. It will need some assistance from the Government and I hope that, when we discuss the issue at a later stage, those handcuffs will have been removed.

The Ballybrophy line, which takes in part of County Clare at Birdhill, is lightly used and, while it is not densely populated, the line picks up on a number of towns such as Nenagh, Roscrea and those in County Laois and onwards. Again there is a chicken and egg situation in that the report seems to indicate that there is not enough business there. My experience of using that rail link is that I am surprised there is any business on the line because of the lack quality of service, poor time-tabling, infrequency of services and the quality of the carriages. None of that encourages people to use the service. If there were some level of improvement in the infrastructure and service, it would attract more people since it targets the Limerick catchment area.

The Minister made specific reference to the western rail corridor, which is welcome. The Government is serious about its policies on balanced regional development and the national spatial strategy. As I said in relation to the spur to Shannon and the Limerick-Ballybrophy line, if the service is put in place, it will be used. The Minister's commitment to fund the consultants' study of the Cork-Sligo line is welcome. It is incumbent upon the regional authorities to become part of this. It is also incumbent on us, as politicians, to work together no matter what side of the House we are on. The level of interest from the Opposition today is welcome and the debate has been balanced and reasonable. If we can work towards these aims together with the regional authorities and local business interests which have something to gain, we will certainly see success. It is a matter of focusing investment in the west. If the infrastructure is put in place, with decentralisation policies that I know are under review in the Department of Finance, these services will be used.

The report is not negative. While I have identified some areas about which I am concerned, there is also much that is positive. The Minister talked about the hourly high speed services to Cork and Belfast, two hourly services on other inter-urban routes, more regular services and reliable timetables. These are hugely welcome because due to lack of investment during the years the level of participation in the service by the public was low. There was always a perception that the service was not good and that if one wanted reliability, one had to take the car. The measures outlined here and the investment identified will help to address this.

Kathleen O'Meara (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister and I am pleased he has given us this time. Did he say €2 million was being set aside over the next five years?

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Minister, Department of Transport; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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It was €2 billion.

Kathleen O'Meara (Labour)
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That is good to hear. Has the Minister secured that funding?

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Minister, Department of Transport; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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The funding is €400 million per year over five years. That is my estimate – it is not legally secured.

Kathleen O'Meara (Labour)
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It is clearly the Minister's intention to secure this amount. One must welcome his positive commitment to the development of rail services. It is important to clarify the amount of funding that will be available because the rail service, as we know, has suffered badly for many years from under-investment. In that context, the report is welcome. For the first time in a long time, it sets out the needs of the rail service as we move through the new century.

The context of rail has changed completely with the economic prosperity we have experienced over the last ten years or so but unfortunately this has not been matched in terms of investment. Now, not only is rail the poor relation having been starved of funds it is also simply not capable of meeting the demands of the economy. It is suffering from such serious fundamental problems that even if the investment took place, the infrastructure would not be able to cope. One of the useful elements of the report is that the issues – one of which is the manner in which Iarnród Éireann runs the network – are examined well and dealt with in a relatively positive fashion. This is essential because even if a lot of money is invested in coming years, unless we deal with the internal structure of Iarnród Éireann – how it is delivering the service – we will be wasting our time.

Recently I took the train from Thurles to Dublin. I do not, as a matter of course, carry a lot of cash around as I do not think it is a good idea. When I arrived at Thurles railway station, there was a queue at the ticket desk and by the time the train arrived I still had no ticket. I got on the train and when the ticket collector came around, I tried to buy a ticket with a card, only to be told that they did not take plastic – in 2003.

Photo of Séamus BrennanSéamus Brennan (Minister, Department of Transport; Dublin South, Fianna Fail)
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Was it a gold card?

Kathleen O'Meara (Labour)
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No. I wish I was in possession of a gold card but as the Minister might say, we are not there yet.

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Fianna Fail)
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When one owes enough, one gets a gold card. The Senator is doing well.

Kathleen O'Meara (Labour)
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It was actually a Bank of Ireland Laser card which could not be accommodated on the train. The trolley goes from one end of the train to the other but if one is at the wrong end—

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Fianna Fail)
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The Senator should have gone to the restaurant car.

Kathleen O'Meara (Labour)
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That is good to hear. If one is at the wrong end of the train, one cannot get a cup of tea because the trolley has run out of water. These are small examples. The staff of Iarnród Éireann are the best in the world and very accommodating but there are many issues that need to be tackled.

There is a need for the rail service to be upgraded and increased investment in rail to meet the economic needs of the country. Anybody who read the series run by The Irish Times recently on commuting, now a feature of many people's lives, will have noted the constant references to people's desire to use rail to get to work. Those who can do but a huge number cannot. Rail should be used much more in order to move our labour force around and ensure it is not spending 12 hours a day travelling, working and travelling home again. This has negative implications for their local areas, in which they are rarely present, and family life. I meet commuters all the time and they are under huge personal pressure. It is true that this has happened over a small number of years and it would have been difficult for any economy to have planned for it but rail can and should play a huge role in ensuring our workforce gets around in a more efficient fashion.

Like other Senators, I will speak parochially on the issue of tourism. Senator Dooley referred to the proposed Shannon rail spur which is referred to in the report as a development which would not only link into the national spatial strategy but also play a huge role in terms of regional development and the tourism development of the area. This project would have to be linked, however, to the enhancement of the Limerick-Ballybrophy line. The Minister knows of my interest in this – I have attended meetings in his Department on the matter and he knows that we have established a local partnership to deal with it. In towns such as Nenagh and Roscrea we feel very strongly about the importance of upgrading this line. The report states clearly, more than once, that it is lightly served but as Senator Dooley pointed out and as we have indicated to the Minister many times, one of the reasons for this is that the trains are so infrequent and unsuitable that people find they cannot use the service even if they want to. I hope that despite the fact that the report has effectively consigned the line to the bottom of the heap in terms of investment, the Minister will consider the value of developing it, particularly in terms of commuting to Limerick. Dublin is not the only city suffering ongoing problems because of the number of commuters travelling in and out every day – Limerick is having exactly the same problems.

Linked to this, however, is the potential for tourism involved in developing a link from Shannon to Limerick and on to the towns of north Tipperary. Tourists getting off the aeroplane at Shannon Airport could simply hop on a train and have access to the whole region. This would significantly enhance the potential of the region, particularly in the light of the difficulties being faced by the airport.

I point to environmental issues and concerns. Hardly a day passes in this House, particularly on the Order of Business, when the issues of traffic, freight transport, the number of heavy goods vehicles on the roads, the impact of traffic on people's quality of life, the danger posed by those now using the roads on a continuous basis or the environmental hazards traffic causes not only in terms of the level of emissions but also the difficulties being faced by those living in villages and small towns used as rat runs by heavy goods vehicles are not raised. Any of us could give a long list of the areas affected in the constituencies we represent. Rail has an important role to play in encouraging people to leave their cars at home, to travel by rail and reach their destinations faster.

The Minister referred – as is stated in the report – to the importance of having a policy on rail development in the context of an integrated ticketing or joined up policy. In that context, I point to the national spatial strategy, to which only some elements of the report are linked. If a hub was developed around Limerick, it would make a good deal of sense to develop a commuter line from Limerick to north Tipperary. Such a line would encourage development and greater investment, particularly foreign investment, in the area and take pressure off other areas such as the east coast and Dublin which are developing too fast.

I was disappointed that the western rail corridor did not receive a higher priority or was not singled out for investment. In the context of the national spatial strategy and regional development, the development of a western rail corridor would have great benefits not only for the region but also for the country.

Like others, I generally welcome the report but have a concern about the Ballybrophy line. I welcome the fact that the Minster has stated at meetings and in this House that he will not oversee the closure of any line. The state of the Ballybrophy line is such that it is, effectively, going nowhere.