Seanad debates

Wednesday, 21 May 2003

Strategic Rail Review Report: Statements (Resumed).


10:30 am

Tom Morrissey (Progressive Democrats)
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I compliment the Minister on coming to the House so quickly after his visit here last week. I particularly compliment him on his speech, to some aspects of which I wish to refer. On the greater Dublin area, he said Iarnród Éireann should be aiming at a "turn up and go" attitude. I would be pleased to see that happen as that is what is needed. When one considers the awesome figures about to be spent on rail, according to the report, one will have to ensure that not only will we pour money into the system but also that it will be reformed.

Senator O'Meara gave anecdotal evidence of her experience of using Irish Rail. The practice which has developed on the Great Northern Line since 1962 whereby train drivers leave a train at Connolly Station and drive another back leaving another driver to take the train to Pearse Street Station or on to Arklow will have to stop. We have been fed a diet by Irish Rail for the past ten years that there is a capacity constraint at Connolly Station. This issue is not addressed fully but skirted around in the report. I want existing capacity utilised before we start pouring millions of euro – it is questionable whether we have the necessary resources – into the system.

Platforms 5, 6, and 7 in Connolly Station are used as through platforms for trains travelling North to South and for the DART. A train from Drogheda arrives at the station at 4.45 p.m. and stops on a through platform for three quarters of an hour before another driver boards the train at 5.30 p.m. to take it on to Arklow. A train from Rosslare arrives at the station at 6 p.m. and stops at platform 5 until 6.30 p.m. Irish Rail has told us there is a capacity constraint in the station, yet 33% of its platforms are not being utilised. This can be compared to Dublin Bus parking a bus on O'Connell Street outside Clery's and saying there is a problem on O'Connell Street. It is an operational difficulty and I am delighted the Minister is present to here me say it. He has to examine the operational difficulties and management practices in place since 1962. I have spoken to Irish Rail on the subject. However, it does not consider it as an issue because this has been the custom and practice on the Great Northern Line since 1962.

I do not believe we will see the implementation of an integrated ticketing system based on my experience of booking a ticket by plastic card with Irish Rail. If we are to develop an integrated ticketing system as the Minister, other Members of the House and I would wish, the existing system will have to be addressed. If one wants to book a train ticket in advance by credit card, one telephones Heuston Station but the staff will not take the details over the telephone. One must fax them to Heuston Station where a staff member then faxes them to the offices in Abbey Street where the paperwork is done. They are then communicated to Heuston Station via telephone and a staff member in the station faxes the customer details of the reference number. One then collects one's ticket at the station. I had this experience, except that when my children went to collect their tickets they were not there. They were told to go to the back of the queue and buy more tickets. When I rang the station the following Monday morning, a staff member asked me what the trouble was given that my credit card had not even been debited and, therefore, what was I complaining about.

In an era when Ryanair and Aer Lingus can sell air tickets to Europe and elsewhere on the Internet, why can Irish Rail not sell its customers a train ticket to go even as far as Naas or Newbridge? These are the difficulties we have to address if millions or billions of euro are to be spent on the rail system. I would like the Minister to examine this matter.

The Minister referred to Dublin and the possibility of introducing new lines. To my knowledge, there has not been an increase in the population in the northern direction of the DART line since 1991. However, there has been a 40% increase in the population along the western line in the direction of Maynooth, Kilcock and Kildare since 1991. That is the direction in which resources must be spent. It is in Dublin that investment in housing and industrial development has been taking place for the past ten years.

We must bring into the equation Irish Rail's under-utilised capacity. I refer, in particular, to the tunnel running under the Phoenix Park. We are aware of the cost of building tunnels. A joint committee discussed the possibility of building a metro in Dublin. We have a tunnel with signals that is not being utilised. If we were to build such a tunnel, having regard to acquisition and legal costs, public representation and oral hearings, it would not happen for five or ten years and then at great cost.

We also have an area known as the Liffey junction in Cabra, which could have five platforms at the one level and which is completely under-utilised. It is the area where the Phoenix Park tunnel emerges. We have lines going to the docks, including Spencer Dock, which have been under-utilised for the past ten to 20 years. Irish Rail must examine its existing capacity and apply its management expertise to utilising it.

In the past five years we have spent more than €1 billion on public investment in our rail network under the former Minister, Senator O'Rourke. We have been told today in the strategic rail review that we will have to spend another €10 billion in that regard, which I am sure people will find staggering. We are aware that this type of money is not available. While such development is planned over a 20 year period, the country cannot wait such a period for a solution to the problem. We will have to decide our priorities. If we are to invest this type of money in our rail network and at the same time seek to invest in a metro for Dublin, we will have to examine how such a system can be supplied. We will have to seriously question the RPA figures and how it can come up with a figure of €5 billion for the line to Dublin Airport when a similar proposal in Madrid has been costed at a fraction of this figure. In Madrid more than 100 km of metro have been built in recent years. Using the Madrid model figures, we could have a Luas line all the way to Dingle. In this light, there is something wrong with the figures of the Rail Procurement Agency. We must examine the manner in which we carry out such projects and how Europeans carry them out.

One cannot question the Madrid model. The project was completed in the past five to ten years, not decades ago. Given that Ireland and Spain are in the euro zone and work with the same currency, there must be some other reason for the costs given to the Minister. I am delighted those involved in Madrid are coming to Ireland to speak to the Minister and his Government colleagues because we will then be able to compare and contrast.

The RPA estimates that the metro for Dublin would cost €10 billion –€13 billion if the extension mentioned in the strategic report was included. We know this type of money is not available. We will have to decide where our priorities lie, which might mean examining the feasibility of those lines beside which large populations do not reside and investing resources in population growth areas instead. With this in mind, the Minister will have to examine how Dublin is growing. I was delighted to hear him say that county councils would have to examine land use, by which I presume he means rezoning, and that, if railways were to be built, they would have to serve proper populations.

This has happened in Dublin 15, the Clonee area in west Dublin, out as far as Dunshaughlin and Kilcock. These are the areas for which I appeal to the Minister to bring forward proposals and for which the rail system has only been upgraded marginally in the past ten years by a twin track from Clonsilla to Maynooth. They need to be seriously examined with a view to removing traffic from roads. It is not sustainable for new communities to be established in west Dublin, on the fringes of the city where people have bought houses at exorbitant prices without a proper transport system being put in place.

I believe in the rail network as the Minister does. I was delighted to hear his speech. I favour his proposals for the break-up of CIE. We will need to see a "turn up and go" attitude implemented in the organisation if the Minister is to give it the amount of money in question. Otherwise, we will be back in this House in five or ten years' time equating the Department of Transport to the Department of Health and Children in that we will have poured millions into it and received nothing in return. Value for money and reform must be the Minister's by-words. I wish him well.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the review group's report. While I do not agree with all its contents, I certainly welcome it as a forum for discussion and debate on rail services.

I worked for a company in Waterford Port for more than 20 years. In that time we had a booming freight business. Two trains a night came from Dublin and one each from Cork, Limerick and Belfast. We also had links with Sligo and Ballina. Almost 30% of port traffic in Waterford was by rail. However, it became uncompetitive and almost all that traffic is now by road. This increases the volume of heavy goods vehicles on the road, which is not good for the environment or road safety. I would welcome greater investment in rail services, especially freight.

I welcome what the Minister said in respect of public private partnerships, that he would investigate the possibility of PPPs for freight, in particular. One of the major companies in Waterford is prepared to invest money in the rail network to improve services and links. That is the direction in which we should go. We should welcome private investment in the rail network.

Looking at the report in terms of the south-east, although it states the "do nothing" strategic option has been rejected, it is alarming that the Limerick-Limerick Junction-Waterford-Rosslare line is excluded from those lines recommended for investment. The only conclusion to be taken from this omission is that services along this line will cease over time which will ultimately result in it being closed. This is exactly what one would expect from a "do nothing" approach. Certainly the people in the south-east are alarmed and concerned about the report in this regard.

The Dublin to Rosslare line is also not included for investment purposes in the "going for growth" option in the review. This means the only investment proposed for the line is that which will maintain current services and networks, possibly with some improvements. With Rosslare being one of the major ports and key access points not only in the south-east but also the country, it is not encouraging to see this in the report. This part of the report should be re-examined because there is a need for investment in these lines and certainty that they will be kept open. It is fine for the Minister to say they will be kept open but we also want them operational and in good order.

In general, I welcome the report because it is a good vehicle for debate and we have had a good exchange of views on it. The company which compiled it is to be commended. It is obviously an expert in the field internationally. I welcome the report in this regard.

Regarding inter-urban routes, the Waterford to Dublin line needs to be upgraded. It still takes about two and three quarter hours to travel from Waterford to Dublin, which is crazy. There is a need for a two hour express train in the mornings, especially for business purposes. It is something for which the South-East Regional Authority, the chambers of commerce and local authorities in the area have pressed for some time. It is not very encouraging that it is stated it will happen some time between 2010 and 2020. Many of us will not be around at that stage. This should be expedited, if possible.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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I wish to share my time with Senator Kitt.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach:

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for attending. I know Senator Browne will be delighted because this is the third time the Minister has come to the House within a week. I also welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Callely, and welcome back Senator Cummins. It is good to see him back and, importantly, in a mild mood.

I welcome the review and the proposed €10 billion investment over the next 20 years. Unfortunately, we cannot use the pun "looking down the tracks" in my region because we do not have any. They were taken up some time ago, unfortunately. That said, I wish to concentrate on my region.

Of the 27 possible links examined in the review, three are in the Cavan and Donegal areas. The first is a track from Donegal town to Cavan and on to Dublin; the second from Mullingar to Cavan, and the third is the direct link between Navan and Connolly Station at a projected cost of €408 million. Unfortunately a feasibility study on this proposed route was not carried out because the Department stated that it was waiting for the spatial strategy to be announced. As that strategy was not announced in time, the study was not included.

In 2001, my colleague, Deputy Brendan Smith, Vincent Reynolds of the county enterprise board and Patrick Sexton, chairman of Cavan Urban Council as it then was, had a meeting with officials from the Department of Public Enterprise regarding a link from Cavan to Dublin. No funding was allocated at that time, the spatial strategy being given as the excuse. The spatial strategy has been published since this review and I am pleased that Cavan and Monaghan have been identified as hub towns in that strategy. It is worth noting that of the nine towns selected for hub status, Cavan and Monaghan are the only towns without a rail link. My colleague, Senator McHugh, referred to Letterkenny as the only gateway town that does not have a rail link. The citizens of Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal feel very hard done by. They have no rail link and must endure horrific traffic congestion in order to get to Dublin.

The BMW regional authority is very committed to the provision of a rail link between Sligo and Limerick via Galway and I support that proposal. In my county, there is an industrial rail line linking Kingscourt and Navan and I support the development of that line into a commuter line serving east Cavan and the huge population of the Carrickmacross area.

Senator Mansergh suggested that there should be support for a link between Navan and Drogheda in the first instance. I prefer to go with the Navan to Connolly station direct route if that is feasible in the short term rather than the long term. I welcome the review and I will insist on Cavan being serviced in some manner in the near future. I suggest that the Navan-Connolly station route is the most feasible and I urge the Minister to pursue that option.

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Callely, to the House. I am pleased the House has the opportunity to discuss the strategic rail review. I compliment the Minister and the former Minister, Senator Mary O'Rourke, on their investment in the rail infrastructure.

I am a member of the western inter-county railway committee which was formed some years ago. The honorary secretary is Father Micheál Mac Greil and it is chaired by a former Member of both Houses of the Oireachtas, Martin J. O'Toole. We have been campaigning for a long time to have the Sligo-Limerick line upgraded. We saw that as a Euro-route which could continue to Rosslare. We also campaigned for the inclusion of Donegal and the north-west. This report refers to the route as the Sligo-Cork line but whichever way one looks at it, it is a western corridor which must be supported.

I am pleased that the Minister, Deputy Brennan, seems to be more appreciative of the socio-economic value of the line than was the strategic rail review. The public reaction has been very favourable to the Minister's comments.

Perhaps the main achievement of our committee is that we prevented the lifting of the track which was contemplated during the time Deputy Brennan was Minister for Communications in a previous Government. That line is now a very valuable asset for the people and for the State.

The national spatial strategy has identified the hub and gateway towns, a good number of which are along the western corridor. There are three new schemes which could fit in well with that report, the Cork suburban, Cork-Galway and the Limerick-Shannon-Ennis lines. However, the report only recommends the Cork suburban line and that does not bode too well for the west.

Galway city has a very central rail terminus but there is no proposal to spend money on that line. It could be used to take commuter traffic into Galway, particularly as the trains coming from Dublin do not arrive at a suitable time for people from Athlone or Ballinsloe to get to work in Galway. I am very concerned about the Tuam line, where the famous film "The Quiet Man" was filmed. People from Claremorris and Tuam could use that line if it were included in the strategy and similarly from Ennis and Gort into Galway. The section of the line serving Galway city should be used for commuter traffic.

I am pleased that freight traffic is again using the line and this is very important for the timber industry. Timber is being transported by rail from the west and north-west to Waterford. If Iarnród Éireann is not going to provide this service then it should be provided by some other body.

I welcome the provision for expenditure on Galway station. The report states that €3 million will be spent on the line from Galway to Athlone some time between 2009 and 2014; I do not think we can wait that long. There will be an expenditure of €3 million on a bay between Athlone and Portarlington and a further €3 million on another passing bay between Galway and Athlone in the period 2015 to 2022. This House should request the Government, the Minister and Iarnród Éireann to spend this money earlier because none of us will be able to wait that long for development of the railway.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the report and I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I thank the Minister, Deputy Brennan, for introducing this debate. The report provides food for thought and it has generated much debate.

As other speakers have said, we cannot afford to wait ten, 15 or 20 years for some of those developments. The Minister said that it will cost €2 billion and that the Government does not have €2 billion at the moment. It would seem that they do not have €2 never mind €2 billion to spend on the rail services if we believe everything we read and see in the media.

I welcome some parts of the report which refer to the improvement of journey times and the upgrading of rolling stock, station facilities and customer services. Several speakers have mentioned the lack of dining-car facilities on some routes. When there was no competition on air routes, Aer Lingus provided meals on their flights but the advent of Ryanair helped to reduce the cost of air transport and we owe that company a great debt of gratitude. The majority of rail routes do not require the provision of dining-cars but rather a fast, efficient service. Many routes are within one hour travelling time of Dublin. Athlone, Kildare, Tullamore, Drogheda and Dundalk, parts of Wicklow and Wexford are all within one hour of Dublin and dining-car facilities are not required.

All the other routes, with the exception of the Cork route, take far too long. The route from Westport to Dublin still takes three and three quarter hours, even though we are grateful for the upgrading of the new welded line, which has been very satisfactory. Travel times must be decreased.

Senator Cummins said that the Waterford to Dublin journey takes two and three quarter hours. Surely if one can travel from Dublin to Cork in little more than two hours one should be able to travel from Waterford to Dublin in two hours or less. The Galway, Westport, Sligo and Limerick routes should all take two and a half hours. Some of the western trains to Dublin stop at every station. There should be no need for each train to stop at all stations. The last stop on the Westport line should be Athlone. The train should travel directly from Athlone to Dublin.

I was very interested to hear Senator Morrissey say that the majority of platforms in Dublin are under-utilised. Trains are standing on platforms at peak times for up to three quarters of an hour. Surely this is wrong. I agree that many lines are under-utilised. Before spending the amount of money the Minister mentioned – approximately €2 billion over four or five years – we must consider the management system within Iarnród Eireann, how platforms are managed and how routes are being organised. The travel times from Westport, Galway, Sligo, Limerick or Waterford to Dublin should be reduced significantly, particularly given the new welded rail lines which have been put in place in recent years.

I am very disappointed in the report on the western rail corridor. The Minister goes to great pains to explain that there will be an onus on local authorities and planning authorities to zone lands in areas where the rail routes will be. If one takes the western corridor route from Sligo and Galway to Cork, one must travel via Sligo, Ballina, Westport, Castlebar, Athenry, Ennis, Limerick, Cork and Waterford. All these hubs or cities are included in the spatial strategy and rezoning has probably already taken place in these areas. If this is what is being put forward as a way of blocking the western rail corridor from getting the green light, it is a non-runner. I am very disappointed because all the stops along this line are either cities, hubs or major towns. I do not think it is a basis for delaying the project. As Senator Kitt said, in some of these cases, such as the Galway route, one could have Claremorris, Tuam and Athenry feeding into Galway city. This would take a significant amount of traffic off the Tuam-Galway road where up to quite recently there were a significant number of fatal crashes. There could be a passenger route from there into the city. Another Senator said that a Shannon, Ennis and Limerick route would work well.

This report will be the death knell of the western rail corridor. It refers to local authorities playing a significant role in relation to zoning towns and cities but this is in place already. As someone who has been a member of a local authority for a number of years, I believe regional authorities have very little power, if any. The Minister attributed great significance to regional authorities who have primary interests in the western rail corridor. While this is the case in the broader context of expressing views, they do not have power. Regional authorities have no powers as planning authorities other than making recommendations. He said this will be provided in the context of the development by the regional authorities of the regional planning guidelines. I do not understand who puts in place regional planning guidelines. Each local authority has a county development plan, but I do not think there are any regional plans, unless something new is to be put in place. The regional authorities do not appear to have the power to put in place regional authority plans. Perhaps they will be given new powers that neither I nor other Members know anything about.

I am very disappointed regarding the western rail corridor. However, I welcome the report.

Photo of Marc MacSharryMarc MacSharry (Fianna Fail)
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I join my colleagues in welcoming the Minister to the House and in congratulating the Department and Booz-Allen Hamilton on the publication of the review.

The review sets out a solid and reliable framework for the development of the rail network over the next 20 years. There is no doubt it is a very comprehensive report. It is clearly the most significant review and rigorous analysis of the rail sector ever undertaken. It was the first major report in the history of the State to recommend the revitalisation and rebuilding of railways. For this reason, it has a valuable contribution to make to the debate on the future of the railway network.

The review provides the framework within which an ambitious programme for the future development of the rail passenger and rail freight sector in Ireland can be developed and implemented. It lays the foundation on which we can improve the current railway system and from this plan a modern and highly efficient transport system for the benefit of this and future generations. The review will facilitate the introduction and development of more regular services, reliable timetables, improved and accurate information and a better level of comfort for customers. It envisages major increases in capacity and frequency of commuter services and promises to ensure savings of up to 40 minutes on journey times on the main inter-urban routes by 2008.

Furthermore, the review outlines a clear investment plan which will involve upgrading the rolling stock and inter-city services, including additional rolling stock for commuter services. It will also ensure additional improvements in the reliability and safety of the rail network.

On the rolling stock issue, I ask the Minister of State to bring to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Brennan, that all the rolling stock purchased by Iarnród Eireann, consisting of approximately 60 carriages which I understand will be delivered in the near future, is bound for the Cork line. While I acknowledge it is a very busy line and worthy of the stock, the national spatial strategy must be taken into account in this regard. Other lines such as the Westport, Sligo and Galway lines must get their fair share of these carriages. I ask the Minister to take note of this issue.

I am pleased that the report opens up the possibility of involvement by the private sector. In light of Exchequer demands, it is necessary to consider different and challenging ways of funding such expansion, exploring options such as public private partnerships, development levies, leasing and revenues from property development. Other areas of the transport sector have already benefited from the injection of funds via the PPP mechanism. For example, I am aware of the signing of the National Roads Authority contract for the M4-M6 Kilcock-Kinnegad road project, which represents the first major inter-urban public private partnership scheme.

The introduction of significant private sector funding has ensured earlier delivery of important national roads schemes which would not be possible through reliance on Exchequer funding alone. By increasing private investment in this sector, we will be able to further improve the rail system and, therefore, alleviate growing congestion, reverse growing car dependency, achieve balanced regional development and, above all, maintain our economic competitiveness. It will also help to roll out planned developments in the rail network earlier than might ordinarily be allowed if it was solely dependent on Exchequer funding.

The report provides for the expansion of the rail network. It also clearly supports the enhancement and maintenance of existing services. I would support a strategy that would put this element of the project first. Now is the time to ensure existing services are improved and enhanced. It is vital that none of the railways is closed. The Minister is committed to this and we have a responsibility to support him in this endeavour.

I have a major concern, however. Although I endorse the broad focus of the report's key findings and recommendations as a basis for future planning in the area of public transport, I am concerned about its vision in the context of the national spatial strategy. While the review is intended to follow on from and complement the strategy, it does not fully mirror its ambitions in terms of balanced regional development. I am anxious, for example, that it does not take full regard of the pressing needs of growth centres and hubs identified in the strategy, particularly along the western seaboard. We must now take the next step forward and ensure these hubs and gateways are equipped with the best possible infrastructure. If we are committed to establishing balanced regional development, we must ensure train services west of the Shannon are not the poor relation of the rail network. The infrastructure needs to be put in place without delay. Only then will business investment follow. There is no getting away from this reality.

I support the western rail corridor and the many commuter services mentioned by other Senators. In my constituency we would like to see a commuter route between Ballymoate and Sligo in the fullness of time. There are other links, for example, to Cavan and Donegal, which we would also like to see in due course. However, the priority at this time must be upgrading what we have. It is no good having infrastructure capable of taking the Ferrari of trains when we do not have anything like the mini of the 1950s available, certainly in the case of the Sligo-Dublin line where basics such as heating, seating and the possibility of refreshments are serious difficulties.

I congratulate the Minister and those involved with the report and its publication. It has provided a vision for the railways over the coming decades which could elevate Ireland's train service to a world class level. I am confident that this can be realised but any resources which are available must be put into bringing what we already have to a standard consistent with modern railways in other countries.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Fine Gael)
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The strategic rail review report is comprehensive and took a long time to produce. Over ten years ago I participated in a protest march from Sligo and the towns on the Sligo line such as Ballymoate, Collooney, Carrick-on-Shannon and Longford. If that protest had not taken place and if 500 people had not come to Leinster House, that line would now be closed. No funding was put into it.

I am glad there is now a new line and that new stations have been opened. Unfortunately, however, the rolling stock on the line is deterring people from using it. On previous occasions I have complained that the rolling stock is 1960s Craven carriages and since last December have had to complain on ten occasions that there was no heat on the train. In reply I was told that there would be new rolling stock but that it would not be introduced for another five years at least. One can discuss consultants and their reports but if the basics are not provided, one gets pessimistic.

How many consultants has Iarnród Éireann used in the last three or four years? Did it employ consultants and when their findings were not what it wanted, did it get rid of them? I have a feeling these consultants were brought in to do a hatchet job on the western rail corridor. First, they got the mileage between Sligo and Cork wrong. Second, they produced exorbitant costs for trains. Six trains would have been sufficient for a commuter line between Galway and Sligo but the consultants say 15 trains and locomotives would be required. A job was done on the western rail corridor. People in the west believe they must have the same services as other areas and the same pressure will be applied in this regard as was applied to save the Sligo line.

We talk about infrastructure for cities and major towns. It is a great concern that the freight carried by rail is now carried by road. We need a system like that in Switzerland, where finance is taken from the national roads to finance the rail network. We would support the line. I would love to travel by rail to Dublin for these sittings. There should be a service we could take from Boyle at 9 a.m. and arrive in Dublin at 11 a.m. We would love to have a service that is available on the hour, every hour. It could arrive at six minutes past 11 a.m., 12 p.m. or 1 p.m. Most of the Senators, Deputies and others travelling to Dublin, however, cannot avail of such a service. It does not exist. I look forward to a progressive strategy but the service must provide value for money, heating on trains and trains that travel on the hour, every hour.

I welcome the report but there are flaws in it. Much has been done in the last ten years and I wish progress was quicker but it is not. Western development depends to a great extent on the railway lines to Ballina, Westport and Sligo as well as on the western line. We will be vigilant in ensuring funding is provided for them.

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome this study, to which I made a submission. In fact, I also made an input into Fr. McGréil's study on the western corridor 15 or 20 years ago, to which I am sympathetic also. I blame much of the under-investment in the railways on the attitudes of economists and economic institutes, especially those based in Dublin, who during the years were hostile and influenced Government and, to a degree, the European Union in a negative direction.

In the past 15 years, however, there has been growing investment. It first came from the European Union for the Arrow investment and then for the Dublin-Belfast railway. I greatly favour increasing co-operation with the North. Obviously, the next item on the agenda is to strengthen the Dublin-Derry link and in the long term extend it to Letterkenny. The report acknowledges that the railways in Ireland have in recent years experienced a period of investment activity unlike almost any other period in their history. Great credit is due to the former Minister for Public Enterprise, now Leader of the House, the Minister for Transport and the Taoiseach, who is very supportive of the role the railways have to play.

Choice and alternatives are vital, particularly when we are faced with congestion on the current scale. It is not just a question of how long a journey takes, but how best to use one's time while making it. I am a frequent user of the railways and I find I can do a lot of work when travelling by train.

The tendency in recent years was to run freight services down and that was a mistake because we will need all available transport systems. Almost all European countries allow open access, with state run freight trains and private companies using railway lines. I cannot see why that should not be possible in Ireland, even from a trade union point of view, given that it happens in so many countries in Europe which have social partnership arrangements in place. There is a considerable demand for it.

In areas where the business community and the community in general want a service, if financial input is possible, the Government should listen to their proposals. There are several examples of this throughout the State. The Limerick-Shannon-Ennis line has been mentioned and anyone who has experience of Limerick at rush hour will know that it is nearly as difficult to get through that city as it is to make one's way through Dublin. At the same time, trains are lying idle. Why can the Limerick-Ballybrophy line or the Westport-Ballina-Castlebar lines not be used instead of having trains lying idle until they are used for one or two services? There should be more intensive usage of trains and this should be done in consultation with local communities.

The Minister mentioned the importance of tying in rail transport with land use transportation. Cork is crying out for the Cork-Midleton line to be reopened because it is the linchpin for integration with land use transportation in the region. The requirements referred to by the Minister are already in place there.

I welcome the fact that the Minister will not close lines and I agree that there must be better marketing. Now that CIE realises that the lines will be kept open and not run down, it must make a better effort. I also agree with the point in the report about the DART and suburban services. There is no definite timetable in place and there is a worrying tendency, particularly since the Malahide and Greystones extensions, for trains to be cancelled without notice and this obliges people to wait for 20 or 30 minutes for a train. It is very unsatisfactory that this happens on such a service. The Department and the management of the company should pay more attention to the problems with reliability of service because they tend to discourage many people.

Some of the project engineering costs are astronomical and we should make better use of the current infrastructure. In many cases, a stretch that has already been upgraded, such as the one into Galway, should be used more intensively to provide a commuter service. I differ slightly from Senator Wilson in that I feel upgrading the Navan-Drogheda route could quickly provide a service to Navan, otherwise there would be a long wait for a new line to be put in place. The Senator also mentioned the connection to Kingscourt and, again, the line is there so why not use it? The Phoenix Park tunnel is crying out to be used. I do not understand why people want to build all sorts of other tunnels under Dublin when the existing tunnels are not used. People say that it is unacceptable that passengers would have to spend a quarter of an hour travelling to Heuston Station, via the Phoenix Park tunnel, to Connolly Station. Is that quarter of an hour worth billions of euro? We must make best use of what we have.

I agree with the Minister that the report pulls its punches in some respects. It is under-ambitious, but I am encouraged by the open and supportive attitude of the Government. Such an attitude should be maintained by all future Governments.

Photo of Kieran PhelanKieran Phelan (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister and the Minister of State to the House and congratulate them and the Department of Transport on the tremendous work they have done in the past year. The need for a dedicated transport Department has been vindicated by the tremendous strides they have taken on transport policy.

I welcome the main thrust of the strategic rail review, particularly with regard to its overall emphasis. I concur with the Minister, however, that it is not ambitious enough and I hope he will take this into account when deciding on future policy.

The Minister described the report as a road map and not a pair of handcuffs. I hope this is true because I am concerned about the call for the retention of rail links that are commercially viable to Iarnród Éireann. That standpoint casts serious questions about the future of the Ballybrophy-Limerick line. The report recommends against investment in that line, which could pave the way for its closure if such an approach is adopted by the Government. Such a decision would have a profound effect on the towns located along the line. As a representative from Laois, I am aware that any downgrading of this line will negatively affect the people of the county. We need to improve the level of infrastructure on the line because it will play a crucial role in rural development of this part of the country. How can we expect to implement the national spatial strategy if we are to remove one of the pivotal lines of infrastructure for such a large part of the country? We are not only talking about County Laois being affected; counties Offaly, Tipperary and Limerick will also suffer if this line does not receive the attention and funding it deserves.

The heart of the national spatial strategy is concerned with the development of gateways and hubs across the State that will help to arrest the growth of the greater Dublin area. With the rail network in the midlands in need of improvement, how will the strategy be affected by removing this key transport infrastructure? It will have a disastrous effect on it, as it will on the growth of County Laois.

By 2020 the projected population of the county will be 100,000. That level of growth is being encouraged by Laois's location in the midlands and its relative proximity to a number of large urban centres. If, however, this line is allowed to fall by the wayside, growth could be seriously threatened. During the past year, a national retail outlet, Brand Central, set up in Rathdowney. This is a national development that attracted 650,000 visitors last year and its projected figures for this year are over 1 million. Key to the delivery of this number of customers to the outlet in question is the fact that Rathdowney is only a few miles from Ballybrophy and, therefore, rail passengers from all parts of the country have a simple method of transport to and from the store. If there is no investment in this line and it goes into decline, what future will there be for that development? How many potential visitors will no longer have ease of access to the store?

What does the future hold for this part of the country? Laois, as a whole, is in need of increased investment, but this is particularly apparent in the south of the county. How can we expect large companies to come to this part of the county if we have not simple, efficient rail facilities? We cannot, so it is essential that this line is given the priority it deserves and that significant funding is found to make the best use of it. If it is not cost-competitive or commercially viable, or whatever phrase best suits the purposes of those who want this line closed, then we should do all we can to make it viable. We need to develop this line, not to turn away from it. How many times in the past have we seen rail lines shut down only for future Governments to lament such decisions? One does not have to look too far from Leinster House to note how the Harcourt Street line is now being used for Luas.

I have been greatly assured by the response by the Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, to various aspects of this issue, in particular by his statement that no rail lines will be closed. I pay tribute to him too for recently meeting public representatives, myself included, as part of the delegation from Laois, Limerick, Offaly and North Tipperary. The Minister was aware of the issues and suggested we form a working committee, to include an official from his Department and officials from Iarnród Éireann, to examine the future of the Ballybrophy-Limerick line. The issues include frequency, quality and speeds of trains. On parts of the line in question, trains travel no faster than 25 m.p.h.

I look forward to the findings of that committee. I congratulate the Minister and his Minister of State on the work they have done so far and I trust this issue will be resolved.

Michael Brennan (Fianna Fail)
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I too welcome the Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Callely, to this House. The review recommends the investment of approximately €8.5 million over the next 20 years. This will involve major capital funding in our railways system in a number of areas, from massive renewal through to the expansion of the network and increases in capacity and services. Such improvements are to be welcomed. However, capital investment alone will not deliver the vision of our rail system set out in this report. It is important that certain factors be taken into serious consideration. The national spatial strategy, national regional development guidelines and country development plans will have to be taken into account, as will our transport requirements over the next 20 years.

Contributions to the capital costs of our railways system should be broadened. New and existing commuter lines should be used as the infrastructure to service new and existing housing developments around our cities, and the suburban growth areas identified in various land usage studies carried out to date.

In my own area, the Mid-West Regional Authority sees the rail system as part of the vital infrastructure for the area's future development. The Cork-Limerick-Galway-west line, the Limerick-Shannon Airport-Ennis link, and the Limerick-Ballybrophy line have potential catchment areas to meet the needs of an expanding population growth in certain areas. Balanced regional development would justify inclusion of the railways at this stage, and from reading the report it is obvious that the existing population requires the structured development set out in the national spatial strategy. I ask the Minister for Transport to look ahead to the operational requirements involved in implementing that strategy, so that the strategic functions can deliver full potential. Considering the developments in the Shannon area, it is essential that the railway link there be included.

I agree with Senator Cummins regarding the public-private partnership usage of the freight lines, especially those linking to ports. I urge the Minister to further that proposal. Foynes Harbour too is vital to the west and to Limerick.

Brave decisions will have to be taken at Government level, and I am sure the Minister will look further than the recommendations in this report alone, and to other positive measures that will encourage more brown-field and high-density developments close to our railways, to ensure that the capital investment in our railway system is sustainable. There are many people with a role to play in order that the best usage of our railways can be achieved as part of the transport infrastructure to ensure that the future needs of our economy are satisfied.

At a time when our road infrastructure is reaching its limit in terms of the volume of traffic it carries, it is time to extend our vision to the railways. Train performance, service reliability, acceptance of the product available and the best use of our trains should all be provided at a competitive price for the consumer. The Government has a core role in ensuring that this happens. I wish the Minister for Transport well in his recommendations to Cabinet.

Photo of Ivor CallelyIvor Callely (Dublin North Central, Fianna Fail)
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On behalf of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, I thank the Members of the Seanad for this opportunity to address the Chamber on the strategic rail review. The Minister will give careful consideration to the views of Members. I also thank the Senators for the very fine contributions they have made to today's debate. It is clear that the issue of rail transport is a very live one in all parts of the country.

I will touch on certain comments made by Members. Senator Browne referred to the steering groups for the development of regional planning guidelines, and I want him to know that the Department of Transport is represented on the steering group. The possibility of rail-freight joint ventures will also be pursued, particularly by Irish Rail.

Senator McHugh referred to particular railway lines, some of which were considered in the course of the review. He also expressed views on business plans and appropriate land use and settlement strategies, views with which I know the Minister would concur. Senator Dooley mentioned the Shannon rail link, which will be considered by the Minister, along with the western rail corridor, a matter raised by a number of Senators. The Limerick-Ballybrophy line was also mentioned.

I concur with Senator O'Meara, and I know that the Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, would agree that there has been under-investment in the railways in the past. The Minister is determined to make a positive stab at catching up with the investment needed.

In relation to the need for improved services in the greater Dublin area, a matter raised by Senator Morrissey, that issue is addressed in the review, and other issues he raised will also be addressed. The review calls for the maximising of the full capacity available to Irish Rail, and this will be followed up by the implementation group.

Senator Cummins mentioned rail freight, the Limerick-Rosslare line and the Dublin-Rosslare line. I reiterate the firm commitment given by the Minister in this House today, a commitment he has made on a number of occasions, namely that no railway line will be closed. Senator Cummins also mentioned the need for major improvements on the Dublin-Waterford line. These have been recommended, and it is hoped they will proceed.

The rail proposals, particularly those relating to the Navan-Drogheda line and the Cavan line, which were mentioned by Senator Wilson, will be seriously considered. The western rail corridor was also mentioned by Senator Kitt, who quite rightly mentioned the regional authorities and the Western Development Commission. Senator Burke indicated the need to deliver quality services to Irish Rail customers, and I know that the Minister is keen to ensure this, as well as ensuring better time-tabling and shorter journey times by means of improved track signalling and rolling stock.

Senator MacSharry referred to the new carriages coming on stream. As I understand it, they are not all for the Cork line. As well as the 67 carriages already in place, 80 additional diesel cars will join the rolling stock this year.

I appreciate the points made by Senator MacSharry. However, with regard to the western rail corridor and putting an appropriate level of investment – approximately €500 million – in place, we will be obliged to look at settlement patterns, land use strategies and other such considerations. I welcome the Senator's acknowledgement of the Minister's intention to upgrade the existing network.

Senator Feighan complained about the fact that some old carriages are still in use. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, wants these to be phased out as soon as is practicable.

I acknowledge Senator Mansergh's comments on the significant under-investment in the rail network in the past and the need for appropriate investment. In recent years, the level of investment has been on the increase. The Senator also referred to joint ventures with the private sector, a matter that is being explored. I welcome his positive contribution.

I welcome Senator Kieran Phelan's comments on the need for investment on certain lines in the Laois catchment area. The Minister, Deputy Brennan, would be happy to consider some of the suggestions he made.

I welcome the positive contribution by Senator Michael Brennan. The particular line to which he referred, the Shannon rail link, will be considered in the context of the western rail corridor. A number of other Members also referred to this matter.

I assure the House that the Minister for Transport has a visionary and progressive outlook on transport policy. He is committed to putting in place a comprehensive and excellent public transport network. The Minister stated that the strategic rail review provides the most significant and rigorous analysis of the rail sector ever undertaken in the State. 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 rail services in Ireland.

In the course of the review, the views of all interested parties were considered through an extensive public consultation process. Now that the Government has considered the report and noted its valuable contribution to the debate on the future of the rail network, a period of further revitalisation and expansion of the railways can now be considered. The review provides the framework within the realistic programme for the future of the railways can now be considered. The review provides the framework within which the Government can implement an ambitious and realistic programme for the future development of the passenger and freight rail sectors. With the implementation of this plan, the Government could deliver a modern and highly efficient transport system which would benefit everyone.

The review will help the Government make the right decisions on investment. It is a sign of the Government's commitment to delivering an improved public transport system, that it has endorsed the Minister's view that elements of the review's investment strategy could be accelerated during the next ten years to meet the demands of our expanding economy and population.

With the establishment of the implementation group, there will be rigorous monitoring of the investment programme and quarterly reports on the progress being made will be forwarded to the Minister, Deputy Brennan. This will assist in the efficient delivery of an improved public transport system.

The Minister recognises the current realities with regard to demands on the Exchequer and appreciates this may impact on the funding and timing of projects over the review's timeframe. Bearing this in mind, alternative funding mechanisms such as public privates partnerships development levies and revenues from property development will be considered.

Previous Government decisions have resulted in considerable groundwork being made already on rail network development. To date, in excess of €1 billion has been spent on rail investment in recent years. The review provides a vision for the railway network which, in the coming decades, could elevate the train services and customer standards to world class levels. Among the benefits that will accrue from the implementation of the review are: hourly high-speed services to Cork and Belfast; two hourly services on other interurban routes; more reliable timetables; improved and accurate passenger information; higher levels of comfort for customers and major increases in capacity and frequency of commuter services in the greater Dublin area – a matter in which I have a particular interest –"turn up and go" peak period frequency on all four lines into Dublin city centre from Dundalk, Drogheda, Maynooth, Kildare and Arklow; the expansion of commuter services for Cork city; and major reform and restructuring of rail freight services.

Iarnród Éireann has been asked to bring forward a programme for the freight business based on the recommendations of the review. In addition, it will also present a prioritised investment programme for passenger services for the period up to 2008 based on the review's findings.

On behalf of the Minister for Transport, I thank Members for the invitation to participate in this important debate and for their contributions and attention.

Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2p.m.