Seanad debates

Thursday, 3 December 2009

6:00 am

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Dara Calleary. As the response to this matter will come from the Department of Transport, I would like to have had interaction with the Minister responsible on the basis that he made the promise to raise this issue, although I mean no disrespect to the Minister of State. I have raised this issue a number of times, including with Translink and Iarnród Éireann, from whom I got no satisfaction whatsoever. I raised it at the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and with the Ministers for Transport and Foreign Affairs.

The Enterprise train service is co-funded. The Translink website states that the flagship Enterprise service is jointly operated by Northern Ireland Railways and Iarnród Éireann and provides eight journeys in each direction Monday to Saturday and five journeys in each direction on Sundays. This was co-funded by both Governments and the European Union. It is a very important train service for us and a very good one. I might have put the kiss of death on it the last time I raised the issue because, subsequent to raising my concern, the Malahide viaduct collapsed and it was out of action for some time.

My problem is that if I go to the train station in Dublin, I will be charged €38 for a single ticket but if I go to the train station in Belfast, I will get a return ticket for £20 sterling. If this is a co-run, co-sponsored joint venture and a flagship project, as the Translink website states, we should not exploit the exchange rate and have differences in the price of this product.

Apart from anything else, there is the basic problem that no consumer information is given. Nowhere is it stated that people are being exploited. If I buy a cup of coffee on the train, it is £1.60 sterling or €2.40. Nowhere is there a sign stating what it will cost in the both currencies. I recently heard about a man who bought two cups of coffee and a muffin. He had £3.20 sterling and €10. He asked how much it would cost and was told it would cost £4.20 sterling. He offered the guy £3.20 sterling and told him to take the other pound from the €10 but was told he could either pay in sterling or in euro. He was told it would be €5.90 versus £4.20 sterling.

Today the euro-sterling exchange rate is 90.9 cent to £1 sterling. It has been in or around 88 cent to 94 cent to £1 sterling for the past number of months. It is quite unsatisfactory. People will say these are independent networks and they do not have a co-ordinated system.

I refer to a recent document on Translink. It stated that over the past year passenger transport in Northern Ireland has remained a real success story, that Translink's integrated bus and rail network now carries over 80 million customers per year, that customer satisfaction continues at an all time high and that through its Metro, Northern Ireland Railways, Goldline and Ulster Bus services, Translink has a focus on providing integrated travel solutions that are attractive, sustainable and good value. It further stated that the latest independent performance research for public transport released last month shows that Translink customers continue to rate bus and train services at an all time high, that on-time targets were exceeded throughout all services, that the introduction of more multi-journey and integrated tickets, such as PLUSBUS, continue to offer customers better value for money and more choice and that the challenge now is to keep investing in public transport and deliver services as efficiently as possible in order to be best value for the Northern Ireland taxpayer and encourage even more people to leave the car at home.

I ask that people are informed if they are to be ripped off. If the company will not do so, I intend to start a campaign even if I have to stand and hand out leaflets. It is totally unacceptable that one network, Translink, is winning awards for its integrated service and the way it treats its customer. Staff in Belfast have said that it is a train station and not a bureau de change when customers have offered euro. They stated they were using an exchange rate of 69 cent to £1 sterling. I raise this in the House as a last resort, not as a first one.

Photo of Dara CallearyDara Calleary (Minister of State with special responsibility for Public Service Transformation and Labour Affairs, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Mayo, Fianna Fail)
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The Minister for Transport could not be here this evening as there are a number of Cabinet meetings taking place today. He asked me to respond on his behalf and to update the House on the most recent discussions relating to the Dublin-Belfast rail link which happened on 4 November at the North-South Ministerial Council.

The council was briefed on the collapse of the Malahide viaduct, to which Senator Keaveney referred, its impact on services and on progress on reconstruction work which has since been completed. That has resulted in the restoration of services.

Irish Rail and Northern Ireland Railways are jointly working to regain market share. The council also asked both rail companies to explore options to improve the reliability of the existing trains in the short term. This is distinct from plans to expand the fleet size to allow hourly departures in the medium term or to potentially purchase a new fleet of high speed trains in the long term to allow a 90-minute journey time.

The current service requires 28 coaches plus six locomotives to sustain operations. Discussions have taken place about the best option available in terms of reconfiguring this fleet to give a significant improvement in reliability and the North-South Ministerial Council has asked that the financial implications of the proposals to improve the reliability of the trains on the line be reviewed with a view to putting in place a reconfigured fleet as soon as possible.

In regard to pricing structure issues, to which Senator Keaveney referred, the position is that the Enterprise service is jointly run by Iarnród Éireann and Northern Ireland Railways. Each company is in control of its own pricing policy. Iarnród Éireann's fares reflect the cost of providing the services from Dublin and all costs are calculated in euro. Due to fluctuating exchange rates between euro and sterling as well as the differences in costs between the two jurisdictions, it is inevitable that there will be variations in the relative levels of Iarnród Éireann and Northern Ireland Railways fares.

Against this background, the council was advised that it would not be appropriate to adjust fares to ensure complete harmonisation between sterling and the euro in the near future. There have been extreme fluctuations between the currencies over the past six months - a 12% difference between highs and lows - and there would be resource implications for constantly monitoring and changing prices to take account of these fluctuations. However, it is considered important that fares are stabilised at current levels to ensure that the focus remains on attracting passengers back to the service in the short term. The council was advised that harmonisation should be considered over a number of years.

In regard to the issue of information on pricing and exchange rates, I suggest that could be raised with National Consumer Agency with a view to it assisting the Senator.

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for his response. If it is acceptable to the Administrations, North and South, that people are exploited by 20%, I will go to the National Consumer Agency. I thank the Minister of State for his advice. One talks about a 12% variation but there is 31% differential at present.