Wednesday, 23 November 2016
I am delighted that a former Senator and colleague has been appointed Minister and shall take this important Commencement item. I commend him on the work he has done in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport.
Crusheen railway station is located on the western rail corridor. The number of people using the western rail corridor, specifically from Ennis to Galway, has grown in recent years. In 2015, 102,000 passengers travelled the route from Ennis to Galway. It is the highest number of passengers so far since the line was opened a number of years ago. Given the fact that parts of the line have been flooded, particularly from Limerick to Ennis, the number of passengers is quite impressive.
I request the Minister to outline when he plans to commence work on opening a railway station at Crusheen. There is an old railway station in Crusheen. There is a growing population in the area from Crusheen to Ruan and in the surrounding northern and eastern districts of Ennis that would definitely use a railway station at Crusheen.Many stations of this type are now automatic, as a result of advances in technology, so no human resources would be necessary. The more stations that are opened along any of our rail lines - and specifically this line - the more people will use those lines for leisure and to commute to and from work. I hope the Minister might have some good news for the people of Crusheen and the surrounding areas who are hopeful of having a railway station at some stage in the near future.
I thank Senator Conway for raising this important matter. He has made a very good case, within the context in which we work, for the station he mentioned at Crusheen, County Clare. I will begin by addressing the broader context of this issue. The Senator will be aware that submissions are being taken as part of the public consultation side of the ongoing rail review. If Senator Conway and others make the case for Crusheen in the context of the public consultation process, which will continue until mid-January, that case will be considered on its merits. As Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I am responsible for policy and overall funding of public transport. The operation of the rail network, including the stations on it, is a matter for Iarnród Éireann. There is sometimes an expectation that I can move in and build a couple of railway stations to satisfy various vested interests, but it does not work like that. Perhaps it should. I am not sure. At present, the operation of the network is left to a body which is not directed by politicians on a daily basis.
I would like to set out the background to the redevelopment of the western rail corridor, including the Ennis to Athenry line on which the proposed station at Crusheen would be located. In 2006, when a great deal of capital funding was available for infrastructure projects, the Government of the day approved funding of €106.5 million for the first phase of the redevelopment of the western rail corridor under the Transport 21 programme. This investment allowed for the reopening of the 36-mile stretch of railway line between Ennis and Athenry and the opening of six stations. The line was opened to the public in March 2010. In the business plan for the first phase of the western rail corridor, it was projected that annual passenger numbers would reach 200,000 by 2015. However, the latest official passenger numbers from Irish Rail show that just 102,442 passenger journeys took place on the line in 2015. I note Senator Conway's point that flooding may have caused a reduction in the number of passengers to be expected. After five years of operation, just over half of the passenger numbers estimated in the original business case have actually been realised.
I understand that Clare County Council granted planning permission for the proposed railway station at Crusheen in 2010 and that funding for the construction of the station was included in the predecessor to the current capital plan, which was to cover the period from 2012 to 2016. However, the station was not progressed for a number of reasons, including the reduction in capital funding for rail infrastructure that was required to support emergency funding for the CIE group in the 2012-2013 period. Although the case made by Senator Conway is a good one, he will understand that the development of Crusheen railway station was one of the many victims of the crisis of recent years and the lack of funds associated with it. He will be aware that Exchequer funding for public transport projects over the coming period is set out in the current capital plan, the transport element of which covers the period up to 2022. As I have said on a number of occasions, the first priority of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport within the capital plan is to ensure the maintenance of existing transport infrastructure, including the heavy rail network, at steady-state levels so that it remains safe and fit for purpose. Based on the funding allocations for public transport under the capital plan, we should achieve steady-state levels by 2020. This, rather than the expansion of the network or the opening of new stations, remains our focus in view of the current constraints on availability of funding.
Iarnród Éireann remains in a challenging position financially and has limited resources of its own to fund additional projects. The company has not made any proposal to the Department recently regarding the opening of Crusheen railway station. I will make inquiries in the next week about the Department's determination and whether it has received representations on behalf of Crusheen. The Senator will be aware that the Government has committed to review the capital plan in 2017. I am determined to make the case for public transport investment to be increased and accelerated as a result of that review to address our growing transport needs. If additional funds were to become available following on from this, there would be many competing demands within the public transport sector. All projects would be subject to robust analysis and would require strong business cases to justify their value and demonstrate how they would significantly improve the public transport system. I would welcome it if the case which has been made by Senator Conway this morning were repeated at that time.
As the Senator will be aware, the National Transport Authority is running a public consultation on rail in Ireland. As I have mentioned, it was launched last week with the publication of the 2016 rail review, which the authority undertook in conjunction with Iarnród Éireann, and the authority's consultation document on the role of rail in Ireland and funding its delivery. The public consultation process, which will give the public and all interested parties an opportunity to give their views and contribute to the debate on the future of heavy rail in Ireland, will run until 18 January 2017. The National Transport Authority will then prepare a report based on the findings. I intend to bring this report to the Government thereafter. No decisions will be made about the heavy rail network until the public consultation process has concluded and been evaluated. It would be welcome if the Senator were to contribute to that process by making a submission that includes the case for Crusheen.
I thank the Minister for his fair response in respect of this matter. Two major issues have challenged the railway line in question. I acknowledge that the projected passenger numbers did not materialise. First, the downturn in the economy affected all sectors of our society. Second, as the Minister correctly pointed out, parts of the line between Ennis and Limerick were closed for almost six months in 2015 due to flooding. That was always going to hamper the number of people using the line. I agree with the Minister that we cannot expand the rail network any further. We have to maintain and develop the current network. I would slightly disagree with the Minister. I am of the view that the more railway stations that are opened, the better because additional stations make our railway lines more accessible. I think Crusheen has a case to make. I will subscribe to the review. I encourage those who are promoting the need for a railway station in Crusheen to do likewise. As the economy continues to grow, I hope funding will be available to provide the people of Crusheen and the surrounding districts with a railway station.
I thank Senator Conway for his remarks. Now that he has raised this case with me, Crusheen will certainly be embedded in my mind when these matters are being considered. I might respond to his sensible agreement that a lack of funding has been responsible for many of the difficulties relating to our railways by saying we expect that the rail review, which has identified a funding gap of approximately €103 million per annum over a long period, will compel us to address the problem of underfunding. The funding gap has to be addressed by subvention or other means. The crisis with our railways cannot be allowed to continue in this way. This means that we must address the problem according to two criteria.One is the social need for rail and the absolute commitment of the Government to a very efficient and necessary rail network in this country. Whether that is done by subvention or value for money will be something decided when the consultation process is over. All I can say to Senator Conway is that no stations have been identified for either building or closure at this stage. That process will take place after the consultations are completed and handed into the NTA which will then report to us. It will put the case that Senator Conway has made for Crusheen in the mix.