Wednesday, 28 February 2018
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, to the House. The Minister of State is very familiar with Sligo. I understand he has been in Sligo for nearly the past month. He has visited St. Angela's College and he also was down to launch the national development plan. The Minister of State went down very well while he was there.
This matter concerns the need for the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to ensure the necessary funding is secured to upgrade the Dublin-Sligo railway line to address the ongoing overcrowding and to improve journey times. If one analyses distances and journey times on the various rail lines around the State, it is clear there are issues to be addressed with regard to the Dublin-Sligo railway line. The journey time from Sligo to Dublin, which is a distance of approximately 207 km, is three hours. The journey time from Cork to Dublin, which is a distance of 267 km or 60 km longer, is two and a half hours. The Galway-Dublin route comprises a journey of 209 km and takes two hours and ten minutes. I simply do not understand why it takes longer to get from Sligo to Dublin than it does to get from Cork or Galway to Dublin, given that Cork and Galway are further away from Dublin. Even the train from Castlerea, Country Roscommon to Dublin takes one and a half hours less to travel a distance of 184 km than does the train from Boyle to Dublin, which is on the Sligo line and is a distance of 170 km. At a recent Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport, Irish Rail executives admitted they did not know why the Sligo-Dublin journey takes three hours. They agreed that three hours is a long time. This was in response to my question. At the meeting they said that unless we provide competitive journey times, people will return to using their cars and I could not agree more.
The other big issue is whether rail users are getting value for money. There is regular reporting of overcrowding on the Sligo-Dublin service and the question must be asked as to why rail users, who have spent hard-earned money on tickets, should have to endure these types of conditions. These overcrowding conditions could also have health and safety implications. I am aware that the service volume is increasing all the time and according to Irish Rail figures, there has been a 6% increase in passenger numbers on the route. In response to overcrowding, I welcome that Irish Rail has announced an extra service between Sligo and Dublin this year. I am not sure when the extra service is coming into effect but perhaps the Minister of State will give the House some indication of that.
I was in Sligo last Friday to attend the very successful launch of Project Ireland 2040, the Government's pan for the future of Ireland. The plan commits to maintain the Sligo-Dublin rail route to help ensure high levels of service quality, accessibility and connectivity. The plan also details that Sligo will fulfil the role of a regional centre for the north-west region, which I greatly welcome. We ensured that this was included. It is now, more than ever, that we need to ensure that sufficient funding is in place in order that this vital Sligo-Dublin line has the capacity to meet expected growth.
I thank Senator Feighan for the opportunity to address this issue in the Seanad today. The Senator will be aware the Government recently launched Project Ireland 2040. This plan includes the national development framework and the ten-year national development plan. The role and potential of rail is intrinsically linked to where people live, work and wish to travel and these very issues form the core of Project Ireland 2040. In line with the recommendations of the Department’s 2015 strategic investment framework for land transport, a continuing key priority for investment in transport under the national development plan will be to protect the quality and value of the existing extensive rail network.This will ensure quality levels of service, accessibility and connectivity to transport users. Prioritisation of this type of investment is also a key finding of the recent public investment management assessment which was conducted by the International Monetary Fund at the invitation of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.
The national development plan recognises the important role that rail can play in enhancing regional connectivity and commits to looking at improving journey times on the inter-urban rail network to improve connectivity. A contract is under way to introduce 28 rail carriages for the inter-urban rail network. These carriages are expected to re-enter service in 2019. Irish Rail and the National Transport Authority are also assessing the availability of additional fleet. This fleet could be introduced to passenger service on the rail network in the short term prior to the delivery of new diesel electric trains expected in 2022. This programme of new diesel electric trains would enable the enlargement of the rail fleet by approximately some 300 new rail carriages.
On the Dublin-Sligo rail services specifically, I have been informed by Irish Rail that the company plans to expand services during 2018, subject to the approval of the National Transport Authority. It is planned to increase services from seven trains each way daily to eight trains each way daily in response to rising demand. Irish Rail has advised me that while the vast majority of services on the Dublin-Sligo line cater adequately for demand at present, the trends clearly indicate that capacity will come under increasing pressure in the coming years. Already, Irish Rail has increased the capacity on selected services on Fridays and Sundays on the route. I will also ask Irish Rail to provide directly to Senator Feighan further details on the planned enhanced services.
The national development plan includes five-year multi-annual capital envelopes for the period 2018 to 2022 for all Departments. As part of the annual Estimates process, the multi-annual capital allocations will be reviewed and extended annually on a rolling basis to cover the coming five-year period. This will provide Government with an annual opportunity to review the allocations in light of any implementation issues arising or new priorities that may emerge as the national development plan is implemented. The NDP also commits to a full mid-term review of the national development plan in 2022 to allow Government to take stock of progress in terms of delivery of the planned projects and programmes and to allow Government to review and reaffirm its investment priorities. The review will be carried out to prepare and publish a new updated ten-year plan for public capital investment in 2023 covering the period 2023 to 2032.
I thank Senator Feighan for his interest in the matter. As I have outlined, the funding priority for the inter-urban rail network is ensuring that the existing extensive network is maintained to a high level to ensure quality levels of service, accessibility and connectivity to transport users.
I thank the Minister of State for his response. I appreciate the extra rail fleet coming online. We must try to address the times and the length of time it takes to get from the north west to Dublin by rail. The distance from Dublin to Roscommon town is ten miles shorter than the distance from Dublin to Boyle, which is on the Sligo line. It takes 50 minutes less to get to Roscommon town on the Sligo-Westport line than it does to get to Boyle town on the Sligo line, which is approximately a nine-mile shorter distance. We must get to work on the times because if we cannot get the travel time down to two hours or an hour and a half, people will not use rail transport and we are trying to get people to use it. I understand and I thank the Minister of State for his reply.
I will make three points to wrap up. I accept the Senator's points on the time issue. It is a very important thing for commuters but also for people going about their business. I will bring the Senator's views on the issue back to the Minister, Deputy Ross. I have been informed by Irish Rail that the company plans to expand services during 2018 and I will ask Irish Rail to provide further details to the Senator on the enhanced services so that he has an idea what is going on. The issue of time and efficiency is something we need to push to ensure the Dublin-Sligo rail line is very efficient and beneficial to all the community.