Tuesday, 19 June 2018
Rail Network Safety
I thank the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, for coming to the Chamber to discuss this important issue of safety on our trains and in our train stations. I live in north County Dublin. We have six train stations at Balbriggan, Skerries, Rush and Lusk, Donabate, Malahide and Portmarnock.
I raise this issue because there was a report on RTÉ radio at the weekend. It outlined that there has been a 43% increase since 2016 in anti-social behaviour, assaults, intimidation, theft and aggressive behaviour on our trains and in our train stations. This has a devastating effect not only on the commuters using the trains daily but on the staff operating the trains and the train stations.
Representatives from the National Bus and Rail Union, NBRU, claim this 43% increase is just the tip of the iceberg and that incidents of assault, intimidation and anti-social behaviour are so frequent that people do not even report them. They only report very serious incidents. It is very worrying when the union representing the workers is saying that. Many workers have reported being kicked, punched, spat upon, having things thrown at them and being subjected to verbal abuse and intimidation. It is not on for workers to be subjected to that kind of treatment when they are trying to work and provide a public service.
That report I heard at the weekend reflects what I hear on the ground in my constituency. People regularly contact me about issues in train stations. Many of these issues relate to unmanned train stations or those only manned part time. It was interesting to hear on the radio report that there is no particular time of day when assaults and intimidation take place. It happens from early morning until late at night. It is not acceptable, therefore, to have part-time or unmanned stations. This report and recent incidents in Clongriffin and Malahide highlight the shocking state of affairs on our trains.We need to discuss the unmanned stations but we should also start a conversation and give serious consideration to a dedicated transport police service like they have in the UK. It is the point we are at. We have many people using our trains on a daily basis, including thousands from my constituency and right across Dublin and the country. These people depend on such services and they should be provided with a safe mode of transport. The workers need protection in the workplace. Dedicated transport police should have the same powers of arrest and detention as gardaí, and that would protect staff who must intervene to stop anti-social behaviour and violence. Currently, such personnel do not have powers to arrest or move people on as does the Garda. This would help and I want to hear the Minister's views in that respect.
I know a security firm has been hired by Irish Rail but it does not seem to act as a deterrent as we have seen such a large spike in this violent and anti-social behaviour. This just adds an extra cost to Irish Rail, which is not having the required effect. I would appreciate the Minister's views on that.
I thank the Senator for bringing this matter to my attention and I take it extremely seriously. The Senator and everybody else would have read the reports over the weekend and on the surface they seem very alarming. The safety and security of passengers and staff, including arrangements to deal with anti-social behaviour on trains, is a matter, first and foremost, for Iarnród Éireann with support, as appropriate, from An Garda Síochána. I have asked my Department to engage with Iarnród Éireann and the Rail Safety Advisory Council, which includes representatives from operators and trades union, to examine the evidence and explore the adequacy of current policing arrangements. Pending the outcome of this engagement, I will engage with the Minister for Justice and Equality, if necessary. Any such dedicated transport police that may be considered necessary would require primary legislation and additional resources. The dedicated airport police operating in Dublin Airport, for example, are authorised persons under the airport and aviation Acts 1936 to 2014. Under those Acts, authorised officers who are employees of the airport have a number of powers, including the power of arrest in certain circumstances.
There were 45.5 million passenger journeys in 2017 on Iarnród Éireann, the vast majority of which occurred without incident. According to Iarnród Éireann, the number of recorded anti-social incidents rose in the past number of years. In 2016 there were 492 incidents recorded, of which 12 were assaults on staff. In 2017, 705 incidents were recorded, of which 15 were assaults on staff. To date this year, 305 incidents have been recorded, of which five were assaults on staff. Iarnród Éireann has been actively encouraging employees to report all safety-critical matters, including threatening and violent behaviour, which may partially account for the increase.
Security patrols by Iarnród Éireann have increased by 21.8% since 2016 and the company has advised that it has enhanced general security cover and provided for enhanced security patrols for major events. Anti-social behaviour is a matter for An Garda Síochána which works in close co-operation with Iarnród Éireann on this matter. The company liaises, at a minimum, on a quarterly basis with An Garda Síochána in major districts to address trends and issues on an area basis. This allows for proactive planning for events and known recurring issues, such as summer beach days at Howth, Sutton and Portmarnock.
The response I was given is not what the Minister read so I would appreciate a copy of the response from the Minister. I am happy to hear that an assessment is being undertaken and on the basis of that report there may be the suggestion of a dedicated transport police. I would like to know the timeline. The staff and gardaí do their best in these areas but they are under-resourced. By the time gardaí come along to arrest somebody for assault or graffiti in a train station, for example, the individuals could have attacked staff members. The staff do not have the same powers of arrest and detention so this must be considered urgently. I ask the Minister to put a very short timeline in place. It should be as short as possible as staff and commuters need this.If we are going to have faith in our rail services, on which thousands of people in north County Dublin rely, then we need this looked at urgently.
I recognise the urgency but I am not going to put an absolute timeline on it because that is particularly difficult, especially if it was decided, and it has not been, that primary legislation would be necessary. The Senator can be reassured that the urgency is something we have already recognised. As I told her, I have asked my Department to engage with Iarnród Éireann and the Railway Safety Advisory Council to examine the evidence. Pending the outcome of this engagement, I will engage with the Minister for Justice and Equality, if necessary, and we will take any action which we think is necessary in the meantime.
Additional summer staffing is in place to enhance staff coverage. In addition, Iarnród Éireann has advised that it has outlined proposals to trade unions to enhance staffing onboard trains, with the deployment of full-time customer service officers across intercity services. This will mean that where currently trains can be driver-only there is a customer service presence - a deterrent to anti-social behaviour - onboard. Iarnród Éireann has advised that it is keen to secure trade union agreement to progress this and commence recruitment. The Senator can be absolutely assured that Iarnród Éireann, the Department of Justice and Equality and my Department will be extremely vigilant on this particular issue.