Seanad debates

Tuesday, 21 September 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Transport Policy

2:30 pm

Photo of John McGahonJohn McGahon (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for attending the House. One of the reasons I bring up the concept of high-speed rail is that I have been a rail user for the past seven or eight years, commuting from Dundalk to Dublin. We have various issues with the rail infrastructure in this country. It is good to see a renewed focus from the Government in the programme for Government and in recent statements from the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and indeed the Minister for transport in Northern Ireland, Nichola Mallon, in relation to our all-island economy and a review of our all-island railway tracks.

Dublin to Belfast is about a two hour and ten minute journey, if you are going well. There are about eight direct trains between the two major cities on this island. For comparison, Liverpool to Manchester and Edinburgh to Glasgow are similar distances. They have up to 30 to 40 direct trains per day. What are the Government's plans for high-speed rail? How ambitious are we about introducing high-speed rail on this island? What do we see as some of the pitfalls of it? What lessons can we learn from high-speed rail on the Continent, in China, Japan and Spain? They have faced issues we can use and take into the report that is being launched by the Government. I am keen to know how long the all-island report announced in April by both Ministers will take.

As research and preparation for this Commencement debate, I spent the past day or so reading up on high-speed rail around the world. There are so many benefits. Clearly, there are environmental benefits. High-speed rail is comfortable, safe, flexible and, most important, gets people out of cars. It provides a safer transport alternative. The other issue is economic viability. The concept exists around the world that high-speed rail is a money pit but that is not the case. It has been profitable across the Continent and in Japan, which was the birthplace of high-speed rail in the 1960s. It creates jobs and provides a huge stimulus boost to local economies when it is being built. That is important to bear in mind. Naturally, there are energy savings associated with it.

By way of comparison, China has 26,800 km of high-speed rail, Spain has 3,100 km, Japan, 3,041 km, France, 3,220 km, and Germany, 3,038 km. High-speed rail provides a fast, reliable mode of transport. If we are to be serious about our climate commitments and the targets we have set for 2030 and 2050, high-speed rail has to play a part on this island. For me, that goes from Belfast, Dundalk, Dublin and then on to Cork. I would like an outline from the Minister of State and the Government of our views on high-speed rail, where we see it going and what we hope to achieve with it.

Photo of Joe O'BrienJoe O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Green Party)
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On behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, I thank the Senator for the opportunity to address this issue in the House.

The Government is committed to a fundamental change in the nature of transport in Ireland. As the Senator is no doubt aware, the Minister for Transport is a firm believer in the positive potential of increased and expanded sustainable transport options and the potential role for rail in that regard. The Minister has announced the all-island strategic rail review, which will be conducted in co-operation with Northern Ireland's Department for Infrastructure. This review will examine all aspects of interurban and inter-regional rail on the island of Ireland, including the Dublin to Belfast line. As committed to in the New Decade, New Approach agreement, the review will consider the potential for high and higher speed rail across various corridors, including the Dublin to Belfast line, and examine how to improve regional rail connectivity. The review will also consider the potential for rail freight on the island and examine the rail networks' connections to our international gateways, ports and airports. Another area of particular focus for the review will be examining the potential of rail to better connect the north west with the rest of the island.I am informed that the review has just commenced and will be completed by this time next year. I understand the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Minister for Infrastructure in Northern Ireland, Nichola Mallon, held a joint ministerial meeting with the consultants recently and both Ministers are hugely enthused about the review.

When completed, this review will provide the strategic backdrop to investment in our inter-urban and inter-regional rail network for the next 20 years or more and will be a hugely important piece of work. In the coming months, there will be a public consultation process as part of the review and I encourage everyone to make their voices heard during that process.

The review is not the only area in which Departments North and South are co-operating. As part of the development of the European Union's new PEACE PLUS programme, the Department of Transport, in co-operation with its northern colleagues in the Department for Infrastructure, submitted a proposal to expand and replace the existing Enterprise fleet on the Dublin to Belfast line. This is the largest single project included within the draft PEACE PLUS programme. Earlier this year, the Special EU Programmes Body proposed an indicative allocation of €165 million towards the project, which makes up almost 18% of the entire PEACE PLUS funding available over the period to 2027. The project will see the Enterprise fleet completely replaced and expanded and facilitate a move toward an hourly service, which I know will be welcomed by all who live along the route.

The final PEACE PLUS programme is yet to be approved by the European Commission. However, I understand there is optimism that the strong support shown from both Departments and the Special EU Programmes Body should assist with the project being included in the approved programme. The timelines of that programme mean that, if included, we should see the new and expanded fleet on the network by 2027.

I look forward to hearing the Senator's views on what I hope we can agree are exciting developments in the context of North-South transport infrastructure. The longer-term framework to be established by the all-island strategic rail review provides an opportunity for us collectively to develop a vision for rail's potential on this island, while the shorter-term investment planned in the new Enterprise fleet will enable more and more people to choose sustainable options when travelling between the two largest cities on the island.

Photo of John McGahonJohn McGahon (Fine Gael)
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That is a really excellent response from the Minister of State. I thank him for taking that to the House today. I will point out two things. We want to move towards an hourly service. That is exactly what we want to do and that is why it is so important that we have the review on inter-regional rail as well. For the Minister of State's constituency in north Dublin, the issue with the rail traffic coming from Belfast, Newry, Dundalk and Drogheda is the number of commuter trains that start in Laytown, Bettystown and Balbriggan. The problem is early morning commuter trains. Those commuter rails in the north Dublin and south Meath area block up the train line, which then slows down the intercity rail at the moment. It is, therefore, also about trying to resolve that issue in the wider context of this review. If we can resolve that, and one of the ways of doing so is through high-speed rail, it would make the issue easier for everyone involved.

The final point is that this is not just about providing faster commuter times from places like Dundalk or Drogheda into Dublin. It is about going the opposite way as well. We have very good companies and good jobs in the north east and if we can provide high-speed rail, we can attract people from Dublin out of our cities to live in our regions. That is the most important thing behind this whole debate.

Photo of Joe O'BrienJoe O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Green Party)
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I thank the Senator. Again, on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of Transport, I assure the Senator that the potential for high-speed rail between Belfast, Dundalk and Dublin will be fully considered as part of the strategic rail review. As mentioned earlier, rather uniquely, this strategic rail review will be conducted on an all-island basis, in full co-operation with our colleagues in the Northern Ireland Executive, and will provide a holistic overview of the potential of rail, not just on this particular corridor but on the island. Importantly, it will also identify how we move our inter-urban and inter-regional rail services off fossil fuels and towards a decarbonised future, as we must, by 2050.

Having recently announced Arup as the successful consultant, work has now commenced on what promises to be a very important piece of work, and particularly so for the Belfast-Dundalk-Dublin rail corridor. The Senator should be assured that in the meantime, there will continue to be investment in the rail network on this corridor, be it through the previously referenced PEACE PLUS programme or indeed, the DART+ programme, which includes electrification of lines and services north of Dublin to Drogheda.

In conclusion, it should be noted that an important element of new projects in the years to come, including any developing of the Dublin to Belfast line and services, will, of course, be the revised allocations, as will be set out in the new national development plan. In this regard, a strategic rail review will act as an important framework to take the new projects forward in the year to come.