Seanad debates

Tuesday, 21 September 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Rail Network

2:30 pm

Photo of Emer CurrieEmer Currie (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for coming here today. I wish to discuss with him the DART+ west upgrade.This is an extremely positive and essential project. It involves electrification of the line and an upgrade to the DART network which will bring services from the city centre to Maynooth, serving places such as Ashtown, Coolmine, Castleknock, Clonsilla and Hansfield. Capacity on the line will increase and the frequency of service will increase from six trains per hour to 12 trains per hour in each direction. Of course, it sets Dublin up as a sustainable city for housing development and economic development. It will also address the issue of the cost of congestion. The monetary value of the time lost to the economy is €350 million per annum and could increase to €2 billion by 2033.

There were reports last week of potential delays to MetroLink and DART+. I am seeking reassurance that the DART+ west project will go ahead as scheduled, that is, with capacity and frequency upgrades in 2025-27. That is really important.

Progress is not always straightforward and this project will involve the closure of level crossings. The report states that the closures are essential but it is very difficult for communities to potentially have parts of the community cut off by the closure of the level crossings or to have big infrastructure coming into the area and having an impact. As such, it has to be handled sensitively and transparently.

The first public consultation was held from 26 August to 21 October last year. That was in the middle of level 2 and level 3 restrictions. Only one of the areas that I engage with really mobilised as a community around those proposals because awareness of them was low and, of course, members of the community could not engage with each other. They did so under a cloud of stress. Of all the consultations I have engaged with, this was the one about which people were most stressed about because they were not allowed to meet or to knock on doors. The awareness generated by the leaflet was not very detailed and the devil is in the detail. How does one mobilise a team in those circumstances? The particular community to which I refer did so and two options were added post the consultation. That shows the importance of two-way engagement.

I was hoping that the importance of two-way engagement would be taken on board as part of the second public consultation. Unfortunately, it was launched during the summer. It started on 27 July and was to end at the beginning of September. The consultation period has been pushed out to 29 September but only because a lot of fuss was caused. The people who were not as involved in previous consultations may not have known that it was likely that the closing date would be pushed out, as has been the case for other public consultations. The Seanad is only just back from the summer recess and this is my first opportunity to raise this issue.

Many in the communities affected are relying on people who own businesses in the area, such as Ashtown Stables, to act on behalf of the communities. This is a community that is just getting to grips with the changes that are being proposed but the members of the public who attended a public consultation meeting that was arranged last week were muted, so there was no facility for engagement apart from chat. I cannot tell the Minister of State how that made people feel. Many people in the areas cannot use the Internet to access information and they cannot meet up in the way they are used to doing. The consultation took place during the summer holidays and now they were muted for the second extended consultation. I would value the thoughts of the Minister of State on that.

Photo of Joe O'BrienJoe O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Green Party)
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I thank the Senator on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, for the opportunity to address this issue in the House. The DART+ programme will transform rail services in the greater Dublin area. It will double capacity and introduce DART-level all-day services across the network, stretching from Drogheda in the north to Maynooth and Hazelhatch in the west, with improvements also planned on the coastal line. It is important to note that the overall DART+ programme is made up of several projects, each at different stages of development and moving at different speeds.There are five major projects - DART+ west, DART+ south west, DART+ coastal north, DART+ coastal south and DART+ fleet. Of the various projects, DART+ west and DART+ fleet are the most advanced.

There are two key impending milestones. First, there is the Government's approval of the preliminary business case and, second, there is the submission of a railway order application in respect of DART+ west. On the first milestone, I understand the Department of Transport has received a preliminary business case and that the preliminary business case is under review, as required by the public spending code. For major projects such as DART+ the public spending code requires a Government decision and the Minister for Transport expects to bring the matter to the Government for its decision in the fourth quarter. If approved by the Government, that will allow the contracts to be signed in respect of DART+ fleet and will also allow DART+ west move into the statutory planning system, subject to the completion of the necessary planning and environmental documentation. The second impending milestone is the submission of the railway order application. As I mentioned, that application requires the finalisation of an extensive set of documentation, including environmental impact assessment reports. That work is ongoing.

In addition, Iarnród Éireann has been engaging with communities and stakeholders as part of the non-statutory public consultation process to better inform the development of DART+ west. Issues raised during this consultation process need to be fully considered by the company and appropriately addressed. This can take some time to complete. Following the first non-statutory consultation process on the emerging preferred route, Iarnród Éireann used the feedback received from citizens and public representatives to inform the design process for the preferred option, which is currently subject to another round of public consultation. I understand particular issues have been raised as part of this round of public consultation which will require further consideration by Iarnród Éireann before it will be ready to finalise the railway order. I am informed that the public consultation process is continuing to the end of this month. After that, Iarnród Éireann will reflect on the issues raised and consider an appropriate response.

These consultation processes have been held online as, obviously, they have had to adjust to the Covid restrictions imposed upon society over the last 18 months or so. There are those, including the Senator, who say online consultation is no substitute for in-person events. The Senator may well have a point, but the alternative would have been to postpone all progress on the project. I do not believe people were advocating that. However, I will refer the Senator's specific point regarding the inability to interact fully on the online forums to the Minister. Once a railway order application is made there will be further opportunities for citizens, public representatives and stakeholders to make their views known during the statutory planning process.

Projects such as DART+ are transformative because of the change they will introduce to our lives and I assure the Senator that this Government believes in properly and positively communicating that change to citizens and communities. I encourage everyone to participate fully in these consultation processes and in the later railway order process.

Photo of Emer CurrieEmer Currie (Fine Gael)
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This is about having confidence in the process. I agree that the restrictions meant that changes had to be made to the process. Irish Rail showed that it was listening to the concerns of Coolmine after the first consultation process. Although that has not solved all the problems, it has got us to this point. However, this is serious. People do not just want to know that one has listened, but also that one is listening. If there is a visible mute and a person is muted in a meeting where there should be engagement, that gives all the wrong messages.

The cost of making a submission on the railway order is €50. If this goes through in the planning application as part of the railway order, the community has to pay €50 for a submission. That is a huge amount of money. At present, the community is leading this, such as the people in Ashtown Stables, Navan Road Community Council and the community of Coolmine. It is too much pressure at a stressful point in everyone's lives, coming through Covid, during Covid and after Covid. The best thing to do is to extend this by another month and engage with them properly. If it is possible to do something similar to BusConnects, where there is a room that people can visit under Covid restrictions, with people fully vaccinated and managing the numbers, that might be a way to regain the confidence of this community.

Photo of Joe O'BrienJoe O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Green Party)
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I believe we can all agree on the importance of DART+ and the importance of improved and expanded public transport generally. DART+ represents the largest ever investment in our rail infrastructure and services.The Minister for Transport will soon bring a memorandum to Government seeking approval for that programme to enable it to move forward to the next decision gate under the public spending code. This will be a significant step forward. Along with DART+ fleet, DART+ west is the most advanced element of the programme and the Minister will seek Government approval for it to enter the planning system. DART+ west is fundamentally important to the overall programme and is the key enabler of the rest of DART+. This is why I ask all interested parties to engage with the ongoing public consultation process to inform and be informed as regards the preferred option.

Once the current public consultation process is over, Iarnród Éireann will consider the views expressed by citizens and public representatives before it finalises its railway order application. With DART+ fleet at an advanced stage and the progression of DART+ west ongoing, the benefits of the overall programme, particularly as regards the capacity and availability of DART services, will soon be evident to all. In advance of the Maynooth line, train users will start to benefit from 2023 from the arrival of new carriages to the existing fleet, which will also be warmly welcomed by residents in the area.

I look forward to seeing the DART+ programme progress in the coming years in respect of the development of and the progressing of DART+ west as much as, I am sure, the Minister and the Senator do. I will bring her specific request in respect of public consultation directly to the Minister.