Adjournment Debate. - Rail Transportation of Ammonia.

I wish to thank the Chair for allowing me to raise this matter on the Adjournment. In view of the recent tragic accident elsewhere involving the transportation of dangerous chemicals, constituents have expressed to me their anxiety regarding the transportation of ammonia from Cork to Arklow through Dublin.

It is my information that a special train carrying ammonia from Cork to Arklow passes through several towns, Mallow, Thurles, Portlaoise, Kildare and Newbridge before arriving at Liffey Junction. It then passes under the Phoenix Park, joins up with the Sligo line at Cabra and follows the line of the Royal Canal to Connolly Station at Amiens Street. From there it proceeds through the south side of Dublin along the Dart railway line, three miles of which is in my constituency, through Sandymount, Blackrock, Dún Laoghaire, Bray and Greystones heading for its destination at Arklow. In a more humorous vein it reminds me somewhat of the ritual that was followed in previous years at dockers' funerals in Dublin. Then the cortege used to pass every public house where the deceased person had been a customer before bringing him to his final rest.

I understand that three trains carrying ammonia make the same journey five times a week. Each one carries what is potentially the most lethal cargo ever to be transported in this country, namely, 150 tonnes of liquid ammonia. CIE maintain that when they first decided to carry ammonia in 1977 they were assured that the fire brigade, the Garda and the local authority personnel along the Cork-Arklow run would be trained and equipped to deal with ammonia spillage.

My first question to the Minister is whether this training has taken place. Are members of the fire-fighting services equipped to deal with the problem? It is my information that the IIRS were involved at the outset in a safety plan for the movement of ammonia and the drawing up of a contingency plan to deal with any emergency. My second question is, are the IIRS involved on an ongoing basis with such emergency plans? My third question to the Minister is, has an outside agency been asked to give its views on the transport of ammonia along the railway system I have outlined? How often are the tanks used, examined and overhauled for any deficiencies that may occur in them?

When this train transporting ammonia is passing through my own constituency it travels on the Dublin suburban railway which is equipped with one of the most modern signal systems in the world. In a letter from Mr. Conlon of CIE to the Sandymount Residents' Association dated 5 March he stated:

The possibility of accidents, i.e. collisions etc. involving this traffic is very remote because of the very stiff rules and regulations which apply.

The Chairman of CIE may be surprised to know that in the last week in March a car was trapped at the railway crossing at Sydney Parade Avenue. We had all been given to understand that these crossings were monitored from a centre in Amiens Street. Therefore the person watching the monitor could completely release the gates to allow the car out. However, in this instance that did not happen. It was only when a gentleman who was in the queue waiting for the gates to open got out of his car and used the telephone at the gate that the car was released. If the train was travelling along the line at that time, what would have been the consequences?

I am well aware of the precautions that are being taken with the local authority, the Garda and the health boards and also the regular discussions that take place on safety matters and emergency procedures in the event of a disaster. We all hope there will never be such a disaster, but no one is absolutely certain of the reaction of ammonia if it should hit the open air and even the best emergency services can only mitigate the effects of a major disaster. I am saying that even if all the contingency plans were perfect, it would not make one bit of difference in the event of an accident if the Houston disaster of 1976 is anything to go by.

This happened on the outskirts of Houston when a tanker penetrated a support column of a by-pass bridge, releasing more than 7,500 gallons of ammonia. It spread within three minutes over a radius of 1,000 feet and after a mere five minutes all the liquid had boiled off into a vapour so that there was nothing left to spray down. The fumes quickly penetrated buildings and cars in the form of a mist. People trying to escape from confined areas were exposed to even higher ammonia levels. Within a 200 feet radius of the initial release six people died and 78 more were hospitalised, having inhaled ammonia.

I sincerely hope that this would never happen here but, if it did, precautions such as water sprays, gas masks and so on would not be of much help. One must always eliminate the slightest possibility of its happening. For instance, who, sitting in the stand at Bradford Football grounds last Saturday, could have realised that within a matter of minutes the whole place would be a blazing inferno?

I am raising this issue this evening in an endeavour to have the Minister reexamine the route this ammonia train takes. It is ridiculous that this dangerous cargo is hawked around the network I outlined earlier through densely populated areas, Dublin in particular. Surely there are simpler and safer ways of having it transported from Cork to Arklow? For example, what are the possibilities of its being transported by sea or having an alternative rail route through less densely populated areas? Such would be well worth considering, because it must be remembered that the consideration of alternatives after a tragic accident is useless.

I can assure the Deputy that the safety arrangements involved in the carriage by CIE of ammonia by rail from Cork to Arklow via Dublin conform to the international arrangements for the carriage of dangerous goods by rail. This position also obtains in the carriage of the only other dangerous chemicals transported by rail by CIE, namely, acrylonitrile and methyl acrylate from Dublin to Ballina.

The chemicals are carried in train loads in tank wagons and tank containers. The trains are operated to special operating instructions and all persons concerned in the operations are given special training. The tank wagons and tank containers are specially designed and constructed to stringent specifications to withstand very heavy impacts. Before they are entered into service, they are required to be approved by a competent authority. In most cases Lloyd's of London are the authority while in some instances Bureau Veritas of Paris fulfil that function. The containers must be maintained and inspected to strict standards while in service and be periodically checked by the competent authority. The IIRS have also recently been involved in tank inspections.

Because of the stringent requirements it is considered that, in the event of an accident involving these trains, the odds are against these tank wagons or tank containers being damaged to the extent that a leak of the chemicals would occur. The rupture of a container is similarly considered to be unlikely.

Notwithstanding the special nature of the equipment and arrangements used for transporting the chemicals, in view of the likely effects of a major accident, a scheme for co-ordination of emergency services was drawn up under the aegis of my Department to deal with accident situations. The scheme covers CIE, the Garda Síochána, the services of the local authorities and the health boards, the helicopter squadron of the Army Air Corps, harbour authorities, the ESB and organisations forwarding, receiving or using dangerous substances.

The scheme outlines the procedure, duties and responsibilities for the various services and organisations for the duration of the emergency. Each service would discharge its functions at an incident, subject to the provisions made in the scheme for overall control. The local authority services, the health boards and ambulance services would take action within the scheme in accordance with their emergency plans.

Alternative methods of transport of ammonia, including a rail route not passing through Dublin, between Cork and Arklow were considered at the time the scheme was being drawn up. Taking all factors into account, including safety, the route through Dublin was considered best.

CIE have recently submitted draft bylaws to the Department of Labour in relation to the conveying, loading and unloading of dangerous substances in accordance with the Dangerous Substances Act, 1972. When the draft bylaws have been approved by the Department of Labour they will be submitted to my Department for confirmation, and in the meantime CIE are complying with them.

I can appreciate the concern of the Deputy and of people generally about the transport of chemicals by rail. However, every conceivable step is taken to ensure the safe carriage of the chemicals by rail and to eliminate in so far as humanly possible all potential accident risks.

In view of the fact that the Deputy raised this question here this evening I will ask my rail inspector to look at this route again in order to ascertain if there is any better and safer route than the one at present used.

May I ask a question?

The Deputy can ask one question.

Was there a leakage at Mallow or some other place in Cork on this route at any time?

At Charleville.

As the Deputy is probably aware, I answered questions in the House on that subject some months ago. There was a valve leak in one train which was quickly spotted and put right.

Am I in order in asking a question?

Would the Minister consider a sea route as a possibility which would be safer rather than a rail one.

Well, I am the Minister for Communications with responsibility for railways. I do not have any responsibility in deciding how these items are transported. Certainly we have a function to ensure that the transport arrangements are as safe as possible and I want to assure the House that we have done so in this case.

The Dáil adjourned at 11 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 16 May 1985.