Other Questions. - Railway Undertakings.

Helen Keogh

Question:

20 Ms Keogh asked the Minister for Transport, Energy and Communications the current arrangements under which competing operators are allowed access to the CIÉ rail network; the possible implications of this for the future viability of Iarnród Éireann; whether any approaches have been made by outside operators; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3864/97]

Under the terms of Council Directive 91/440 railway undertakings are entitled to limited access and transit rights across the frontiers of member states. The directive provides for rights of access and transit for international services operated by international groupings of railway undertakings and for railway undertakings operating international combined transport goods services.

The access provisions of the directive were transposed into Irish law by Statutory Instrument 204 of 1996. Two further directives have been adopted supplementing Directive 91/440. These relate to the licensing of railway undertakings, the allocation of rail infrastructure capacity and the charging of fees for infrastructure use. Both of these directives are due to come into force on 28 June 1997. The method of transposing these directives into Irish law is being examined by my Department in consultation with the Attorney General.

I am not aware of any approach by outside operators to provide services on Irish railway systems to date. However, whether other rail operators avail of access to the Irish rail network the fact is that Iarnród Éireann is certain to face intensified competition from alternative modes including the private car and private road freight and bus operators. It is essential, therefore, that Iarnród Éireann takes the necessary steps now to ensure it can meet this intensified competition.

Will the Minister spell out in clear terms whether it is possible under EU law for a third party rail operator to come here and enter into an arrangement to provide rail services on the Irish rail track in competition with Iarnród Éireann?

There are two answers to that question. The practical answer is that it would be very difficult for them to do so except from Northern Ireland because the gauge of our track is different from tracks in the rest of Europe. The legislative answer is that access and transit rights have to be given to international services operated by international groupings of railway undertakings and to railway undertakings operating international combined transport goods services. The Deputy will agree it is unlikely that anybody will be seeking transit rights across Ireland; that is not a matter that would concern us. A right of access for international services operated by international groupings of railway undertakings would be the most likely one but I cannot see many of those coming on the scene because of the difference in gauge between our track and that in the rest of Europe.

In practical terms the degree of access we have to offer under the directives in force is very limited on our rail infrastructure. The commissioners made it clear in the White Paper on the revitalisation of community railways that the degree of opening up access to other operators will increase over time. I expect, as the years go by, there will be further directives that will expand the range. Most of the practical effects of this are designed to meet the situation in continental member states where transit and cross-border operations are far more important than they ever will be here.

I am seeking to elicit from the Minister the real implications for Ireland of this new EU directive. Is there a possibility that Northern Ireland rail could provide services from places in the North into any location in the South under this directive and go into competition with Iarnród Éireann?

There are certain circumstances in which that could happen. As Directive 91/440 stands, we would have to grant limited access and transit rights to a railway undertaking operating international combined transport goods services. If a railway operator in Northern Ireland was operating an international combined transport service, that is, if it was taking charge of the movement of goods by railway from a point in Northern Ireland to a point in our jurisdiction and it was also operating another mode of transport to bring the same goods further, we would have to grant limited access.

Goods and passengers.

No, combined transport goods services. I am not aware of an approach having been made by any operator. This year we will have to transpose directives relating to the licensing of railway undertakings, the allocation of rail infrastructure capacity and the charging of fees for infrastructural use. I do not foresee in the immediate future that anybody will be concerned by that other than Iarnród Éireann but clearly there is a possibility. With the passage of time the degree of access we will be called upon to make available will widen.

Is the Minister carrying out a study on the suggestion by one of the CIE trade unions that the track should be taken into a separate company as part of the State infrastructure, thus opening up the way for alternative operators on the line? I understand one of the unions has put forward that idea and I ask whether the Minister has carried out any studies on it.

I have not carried out any studies and I am not aware of any study that may have been done but I will check on the matter. If one comes to light I will inform the Deputy accordingly.

Written Answers follow Adjournment Debate.