I thank the Ceann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to raise this issue on the Adjournment. I raise it because Iarnród Éireann on Wednesday morning last broke two sections of the Transport Act, 1950. Sections 19 and 21 of the Act were ignored by the company when it removed and closed the Limerick to Sligo rail line at Athenry, County Galway. This was in blatant contradiction of a commitment it had given to the Minister, the Taoiseach gave to the House last week and the Minister gave on the "Today with Pat Kenny" show on Monday morning that the line would not be closed. Despite this, on Wednesday morning it was closed in contravention of the two sections of the Transport Act, 1950, which state two months notice must be given of the closure of the line and that this must be published in both Iris Oifigiúil and local papers circulating in the area. That did not happen in this case. Iarnród Éireann is blatantly breaking the law by closing a section of the rail line between Athenry and Claremorris.
I also understand the company is trying to downgrade the line at Claremorris and that it would require significant investment were it to reopen at some stage in the future. Iarnród Éireann estimates the cost of reinstating the line at Athenry would be in the region of €750,000. However, if it were to upgrade the line at this point and provide for signalling, it would cost €225,000. The reason it is not prepared to reinstate the line is that it wants to predetermine the strategic rail review and close the line.
The company has physically removed the track to ensure it cannot be reopened to provide commuter and freight services. It is concerned that a private operator would provide freight services for companies such as Coillte which transports quantities of timber to Waterford equating to five trainloads or 125 trucks of timber per week. Iarnród Éireann wants to close the line to ensure this cannot happen.
The company claims the reason it is closing the line is an issue of safety. It wants to remove the turnout at Athenry. However, it is leaving one in place at the other end of the station for the line to Limerick. It is also installing signalling for the line to Limerick but removing it at the Claremorris end. It also states the line has not been in use for some time. However, the last train ran on it two years ago.
The company claims it is unviable to keep the line open. It is viable in so far as the timber Coillte transports by road to Waterford is concerned. The plantation where felling takes place adjoins the rail line. The timber could be loaded directly from the plantation onto trains with little cost involved. The company is concerned that a private operator would do this, which is the reason it has removed the line.
There is huge potential to develop the western rail corridor to provide inter-city services between Sligo, Limerick, Cork and Waterford and a commuter service from Mayo via Tuam to Galway city which would greatly ease congestion on the N17. The Minister gave a commitment on Monday morning that this line would not be closed, but it has been removed as of Wednesday morning. One of the key reasons for establishing the strategic rail review was to examine the feasibility of reopening the Limerick-Athenry-Claremorris-Sligo line. When the previous Minister with responsibility for this area, Senator O'Rourke, launched the strategic rail review, she focused specifically on the western rail corridor. With two months to the publication of the report, Iarnród Éireann has removed the turnout at Athenry which has effectively closed the line which would mean a minimum cost of reopening it in the future of €500,000 on top of the additional cost of the consequences of actions the company may take at Claremorris.
It is evident the company does not want to retain the western rail corridor which blatantly contradicts stated Government policy on rail lines, freight and the spatial strategy which identified Letterkenny, Sligo and Limerick as gateway cities. This line would facilitate the development of those cities and also has the potential to develop Knock Airport with a 9 km rail link which would make it the only international airport in the country with a proper public transport service rail link.