I thank Deputies for their varied and interesting contributions. The Minister for Transport is pleased that the House takes such a keen interest in the safety of our railways, a subject on which he feels very strongly. I will respond to some of the issues raised by Deputies in a moment, but before doing so, I re-iterate the point that this Bill provides a modern regulatory framework for a modern railway transport network which should serve us well for many years to come.
The principal feature of the legislation is the creation of an independent railway safety regulator – the Railway Safety Commission – and its provisions will apply to passenger and freight operations. The Bill does not apply to industrial railways, such as the Bord na Móna network, except in so far as they interface with public roads or other railways. From an occupational safety perspective, industrial railways will continue to be the responsibility of the Health and Safety Authority. The Railway Safety Commission will have a wide-ranging remit to ensure safe operations by railway companies and will be given extensive powers to carry out its functions. These powers will be similar to those available to the Health and Safety Authority with which the Department of Transport is consulting to agree a memorandum of understanding to ensure maximum co-operation.
The commission is to be given the necessary teeth to enforce compliance with the provisions of the Bill through the issue of statutory enforcement notices. The Bill also provides for the prosecution of offences with penalties of up to €500,000. The Minister notes Deputy Naughten's comments and expresses his confidence that the commission and the DPP will not be slow to prosecute under this Bill. The Minister is also open to considering including more offences or increased penalties on Committee Stage. The Minister shares the concerns expressed by Deputies Breen and Dennehy regarding the danger posed to the safety of our railways by vandals, but notes that the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997 provides for terms of imprisonment of up to seven years for endangering a railway in this way. If vandalism were to cause a death, a charge of manslaughter, which carries more severe penalties, could be brought.
An important function of the Railway Safety Commission will be the investigation of railway accidents. Discussion is taking place of a draft EU directive proposing that such accident investigations be carried out by a national body independent of the safety regulator. These talks are at an advanced stage and there are varying opinions on the issue. Depending on the outcome of these discussions, the Minister may refer to this issue on Committee Stage. The Bill seeks to provide the new commission with significant investigative powers and to give it discretion regarding which incidents it chooses to examine. Further consideration is being given to the need to require the commission to investigate certain types of incident. Deputy Shortall stated that the Bill makes no provision for representation of employees being interviewed by the commission as part of the investigation of a railway incident. Section 70 of the Bill addresses this issue, but leaves the issue of representation at the discretion of the inspector conducting the investigation.
Several Deputies commented on the safety of level crossings, with Deputy Naughten commenting on a number of specific sites. Iarnród Éireann has carried out significant works on level crossings over the past four years. Since 1999, the company has invested some €64 million of Exchequer funds under the railway safety programme to permanently close or upgrade some 260 high-risk level crossings and a substantial number of low-risk crossings. For Deputy Naughten's information, a compulsory purchase order has been drafted by Iarnród Éireann with regard to Woodfarm to facilitate construction of a bridge to replace the existing level crossing. Pending this work, the views and surface at the level crossing have been improved and Iarnród Éireann has written again to its regular users to remind them of their legal obligation to close the gates after use. The Slieve Corbally crossing was not rated as a high risk by consultants, AD Little. Iarnród Éireann has nevertheless improved the views at the crossing as much as is practicable and extra signs have been erected on the gates. At Kiltoom crossing, colour light signals were installed in 2001 and are working satisfactorily while Iarnród Éireann is looking at the feasibility of replacing the Knockmoylan crossing with a bridge.
Deputy Gilmore expressed concern about landslides and coastal erosion beside railway lines. Substantial investment is ongoing under the railway safety investment programme to protect the railway against natural hazards. Works are complete or ongoing at Malahide, Sorrento, Killiney, Bray Head and between Greystones and Wicklow. larnród Éireann is considering the need for further works.
A number of Deputies commented on the provisions of this Bill regarding random testing for alcohol and drugs. This provision applies only to specified safety-critical staff on the railways. While all staff of railway undertakings have a duty of care not to endanger others by being under the influence of alcohol or drugs, railways will not be required to test all staff under this Bill. Random testing is increasingly being looked to in areas of work where an employee is responsible for lives of others. The Defence Forces recently introduced random testing of all ranks for drugs and have begun taking random samples. The intoxicants provisions of this Bill were carefully drafted by the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel in consultation with the Office of the Attorney General to ensure compliance with the Constitution.
The former Attorney General confirmed at the time of publication of this Bill that he was satisfied with the constitutionality of these provisions. The Minister notes Deputy Naughten's comment regarding the independence of personnel taking and analysing samples for intoxicants. Part 9 requires that the analysis body be independent of railway undertakings. The Minister will consider the need for any amendment on Committee Stage. The provisions of this Bill relating to intoxicants apply equally to passenger and freight lines. However, the Minister will consider the intoxicants clause and will bring forward an amendment on Committee Stage.
The Minister notes also Deputy Shortall's comments in regard to the complexity of the language used in section 85 (1) and will consider, in conjunction with the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, the need to clarify the text on Committee Stage.
Deputy Crowe expressed concern about fatigue suffered by train drivers. The Minister has been advised by Iarnród Éireann that the new deal for train drivers provides for a maximum rostered day of ten hours and that monitoring arrangements are in place to ensure compliance with this. Deputy Neville mentioned the counselling services available to train drivers following any suicide attempt involving their train. Such counselling services are made available by Iarnród Éireann and according to the company most drivers involved in a suicide event avail of them. Drivers can have as many counselling sessions as they wish.
Several Deputies spoke about access for disabled people to the Iarnród Éireann network. Iarnród Éireann has informed the Minister that it is its policy to include accessibility requirements in the purchase of all new rolling stock. The 80 diesel railcars whose delivery has commenced and which will begin to enter service in the summer, are fully accessible, as will be the 67 inter-city carriages ordered by Iarnród Éireann in December. Similarly, all new station works and major refurbishment of existing stations provide for accessibility in the plans. Many older stations have now been made accessible and more will be adapted this year and in future years. Section 66 (1) will enable the Railway Safety Commission to make regulations in relation to standards, specifications and procedures to be used by railway undertakings to safely facilitate the special requirements of mobility-impaired persons.
Several Deputies spoke about the issue of crowding in railway carriages. The Minister is very aware of this problem and is conscious of the discomfort and inconvenience this causes to passengers. This problem has been largely caused by the significant increase in passenger numbers in recent years.
The problem is being addressed in a number of ways. Investment in new rolling stock has substantially increased passenger capacity on certain routes in recent years and we will see further significant increases from later this year as the new rolling stock I mentioned earlier begins to enter service. In addition, this Bill will require a railway undertaking to identify in its safety case all issues impacting on the safety of its operations. Such issues would include its strategy for managing crowding of trains, particularly at peak periods. The railway undertaking will have to demonstrate to the Railway Safety Commission that its overall safety management system is adequate to ensure the safety of passengers.
Deputy Shortall mentioned the safety audit carried out by consultants IRMS on the mini-CTC lines. In their report the consultants concluded that overall the results of the sample audit gave confidence that Iarnród Éireann is adequately controlling risks on the mini-CTC lines. The consultants' report is available on the Department of Transport website.
Deputy Crowe raised the issue of the balance of representation on the Railway Safety Advisory Council. The Bill provides for at least three railway union representatives and at least four representatives of railway companies, one of which must be a heritage railway. This is an important point. Heritage railways are run by volunteers and enthusiasts and thus worker representation is not an issue for heritage railways.
Deputy Keaveney suggested that the remit of the advisory council could be expanded to include other issues not directly related to railway safety. The Minister feels the proposed advisory council is not the appropriate forum for discussion of such issues and that the dilution of its remit would detract from the council's intended function, that is, to be a forum for consideration of issues relevant to railway safety.
Deputy Ryan expressed concern about how the provisions of this Bill will apply to the Luas system currently under construction. Section 51 of the Transport (Railway Infrastructure) Act 2001 requires that no part of a railway shall be opened for testing and commissioning or passenger or freight traffic, until it has been demonstrated to the satisfaction of the railway inspectorate of the Department of Transport that the railway and rolling stock are safe and suitable and that the systems and procedures to ensure the safe operation of the railway are appropriate. Prior to this Act, a similar provision had been included in the Transport (Dublin Light Rail) Act 1996.
As part of the safety validation process for Luas, the inspectorate agreed with Luas project managers that the safety validation process for this project would be carried out in accordance with the terms of the Railway Safety Bill. This process has been ongoing since the commencement of Luas works.
Deputy Deenihan asked about the safety case required of a heritage railway. This Bill provides in section 47 that the commission shall have regard to the size and nature of the railway undertaking in considering its safety case. As such, the Minister would expect the safety case for a heritage railway to be less complex than that required of Iarnród Éireann and would strongly urge any heritage railway operator who has not already done so, to discuss their proposed safety case with the railway inspectorate of the Department as soon as possible.
A number of Deputies commented on the punctuality of train services. The Department is in discussions with each of the CIE companies, including Iarnród Éireann, with a view to introducing service level agreements. These are designed to provide greater transparency and accountability with regard to the level and quality of service provided by each of the companies, and as such incorporate targets for both service quantity and quality. These are expected to be in place for the year 2003. The service level agreements will build on a system of performance indicators already introduced by the Department during the past year.
A number of Deputies made suggestions for the restoration of closed railway lines or extension of railway lines to areas not currently served. I note Deputy Harkin's contribution. These and other railway development issues are the subject of a strategic rail review which was recently completed. The main purpose of the review was to establish a strategic policy framework for the future development of the railways in Ireland. The Minister intends to bring the review to Government and to publish its findings. It would be inappropriate to comment on these matters now in advance of the Government having the opportunity to consider the review.
I again emphasise that the new regulatory framework outlined in this Bill, together with the major investment this Government continues to make in our railways, will lay the bedrock for safe railway travel in the future and will provide assurance to the travelling public that safety will continue to be of paramount importance to this Government.
Deputy Harkin referred to the pilot project on the commuter line from Ballymote to Sligo, the Sligo-Limerick line, the Sligo-Dublin line and the west. I assure her that I will bring her views to the Minister's attention.
I thank Members for their constructive contributions to this debate. The Minister looks forward to discussing the Bill in more detail on Committee Stage.