That Dáil Éireann,
notes that Ireland's greenhouse gas emissions have grown by 25% since 1990, with transport emission growth the highest in any sector;
recognises that emissions in the transport sector have grown by 160% over the same period, with road transport accounting for virtually all of this growth;
acknowledges that to reduce transport emissions we must prioritise the development of sustainable transport modes and must reduce Ireland's dependency on road-based goods transportation; and
notes that the amount of goods carried by road in Ireland has grown by 70% over the last ten years, while that carried by rail has declined dramatically;
calls on the Government to:
urgently address the growth in transport emissions by developing our rail freight sector as a viable and sustainable alternative to road-based freight transportation;
immediately halt the decline in our rail freight sector by preventing the further erosion of rail freight infrastructure and rolling stock;
introduce independent regulation of the rail freight sector, which will also be tasked with promoting and growing the rail freight sector; and
provide State supports to the rail freight sector to promote its growth and to increase the level of goods carried nationally by rail.
I wish to share time with Deputies Shortall and Boyle.
I move this motion on behalf of Fine Gael, Labour and the Green Party. The thrust of the motion is to try to halt the decline in the rail freight sector and to make it into what we believe it can be, namely, a vibrant and growing industry that will contribute to reducing carbon emissions and congestion on our roads. The Opposition is entirely in agreement about this joint motion and that signals how important we consider this issue to be, particularly in the context of the economy and the environment.
Everyone believes that this is a crucial period for rail freight. The latter has, to some extent, reached a tipping point. If people continue to talk down the rail freight sector and if there is any further loss of business, infrastructure or rolling stock within it, the trend against it will become almost irreversible. In other words, the rot is unstoppable. We will lose the entire sector unless we take action of the kind to which the motion refers.
At a minimum, we must stop the complete destruction of this sector. Rail freight has for many years been talked down by CIE, Iarnród Éireann's road haulage division, the shareholder, namely, the Government, and those in the road haulage sector. We have been informed that it is not viable, that the distances in Ireland are too short, that there is too much handling of goods required and that road freight is more flexible and economically viable.
When listening to reports regarding total gridlock on the M50 earlier today caused by two trucks crashing into one another, I could not help wondering whether those trapped on the motorway — in some cases they were sitting motionless in their vehicles for up to two hours — are of the view that the transfer of goods by road is cheap. All the business not done this afternoon — a great deal of it will never be regained — as a result of the incident involving those two trucks shows that road transport does not come cheap. Everyone affected by what happened on the M50 today lost out financially.
Cost lies at the heart of this issue. If one carries out a direct comparison between transporting a container by road and sending it by rail, road is, on the face of it, cheaper. Whether it remains that way is another matter. I am of the view that it will not remain cheaper to transport freight by road. The relative economics of road versus rail transport are changing every day. Petrol is becoming scarcer and more expensive and roads are becoming congested and traffic slower, which adds to everyone's costs. An increasing number of carbon credits will have to be purchased in order to offset the emissions caused by trucks transporting goods. Even on the basis of a straight comparison, it is no longer certain that road will always be the cheaper option.
We must also recognise that the hidden costs paid by taxpayers, private individuals and the Government on our behalf are absolutely enormous. Among these is the fact that the emissions into the environment are infinitely in excess of those associated with rail freight and that people's use of non-renewable carbon-based fuels is incredibly inefficient. Road congestion costs are increasing for all road users as a result of the ever-increasing number of heavy goods vehicles, HGVs, using our roads. The cost of road accidents involving trucks are, relative to the numbers of such vehicles on our roads, are extremely high. For example, trucks represent 10% of all traffic but they are responsible for causing 20% of road accidents. When one is involved in an accident with a truck, one has an extremely slim chance of survival.
We all bear the cost of road transport. The most recent example of this is the Dublin Port tunnel, which cost €1 billion and which was built exclusively for trucks. The Minister has stated that he does not believe in subsidising freight and yet we spent that amount on constructing the tunnel. In addition, millions will be spent each year in order to ensure that it remains operational. The tunnel emerges from a port out of which a number of rail lines also run. However, not a single tonne of freight is transported out of Dublin Port on those lines. No attempt has been made to maximise the value of the existing asset, nor was any attempt made to carry out a comparative value analysis. It was merely a case that we should get rid of the old and get on with the new. The various economic, environmental and social forces indicate that we have been overtaken by events and that we are rushing headlong in the wrong direction.
There are many imponderables regarding the future of transport. For example, there are many outstanding questions in respect of climate change and how best we might deal with it in the context of transport. There are also many outstanding questions regarding trading patterns and how they will develop, how goods will be distributed and how the pattern relating to their distribution will change in the coming years. At a time of such uncertainty, it is all the more important that we should not commit the absolute folly of getting rid of the rail freight option completely and leave ourselves with no choice when the direction we are going to take in respect of transport becomes clear.
The Minister has suggested that it would be outlandish to subsidise the private sector in transporting its goods by rail. I cannot believe that the Minister cannot see that he is already providing a massive subsidy in respect of the transport of goods by road. All Fine Gael, Labour and the Green Party are seeking in this motion is the creation of a level playing field. We want to give the rail freight sector a chance by putting in place a regulator. The latter and the market could then decide what is needed to allow the sector, in terms of its viability, to compete with and overcome road transport in respect of the transport of some goods. We accept that not all goods are suitable for transport by rail. A modest subsidy, be it a capital subsidy or a subsidy paid per kilometre travelled, per tonne or whatever, may be all that is required to kick-start the sector. If the introduction of a subsidy does not work, then so be it. We would, however, lose nothing by trying. The cost of a subsidy would, in any event, probably be more than offset by the cost of the carbon credits we will be obliged to purchase.
With the right regulatory environment and a benign regime of financial supports, rail freight will work in respect of the kind of goods that it is intrinsically unsuitable, unsafe and undesirable to transport by road. For example, bio-fuels would be eminently suitable to be transported by rail freight.
The massive growth in our economy has seen an explosion in the number of HGVs on our roads. The number of such vehicles increased from 140,000 to over 260,000 in ten years. In 1995, Irish railways were responsible for the transportation of 6 million tonnes of freight annually. This represented approximately 10% of all freight carried nationally. At present, just over 1% of freight goods are transported by rail. This goes against all logic. It also runs contrary to the much publicised global priority being given to the development of sustainable and environmentally-friendly modes of transport.
The Environmental Protection Agency recently indicated how the level of carbon emissions has increased in recent years. The transport sector, in the context of its output, is way ahead of every other in this regard. I do not believe it is possible for us to continue to ignore the figures and also to completely ignore the freight sector.
The Government recently set targets in respect of trying to take action in this area. However, these may lack credibility coming, as they do, so late in its ten-year term of office. The current Administration has completely ignored rail freight and has no ambitions in respect of it. Rail freight has huge economic benefits. It is almost impossible to quantify the costs relating to road congestion but I suspect they are increasing on a daily basis. The cost of congestion to business generally is put at approximately €2 billion, but I suspect the cost has grown since that figure was suggested. An average freight train can remove up to 50 HGVs from the roads. It is madness to ignore such potential at a time like this. Per tonne carried, rail produces approximately 10% of the amount of carbon dioxide produced by road transportation, and yet we continue to ignore it. I mentioned already that such vehicles account for 20% of road accidents but only 10% of the traffic.
The only notable aspect of the Government's action policy to deal with emissions announced this week was that it contained nothing new and nowhere was there any commitment to rail freight. Other EU member states have been quick to appreciate the benefits of rail freight in terms of the environment, economic viability and safety advantages for other road users. They also recognised that until they take drastic steps to reduce their national reliance on motor vehicles of all kinds, the environmental, economic and health damage caused by emissions and congestion will continue to affect quality of life.
Other member states have no difficult with giving subsidies to rail freight. We have always heard the EU does not allow the Government give subsidies to various areas. This is the one area where the EU not alone allows subsidies but encourages and promotes them and believes they can be well justified in terms of the shift from road transport and the reduction in emissions resulting from the shift to rail freight.
Over the past number of years we have seen a significant decline in rail freight in Ireland due to the lack of vision demonstrated by the Government, and yet there has been considerable investment in the rail network. While I understand €1.5 billion has been spent already and billions of euro more is planned to be spent over the next number of years under Transport 21 and beyond, one must ask is it wise to ignore this entire sector and not sweat the asset in which we are investing so heavily, and having invested over the past decade and with plans to do so in the next decade, why we do not get the maximum value and ensure the taxpayer, who is paying for this considerable investment in rail transport, gets more than passenger transport. The existing network is unutilised right through the night, which is the ideal time to transport goods, and without any impact on passenger trains we could have trains running through the night.
The Minister has repeatedly rattled off the same old mantra that there is no future in rail freight in Ireland. He comes in here and states he has never sought to question rail freight and, when analysed in the light of growing carbon emissions, that he believes it cannot make any contribution and is unviable. He does not seem to recognise that it has never been considered and that he always takes his advice from the same source, CIE, which itself is not interested in any way in the rail freight sector.
Tonight's motion by Fine Gael, the Labour Party and the Green Party has as its central aim the reinvigoration of the rail freight sector. We believe rail freight has an important future. We set out the three basic requirements to achieve this aim and we are committed to advancing this agenda.
In the time remaining, I will go through those three elements. The first is that an independent regulator with expertise in the industry be appointed as soon as possible. Since 2006, as the Minister will be aware, the EU rail networks and the domestic rail networks of member states, have been open to outside operators. In essence, this means any EU operator can enter the Irish market and operate freight services on the network. However, to date the Minister has done nothing to attract new operators into the market. If anything, he has prevented and discouraged new entrants by his utterances and his indifference to the freight sector. He is not interested in pursuing this. I am aware of freight operators who have expressed interest in such services and who have been discouraged by the closed door policy operated by the Minister and Iarnród Éireann. This unambitious attitude — to call it that is to be kind — to expanding rail freight underlines the need for an independent freight regulator.
Under the current regulatory system for rail freight the Minister for Transport acts as the regulator but defers to Iarnród Éireann's authority and advice in managing access to the network and, most importantly, in setting the charges to access the rail system, and that is not in anybody's interests. The Minister for Transport's role as acting effective rail freight regulator clearly conflicts with his role as primary shareholder in Iarnród Éireann. While the role played by Iarnród Éireann is not conducive to encouraging outside operators into the market, clearly that company feels such operators would be in competition with it although there is no reason to believe that would be so because the rail network can be used at night for freight and if tenders were sought through a regulator, Iarnród Éireann would be as capable, and probably better placed than anybody, to provide such services. The critical step to kick-start the industry is the appointment of a regulator who would be independent of the Minister and Iarnród Éireann and responsible not only for regulating the industry but for actively growing and encouraging the transport of freight by rail, whether by private or public operators.
The motion also calls for an end to Iarnród Éireann's disposal of freight infrastructure and rolling stock, which has been going on wholesale right around the country. It is heartbreaking to see this happening and to see the potential for development of rail freight services being sold and allowed to disintegrate, and the private sector being allowed build over rail lines ensuring, by indifference and neglect, that the industry cannot be resuscitated. This practice must end today. I do not even want to wait for a change of Government in the next few weeks. We demand and end to the practice on behalf of all taxpayers who see their assets being frittered away by this Government.
We want a dedicated State support for our rail freight sector. I recognise that in order to opt for rail freight and make it commercially viable there will be a need, at least initially, for State support for the sector. This is the norm in most European countries where active promotion of this sector and state incentives have resulted in significant growth in the percentage of goods carried by rail. Our closest neighbour, the UK, has successfully grown this sector by 60% in the past ten years and that is the direction in which we want to proceed.
New economic and environmental challenges will compel all policy makers two adapt. All future State investment must take into consideration the environmental effects of those decisions and the impact on the country's carbon footprint. We cannot afford not to think in the round about all decisions that are being made. Rail freight is clearly a much more sustainable mode of transport, and one which will reap significant benefits for all of us. We cannot ignore the untapped potential of this sector and we should allow its capacity to reap significant environmental benefits and reduce our carbon emissions.
This must be a priority for any government. It will become increasingly important, no matter what government or economy one is speaking of. I urgently ask that the Government consider the motion we are putting before the House. It needs to be addressed, no matter what Government is in power. I am happy to propose this motion on behalf of Fine Gael, Labour and the Green Party.