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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 6 Mar 2008

Vol. 649 No. 3

Priority Questions.

Dublin Port Tunnel.

Fergus O'Dowd


1 Deputy Fergus O’Dowd asked the Minister for Transport if he had contact with the National Roads Authority regarding the problems affecting the Dublin Port tunnel; if public money will be necessary to fund critical maintenance; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10001/08]

As Minister for Transport I have responsibility for overall policy and funding in regard to the national roads programme element of Transport 21. As the Deputy is aware, the implementation of individual national road projects, including the Dublin Port tunnel, is a matter for the National Roads Authority under the Roads Act 1993 in conjunction with the local authorities concerned.

The Dublin Port tunnel was closed on Wednesday, 27 February for approximately nine hours because of an electronic equipment failure. This is the latest in a sequence of electronic equipment failures to cause a temporary closure of the tunnel. The NRA and Dublin City Council have repeatedly taken up the issue of electronic equipment failure with the contractors. Arising from last Wednesday's incident, I have urged both organisations to intensify their efforts to remedy the equipment failures and indeed any other causes for occasional tunnel closures. To put this issue in perspective, it is useful to note that there have been four unplanned tunnel closures since 1 January 2008. These closures have resulted in the loss of just over 2% of planned tunnel availability time.

Responsibility for the design, installation and provision of the various tunnel systems was that of Nishimatsu-Mowlem-Irishenco, NMI, under the terms of its contract to Dublin City Council. During the delivery of the project, both the NRA and Dublin City Council were repeatedly reassured and guaranteed that the tunnel systems would be fully fit for their intended purpose and that the installed equipment would be both durable and resilient. Since the hand-over of the tunnel just over one year ago, there have been a number of individual equipment malfunctions such that this is clearly not the case in all circumstances. The issue, therefore, is with the durability and reliability of the equipment provided by the contractor.

The contractors have been put on notice of legal action to recover all costs arising from deficiencies in the equipment provided. In addition, further legal action will be pursued for any further failure on the part of the contractor to urgently carry out all necessary works and equipment replacements to deliver the full tunnel systems to the standard required and contracted for. Where the contractor does not immediately deal with any deficiency in systems or equipment, the NRA will do so itself and pursue recovery of the costs from the contractor in order that costs will lie where they contractually should.

This tunnel was designed and built to last 100 years. However, it has been open for 15 months and there have been significant failures of the Scada system. Is that acceptable? Does the Minister believe the software was properly tested and was the best available internationally? Is it fit for its purpose?

I met the NRA yesterday, was in the tunnel complex and spoke to people there and to the consultants. They are deeply unhappy with the response from the contractor which installed the equipment and which is not fit for purpose. They cannot stand over it and they do not know when there will be another glitch. The contractor is refusing to do any further work on the equipment and that is why the NRA is now proceeding to the legal phase.

The difficulty is that each time the tunnel closes, people lose confidence in it. What will the Minister do to restore confidence in the operation of the tunnel and the equipment therein, particularly the Scada safety system?

What I expect to be done is exactly what the NRA is doing as the contracting party with NMI. It will pursue this company legally to get it to comply with the terms of its contract. If the equipment does not meet the standards clearly laid out in the contract, if it will not stand over that and deliver to the terms of its contract, the NRA has the right to go after it legally to get recompense for any loss and, if needs be and it has to do the work itself to ensure there is no reduction in the service, to cover costs. That is a legal and contractual matter between the NRA and the company concerned. I am satisfied the NRA is doing everything it legally and physically can do to ensure these types of incidents, which are totally unacceptable, are eliminated as quickly as possible, or are kept to a minimum until they can be fully eliminated.

The tunnel contractor is not doing the work and the NRA is now doing it but it does not know how to fix the system. Each time there is a failure, the system must be reset manually which is unacceptable. Does the Minister not think it is time for an independent audit of the system installed and why it was recommended? Clearly, it is not fit for purpose. Having spent €750 million on this tunnel, why is it not working after 15 months? The process of fixing it may take months if the whole system has to be reinstalled.

Will the Minister seek from the NRA an independent audit of what is going on in the tunnel which should include possible solutions, costs and time delays? We must have confidence in the tunnel, which we do not have at present. The NRA does not have confidence in it and the system in it does not work and could breakdown again tomorrow.

As I said, the NRA is pursing this with the contractor and is doing the type of things for which the Deputy asked. It is best left to the NRA to do these things. I have every confidence the NRA will pursue this matter. I agree with the Deputy that it is unacceptable that this should have happened, and continues to happen. It is a matter for the NRA to pursue to ensure it does not continue.

State Airports.

Thomas P. Broughan


2 Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Transport when Mr. Peter Cassells is due to report on the dispute over the proposed debt level of Cork Airport in its separation from the Dublin Airport Authority; the terms of reference of Mr. Cassells’s mediation process; his views on the separation of Cork, Shannon and Dublin Airports; the level of debt he estimates Dublin Airport will accrue if the separation process goes ahead; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9603/08]

I have asked Mr. Peter Cassells to consider the disagreement between the Dublin Airport Authority and the Cork Airport Authority on the portion of the overall Cork Airport debt to be borne by the CAA on its separation from the DAA. Mr. Cassells's brief is to establish whether it is possible for the two boards to resolve their long-standing difference on this core issue. I have asked him to report to me by 7 March on this matter.

My Department is currently considering the business plans prepared by the three airports in the context of their separation into independent entities. I hope to make progress on this in the near future and in this regard Mr. Cassells's report will be very important. In the circumstances, I do not propose to comment at this point on the question of the allocation of debt on airport separation.

The terms of reference for the engagement of Mr. Cassells are as follows: to facilitate a dialogue between DAA and CAA with a view to finalising details relating to the financial consideration to be paid by the CAA to the DAA in respect of the transfer of assets to the Cork Airport Authority on separation, under the State Airports Act 2004, taking account of the following — the cause of the disagreement between the two boards; the need to ensure the financial sustainability of all three State airports under the State Airports Act 2004; Cork Airport's business plan; the DAA's commentary on that business plan and any associated consultants' reports considered relevant; and the need for a speedy resolution of this dispute so that the two boards are in a position to finalise business plans for each airport on a financially sustainable basis under the State Airports Act 2004; and to report to the Minister by Friday, 7 March 2008.

I tabled a question on the Dublin Port tunnel on behalf of the Labour Party similar to one in a Fine Gael Member's name. My question was ruled out of order on the basis of semantics, which is regrettable and very undemocratic. I raised the issue with the Leas-Cheann Comhairle on the Order of Business.

My advice to the Deputy is to contact the Office of the Ceann Comhairle.

I certainly will.

A number of reports appeared in the media to the effect that the Minister may be reconsidering the idea of separating Dublin, Cork and Shannon airports. Is it the case that he may decide not to proceed with the provisions of the 2004 Act? Many commentators have observed that there is no commercial logic to the separation.

A pre-election promise was made to the people of Cork that they would not be saddled with a major debt. Has the Minister accepted, in full, the business plans relating to Cork and Shannon airports? Does he have a rough idea of what will be the three debt levels? Would he be concerned that Cork might be left with a debt of anything between €100 million and €200 million, while Shannon might have a debt of €70 million? It is interesting that Dublin Airport might be obliged to bear a debt of €500 million. Under its development plan, Dublin will also be obliged to pay out €1.2 billion, a figure that is six times greater than the projected earnings for the airport. Is the Minister concerned with regard to how matters might develop in the context of the debt issue?

A fundamental point was raised in 2004, namely, whether it would be easier for the three airports to carry a substantial debt of this nature, which is basically Transport 21-related debt, together rather than separately? Are there any circumstances in which the Minister might reconsider the proposal to separate the three airports?

As with so many speculative reports in the newspapers, there is absolutely no truth to the rumour that I am reconsidering the State Airports Act 2004 with a view to not proceeding with the separation.

Prior to the general election, the Government made it clear that the restructuring proposed under the State Airport Act would have to be done in a way which would ensure not only that the future viability of Cork Airport would be protected but also that the viability of Shannon and Dublin would also be guaranteed. The Deputy is correct to state that, in the context of the improvements to be made, a cumulative amount of €1.2 billion — much of which will be carried in the form of a loan — will have to be spent at Dublin Airport. In such circumstances, every possible source of income must be examined. The business plans must be considered in the overall context and not just in respect of Cork.

Peter Cassells is trying to facilitate dialogue so I will not even speculate as to the levels of debt, if any, each of the airports might be obliged to bear following the conclusion of the process. It would not be fair to engage in such speculation.

The book value of the assets to be transferred to the Cork Airport Authority from the Dublin Airport Authority is some €220 million. Information from a number of sources indicates that the likely realisable value of those assets would be considerably higher. In such circumstances, it would be reasonable to expect Cork to pay something towards the costs involved.

Michael O'Leary forcefully expressed the concern many people harbour, namely, that those who travel by air will be obliged to bear the debt — the largest proportion of this will relate to Dublin — that will result from separating the three airports. Does the Minister share this concern? He announced that Mr. Cassells will be making his report tomorrow. Will that report be made public?

As soon as the report is available to me, it will be considered. It will become public at some stage thereafter. Mr. Cassells is due to report to me in respect of this matter tomorrow.

All airports are funded through charges levied on passengers. I refer here to landing charges, charges levied by airlines on customers, car park charges, etc. It is not rocket science to state — as did Mr. O'Leary — that consumers and customers will be obliged to pay for the airports. These people use the airports and should pay for them. I do not really know what point Mr. O'Leary was trying to make.

From the point of view of the Government and the State, it is important that the facilities at Dublin, Cork and Shannon airports should reflect well on our country. People's first impression is often taken from the airport at which they arrive. In my opinion, everyone agrees that we should have proper facilities in place.

Public Transport.

Fergus O'Dowd


3 Deputy Fergus O’Dowd asked the Minister for Transport the changing policy conditions that led to his announcement that all plans to introduce competition into the Dublin bus market have been abandoned; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10002/08]

Plans to introduce competition into the Dublin bus market have not been abandoned. The Government is committed to the further expansion and enhancement of public bus services and wants a world-class service to be delivered to all citizens. Moreover, it is wholeheartedly committed to obtaining best value for the travelling public and the taxpayer from significant subsidies being invested by the Exchequer in public bus services operated by Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann.

In order to achieve this, the Government has identified a number of priorities in its programme for Government. The programme contains a commitment to expedite the establishment of a Dublin transport authority that will have the necessary powers to ensure the delivery of the integrated public transport system, as envisaged under Transport 21. It is my intention to bring the Dublin transport authority Bill to Cabinet shortly for approval to publish.

In terms of the subvented bus market, the Dublin transport authority Bill will set out the mechanisms for the award of contracts for this subvention in line with the new regime introduced under the new EU PSO regulation, which will become mandatory from next year. The programme for Government also includes a commitment to improving bus services under Transport 21 by reforming the bus licensing provisions of the Road Transport Act 1932 to facilitate the optimum provision of services by providing a level playing field for all market participants, both public and private.

It is my intention that proposals for a new bus licensing regime will follow in subsequent legislative proposals. Any new licensing regime will be designed in a manner consistent with the new EU regulation on public service obligations in the transport sector, which was adopted in 2007 and which will come into force next year. While it is not possible to indicate a precise time as to when the legislative proposals on regulatory reform of the bus market will be published, applications for new bus licences and notifications from State bus operators will continue to be processed under the provisions of the Road Transport Act 1932, as amended, and the notification system with reference to the Transport Act 1958, as appropriate.

I am amazed by the Minister for Transport's flip-flop on this issue. It is similar to that which occurred in respect of driving licences. A couple of weeks ago, the Minister indicated that he was not in favour of increased competition in the bus market. It is clear that he is under a great deal of pressure from his colleagues in government, the Progressive Democrats. The former Minister, Deputy Brennan, was going to increase competition to 25% of the bus market. Under Deputy Dempsey's immediate predecessor, Deputy Cullen, that figure dropped to 15%. Prior to today, the Minister's stated policy was that there would not be any further competition in the bus market. Why the flip-flop? Why has the Minister changed his mind? What is the true story and what are the facts?

I wonder if the Minister received another ticking off from the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, who last week stated that he wants to improve public transport capacity by quickly increasing the number of buses on the streets of Dublin. How can this be done unless the share of the Dublin bus market in respect of which private bus operators can tender is increased?

The problem with the Deputy is that he reads newspaper headlines and reports which bear little relation to reality or to anything I have said and takes them as gospel. I cannot be held responsible for what the Deputy might think——

Why did the Minister not deny the veracity of the statement at the time?

——as a result of what he might read in certain publications. The statements I have made in this House are statements of policy. The statements in the programme for Government deal with public transport. That is the policy I am pursuing. I have outlined my priorities, on which I intend to deliver, one after the other, which will give us the public transport system we need in Dublin. The biggest priority has to be delivery of the Dublin transport authority Bill which will be published at the beginning of the next session and on which I look forward to a full discussion, as well as the general issue of public transport in Dublin. There is no flip-flopping.

There is, clearly, a flip-flop because at a briefing on his first day in office the Minister was told that the Dublin transport authority Bill was ready to be published. When I raised this issue with him some months ago, he said we would have the Bill before Christmas but we did not. There was another flip flop. Is it that the Cabinet cannot agree the Bill? What is the truth of the matter? He promised it again for early in this session. As of yesterday I understand we may have it after Easter. The Minister is not able to deliver to the commuters of Dublin. He flips when he says we cannot have competition in the bus market and today he flops when he says we can. He is flipping again on the Dublin transport authority Bill and now has flopped because he has not had it introduced. He is not doing his job. All the delays under Transport 21 indicate how the Government is split and how incapable the Minister is of delivering. He stopped a Bill which had been finalised almost one year ago with everything printed and ready to run. He is not doing his job.

The Minister has missed the bus.

I ask the Minister to respond briefly, please.

The Acting Chairman could not expect me to be brief when dealing with a tissue of lies.

The Minister should not use the word "lie".

I withdraw the word "lie"——

The Minister is the one telling lies.

——and call it an untruth.

Deputy O'Dowd should allow the Minister to speak without interruption.

On a point of order, has the Minister withdrawn the word used?

I have. It is an untruth, or several untruths. The Deputy will have to stop getting his information from unreliable sources.

The national media.

Yes. The Deputy has to stop believing the headlines that some sub-editors put at the top of the newspapers. Once, if not twice, I explained the Dublin transport authority Bill was ready and complete when I took office.

I reviewed its terms in the light of changed circumstances, one of which I told the Deputy was the composition of the Government. I thought it courteous to allow my new colleagues to read the terms of the Bill.

The Minister flopped again.

I indicated to the Deputy that a PSO directive was almost finalised and that the Bill had to be reviewed in that light. There was a legal action against the State at EU level that also had to be taken into account. I had a particular interest in ensuring the land use and transport sections of the Bill would be sufficiently strong to ensure the issues could be married. I also told him that when those matters were resolved, I would bring the Bill before the House. I stand over that statement.

When will that be? Will the Minister give us a date?

The Deputy should not get too excited about the negative spins put on Transport 21 in the newspapers. We are spending €9.4 million per day and will secure 175 million extra public transport journeys as a result.

That is not very much to spend on public transport.

There will be 75 million extra suburban rail journeys.

The Minister should conclude.

Yes but I would hate for the Deputy to read all the negative stories and not to be aware of all the wonderful things happening in the country. Perhaps he would prefer to continue in his ignorance.

I apologise that the Chair has to impose Standing Orders. I will do my best.

The Acting Chairman should not apologise.

The Acting Chairman should put the Minister out if he will not do what he is told.

Marine Accidents.

Fergus O'Dowd


4 Deputy Fergus O’Dowd asked the Minister for Transport the action he has taken on recommendations made, specifically 8.2 and 8.3, in the report by the Marine Casualty Investigation Board on the sinking of the Rising Sun; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10003/08]

The recommendations referred to by the Deputy are contained in a report published by the Marine Casualty Investigation Board, MCIB, on 28 May 2007. The report relates to the tragic capsizing and sinking of the fishing vessel the Rising Sun in fishing grounds off the County Wexford coast on 29 November 2005, with the loss of two lives. I convey again my sympathies to the families on their tragic loss.

The Department has examined the MCIB recommendations with a view to addressing any shortcomings in either the statutory basis of the regimes covering fishing vessels or enforcement arrangements. With regard to recommendation 8.2 to which the Deputy referred, surveys of fishing vessels less than 15 m long are carried out on behalf of the Department of Transport by an approved panel of surveyors. The Department updated and renewed this panel in 2007, during which year it interviewed applicant surveyors.

As part of the interview process, applicants were required to show an understanding of the importance of informing the fishing vessel owners of the necessity to immediately notify the surveying authority of any alterations in equipment or structure or the intended use of their vessel. Recommendation 8.3 makes reference to the declaration of compliance, recommending that this should include a report of the type of fishing equipment fitted at the time of the survey of the vessel and the intended purpose of the vessel. The declaration of compliance is contained in an annex to the code of practice in respect of fishing vessels less than 15 m.

The Department published the code of practice for the design, construction and equipment of small fishing vessels in 2004. The code sets minimum standards of safety for the vessel to protect all persons on board. It covers vessel design, construction, machinery, safety equipment and stability issues. In 2007 the emphasis was on bringing in safety regulations covering 15-24 m vessels where previously there had been no regulatory regime. The code for vessels under 15 m is being reviewed and both recommendations, 8.2 and 8.3, will be fully covered in any amendments or improvements to the declaration of compliance.

The Department has implemented a comprehensive regulatory framework for fishing vessels to ensure a higher level of safety. This is being achieved through an approach that separates the fleet into three categories. The first is less than 15 m in length and would include the Rising Sun, where a non-statutory code of practice is in operation; the other two are 15 to 24 m and over 24 m and in both cases there is now a statutory regime in place. Fishing vessel safety must rely not only on the introduction of regulations but on compliance with them. This, in turn, may require not only specific training but also an increasingly rigorous enforcement regime.

Like the Minister, I offer my sympathies to those who lost people in the Rising Sun incident. The conclusions of the report have been in print for one year and the Minister says that as of today he intends to do something about them but has not done so as yet. I am unhappy that his Department has not implemented the recommendations in full. We must hold him to account on this issue.

The vessel was overloaded. The load on the vessel when the certificate was given was changed, making it less stable for the conditions on the day, the equipment on board and so on. A significant number of other fishing vessels may have been similarly altered. The purpose of the marine investigation report was that the Department would act and that the documents of compliance and code of practice would reflect any changes that might happen in the life of a boat and what its skipper or owners would make. Why has the Department not insisted on national compliance with these proposals, published over one year ago, in view of the serious issues involved and the danger posed to other boats?

As I explained to the Deputy, the priority since the publication of this report was to get the regulations in place for the larger 14 to 24 m fishing vessels. That decision was made in view of the circumstances and because they are likely to have more people on board, with a greater risk for crew. In that sense I support what the Department has done in prioritising that area. There was no code for the 15 to 24 m vessels and it was decided to put a regulatory regime in place. We are now reviewing the code of practice for fishing vessels less than 15 m in length to ensure those recommendations are put in place.

In answer to the Deputy, the priority was to put a regulatory regime in place for the 15 to 24 m vessels. There was already one in place for vessels under 15 m and that will now be reviewed in light of the recommendation.

I remain unhappy, while acknowledging that the Minister is attempting to do something with boats that are larger than this particular one. Of all the boats in this category, since the recommendation was made the Minister has done absolutely nothing. The Department has failed in its duty of care and it is a disgrace and a shame that it has not happened. I shall continue to press the Minister as regards progress on this very important and significant matter.

It is both unfair and untrue to say that my Department has done nothing about the safety of fishing vessels, and I cannot accept that.

I did not say that. I said fishing vessels under 15 m——

Question No. 5 withdrawn.