Other Questions

State Airports

Denis Naughten

Question:

118. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport if he will report on discussions with the management of Ireland West Airport Knock, County Mayo; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9877/15]

Mr. Conor Skehan was interviewed last week on the radio as chairman of the Housing Agency. He said the greater Dublin area now runs in an arc from Dundalk to Athlone to Kilkenny. That is the impact of the economy of the Dublin region. However, as the Minister knows, in my part of the country - in western counties like Mayo, Roscommon, Galway, Leitrim and Sligo - we have not seen the impact. Knock Airport can be a key driver to bringing investment into the region. I want to know what plans the Government has to bring new investment into that project.

I want to begin by congratulating the management of Ireland West Airport Knock, which last year saw over 700,000 passengers pass through its doors. This was an extraordinary performance on their behalf, making it the best year ever for the number of travellers in and out of this airport. This success should not be forgotten and is, in part, thanks to Exchequer support over the past ten years of over €20 million in capital and operational subvention.

My Department has had extensive engagement with the various representatives of Ireland West Airport Knock over the years and, in particular, was represented on and provided secretarial support to the Ireland West Airport Knock study group, which reported in December 2013 on the options and opportunities for the growth and development of the airport. The outcomes of that study have been reflected in Ireland's draft national aviation policy. They also underpin Ireland's draft regional airports programme 2015-19, which is with the European Commission at present for its consideration and approval.

The most recent engagement with the airport, along with Donegal, Kerry and Waterford airports, has been in regard to the EU guidelines on state aid for airports and airlines, and clarifying issues raised with the Commission which, in turn, are being reflected in the new programme. The Department is also engaging with the airports in preparation for implementation of that programme once we get the necessary EU approval, and also in regard to their future growth and funding under that programme.

I thank the Minister. I would contend that Knock Airport is not a regional airport. It serves a catchment of 1.1 million people and supports 900 jobs within the region. It is a significant economic driver and has the potential to bring more investment into the region.

When was that proposal submitted to the European Commission and when is it likely we will see approval for it from the Commission? What is the timeline for the implementation of the recommendations set out in that working group report by the airport and the Government back in December 2013? What real actions are we going to see on the ground?

I can assure the Deputy of the active interest of, for one, the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, who is a very prominent and positive supporter of the airport-----

-----and raises its position within my Department assiduously and regularly. As it also has the active support of the Taoiseach and Deputies O'Mahony and Mulherin, the airport receives an appropriate and ongoing amount of focus from me.

To deal with the analysis Deputy Naughten has laid out regarding the regional importance of the airport, I accept his point that its importance stretches well beyond the local importance it may have within its county and that it meets regional needs. On the basis of the performance the airport put in last year, with over 700,000 passengers going through its doors, it is delivering a very strong mandate in regard to proposed growth.

I have regular contact, through my officials, with the European Commission on the overall airports programme to respond to the needs of Knock and other airports to ensure their continued growth into the future.

I will put things in context. The Minister is very familiar with my county. Some 16% of passengers going through Knock Airport come from County Roscommon and 18% of the tourists that come through Knock Airport visit Roscommon, something which is replicated throughout the west. Knock Airport is a strategically important international airport, just like Shannon, and needs to be treated in such a manner by the Government. Can the Minister assure me that we will not have a situation like we had in March 2013, when a Finance Bill was brought before the House to deal with Shannon Airport? Knock Airport should not be ignored. On foot of that we had a report. We now want to see it, and see the joint approach by Government and the airport implemented quickly. I want the Minister to tell me the timeline for the implementation of the report. When will we see real action?

The particular elements of the report to which the Deputy referred are the subject of ongoing discussion and contact with the European Commission. I will not say anything about when I believe that might conclude for fear of compromising the work that is under way. I have to recognise the role the Commission plays, under law, in making decisions on-----

Are we talking about weeks or months?

-----aid and support to airports. I fully understand the importance the Deputy accords to the airport and its importance to his county. I have to emphasise that importance is well understood by me and the Government. We have contributed, through plans like the Wild Atlantic Way, to the demand that is facilitating the passenger growth Knock has seen. It has had its best year ever, and I will continue to advocate very hard on its behalf and that of similar airports to ensure that the necessary support is in place for them to continue the growth we saw last year.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Catherine Murphy

Question:

119. Deputy Catherine Murphy asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport in view of the fact that the Environmental Protection Agency has conceded that Ireland will fail to achieve its binding European Union 2020 greenhouse gas reduction target by as much as 15%, and a briefing from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, details supplied, notes that a shortfall, in the range of 1% to 4% on the overall target, could result in significant costs to the Exchequer, the contingency planning his Department is putting in place to cover this eventuality; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9989/15]

This question relates to the EPA raising the fact that we will miss some of the targets on greenhouse gas emissions and the relationship between that and the delivery of the mechanisms to meet those targets. If we do not meet the targets, we could end up paying hard cash for not delivering on the targets we have signed up to on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

I thank the Deputy. As she is aware, responsibility for co-ordinating Ireland's position on climate policy rests with the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. Under the 2009 EU effort-sharing decision, the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government advises that Ireland is on course to comply with annual emissions reduction targets for the compliance period of 2013 to 2016.  However, in respect of the remaining years to 2020, a significant compliance challenge has been highlighted by the EPA.

There is an acute awareness of this challenge across sectors, not least by transport.  As the Deputy will be aware, the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill is currently progressing through the Dáil.  It will create a statutory obligation to develop a national mitigation plan for Ireland which will seek to put in place the necessary mitigation measures to meet the long-term policy objectives of transitioning to a low-carbon economy by 2050.  The first iteration of the plan will place particular focus on identifying those measures needed to address the challenges arising from the second half of the compliance period, that is, from 2017 to 2020. My Department's contribution to the plan is currently being developed and, in keeping with commitments under the Aarhus Convention, my officials expect to invite stakeholders to a consultative workshop on the transport element of the plan in the coming weeks.

In terms of non-compliance costs, the comprehensive expenditure report 2015 to 2017 sets out three-year expenditure ceilings for each ministerial Vote group.

All spending decisions must be cognisant of these limits within the wider context of the new fiscal structures being put in place at a European level through reforms to the Stability and Growth Pact. Mitigation is a cross-sectoral issue that will require a whole-of-government approach in tackling some very complex matters between now and 2020.

I know the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government has the co-ordinating function, and part of the reason we may well have understated our problem is the downturn in the economy and the reduction in traffic movements. We must heed what the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has indicated: if the modelling scenarios are realised, the scale of investment, compliance costs and climate finance required to be funded by the Exchequer for the period from 2021 to 2030 could result in the displacement of other Government programmes. Essentially, it has argued that we will have to make up from the Exchequer what we do not provide for in mitigating measures.

The timeline for the DART underground sees a decision being forced in September of next year, after which the railway order will cease to be legal. That would be a game-changer. One of the difficulties is that the sectoral plans in the climate legislation that has been published and started its passage through the Dáil will not come into effect for two years after the legislation is put in place. We are making targets even more unrealistic by pushing this out into the future. This is a real issue.

I assure the Deputy that there is no question at all of the Government understating or miscalibrating the consequences of the climate change targets and what it will mean for our own and other economies across Europe. We are working with the European Commission and all our Departments to develop a plan to deliver our contribution to the objective set by the European Union for itself. Within my Department, we will be required to draft the transport element of the national mitigation plan and submit it to the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. We will have the first draft of this work done in the coming weeks and I expect that the overall national mitigation plan will be published by the summer of 2017.

I was not suggesting it was miscalibrated. It is self-evident that if there is less transport because of the downturn, there may have been understatement of the normal position in a functioning economy. It is welcome that there will be a publication in the next few weeks, as we have lost much time on this issue. This leads to another question on the kind of fiscal expansion required into areas such as the delivery of really good public transport. We will be very compromised when it comes to the sectoral plans, particularly with regard to agriculture, and some sectors will possibly have to do more than what would otherwise have been expected. There may well be a role for the European Union or private funding in this area.

I do not wish to mislead the House in any way. My comments on the transport element of the mitigation plan indicated that we would be submitting our contribution to the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government for consideration in the overall plan, which would be published in the summer of 2017. That being said, I understand there will be a period of public consultation in the interim to consider what is proposed and the consequences for our economy, as well as allowing stakeholders to make their views known.

I am absolutely clear that public transport has a crucial role to play in alleviating the consequences of climate change. That is why we are delivering Luas cross-city which we aim to have up and running by 2017 to deliver an additional 10 million journeys. That is why we put more than €100 million into CIE before Christmas to maintain existing public transport, and with the funding we will deliver new buses to the Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus fleets this year to meet the needs to which the Deputy referred.

The Minister should not forget to plant a few more trees.

Sports Events

Bernard Durkan

Question:

120. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport the extent to which he expects to be in a position to assist the Irish Rugby Football Union in its bid to attract the women’s rugby world cup to Ireland, with particular emphasis on the promotion of the national image and culture through the medium of sport; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9926/15]

This question emphasises the importance of attracting major international sporting events to this country, thereby projecting a positive image of the country and promoting the sport.

Before answering the question I wish to announce to the House that the Minister and I have secured €40 million for a new round of the sports capital programme which I will announce after Question Time today. This is the third round of the programme. Fine Gael and the Labour Party in government were committed to two rounds. I am delighted that we have secured €40 million for many sporting organisations throughout the country.

Will that be effected by way of a Supplementary Estimate?

No. I am delighted that the IRFU has submitted a bid to host the women's rugby world cup in 2017. I understand that, if the bid is successful, the IRFU proposes to host the tournament pool stages at University College Dublin, UCD, with the semi-finals and final in Belfast. I am confident that Dublin would be a great host for the games, that the public would support the event and make it a very memorable world cup.  I wrote to the IRFU in recent weeks expressing my support and the full support of the Department and agencies. Hosting the women’s rugby world cup would provide a great opportunity to showcase the island of Ireland internationally. 

The programme for Government made a commitment that event tourism would be prioritised to continue to bring major events to Ireland. This provides a great showcase for Ireland and can drive international visitor numbers. Media coverage of sports events helps to put Ireland onto travel itineraries as a holiday destination. The Government is continuing to support the ongoing efforts of the tourism agencies and the national governing bodies of sport to attract international events.

 I am very hopeful that the IRFU's bid will be successful. This, along with the recent successful bid to host part of the UEFA Euro 2020 tournament at the Aviva Stadium, means that sport will be playing a major part in promoting our national image abroad over the next few years. Successful hosting of the women’s rugby world cup here in 2017 would also help boost Ireland’s reputation in the bid to host the Rugby World Cup in 2023.

I thank the Minister of State for the extensive reply and the positive announcement as well. Will he be in a position himself or through the Department to assist in the plan to attract the women’s rugby world cup to Ireland through the negotiations taking place? To what extent are the negotiations held to date likely to succeed? Is anything further required to be done to make amenities and facilities available or are they adequate?

Fáilte Ireland is assisting with the bid. If we could get the women’s rugby world cup to come to Ireland it would be a great showcase for the country. It would also help us secure the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

We have the facilities for the event. They propose to hold it at UCD. The semi-final and final will be held in Belfast. It would be a great occasion for the country. The people of Ireland would support the women’s rugby world cup.

When I was made Minister of State, one of my priorities was to make sure women were given every opportunity to participate in sport. In 2011, we gave €141,000 for women in sports funding through the Sports Council.

In 2012 we gave €120,000, while in 2013 and 2014 we gave €114,000. We gave grants of €887,000 to high performers to get them prepared for the women's rugby sevens internationals in Rio. We are supporting women's rugby in every way because it needs to be supported as well as men's rugby. Women in sport have to be supported in every way we can.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply and wish him and the IRFU well in their agenda. Will it be possible to promote the image of the country as a sporting nation through this medium? I hope it will. This will benefit us from the point of view of tourism and economics because it will show this country's ability to relate to other countries in sport and add thereby to our economic position.

As I said to the Deputy, the programme for Government gave a commitment to try to host major sporting events. The Deputy is correct that it brings people into the country who might otherwise not come. Statistics have shown that people who have come to this country for sporting events have come back for holidays at a later stage. We are good at a number of things in this country and one of our best things is our people. When people come here we give them a good Irish welcome and they certainly know they are in the country. If there is one thing our people can do, it is be hospitable, and they can talk and sell a message. We have the scenery, the beauty and the infrastructure, and in the past four years we have increased the tourism figures in very difficult times. Last year was the best year ever for people coming from North America. That creates badly needed jobs and revenue as almost 220,000 are employed in tourism in every corner of the country. People talk about rural decline but this is one way we can get people here. We have the natural infrastructure in rural Ireland and we must also continue with developments like the greenways, the Wild Atlantic Way and other such walks.

I thank the Minister of State for his announcement on the assignment of the €40 million. Will he confirm to the House that he will revert to the process which was in place prior to his entry into office? In this process departmental officials carried out the initial validation and the scoring. Most important, to ensure independence, departmental officials assigned the money to the projects rather than the way it is done in the system the Minister of State has introduced since he came to office, in which the money has been assigned by him and his political staff.

Ba mhaith liom tacaíocht a thabhairt d'fhoireann rugbaí na mban leis an iarratas seo agus ba mhaith liom comhghairdeas a dhéanamh leo as an mbua a bhí acu i gcoinne Sasana in Ashbourne an lá faoi dheireadh. Tá súil agam go mbeidh an tAire Stáit ábalta cuid den €40 milliún a thabhairt d'fhoireann rugbaí na mban san am atá le teacht.

I confirm to Deputy Dooley that I stand over the way the sports capital programme has been implemented, unlike the way it was done by his party.

I am sure the Minister does.

As the media has reported, it will be done on a per capita basis, as it has been done in the past two years. There has been no scandal and no problems with sports capital.

In what way will it be done?

I will do it like I did it in the previous two rounds. There will be no change. It will be done on a per capita basis and I will ensure every county gets its fair share of the national cake. I will take it from the counties favoured by Ministers of the Deputy's party when they were in power and I will give it to the counties which have not done well in recent years. When we have corrected this imbalance, we will look at the situation again.

Road Network

David Stanton

Question:

121. Deputy David Stanton asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport if he will make additional funding available to the National Roads Authority to progress the planned upgrade of the Dunkettle interchange outside Cork city; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9986/15]

This question refers to the need to provide funding to upgrade the Dunkettle roundabout in Cork. I am sure the Minister knows that, thanks to the upturn in the economy, the traffic has increased dramatically and palpably and there are now long tailbacks on the interchange. One can now drive from Belfast to Dunkettle thanks to Newlands Cross, and this interchange is just as busy as Newlands Cross.

Some 90,000 vehicles a day pass through that interchange, which is the same number of vehicles that pass through the Newlands Cross junction. Therefore, it requires urgent attention.

As Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I have responsibility for overall policy and funding in regard to the national roads programme. The planning, design and implementation of individual road projects is a matter for the National Roads Authority, NRA, under the Roads Acts 1993 to 2007 in conjunction with the local authorities concerned.

Ireland has just under 100,000 km of road in its network and the maintenance and improvement of national, regional and local roads places a substantial financial burden on local authorities and on the Exchequer. The national financial position has meant there have been very large reductions in Exchequer funding for roads over recent years. Funding in 2008 was €2.3 billion while funding this year is around €730 million for the national, regional and local road network.  For this reason it has not been possible to progress a range of worthwhile projects and the main focus has been to continue the maintenance and repair of roads together with a safety focused minor works programme.

Unfortunately, the financial realities are that the budgets proposed for my Department for 2016 and 2017 will continue to be very tight, limiting the scope for progressing additional new projects. I know, however, that it is important to restore capital funding over time for the transport sector to ensure that infrastructure is maintained and renewed to support economic development, but as of now the NRA continues to operate within a very constrained budget.

I appreciate the importance of this project. In the context of the proposed plan for Cork Harbour and Port currently being adjudicated on by An Bord Pleanála, this project is a piece of infrastructure that has a very valuable role to play in responding, in an integrated manner, to the needs of the Deputy's city and county. I appreciate the importance of the project but having regard to the current constraints under which I am operating I am not in a position to give the Deputy the commitment he wants.

I have three questions for the Minister. Can he indicate the up-to-date cost of that project? He will be aware that it was approved by An Bord Pleanála in May 2013 and the compulsory purchase orders for the NRA to construct the new slip roads were also approved at that time. Can the Minister indicate the up-to-date figure for the number of vehicles passing though that interchange? The figure of 90,000 vehicles per day was reported as passing through it in May 2013 and I know from my experience that number has increased but I do not know the up-to-date number. Can the Minister make that number available? Can he indicate a timescale as to when this project might commence? Is it possible for the NRA as a State agency to borrow in its own right in the same way as Irish Water and other agencies can?

The answer to the Deputy's first question is €90 million. Regarding the Deputy's second question, I understand that around 76,000 cars are either in the vicinity of that point or would use that interchange. Regarding his third point on timing, I am not in a position to give him that information because that requires a commitment from me about capital funding being available now and, regrettably, that funding is not currently available.

Regarding the ability of the National Roads Authority to borrow money, I will come back to the Deputy with a written confirmation in respect of the particular point he raised. In the context of what has happened in the past, I understand that the National Roads Authority has funded these through public private partnerships, PPP, and that could well be the approach taken for a project such as this one in terms of a bundled approach, if we were able to find a core of capital funding to move the PPP forward. That goes back to the key point I made, namely, that to do that, a core amount of capital funding would be required to fund the hub of a PPP and that funding needs to come from the Exchequer.

The NRA has advised that congestion costs the State money and costs much time and finance. Has a cost-benefit analysis been carried out of the cost to the State and to commuters of congestion at this interchange in Cork?

Finally, I am sure the Minister is aware of further job announcements today in Cork, and further growth in the harbour area and in the entire region, which is very welcome. Will he agree that it would be important now for the Government to prioritise this particular bottleneck, which is currently the only blockage, to ensure motorists could have a free run from Belfast to Macroom?

On the Deputy's first question as to whether I am aware of figures for the economic cost of the congestion at that point, I do not have such figures in my possession. I would be confident, however, that if there is such a study it would show that there is an economic cost to those levels of congestion, not to mention a social and personal cost for people in terms of spending so much time in traffic.

The Deputy's second question was whether I accept there is a need for this project. What we have done in terms of decisions we have made elsewhere, for example, Newlands Cross, is sought to fund projects that, when delivered in conjunction with transport infrastructure already in place, relieved congestion and made it more efficient for traffic to flow. As I said in my initial answer to the question, I understand this is an important project. I understand it would become even more important were the Cork Harbour project to move ahead, which is a decision An Bord Pleanála will make in terms of planning conditions it may impose with regard to it. However, I have to view all of those projects inside the fixed amount of capital I have available to me, although I hope that amount of capital will increase in the future.

Harbour Authorities

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

122. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport in view of the deepening financial difficulties faced by Dún Laoghaire Harbour, if there is any justification for the continued existence of the harbour board and the senior executives with all the associated costs; his views on integrating the front-line staff under direct council control; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9881/15]

The Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company is a quango that has failed and should be dissolved forthwith. Its history is 18 years of jobs for the boys at the top, with lavish salaries and expenses, who have run the harbour into the ground. We have had another nail in the coffin with the Stena service being withdrawn. I am asking the Minister if we can simply dissolve Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company and put it back under direct council control where the people of Dún Laoghaire can have some say about how we can save the harbour as an amenity and a working harbour.

I am very clear that the future of Dún Laoghaire Harbour is best placed within a local authority-led governance structure as set out in the national ports policy. My officials are currently finalising the text of the Harbours (Amendment) Bill 2015. The Bill will provide the legal basis for the transfer by ministerial orders of the five designated ports of regional significance, which are Drogheda, Dún Laoghaire, Galway, New Ross and Wicklow.  I expect shortly to seek Government approval of the Bill and to commence its passage through the Oireachtas.

The Bill is designed to provide maximum legislative flexibility and will allow for either a transfer to the local authority of the ministerial shareholding in a particular company or a transfer of all assets, liabilities and employees of the port company to the local authority and the dissolution of that company's corporate structure. Ahead of the Bill’s enactment, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council will carry out a full due diligence of the harbour company. I look forward to the completion of that process and receipt of its findings and the council’s perspective thereon.

Obviously, the optimal manner of transfer is one which finds broad-based consensus and agreement between all parties. I am committed to working with both the company and the council to ensure the sustainable future of the harbour.

I have been asking about this issue for the past four or five years. I am very glad that we are moving the harbour company back under council control. It is something we have been calling for in Dún Laoghaire for a long time but the issue left hanging by the former Minister, Deputy Varadkar, was whether it would be a corporate subsidiary or directly under the council. The former Minister, Deputy Varadkar, said he favoured it being a corporate subsidiary. I want clarity, and a commitment, that it will not be a corporate subsidiary because in terms of the jobs for the boys, the management structure, administration, excessive fees, excessive salaries and massive amounts of money wasted on master plans that never came to fruition, there was waste at every level while the harbour itself has been run into the ground and the front-line staff reduced to negligible numbers. It has been a failure.

To give the Minister some idea, this harbour company has 20 employees left and the CEO gets €136,000 a year, €12,000 on top of that in fees for going to nine meetings a year and €10,000 extra in expenses for reasons unknown - he used to get €20,000 until we kicked up about it. In answer to a question about another €20,000 he paid himself, he stated he paid that in lieu of holidays, which one is not allowed to do. The Minister's predecessor, Deputy Varadkar, stated that was unacceptable. We still have not received an explanation of it.

There are millions of euro wasted on master plans that have never come to fruition. It is a honey pot that is being exploited by these executives through directors' fees etc. while the harbour has been run into the ground. Can the Minister bring the harbour back fully under local authority control and get rid of this structure?

Let me emphasise that I am clear that the appropriate location for a port of this scale and location is within a local authority which, in this case, is Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown. I am well aware of the challenges that the port faces to be sustainable in the future due in no small part to the decision of Stena Sealink to consolidate its services within Dublin Port.

It is necessary that issues in relation to the development of that harbour be handled in the context of it residing within the local authority and I will be making a decision soon regarding the method within which that will happen. Alongside that, I need to introduce the Bill that will give statutory footing to the harbour policy, as I outlined earlier, and I may need to get Government agreement to do that soon.

In achieving that, I ask that we do not have a CEO of a company with 20 staff who is paying himself €150,000, including expenses, a year, other executives who are paying themselves €100,000 a year each, or chairpersons and directors who between them over the past ten years have taken €100,000 to €40,000 in expenses. One can go on through the list. Millions of euro were wasted on consultants' plans when the harbour, as an amenity and a working port, has been run into the ground. This wasteful, parasitical executive management and board structure must be dissolved. One could save €600,000 a year if one did so, and that could be put into employing staff to do real work to develop it as a public amenity and working harbour, which these persons have singularly failed to do.

In order for me to make a decision regarding the manner in which this port will be integrated into the local authority, first I need to bring in the legislation which will create the framework inside which those decisions will be made, and I will do that. I will gain Government agreement to the heads of the Bill and will introduce the legislation shortly afterwards.

As I stated, when that is in place I will make a decision regarding how that integration will best happen. My objective is to come up with a way in which that port can have a secure and sustainable future. I am very much aware that some of the recent decisions that have been made, particularly the decision by Stena Sealink, have severe consequences for that port, and that is best handled inside the local authority.

Deputy Clare Daly is not present for the next question.

Question No. 123 replied to with Written Answers.

Rail Services

Brian Stanley

Question:

124. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport his plans for the Limerick to Ballybrophy rail line, in view of the fact that much of the line has been upgraded. [9882/15]

Following concerns about it closing, I ask the Minister about the Ballybrophy, Roscrea, Cloughjordan, Nenagh, Limerick railway line. There is a report of a consultation process due and he might outline the Government's stance on that.

There were over 27,000 total passenger journeys on the line to which Deputy Stanley refers.

The position in relation to funding for the rail network is that I have the funding in place due to a Supplementary Estimate that I introduced before Christmas to maintain the rail network as it stands currently. I accept that different parts of the network meet existing regional needs on which we touched earlier in the debate on rural bus services. That funding is in place to maintain those lines.

It is my intention to initiate a consultation process on the future of rail in the country because it is important that people are clear on the level of funding that is going into rail at present and the consequences of that funding on the Department's ability to deliver other transport objectives.

Deputy Stanley may ask one supplementary only.

The Minister's reply indicates that the number of passengers on that line has increased, if it is 27,000, because it was reported locally that there were 23,000 passengers, which is a drop of 1,000 on the previous year.

It is an important service. It serves a regional need, from south Laois right down through north Tipperary and into Limerick Junction, and it is important that it is retained. Students use it. Commuters use it for work in Limerick. Residents from south Laois take the train from Ballybrophy.

The line has been upgraded in recent years. There has been substantial funding put into the line, particularly from Roscrea southward, and it is important that we do not close it after upgrading it. There is a section of it still to be upgraded.

The Government should ensure that Iarnród Éireann comes forward with a business plan to grow the amount of business on the line. I will not have the opportunity to contribute again because of time, but I ask also that the line should be used for freight. What is Iarnród Éireann doing to develop the level of freight business on that line? Currently, it is used only for passengers. It is not used 23 hours a day. We should be looking at getting other business onto the tracks. The tracks are there and there was considerable funding put into it. We need to develop the business. I would like to see such opportunities being taken up.

Also, Iarnród Éireann should strive to increase the number of passengers using the service. There is potential to develop both tourism and freight services along with the ordinary passenger services. I would like the Minister to get Iarnród Éireann to bring forward a plan for that railway line.

I make two points in response to Deputy Stanley. First, there has been an increase overall in the number of passengers who avail of train services on the rail network. There was an increase in funding of €101 million or 3% last year over the previous year. This is a reflection of the changes made by Irish Rail and also the economic recovery that is under way.

On Deputy Stanley's particular point on that line, I emphasise that I have the funding in place to maintain the network as it stands at present for the foreseeable future but we need to have a debate and broader understanding in the country regarding the amount of funding that goes into sustaining the heavy rail network and its consequences for the decisions that we need to make for all of the land transport needs in the country for the years to come.