Ábhair Shaincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Matters

Rail Services Provision

I firmly believe that the process involved in selecting the preferred options and the consultation process are significantly flawed. I will give a couple of examples. First, I welcome the DART+ Maynooth–Dunboyne line. There is no doubt that the rail transport system for the whole community along that line will be transformed. I did not receive a single email, telephone call or submission in opposition to the project. There is considerable support for it. The benefits of the DART line will certainly be significant but, as with all major infrastructural projects, there will be a major impact on communities. Some impacts will be significant and others less so. With regard to a number of estates along the new DART line, the impact on the associated communities, families and homes will be significant. The most impactful measures will be the closure of the Coolmine level crossing and Irish Rail's preferred option, that is, building a bridge between St. Mochta's estate and Riverwood.

Let me give to examples. During my recent review of the documentation, I noticed that the option of going under the Coolmine crossing was ruled out because of the height of the canal. However, when I asked those concerned to consider a lock system, I was really surprised to hear it was not proposed to the consultants and that if I put in a submission, it would be considered. I am not an engineer but I believe the whole community is a wee bit puzzled because the consultants did not consider a drop-lock or similar system used on canals across the world. This really needs to be considered.

Another major issue was the consultation process itself. I acknowledge that Irish Rail has, following strong representations from many in the community, extended its deadline for the consultation process twice. The latest extension is until 21 October. However, we are to be subject to level 3 Covid restrictions for a number of weeks and it looks very likely that these will continue for some time beyond 21 October. This means that only those who are tech savvy can take part in the process. It also means that it will not be possible to engage in the essential type of consultation processes that would normally take place between Irish Rail, Deputies, councillors and communities, with organised public meetings at which large maps, hard copies of relevant documentation and detailed plans would be made available. We cannot overstate the importance of being able to look at hard copies of a map and plans and call a person over to ask him or her what something is, where such a line goes or where a certain road leads to, for example. It is important that we get this wonderful project developed and on-stream as quickly as possible, but not at any cost. Once the preferred options are chosen, there will be no way back for the people, except through the High Court.

On behalf of the hundreds of people, especially those who are not tech savvy - including some older people and others who are unable to use Zoom or have meetings on Teams and who will be very much affected - I ask the Minister to ask Irish Rail to hold off until we can have physical meetings and are able to look across a table at those proposing the project so the community can ask the officials the hard questions.

I thank the Deputy for the opportunity to address this issue. The short answer to the question is "Yes" in that every option regarding level crossings on the new DART+ line to Maynooth should be given due consideration.

I will start by taking the opportunity to update the House generally on the progress of the DART+ programme. The programme for Government commits to a fundamental change to the nature of transport in the State. If we are serious about delivering the type of change we need, we will need big, transformative projects such as DART+. That is not to minimise people's concerns about possible impacts or to dismiss their views about particular aspects but it is to make a clear statement of policy support for DART+ and such projects. I have heard the Deputy support DART+, which I very much welcome. I hope and believe that support is given by every Member of this House. People want to see this project built.

For those who are unaware, DART+ will effectively double the capacity of the existing network. It will see the introduction of DART-level services on the Maynooth-Dunboyne, northern and Kildare lines, providing a sustainable, reliable and frequent service across much of the greater Dublin area. If we want to see more people make the switch to more sustainable modes of transport, we must see big projects such as DART+ succeed.

I was delighted to be able to launch the public consultation on DART+ over the summer and I look forward to seeing progress made on the project during the lifetime of this Government. I recognise that major projects such as this can have impacts that not everybody will welcome and I absolutely recognise that the issue of level crossings, as in this instance, has to be considered carefully owing to the potential impact.

Among the documents published as part of the public consultation process is a preliminary option selection report. It sets out in detail the approach taken when considering level crossings. At the very basic level, the general approach is to consider a long list of possible options and then, using multi-criteria analysis, sift through them to create a shortlist of the preferred options for detailed consideration. Therefore, for each level crossing, the report details a range of options to be considered. For some level crossings, up to nine or ten options can be set out, and the pros and cons of each is described.

I understand that, during the public consultation process, some residents suggested there were options ruled out that should have been brought forward for detailed consideration. While I will leave the detailed options analysis to the experts, I believe it is clear that level crossings are a constraint in introducing the type of high-frequency train services we are seeking to introduce with DART+.

The reality is that if we were to keep the level crossings, service frequency would be severely restricted, causing traffic difficulties in the area. I would like to think that we can all agree that the issues need to be tackled somehow, even if there may be disagreement on some of the detail of the how.

This initial consultation process is scheduled to close later this month, having been extended, as mentioned by the Deputy. Iarnród Éireann will then consider submissions received and decide upon the preferred route. During the statutory planning process, members of the public will again have an opportunity to make their voices heard. Next year, I expect Government approval of the preliminary business case for what will be the largest ever investment in our railway network and I look forward to the support of the House as we look to improve this important public service.

I thank the Minister. I am a little disappointed in that there is no commitment to ask Irish Rail to hold off until that meeting can be held. I accept that we are not living in normal circumstances, but this is important. This is a major project and we cannot get it wrong.

I would like to mention a couple of things. The Fingal County Development Plan 2017-2023 includes two local objectives. I worked on that plan, and that work commenced in 2014-2015. The objectives are to preserve the existing pedestrian or vehicle right of way at Coolmine level crossing and to prohibit any road bridge across the train line at the canal and Riverwood station court. There are a number of questions being asked by myself and by local people. For example, how do we encourage people to make submissions to county development plans in good faith and tell them that their voices matter and will be heard? How do we encourage councillors - this applies also to strategic housing developments and other legislation that is being brought in that overrides the county development plans - and convince people to spend hours, often days, on county development plans when they can be overridden?

There is another issue I would like to raise. We need to create a level playing field for local communities versus large organisations, be they State or corporate in nature. The webinar was held by Irish Rail engineers and experts. They have the funding, a budget of €2.6 billion, to hire the best minds in the country. What do the people have? They have nothing but their own resources. They have no expertise and they cannot call on expertise unless they can pay for it. In terms of the strategic housing development at the Brady's Castleknock Inn site, people spent thousands of euro to get professional help. Will the Minister give consideration to the provision of funding for communities like Riverwood, St. Mochta's and others along the DART railway line, and in respect of strategic housing developments, to enable them to get the professional help that the other side always has? The latter have deeper pockets than the people. These are huge projects, costing billions of euro.

It is true, as the Deputy says, that in looking at any project, the preference is to be able to sit down with the engineer, to have the maps laid out and to be able to engage, which is the way public consultation is increasingly being done in this city and elsewhere. It is important to allow close contact and detailed debate. Unfortunately, that is not possible in the current environment. To be honest, I would be very wary about a lengthy delay with this project. It is vital that this service is developed. We do not know for how long the Covid restrictions will apply. If we were to put off the planning or consultation processes until the end of the restrictions, that could have an impact on a range of different projects. I am nervous about that, although I understand the intention and from where it is coming.

The Deputy is correct that there may be some people who do not have as easy access to webinars and so on. I wonder what do they have. In the context of this particular project and in the area of Coolmine where the problem arises, it seems to be on one of the level crossings, where the proposal for a road bridge over the crossing has serious potential consequences for local residents. The Deputy is raising this matter tonight. His three constituency colleagues have not been shy in coming to me, each in turn, saying that they have views on the matter. As public representatives, it is at this time we can fulfil that role in a particular way when it is possible for us to have access to the webinars and to the information. If there are proposals, be that a new lough as suggested by the Deputy or other options - as I said in my initial response I do not think we should be ruling out options at this stage, we should be looking at all options - perhaps the public representatives, councillors and Deputies, in this particular instance have a chance to represent their constituents, as the Deputy is doing and as his three colleagues have done already, directly with me, and make that case to Irish Rail as part of the consultation process. I think that would be the most appropriate further help the Deputy could give.

Can we have a conversation about putting in place funding for professional help for local communities?

I think that is a very good idea. I hope Irish Rail might consider it as part of its consultation process, which has to be done in very exceptional times.

National Transport Authority

We had an unhappy birthday lately in the south east with the 10th anniversary of the closure of the Rosslare to Waterford train route occurring within the past few weeks. This put an end to a rail link that joined towns across south Wexford to Waterford city, as well as supplying heavy rail infrastructure to two major ports, Belview and Rosslare Europort. Since the closure of the line, advocates for its reopening have kept a close eye on the fate of the Barrow Bridge, which is a 650 m span that links County Kilkenny and County Wexford over the River Barrow. A central part of that bridge can open to allow shipping traffic to access New Ross. Keeping the mechanism of that bridge functioning and in good order has always been seen as essential if this line is ever to be brought back into active use.

I was dismayed recently to receive a copy of a letter sent by the National Transport Authority, NTA, to the South-East On Track group. The letter states that the Barrow Bridge is to be maintained in the open position allowing marine traffic to traverse unencumbered, reflecting the fact that as there is no railway service on the line, it is entirely appropriate that right-of-way be given to the marine traffic. On further questioning from the South East On Track group, the NTA confirmed that the agreed arrangements in respect of the closed Waterford to Rosslare line do not include weed spraying or vegetation treatment programmes. This was previously done on an annual basis and so it cannot have been a huge draw on CIE's resources. This sounds to me very much like a plan to abandon the line.

In addition, there have been strong indications from the chief executive officer of Wexford County Council that his preferred use of the rail line is for it to be converted to a greenway. Waterford greenway is the best-in-class exemplar for how a greenway should be designed and delivered. It has been a huge boost for the local economy in Waterford city, Dungarvan and Kilmacthomas. However, I am not of the view that greenways should supplant strategic heavy rail infrastructure, particularly that of this level of importance. I have noted with interest the Minister's recent emphasis on the future importance of rail freight. This is particularly pertinent in the case of the Rosslare line. Taken in its entirety, potentially from Foynes to Rosslare Europort, this line links two tier 2 ports, Rosslare and Belview, and a tier 1 port in Foynes with the major population centres of Waterford, Limerick and Clonmel. This strategic link will only become more important in the context of Brexit, with increased shipping traffic likely to emanate directly from Europe, rather than taking the land bridge route across the UK. Belview and Foynes should be considered in the longer term as sites suitable for the development of offshore wind technology. Both are deep water ports with access to development land and heavy rail infrastructure.

It is also worth noting - I stand open to correction on this - that Rosslare is the only point at which,other than through the Phoenix Park tunnel, the Heuston and Connolly lines converge. In terms of the potential for the line to operate as a commuter service, I have previously been vocal on the need for common-sense timetable changes that will cater to population centres in south Tipperary, allowing residents of Carrick, Clonmel, Tipperary and Cahir to commute either to Waterford or to Limerick for work or study. The same logic applies to south Wexford, with towns like Bridgetown and Wellingtonbridge standing to benefit significantly if their local train line terminated at a newly built integrated transport hub in Waterford city.

I note as well the commitment in the programme for Government to examine the development of national tourism trails linking our ferry ports and rail network. A reopened Rosslare-to-Waterford line would allow for the development of a sail, rail and trail offering, which would allow European tourists, to see our greenway the green way, if I may coin a phrase.

I ask the Minister to review immediately the NTA's new maintenance agreement with Iarnród Éireann and revert it to pre-September 2020 status so the line remains a viable piece of infrastructure, pending further review.

I thank the Deputy for the opportunity to address this issue. As most Members are aware, rail services on this line ceased in 2010 under an agreement made between the National Transport Authority and Iarnród Éireann. A number of improvements were made to bus services at the time to ensure continued public transport connectivity. Undoubtedly, some people are fearful that the decision to maintain the Barrow Bridge in the open position means a point of no return as to whether services might ever return again on this closed line. Equally, I do not wish to give false hope regarding the imminent return of services.

The decision to maintain the bridge in an open position is a pragmatic one, based on the fact that the line has now been closed for ten years. While the line has been closed, the port of New Ross remains open and the position of the bridge reflects the need to ensure easy navigational access to the port. I am informed that up until recently there was a requirement for four full-time Iarnród Éireann staff to be on site to open the bridge to allow ships sail to and from the port, which probably strikes most people as a little odd, to say the least.

Ten years after the decision to close the line, a number of revised arrangements have been agreed between the National Transport Authority and Iarnród Éireann relating to the line. These arrangements include obligations to review level crossing surfaces each year, reviewing the boundary protection along the line each year and conducting bridge inspections every two years in line with Iarnród Éireann's technical standards. In addition, the agreement between the NTA and Iarnród Éireann requires a general review of the line to be undertaken annually. The purpose of the review is to assess the overall condition of the line so as to be able to provide a current status assessment of the infrastructure each year. The revised arrangements also provide that the Barrow Bridge be maintained in an open position. This means that the previous requirement for four full-time staff manning the bridge, with no services, is removed. Furthermore, the design of the mechanism is such that it can easily be reversed if rail services resume at some point in the future.

At a practical and pragmatic level, I hope the Deputy can understand the reason behind the decision to maintain the bridge in an open position. At a broader level, I do not doubt the Deputy's wish to see rail services running again on this line. I hope he can see that this decision does not fundamentally run counter to that at some point in the future, if that were to be decided. There are those who wish to develop the route as a greenway and build upon the work already undertaken or under way in the south east to create a cluster of attractive greenways spanning the region.

I trust this clarifies the position regarding the Barrow Bridge.

I am afraid it feels like a point of no return. It is something that has been closely monitored by people with an interest in this route over the years. It feels a little like a managed decline. I am also worried that we will end up tearing out an excellent and strategic piece of infrastructure with a view to developing a greenway on it. We have a EuroVelo route which has been developed by Wexford County Council and runs from Rosslare Europort to the Ballyhack ferry, which transports people over onto Passage East and into Waterford. It would be a much better use of resources to develop that EuroVelo route to a higher standard and to develop a corridor from Passage East into Waterford city, which would also be an important commuting corridor along the Dunmore road. Significant funding, some €58,000 if I am correct, has been allocated for the design phase of this greenway. I am open to the concept of side by side but the Barrow Bridge would make side-by-side development of a greenway route very difficult.

When we think about rail infrastructure in general, and the Minister is conscious of this as well, we should be mindful that while there is a significant cost to upgrading and maintaining this route, it is certainly a fraction of what it would cost to build this infrastructure from scratch. We should not be aiming towards a managed decline of infrastructure. Heavy rail bridges such as this can discharge freight capacity as well as commuter capacity. It can be moved to low emissions or zero emissions relatively easily compared with haulage traffic. I am anxious that we have a review of this route in the short to medium term to consider how we can make it practically viable for people, not just commuters but also freight and tourist traffic that will be emanating from Rosslare Europort.

I had a meeting with Iarnród Éireann last week and raised the specific issue of the future of Rosslare Port because it is owned by CIE and Irish Rail. I was raising it in the context of a wider review that Iarnród Éireann is commissioning on the future of rail freight in this country. I believe there is an opportunity for the expansion of rail freight. At present, only 2% of freight is carried by rail. That is a small fraction of what the average is across Europe. While some argue that the distances here are not long enough, the rest of Europe is saying it wants to switch to even greater volumes of freight traffic. With new technology coming on stream, the possibility of revived rail freight is a real prospect, and-or the other use of other rail lines for commuting, tourism or other purposes.

The Deputy's instincts are right. We should not write off the possible return of lines which are currently underutilised or, as with this line, effectively closed for the last ten years. There are particular difficulties in Rosslare because it is a roll-on roll-off port. In the discussions I had with Iarnród Éireann, I asked if it was thinking of the possibilities to vary or adapt that in the long term in developing the port. There are difficulties in that regard, but we have to wait and see what is in the report of its review of the future of freight. It is also influenced by the fact that the Port of Waterford has lift-on lift-off facilities at Belview and has rail freight capabilities. That would influence the decision.

The issue of this line is similar in a way to the discussion about the western railway corridor in terms of the question of whether one has a greenway or keeps a rail asset. I do not disagree with the Deputy's suggestion that it is possible, potentially, to have both. We will have to make a decision in that regard in the context of a wider network review. It is not just this section of line, but seeing how we can integrate networks, which is what I hope to do. I commit to doing further work with the Deputy and other Deputies in the Waterford and Wexford region to examine what possibilities there might be.

Swimming Pool Programme

Is í an cheist atá faoi chaibidil agam anocht ná an baol mór atá ann nach mbeidh an linn snámha poiblí i nGaillimh oscailte arís tar éis na Nollag. Ar ndóigh, fógraíodh ag deireadh na míosa seo caite go mbeadh an linn snámha ag dúnadh, ach tar éis feachtas agus tar éis brú, rinneadh athchinneadh agus tá sé oscailte anois go dtí an Nollaig. Dúradh leis na comhairleoirí nach bhfuil dóthain airgid ag an údarás áitiúil chun an linn snámha a choinneáil oscailte. Is léir go mbeidh impleachtaí ón gcinneadh seo ar fud na tíre. De réir mar a thuigim, tá na linnte snámha i dtrioblóid i gach áit - i mBéal Átha na Sluaighe agus i dTuaim freisin.

The subject I am raising tonight is the public swimming pool in Galway, which was opened in 1973. It is a fantastic swimming pool. I must declare a conflict of interest as I use it every weekend. It helps to keep me semi-sane and semi-fit. It was announced at the end of September that the pool was going to close at the end of that week. I reacted by calling it crass stupidity that a local authority would allow a public swimming pool to close because of funding. This public swimming pool broke even in the last number of years. No public swimming pool makes a profit and few of them break even. This pool needed money due to Covid-19 and the difficulties experienced by every public swimming pool in the country. The management in the city council said it was not in a position to give it money and that the swimming pool would have to close. As a result of pressure from councillors, which originated from the people and the users of the swimming pool, the council relented and gave over €200,000 to enable it to remain open until Christmas. However, it pointed out that the money was coming out of next year's budget, it could not continue and it would not be in a position to fund it.

I do not expect miracles, but I expect a commitment from the Minister and the Government that, regardless of what happens, we are not going to close public swimming pools or public libraries. They are essential services.

I note that Ireland Active, which represents leisure, health and fitness associations, welcomed the July stimulus of €2.5 million to enable swimming pools with public access to remain open because of the high energy costs and the difficulties complying with Covid. It seems this is not available to the local authorities. In any event it is a small amount of money given the number of swimming pools. I understand again from Ireland Active that this fund will be administered by Sport Ireland. The Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, made a very positive announcement on this and acknowledged the challenges facing swimming pools. We have got a reprieve until Christmas in Galway because of pressure but the same challenges apply to all the other public swimming pools. Can the Minister of State please do an assessment of what is necessary to keep our public swimming pools open and put a package in place? I understand 300,000 adults at a minimum use swimming pools every year. It is the sport with the second largest number of participants. It does not make sense on any level to allow swimming pools to close, not to mention that in the middle of all our difficulties we have great problems with obesity and lack of exercise. There should be a positive programme to encourage people to use the swimming pools while complying with the Covid restrictions. I ask for confirmation tonight that this closure is not going to be allowed to happen, not just in Galway but anywhere.

I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity to outline today the importance of Government funding of local authorities, with a particular focus on the spend of Galway City Council and Galway County Council, and also to reflect on the serious impact Covid-19 is having on local authorities' expenditure and on their cash flow. The funding system that applies to local authorities is a complex one, as authorities derive their income from a variety of sources including commercial rates, charges for goods and services and funding from central Government. Central Government funding of local authorities similarly presents a complex picture, with transfers coming from a wide range of Departments and offices, not solely from my Department, for a variety of purposes. It is the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport that has responsibility for the funding of swimming pools. Also, local property tax, LPT, can be used by local authorities to support the provision of local services which benefit citizens directly including parks, libraries, leisure amenities etc.

My Department recognised that cash flow support was critical to local authorities in order to ensure the services they deliver, including required subventions to swimming pools, could be maintained. It was decided to bring forward a number of payments due from the Department, where possible, throughout 2020. Specific advances were made to both Galway City Council and Galway County Council in respect of LPT and also each local authority's individual payroll and public service pension reduction allocation. In fact, all of the LPT allocations for 2020, amounting to €516.8 million in total, have been paid to all local authorities at this stage. Local authorities have been advised to capture all related costs in their financial systems to aid future financial analysis of the impact of Covid-19 on the local government sector.

My Department is engaging with representatives of the local government sector and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on the financial challenges facing local authorities as a direct consequence of the pandemic, in terms of additional costs incurred as part of the local government response and declines in local authority income streams. These matters are under active consideration. In order to support the sector generally, I will ensure my Department continues to keep local authority income, expenditure and cash flow under review and will continue to work with all local authorities, both collectively and individually, including on issues being raised by Galway City Council and Galway County Council.

In the programme for Government, Our Shared Future, the Government places a strong emphasis on swimming, cycling, walking and running, which are especially suitable for all generations. I am also mindful of recent comments by my colleague, the Minister for Finance, who commented on the importance of swimming pools remaining open during and after this pandemic, though he also advised a huge intervention is required and it may be that we will not be able to meet every need. I hear the significant case the Deputy has put forward in connection with the swimming pool in question and I know that the Department is reviewing the case with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. We have a great need to be met in the local authority sector between a collapse in goods and services income, the commercial rates income being significantly compromised and also in terms of the collection of income streams in the sector.

I welcome the positive nature of the last two paragraphs of the reply, which refers to the acknowledgement in the programme for Government of the importance of swimming among other activities and the comments of the Minister for Finance. I do not have the time to go into the finances of both local authorities. I think it is accepted that they are the lowest funded in the whole of the country. That is a separate problem. In addition to that we have Covid. We had a Zoom meeting last Friday. Zoom meetings are never very good for interaction but it was good in the sense of getting a presentation. The manager conveyed to us that the financial situation in Galway city is dire. He said there has been no certainty at all from the Department in respect of the payment of rates and the absence of money.

I am not going to go into that but I am going to use my minute to highlight another irony. We are putting money into opening up pubs, and rightly so, as we need pubs and we need to ensure staff have jobs. However, the irony cannot be lost on the Minister of State that while we are opening up pubs with the help of public funds, we are closing down public swimming pools. There is something seriously wrong with that logic given the programme for Government and the essential nature of swimming pools. On the announcement of the stimulus package, in his last two minutes the Minister of State might clarify if that was specifically for private bodies such as hotels and leisure centres and not for public swimming pools. It is very ironic if we are going to keep private swimming pools open once they have some limited access to the public while we close down the public swimming pools. It was literally closing down. The staff were called in and told it was closing down the following week. It was simply as a result of pressure that we kept it open until Christmas. I still do not hear the Minister of State saying that we are making a commitment to keeping our public swimming pools open because they are an essential service on so many levels. I would like to hear that.

I want to put to bed the rumour that the Government is not coming up with and delivering income streams for local authorities. The revised Estimate for the sector was approved today by the committee in connection with a €600 million fund for the rates waiver scheme. The Government is monitoring this closely. We are very clear that the local authority sector has achieved so much over the last number of years and indeed through Covid-19 in the way it rolled out the community call in a few days, for example. Local authorities responded to serious emergencies in terms of storms and floods. I can assure the Deputy of that. In terms of the allocation of the LPT fund, which every county and city council has now, I would also make the Deputy aware that the Department gave a special allocation of €1 million to Galway County Council which has been approved and allocated for 2020.

I hear the case the Deputy is making very clearly in terms of the sector. I have absolutely been very clear that this is under review within the Department. I just cannot go making commitments on the broad scale before the budget, which is subject to negotiations currently. The Government is very clear on encouraging people to have the most active lifestyle and also on presenting the infrastructure for them to do that. That is why we have had unprecedented investment in walking, greenways and infrastructure for outdoor recreation. I will do my very best with regard to the Deputy's ask. I would be willing to meet a delegation from the city council in connection with this issue. However, there are going to be significant asks emanating from this crisis. We are doing our very best to make what we have available go as far as it can. It presents a major challenge.