Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Park-and-Ride Facilities

Catherine Connolly

Question:

47. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Transport further to Question No. 84 of 12 November 2020, the status of the roll-out of park-and-ride facilities for Galway city; the number and locations of all sites identified to date from which to operate park-and-ride services; the engagement he has had with Galway City Council on this issue; the engagement he has had with the park-and-ride development office on this issue; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1832/21]

One of the advantages of chairing as Leas-Cheann Comhairle is that one has a preview of the answer, so I have read the Minister's answer. I ask him to avoid giving the reply because it does not answer the question which is very specific, and relates to the status of the roll-out of park-and-ride facilities in Galway, the number and locations of all sites identified, and whether the Minister has been in contact with the city council on it and with the park-and-ride officer. Will the Minister answer that and use his two minutes to tell me why, since 2005, even though it was in the 2005 development plan, Galway City Council has not rolled out park-and-ride services?

I am in an awkward position because the Leas-Cheann Comhairle is much more knowledgeable and has seen the response, but I am reluctant for other Deputies not to have that information. I will happily come back to answer the Deputy's questions in the supplementary reply, if she does not mind me providing the baseline information which will inform other Deputies in the same way as the Deputy is informed.

I share with Deputy Connolly the wish to see much improved active travel and public transport infrastructure and services in Galway. It is a wish I have expressed to members of Galway City Council and Galway County Council in meetings I have had with them in the last year. I think we are on the verge of positive change in the city and surrounding area, a change that will see a more sustainable and liveable Galway emerge. That is why I welcome the announcement two weeks ago of over €60 million of Exchequer funding to improve Ceannt Station, transform the public realm at key city centre sites and deliver improved rail infrastructure at Oranmore which can enable compact development in the area. I am delighted that my Department will assist with this transformation by co-funding works at Ceannt Station, at Oranmore and in relation to the proposed active travel network. These are all positive developments and ones I look forward to seeing completed.

These developments will complement the improvements planned under the Galway transport strategy, which looks to improve significantly active travel and bus infrastructure in the city. The funding announced the other week in relation to the city’s active travel network is hugely positive, while we are now seeing progress in relation to some of the key bus corridors in the city, like the cross-city link and the Dublin Road corridor.

The successful development of bus-based park-and-ride services in the city is linked to the roll-out of BusConnects Galway. It obvious to say that developing park-and-ride sites without developing improved bus infrastructure and services will simply fail. If we are going to get people to make the switch out of the private car, the alternative needs to be fast, predictable and reliable. At the moment I am sorry to say that is just not the case on many of the key corridors into Galway city. Therefore the imperative is to roll-out BusConnects Galway. Alongside that, the local authority will work in co-operation with the National Transport Authority and its park-and-ride development office to identify strategic sites for park-and-ride services. More generally, I think that next year is an appropriate time to look again at the Galway transport strategy and review it, given that 2022 will mark its sixth anniversary.

I am not given to despair but in 2005 we put the development of park-and-ride services in the east and west sides of the city as an objective in the city development plan. Here we are in 2021. The people were way ahead of us as they were in the request for light rail when they signed 24,000 signatures. They are way ahead of us on climate change. I am asking the Minister, and as a new Minister because I failed with the last Minister, and he acknowledged there was a failure, what knowledge he has of the progress being made in identifying park-and-ride sites in Galway city as a means of alleviating traffic congestion, given that it has been in the development plan since 2005. Is he satisfied with the lack of progress given the ambitions we have and the obligations we have under climate change legislation to reduce our emissions?

The Galway transport strategy set outs three potential locations: one on the west side of the city on the Bearna-Rahoon corridor, and two on the east side on the Dublin Road corridor and on the Claregalway N17 corridor. It also suggests there may be opportunities for small-scale developments on the Moycullen and Headford corridors. The strategy notes that existing rail-based park-and-ride facilities at Oranmore could be used but that its current capacity of 140 spaces is sufficient for the moment.

To answer the Deputy's question on progress, there is real frustration on all sides at the lack of progress in Galway across a range of sustainable transport initiatives. It is critical that we develop the cross-city link and the Dublin Road BusConnects corridors. They have just gone to a non-statutory public consultation. It is critical that we get that back and then, as quickly as possible this year, go to seeking planning permission. It is at that point, when we know we have planning permission, that we can start making specific decisions around park-and-ride services. Advancing one without the other means we would not be certain of connecting the bus corridor with the park-and-ride service, which is essential for its success.

The Minister must agree that 16 years after we put it into the development plan, we are not going too fast. It is 16 years since we did that. The people led us in proposing sustainable solutions to the traffic congestion in Galway. We have been let down by management. Councillors put it forward in my time and it has never been rolled out. At this stage, there is urgency to it. My privilege as Leas-Cheann Comhairle does not extend to the supplementary answers. I look forward to reading about the sites being identified as it is all very vague. This is a problem that we can deal with very quickly, namely to identify the sites. Of course they have to be integrated into a sustainable transport system. My preference is for light rail but that is just my preference, as it was among the 24,000 people who signed the petition to ask for a feasibility study. It is all tied in together. The city is destined to grow, as the Minister knows, by an additional 40% under the national development plan. We should be planning strategically and sustainably and the most basic thing are park-and-ride facilities.

I agree about the merits of a feasibility study for light rail in Galway. We will commission and deliver that. It is best done within the review of the Galway transport strategy which is due next year. It would also be done then at a time when, all going well, we will know whether we have got the planning permission through for the cross-link route. That would be one obvious route which we could upgrade to the light rail options that a number of people in Galway are now presenting as having real potential. To deliver that requires first and foremost political commitment from the local authority representatives and the Dáil representatives in Galway because it will be a difficult decision. It will require the reallocation of space and preference being given to public transport. This would transform the city for the better, but it is never easy. It is never easy to change from the current model to a new one but that is the key thing, both in the current public non-statutory public transportation phase and as we go into devising planning permission. Getting local political buy-in, support and backing for the bus corridor options and for the active travel routes is what we need in Galway more than anything else.

Covid-19 Pandemic Supports

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

48. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Transport the supports he plans to implement to aid taxi drivers in the coming period as a result of the impact of Covid-19 restrictions on the industry; if he plans to extend the ten-year rule for vehicles due to be replaced in 2021; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15580/21]

Over the last year I have repeatedly tried to get it into the heads of the Government just how crucified more than 20,000 taxi drivers have been by the impact of Covid-19. Thousands of them had to take to the streets in September to demand supports and assistance. Apart from a few changes they forced in the PUP, support for the thousands of taxi drivers has not been forthcoming from the Government. Many of them face the prospect of having to replace their cars this year. Where the hell are they supposed to get the money to do that, never mind for insurance, car repayments and so on?

I agree with the Deputy. I recognise that Covid-19 has had a profound impact on small businesses across the country, with the public transport sector being especially affected as public health restrictions have necessarily discouraged people from travelling generally. Taxi and other small public service vehicle operators, who are particularly dependent on the hospitality and tourism sectors, have faced a particularly pronounced drop in demand and real challenges and difficulties in the last year.

It is in recognition of these difficulties that the Government has introduced a wide-ranging programme of supports with broad eligibility criteria for individuals and businesses which have been adversely affected by Covid-19.

Many of these supports can be accessed by self-employed taxi drivers, including liquidity and investment measures, from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, as well as the enterprise support grant and the pandemic unemployment payment from the Department of Social Protection. Self-employed recipients of the PUP, like small public service vehicle, SPSV, drivers, can also avail of the self-employment income scheme which provides for an income disregard for the first €960 earned in a given eight-week period.

I remain committed to supporting the transition of the SPSV sector towards zero-low-emission vehicles and I have increased the funding available to the electric SPSV grant scheme from €1 million in 2020 to €15 million this year. Furthermore, in view of the particular challenges faced by operators of older vehicles, I have doubled the amount payable under the scheme to €20,000 for operators who scrap older vehicles and make the switch to fully electric models. Additional amounts are available for those switching to vehicles which are both electric and wheelchair accessible. There has been a strong interest in the revised scheme since its launch earlier in the year, with over 200 applications received to date. I believe that for many drivers there is a strong financial as well as environmental case to switch to such electric vehicles. Operators of electric vehicles enjoy the benefits of lower running costs, lower tolls under the low emissions vehicle toll incentive and can use dedicated SPSV electric charging infrastructure at key transport hubs such as major airports and railway stations.

One of the key pillars of climate action, which the Minister talks about but which I do not think he really understands, is the just transition for workers affected by it. Regarding the €15 million the Minister spoke of, let us consider those taxi drivers whose incomes have either been reduced to zero, for the 40% who have remained on the PUP because there is no work out there, or those others who have experienced a reduction of 60% to 70%. Those drivers still have to make their car repayments and to pay their insurance. How on earth would those people afford the €25,000 in additional costs on top of the grant which would be needed to move to an electric vehicle? How could those drivers possibly do that? What is actually happening regarding that €15 million is that the only people who will be able to apply for these grants will be the big taxi companies that have the resources, and not the thousands of taxi drivers whose incomes have been crucified and who are excluded from the CRSS and the Covid-19 business aid scheme, CBAS.

The €15 million in supports is designed for just those types of small individual taxi drivers and not for the big companies. It is a significant cash support, which increases further if drivers are using wheelchair-accessible vehicles. The uptake so far of 200 applications is a significant signal that this scheme is of real interest. It is a combination of that much-reduced cost of these vehicles and availing of other enterprise and liquidity supports, which will allow the financing of the purchase of vehicles. Taxi drivers are increasingly going to realise the savings that will arise from the fuel costs being a fifth of what they were previously and the maintenance costs being similarly a fraction of those previously. The maths of the return from the use of these vehicles means that I believe there will be a significant uptake by the end of the year by exactly those people of whom Deputy Boyd Barrett spoke about. I refer to individual, self-employed taxi drivers who face real difficulty. While the PUP, the income disregard and the ability to earn in addition to the PUP will help those in that situation, I think that €15 million in grant payments, backed up with financing and liquidity, will be a way out of this crisis for those drivers.

I was just talking to one of the leaders of a taxi representative group just now. He spoke of a taxi driver who looked for a loan from the bank of €5,000 and was refused. Why was that? It was because when the banks look at the situation of the taxi industry as it is now, they know there is no work and no income. As a result, they think that those applying for even €5,000 loans must be joking and they are refusing to loan even those amounts. How then are the individual taxi drivers supposed to get €25,000, which is the amount needed to buy an electric, wheelchair-accessible vehicle costing about €50,000? The grants are only at about €20,000, so these drivers cannot manage to do this.

On top of everything else, they have clocked up debts for car repayments and similar costs. An extension has not been rolled over for those whose cars will no longer meet the ten-year rule this year. Therefore, the grants are not enough to sustain people and the vast majority will not be able to access the grants and make up that sort of difference. What those drivers are telling me is that it is the taxi companies that will be able to afford these costs and it is those companies that are applying for those grants. The taxi representative groups are also very dissatisfied with the taxi advisory committee and do not want to be part of it because they cannot get their message directly through to the Minister and his Department.

Deputy Gould would like to contribute on this issue.

I agree with Deputy Boyd Barrett on this issue. Taxi drivers in Cork are telling me how hard they and the industry are finding this situation. They cannot cope. They need more supports from the Government. On the replacement of cars after ten years, there was an extension to that rule for the year, but it must be extended again. How can taxi drivers replace cars which are ten years old right now? The Minister made the point that some 200 taxi drivers have availed of the grant. If there are 20,000 taxis and 200 grants have been taken up, that is 1% of the total. The Minister is here saying how great the Government's actions are for taxi drivers, but what I am hearing from taxi drivers in Cork is that they are struggling and are finding this situation hard. Hospitality and taxis were the first sectors to close and they will probably be the last to reopen.

Both Deputies are right that this is one of the industries which has suffered the worst. The ultimate way to get this industry restored is to see a return to normality in the coming months, with the roll-out of the vaccines and the lifting of restrictions, subject to the virus not taking off again, allowing business to come back. That is the first key thing that must happen. When I talk to taxi drivers, they recognise that no matter vehicle they might have or whatever arrangements there may be, there is no business or demand for these services. That is probably the most important aspect of this situation.

I am convinced that during the summer this situation will start to turn and we will start to see demand return. Such a development will then also give taxi drivers wondering what to do next the ability to switch vehicles. The scrappage scheme does not just apply to a vehicle of a certain age, it depends on the number of miles which a vehicle has done. It concerns vehicles at the end of their lives and a wide variety of taxi drivers will be able to avail of this taxi scheme. That is the best approach to dealing with a vehicle coming to the end of its life and also the best approach to supporting the wider industry.

What about all the debts they have?

Deputy Gould is correct about the figure of 200 applications. That is the number of applications, however, and they have not all drawn down the grants yet. If they were all to draw down €20,000, however, then that would be €4 million out of a €15 million fund. I am confident and hopeful that we will allocate the full €15 million. It is still only a small percentage but it starts to develop the supply chain of vehicles. We will then see costs further reducing because the requisite volume will exist.

Public Transport

Denis Naughten

Question:

49. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Transport the steps he is taking to reduce the emissions profile of the public transport fleet; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14519/21]

As the Minister will know from looking through the files in his Department, after a long and protracted battle the Government took a decision in January 2019 to not purchase any new fossil fuel buses for public transport. Disappointingly, the first double-decker electric vehicle will not go onto the streets here in Dublin until January 2023. It will be a full five years after I secured that commitment when I was in government.

An efficient and low-emission public transport system forms a key part of this Government's vision for sustainable mobility. As public transport is responsible for less than 5% of our transport emissions, in absolute terms, converting public transport fleets to low-carbon alternatives will have a limited impact on national emission reductions. However, greening the public fleet does fulfil a strong leadership and demonstration role as we shift towards a low-carbon economy. To this end, I am committed to continuing to green the public transport fleet and to making each public transport journey less carbon-intensive. A comprehensive programme of work is already under way, with a strong focus on the pathway to zero emitting vehicles.

The national bus fleet, which carries the majority of public transport passengers, is already moving to lower emission alternatives. During 2020, a total of 280 diesel-electric plug-in hybrid buses were ordered. A number of these vehicles were delivered during December and will enter service over the coming weeks. A total of 100 such vehicles should be operational by May this year, with the remaining 180 vehicles to be delivered during quarters 3 and 4 of this year.

The NTA is tendering for the supply of single-deck, fully electric buses, the first of which will be introduced into town fleets this year. In addition, further such vehicles will be assigned to other urban routes that are capable of being operated with single-deck buses. In respect of the double-deck fleet, the number of manufacturers of right-hand drive double-deck buses is very limited, which has impacted the development of such vehicles. The NTA is satisfied, however, that the available product is now mature enough, and capable of a sufficient range, to allow the purchase of double-deck fully electric fleet for some urban routes. Accordingly, a tender process has commenced for the purchase of double-deck, fully electric buses, with the first order expected to be placed later this year and the first vehicles under that order arriving towards the end of next year.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

In terms of heavy rail, we are expanding electrification through the DART+ programme, which will ultimately mean about 70% of journeys in any given year on the rail network will be on electrified services. In the interim, we are continuing to expand rail capacity through the ongoing construction of the national train control centre and the manufacture of 41 additional carriages for the greater Dublin area commuter rail fleet. I intend to commission a review of the rail network that will consider the potential for high or higher-speed rail, including the potential electrification of the interurban network. As regards our light rail network, we have been expanding the capacity of the Luas green line with the ongoing arrival of 26 tram extensions and eight additional trams, all of which I expect will have entered service by quarter 2 of this year. We will also look at route options for Luas Cork, Luas Lucan and the preliminary design for Luas Finglas. This year, I intend to seek Government approval for MetroLink, a new largely underground electrified metro service in Dublin that is probably the largest public investment project in the history of the State.

Furthermore, in the most recent budget, I was delighted to announce an electric vehicle scrappage scheme to enhance the supports available for taxi and hackney drivers switching to electric vehicles. I hope to see a steady greening of our small public service vehicle fleet over the coming years.

Collectively, these measures will see us progressively modernise and lower the emission profile of our public transport fleets, as well as creating an attractive alternative to the private car. As the Deputy is aware, I am fully committed to a shift to public transport and active travel as a means of reducing transport emissions. There have been some great additions to active travel infrastructure and our public realm in recent months, as local authorities have put in place emergency measures to support local communities and businesses through our current difficulties. We want to build on these types of initiatives and support them through our commitment of €1.8 billion over the lifetime of the Government for active travel. This level of investment, along with our significant investment in greening public transport, will help improve quality of life and reduce the quantity of emissions and air pollutants from the transport sector.

Ours is a small island off the coast of western Europe and beside us is quite a large island which, funnily enough, has had right-hand drive, zero-emission buses for many years in London. The Minister, therefore, should pull the other one in that regard.

In January 2018, the NTA and the Department sought a delay of 18 months on the implementation of the ban on fossil fuel buses, which they got, but the delay was extended for a further six months until the end of 2019. Since then, 380 diesel-hybrid buses have been put onto our roads and into the city of Dublin. In light of the fact that four people a day, many of whom live in the city of Dublin, die because of poor air quality in this country as a direct result of diesel emissions, is there not a responsibility on the Government in regard to its failure to deliver on this?

The Government will develop and deliver a new clean air strategy which recognises exactly that, namely, that this is a matter of life and death in respect of which we need to be really progressive. We have started that with the provisions to end the burning of smoky fuels throughout the country, which is probably the most immediately critical initiative to improve air quality and which I hope the Deputy will support.

Nevertheless, the Deputy is correct. The switch to cleaner public transport vehicles and other measures to improve the flow of traffic in city and town centres throughout the country will be critical. It involves a combination of measures, including the public transport fleet but also supporting the likes of the BusConnects projects. We were talking about it earlier in respect of Galway but the same applies to Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Waterford. While that fleet of diesel-hybrid buses will evolve to being one of fully electric buses, emissions are reduced significantly when they are given priority over a private traffic solution.

There are a variety of ways in which we can address the issue. The Deputy is correct to say there are black spots in Dublin, particularly around the public transport stations such as Heuston Station and on the quays. We need specific solutions for those areas, which will be included in the clean air strategy.

In places such as Heuston Station, buses already have priority. Turning to the Bill the Minister published yesterday, which I welcome, section 6 makes specific reference to cost-effective actions in the context of climate change. This comes back to the fundamental problem with the public sector expenditure code, which I had to spend a long time to get implemented by the Government. Would the Minister not agree that the fundamental problem here is that until now the NTA has chosen to buy buses based on the purchase price of the vehicle rather than its whole-of-life cost? As he said earlier, electric engines require much less maintenance than diesel ones. If we looked at the whole-of-life cost of buses, we would have an awful lot more electric buses in our fleet. The difficulty is this is being replicated throughout the Government.

I accept the NTA's explanation that, to date, the reason we have not purchased large numbers of double-deck electric vehicles is they were not available in models that were properly advanced or had been fully tested in the market. We are at the cutting edge of what is happening. It would be different if we had a bus transport system characterised by low, single-deck buses but we do not. In most of our cities, the large public bus transport fleets are double-deckers and up to now such vehicles were not available. They are becoming available, which is why we are switching to them and will purchase them in large numbers at the same time that we are now purchasing single-deck electric buses for those cities and services where single-deck bus services apply. The issue is changing and evolving quickly, and as soon as electric vehicles become available, we will switch to them.

That excuse was not used three years ago.

As Deputy Stanton is not present, we will move to Question No. 51.

Question No. 50 replied to with Written Answers.

Road Projects

James O'Connor

Question:

51. Deputy James O'Connor asked the Minister for Transport if he will report on the potential allocation of funding to a project (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15632/21]

I thank the Minister for allowing me the opportunity to ask for a progress update on the R624 road into Cobh. Cobh is a town of 13,000 people and is in desperate need of a significant and substantial upgrade to the access road into and out of the town up to the N25 near Tullagreen House. Will the Minister give us a progress update on that?

The improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads is the statutory responsibility of the relevant local authority in accordance with the provisions of section 13 of the Roads Act 1993. Works on those roads are funded from councils' own resources and supplemented by State road grants. The national development plan, NDP, as it stands provides for the gradual build-up of funding for the road network but funding is not yet at the level needed for the adequate maintenance and renewal of regional and local roads. For this reason, the primary focus for capital investment continues to be the maintenance and renewal of the network, with some limited investment in road improvement projects. The NDP is under review. The aim of the review in the transport sector is to align policy with the Government's priorities as set out in the programme for Government.

If any transport project is to be considered for funding under the revised NDP, it must be appraised for compliance with the public spending code as revised in December 2019. An important change to the code is the introduction of a requirement for a strategic assessment report, SAR, for all projects with an estimated expenditure of €10 million or more. The SAR is now a key deliverable at the first decision stage in the project appraisal process. The purpose of the SAR is to examine the rationale for potential policy interventions and ensure the strategic fit of potential projects and programmes with Government policy, particularly the national planning framework and the national development plan. A common cause of problems with projects is a failure to clearly specify objectives and desired outcomes at the outset. The introduction of the requirement for a SAR is designed to guard against this and ensure early engagement with, and scrutiny of, potential public investment projects and programmes.

Regarding the R624 specifically, my Department has had some engagement with Cork County Council following the submission of an initial project appraisal in 2019. In this context, the public spending code project appraisal requirements have been explained to the council. As the council has indicated that it is proposing to appoint consultants in connection with the proposed scheme, my officials have proposed a meeting between the council and the Department's strategic research and analysis division regarding the preparation of the SAR relating to the scheme.

I am happy to hear that the council and the Department will engage directly with each other. We need to get this project included under the NDP to ensure it will be allocated the necessary funds. There is a strong case for why Cobh should receive this investment, particularly factoring in the standard and quality of the current road and recognising that the island is serviced by exceptionally good public transport, which will be improved with the CEMAT strategy. We have to acknowledge that the road that is in place is very old. We are dealing with a bridge in Belvelly that was built in the 1800s and is in terrible condition. It has to closed frequently, which leaves the island cut off, something that is completely and utterly unacceptable in the 21st century.

We are desperately in need of this investment. I encourage the Minister to continue to engage with all stakeholders involved. Perhaps he will be able to give us further insight into what he will be doing in his engagement with Cork County Council, the local authority leading this project.

As I indicated in the response, those meetings will be important. The Deputy is right; one of the key issues here relates to that bridge and the fact that there have been a number of incidents in recent years, including flooding, as a result of which the bridge has had to be closed. It is a very old bridge in quite an exposed position, as are other sections of the roadway. The key question relates to the solutions to that problem. Widening of the bridge is not appropriate given its historic nature. I presume that looking at alternative crossing points will be one of the key considerations of the consultants and the county council. As I have said, this issue is slightly separate to that affecting the longer section of the road. This is where the strategic appraisal will kick into gear. This will identify the key issues to address, what benefits it is possible to achieve and what is likely to be the best technical approach to solving the problems that exist. I hope that process will be completed speedily.

I stress the requirement for funding for this project, bearing in mind that it will cost approximately €100 million. We have to bear in mind that Cobh is in a very strategic location in Cork Harbour. It is also one of the leading destinations for cruise ships not only in Ireland, but in Europe. Hundreds of thousands of tourists arrive into Ireland through Cobh. The historic nature of the town also attracts a lot of visitors to the region. This road is unfortunately holding back this great island from reaching its full potential. It is a beautiful and scenic place which many people want to visit but the issue of the access road is deterring a lot of investment in housing, enterprise and business, and is preventing potential tourism from being attracted into the region. We have to look at this in the strongest possible terms. I encourage the Minister to do all he can to support investment in this infrastructure. Although the town is already well served by public transport these problems are still chronic and need to be addressed.

The Deputy is right. The area is critical and Cobh is a very important destination and an historic location. There are other investments being made which I will mention when answering a later question. These relate to the development of greenways and urban development support for Cobh and the surrounding area. As the Deputy said, there is other transport infrastructure in the area. The rail service to Cobh has been a great success and may benefit from the upgrade of the line from Midleton to Cork and continuing on to the other side which we are looking to carry out. This has the potential to further enhance the attractiveness of the Cobh rail services. The rail review we are conducting will give us the opportunity to again look at rail connectivity to the likes of Marino Point, which historically was of real strategic benefit. We should be looking at those options and at developments in the industrial estate in Marino to see what sustainable transport solutions could be implemented to support those sorts of investments.

Rail Network

Éamon Ó Cuív

Question:

52. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Transport when he plans to publish the reviews carried out into the feasibility of reopening the Athenry to Claremorris section of the western rail corridor; the reason for the delay; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1014/21]

As the Minister can see, this question has been down for a long time because oral questions were suspended. I know the reports are published but it is very important for the Minister to give some good news regarding connectivity between the major towns in Mayo and Galway. I am delighted that funding has been provided by the Minister's colleague, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, for the passing loop in Oranmore. This really opens up potential to open the line down to County Mayo.

I thank the Deputy very much. He is right. Since the question was asked, we have published both the original EY report and the second report, the Joint Assistance to Support Projects in European Regions, JASPERS, review. These two reports provided critical answers to some of the questions asked about the western rail corridor. If I can widen out the question, the further review we are going to be doing, the national rail review, is needed because the questions we have asked to date did not take a sufficiently wide vision of the network effects or of the benefits of filling in gaps in our network or using existing underutilised assets. Considering these matters is one of the purposes of the rail review. In that regard, I see the potential connection from Athenry to Claremorris as being of significance or relevance not only for the likes of Tuam, Claremorris, Athenry or Galway but, as the Deputy has indicated, also for this wider strategic assessment of the entire western rail corridor. From my perspective, the western rail corridor starts right down in the likes of Waterford and runs from there to Limerick Junction, through to Clare and then up to Galway and Mayo. A connection right along the west coast and down to our southern ports allows for the potential long-term use of rail infrastructure. We will have an informal meeting of the transport ministers of the Council of the EU in the coming weeks - I believe it is next week - and the key issue on the agenda is how to revitalise rail including rail freight, rail commuting and meeting long-distance transport needs with rail. In this wider strategic review, I am looking to think big and to think broadly about the situation ten, 20 or 30 years down the line. That connection between Athenry and Claremorris might have impacts right along the rail network which would justify it in a way the JASPERS and EY reports did not.

As I said, I welcome the passing loop into Galway. I also expect that the Minister will proceed with the railway line into Foynes. It is a great pity that the railway line connecting Waterford to Rosslare in Wexford was recently closed because, with the new European direct routes, it would also have been a vital link. The Minister is dead right however; it is all about a network. We do not have a railway network in this country. We have a radial network out of Dublin. That is essentially the way the powers that be, particularly those centred in Dublin, look at the railway lines. While I welcome the review, can the Minister tell me how much time will be wasted on this review, going around on the same old thing, when the system does not want to give the west of Ireland anything?

I consider myself part of the system. System change is what we need to address the climate crisis we face. Part of that system change relates to transport. To go back to the earlier question, how do we go from releasing 12 million tonnes of carbon a year to releasing 6 million tonnes? One of the ways to do this is to change the entire transport system towards sustainable modes. The key direction in this is set by the national planning framework. That is the strategic systemic change we need. It talks about balanced regional development, compact development and decarbonisation development. With regard to the transport system helping in that effort, the system will see the reintroduction of rail services on the Foynes line. This will result in services to the port but also in the potential to open stations in the likes of Adare, Patrickswell, Dooradoyle, the Crescent and other locations en route. I agree with the Deputy. The network effect has to look at how we start to reconnect towns to cities using the rail network. That town centres first policy is part of the national planning framework and it is Government policy to back that up. The rail review is not just the system kicking the can down the road.

There are many Deputies waiting to ask questions and we are going to run out of time so I am really trying to keep to the allocated time.

I am glad the Minister is going to reopen the Foynes line for passengers and freight but is it not absolutely ridiculous to even contemplate doing so, particularly for freight, without connecting Ballina and Westport, for example, to Foynes? We would have the port but not the connecting railway lines while we are talking about decarbonisation. Does it take an awful lot of study to do that? The Minister did not answer the question. For how long is this rail review to go on? There is a great trick in Departments. The Minister is told the Department will do a review and then the Department makes sure it goes on and on until the Minister is gone and cannot make a decision. How long will this rail review take?

It will take a number of months.

As the Deputy suggested, all rail lines lead to Dublin and this review was initially looking at providing high-speed rail connectivity between Dublin, Cork and Belfast but we have extended it. We first looked at extending it to Derry or Limerick, or both. The conclusion of the western rail corridor analysis was that we needed to go wider and to look at the network effects. It concluded that we needed to look at whether there are underutilised lines that we could return into service and whether we could reverse the dramatic decline in rail freight that has occurred in the last 20 to 40 years. This will be done and at the same time we are looking at a review of the national development plan. The rail review will come after that. This is part of a Government which has deliberately set itself in the course that we will reverse the traditional spending ratio so that it will be 2:1 in favour of public transport rail-based systems over road because that is the correct strategic development for the west as well as for the rest of the country.

Local Improvement Scheme

Brendan Smith

Question:

53. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Transport if his attention has been drawn to the fact that there are very long delays in having essential road improvements carried out under the local improvement scheme at present; if he will provide ring-fenced funding for this scheme as existed previously; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15606/21]

Brendan Smith

Question:

61. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Transport if he will provide ring-fenced funding for the local improvement scheme as existed up to 2012; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15605/21]

As the Minister knows, up until 2012 there was a specific funding stream within the Department of Transport for the local improvement scheme. Since that funding stream was abolished, there has been a huge dearth in and lack of activity to bring local improvement scheme applications forward. Unfortunately, there is a huge backlog in applications now. There is a much smaller scheme funded through the Department of Rural and Community Development. If we are to tackle the backlog in the local improvement schemes nationally, the funding stream that existed in the past needs to be reintroduced and we need meaningful funding on an annual basis towards the local improvement scheme for each local authority.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 53 and 61 together.

The maintenance of roads not taken in charge by local authorities is the responsibility of the relevant landowners. The Local Government Act 2001 provides the statutory basis for the local improvement scheme, LIS. Under that scheme, funding can be provided to local authorities for the construction and improvement of non-public roads, that is, roads not taken in charge by local authorities, which meet the criteria set out in the Act. A contribution from the beneficiaries is required in all cases.

Up to 2012, my Department did provide ring-fenced funding for this scheme. However, due to the major cutbacks in roads funding arising from the post-2008 financial crisis, it was necessary for the Department to stop providing dedicated funding for the local improvement scheme in 2012 and there was no funding for the local improvement scheme in that year. After that, from 2013 to 2017, while there was no separate allocation for the local improvement scheme, local authorities could use a proportion of their discretionary grant for the local improvement scheme if they chose to do so. The reason this approach was taken was that it was considered that councils were best placed to decide whether to concentrate the limited grant funding available on public roads or to operate a local improvement scheme for non-public roads.

In September 2017, the then Minister for Rural and Community Development, given the nature of that Department's responsibilities for communities and rural development, assumed lead responsibility for the LIS and introduced dedicated funding for it. In light of the significant funding being put into the LIS by the Department of Rural and Community Development and the need to direct resources into maintaining and renewing public roads, it was decided that the option of allocating a proportion of my Department's discretionary grant to the LIS would no longer apply from 2018. The context for this decision was the continuing budgetary constraints relating to the regional and local road grant budgets.

Project Ireland 2040 provides for a gradual increase in funding for regional and local roads but it will take some time to reach the level of investment needed to ensure that the public road network is being maintained adequately. For this reason, funding continues to be directed primarily at the maintenance and renewal of the public regional and local road network, with some limited investment in road improvement projects. I understand that funding for the LIS will continue to be available from the Department of Rural and Community Development in 2021.

I sincerely ask the Minister to review this matter. When there was specific funding for the local improvement scheme, the Department conducted a rigorous examination, in conjunction with the local authority officials, to ensure the funding went to the particular scheme for which it was intended. I am talking about roads that may have nine or ten households on them plus farms and perhaps some minor businesses as well. It is a complete misnomer to talk about non-public roads. The reason they are non-public is because there has been no State investment in them. In the 2000s and in the late 1990s, there was a huge investment that was necessary and welcome in order to bring those roads up to the standard that the people deserve. I mention the people living down the long laneway. They are paying their taxes, contributing to society and working hard. They are as entitled to have a road up to the proper standard as the person living in Dublin 4, Dublin 6, Cork city or anywhere else in urban Ireland. We all fight to get public lighting and paths developed in towns and villages. Our people in rural communities deserve to have a standard of road leading to their homes.

We all do. We all deserve that for safety and the maintenance of vehicle standards and so on. I would argue that the involvement of the Department of Rural and Community Development in this is appropriate. Similar to local authorities, its specific remit is for rural communities in particular. These roads, by definition, tend to be where there might be a small number of houses in rural locations and they are non-public roads. One can argue as to why that is so but they are roads that are not in the charge or responsibility of the local authorities. One of the other reasons the Department of Rural and Community Development is well placed is that it is also involved in the community involvement scheme, which it has been ring-fencing funding for since 2017. My understanding is that this role to permit local community participation in the repair of public local roads has been successful and has been beneficial to local communities. It is also an area where the Department of Rural and Community Development has real expertise.

I would argue that the Department of Rural and Community Development has no statutory responsibility for roads. When Deputy Ó Cuív was Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, the CLÁR funding was a top-up in addition to the local improvement scheme funding that came directly from the Department of Transport at that time. We need to have investment to reduce, in a meaningful way, the huge backlog. In my county of Cavan, our council is dealing with applications that were submitted in 2009. With the present level of funding for the existing applications, it will take 35 years to repair those laneways. That is not acceptable for any community and it is not acceptable for any individual or family living along a road in such poor condition. I ask the Minister to ask the Department to review this matter again. The funding that comes from the Department of Rural and Community Development is welcome but it is not near enough. The Department of Transport is the main Department with responsibility for roads and I implore the Minister to take responsibility back and to put in place adequate funding.

The key actors in this are the local authorities. Whichever Department is involved, be it the Department of Rural and Community Development or the Department of Transport, the decisions, applications and checking on whether money is correctly spent or whether the investment is the right one are all the responsibility of the local authority. We have a real job of work to do with the local authorities but the key task we have is in maintaining the local public road network, where there are also real budget constraints and a need for investment in steady State maintenance so that road network is maintained in a proper order. I have listened carefully to what the Deputy has said and I will talk with the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, who has responsibility, and look to see what further measures may be carried out in co-operation between the Departments. I want the Deputy to be aware that the constraints that are there in our roads investment spending are real. Various Departments working together is the best way to solve this problem. I will commit to work with the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys.

The next question is in the name of Deputy Duncan Smith, who is not here but it is linked with a number of questions that are all in the name of Deputy Durkan. We have less than two minutes left so I invite Deputy Durkan to grasp his opportunity for half a minute.

Rail Network

Duncan Smith

Question:

54. Deputy Duncan Smith asked the Minister for Transport the status of the programme for Government commitment to enhance suburban and commuter rail across the country; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15570/21]

Fergus O'Dowd

Question:

98. Deputy Fergus O'Dowd asked the Minister for Transport the way in which his Department is supporting the improvement of the rail network, including the development of additional capacity which is a particular challenge on routes such as the northern commuter line; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1690/21]

Bernard Durkan

Question:

128. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Transport if, in the context of the national development plan, he expects to see positive changes to meet the ongoing requirements of the travelling public with particular reference to the urgent need to meet the requirements of commuters in more densely populated areas such as County Kildare to encourage the use of rapid rail; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10357/21]

Bernard Durkan

Question:

397. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Transport the extent to which the rail service, national and commuter, have access to adequate modernisation such as new carriages and an increase in the number of carriages thereby providing more options to the travelling public and commuters; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15879/21]

Bernard Durkan

Question:

398. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Transport the extent to which he continues to examine the potential for growth on commuter and intercity rail lines with a view to maximising the use of rail transport into the future; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15880/21]

Bernard Durkan

Question:

403. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Transport the steps taken or pending to increase the capacity of the commuter rail services throughout north County Kildare; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15885/21]

I ask the Minister to look at the gist of the questions. In my case it relates to the use of rail transport and encouraging the use of rapid rail in growing communities in densely populated areas in line with the national development plan.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 54, 98, 128, 397, 398 and 403 together.

I will absolutely commit to doing that. I raise one concern. We will have a major challenge because we will have so many proposals for investment in both our rail and road networks and the rail investment in particular will be a multiple of the resources that are available. To make the investments that we need to make work and to justify them we will need to ensure that our housing plans match our public transport plans.

Last week, I looked at the strategic housing development applications for County Kildare in which obviously the Deputy has a keen interest. In recent years, it seemed that there was little coherence between approval for large housing developments and proximity to public transport services, irrespective of whether they were upgraded. Key to being able to afford the rail investment is ensuring that our housing is in the same location. That applies across the country, but particularly in County Kildare.

We have run out of time. Deputy Durkan may make a quick comment if he likes.

Now is the crucial time to plan ahead for the transport that is needed in the future. In the past, we planned for the time in which the plan was made. I do not believe that is enough any more. I believe we now need to plan well ahead and plan for economic, social and community expansion.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.