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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 3 Mar 2022

Vol. 1019 No. 2

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Rail Network

Niamh Smyth

Question:

7. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Transport if the strategic rail review has considered the feasibility of reopening the Kingscourt rail line; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11987/22]

James Lawless

Question:

19. Deputy James Lawless asked the Minister for Transport when he expects the strategic rail review to be completed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12097/22]

Darren O'Rourke

Question:

29. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for Transport the number of submissions received for the all-island rail review; the next steps in this process; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12131/22]

Ciaran Cannon

Question:

32. Deputy Ciarán Cannon asked the Minister for Transport if he will provide a progress report on the All-Island Strategic Rail Review; and the likely publication date. [11837/22]

Matt Carthy

Question:

59. Deputy Matt Carthy asked the Minister for Transport if a rail line through County Monaghan will be considered as a part of the strategic rail review. [11297/22]

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. Can the Minister make a statement please on the reopening of the Kingscourt rail line?

The Deputy was just in time.

Unfortunately, probably, for the Minister.

The Deputy was no doubt moving on full steam from LH 2000.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 7, 19, 29, 32 and 59 together.

As I mentioned in my earlier response to Deputy Canney, the strategic rail review is being undertaken in conjunction with the Department for Infrastructure in Northern Ireland. It will inform the development of the railway sector on the island of Ireland over the coming decades. The review will consider the potential scope for improved rail services along various existing and potential future corridors of the network, and that scope will also include the potential afforded by disused and closed lines such as the Kingscourt line.

Separately the Deputy will be aware of the work under way by the National Transport Authority in its review of the transport strategy for the greater Dublin area. The draft review is recommending the development of a rail line to Navan by 2042. I understand that this rail line will utilise the old Kingscourt line over a short distance to connect the proposed Navan central station and a proposed Navan north station.

More generally, I can assure Deputies that as well as looking at issues relating to inter-urban and inter-regional rail connectivity and the potential for high and higher speeds, the rail review will also consider improved connectivity to the north west and the Border region.

I have already stated my belief in the potential of rail. It is essential that we identify current constraints in the rail sector, then balance decarbonisation priorities, economic growth and rural connectivity objectives to achieve a strategy which allows rail to fulfil its potential as a resilient and sustainable mode of transport and generator of economic growth for people across Ireland. The strategic rail review will assist in and inform this debate, including I hope, on the reopening of the Kingscourt line, and I look forward to the completion of the review later this year.

I thank the Minister very much. I was always very struck by the Minister when in opposition, and when I was also an opposition Member, because he always admired the ambition that I had for that rail line coming to a county along the Border in Cavan. If one looks at the map of Ireland and looks to see where the main arteries and infrastructure is, one can draw a line from Dublin to Galway. North of that we have, as a State, neglected that part of this island. I am very hopeful for this project with this Minister in post. I am aware Meath County Council is doing terrific work in ensuring that the rail line comes to Navan. We need to be ambitious for the whole Border region and to start to look at that.

Great work has been done with the greenway on the existing rail line that is there but alongside that, we need to have the ambition and to encourage our local authorities to do this, with the support of the Minister's Department in the relevant areas, to ensure they have this kind of ambition and these kinds of plans are put in place.

I thank the Minister for his response. There is a great opportunity here and we have made submissions to the overall rail review. The Joint Committee on Transport and Communications is looking at various aspects of this. I will mention two of these. The Minister has already discussed the western rail corridor, WRC, and some of the opportunity this presents. This is an ambition that needs to realised.

There is the focus on the Navan rail line extension, which is very significant and has the potential to be the first step in a series of steps. Communities further up the line would also like to see this development.

I will also make the point to the Minister that it is important that we act early, including on the planning process, as there are prominent figures in the region who are receiving national media attention already in their opposition to that project and how they intend to frustrate it and that needs to be overcome.

I thank the Minister. It is utterly shameful that the western rail corridor connecting Athenry, Tuam, Milltown and, ultimately, Enniskillen, if it is extended all of the way, a vital piece of public infrastructure, has been left to rot for the past 40 years. It is bringing no economic benefit whatsoever to the west of Ireland and to my constituency.

What we simply need to do here is to make a decision. Every report that has been published over the past decade has concluded that there is no economic case to be made for the reopening of any rail service on that line. The Minister's Department arrived at the same conclusions. Irish Rail published a report last July outlining its rail freight strategy for the next 20 years to the year 2040 and there was not one single word about the western rail corridor. The Minister referred the most recent WRC report to JASPERS, the Joint Assistance to Support Projects in European Regions partnership body, and the most respected think tank when it comes to the economics of developing transport infrastructure, and its conclusion, quite simply, was that: "... there is no evidence of specific transport or social constraints, nor of clear objectives that any investment in this corridor is required to meet."

I ask that the Minister finally make a decision to build a railway with a greenway alongside it or to build a greenway. I ask also that the Minister, who has done extraordinary work in this area of active transport, not to leave this line to rot for another 40 years.

There are two or three different issues here but they all have the one same connecting issue in that they all involve increased connectivity to the north and west. The Navan rail link, north and west of Dublin, has been assessed as part of the draft greater Dublin area strategy and I agree with the assessment that the case has been made and that it will be included once the greater Dublin area, GDA, strategy becomes fully legal in our plans. It will take time. In respect of the constraints, there is not a lack of ambition or urgency here but there is one reality we have to face.

There are already approximately €70 billion worth of projects within the existing transport projects in the planning process and we have a €35 billion budget for this decade. That is a real constraint and difficulty. However, it does not undermine the case for that line to Navan. If that proceeds, it raises the question of whether one could go further. Could one go from Navan along the old route towards Kingscourt? One could even consider, if one was massively ambitious, that this was an original line up through Monaghan, Omagh, Strabane and into Derry. Part of the strategic rail review recognises that the north west of the island has been neglected in terms of transport connectivity and in that really big long-term context it makes sense. However, it is much more challenging because that rail line has not been used for a significant period. There is quite a lot of quarrying, industrial and other activity in that part of the country and perhaps we could look at whether that would be a way of reopening the line, holding the reservation, getting trains back and then seeing if passenger services can follow on.

When it comes to the north west and the western rail corridor, as Deputy Cannon said it could potentially run up to Sligo or Enniskillen. Again, that is a very long-term prospect. Once one goes north of Claremorris, the line is not extant. Everyone is agreed that the section north towards Collooney and Sligo is highly unlikely in the immediate future to be considered for rail services. I believe there is broad agreement that it should be a greenway, except I am not certain whether Mayo County Council, Galway County Council and Sligo County Council are in agreement as to how and where that route should be devised and designed. From my perspective, that is one of the biggest obstacles to providing a greenway in that area. The section from Claremorris to Athenry is a different issue. From Claremorris one can join onto the existing rail network towards Ballina or Westport. There is a strategic question in a much wider national context which the original rail reviews did not look at in that section of line. If one looks at it in a narrow context, is there is a demand for commuting from Claremorris or Tuam into Galway on rail? The answer is clearly "No", as Joint Assistance to Support Projects in the European Regions, JASPERS, said. However, is it potentially a part of a strategic western rail corridor which extends all the way from Ballina down the west coast through Limerick towards Waterford? That is a different question which neither JASPERS nor anybody else has asked yet and which the strategic rail review is now looking at.

I take this opportunity to invite the Minister to walk the stretch of rail line with me from Navan to Kingscourt, although perhaps not in its entirety. As I said, there is incredible work being done in developing it as a greenway, but I believe we must be ambitious. We must have a vision of reopening that as a rail line to Kingscourt because the potential it has to open the Border region is huge. A large proportion of the population in Cavan and Monaghan commutes to Dublin. If we are serious about getting traffic off the roads, that is the way to do it. I know the Minister wholeheartedly believes that, but the local authorities and Iarnród Éireann need the support of the Government to have that imagination and ambition and lay down the plans. Let us not allow these rail lines to rot into dust. We have a real opportunity. There is a climate emergency. There is no need for me to tell the Minister that because he has been preaching it to us for long enough. Let us do something about it. Let us have that ambition and reopen that rail line.

The Minister is hearing this from all quarters. The opportunity is available. If one maps our rail infrastructure and our forced car dependency, there has to be very significant development if we are to achieve a modal shift. Much of that will be to an improved public bus network, but rail has a very important role to play. I am speaking about Navan but also about the west and north west. Communities are chomping at the bit for this. They have their hands up and they want to see this delivered. I believe that if it was built, it would be used very extensively. I raised the question of funding with the Minister during climate questions last week. That is going to be a continuing challenge, not just at the Irish level but also at European level. We need to look at the window that is closing in the climate context.

There is no case to be made for rail freight in the west of Ireland. The west of Ireland is not the Ruhr valley with steel mills pumping out tons of steel every day or coalmines pumping out tons of coal. The west of Ireland is securing its future in technology, pharmaceuticals and in medical technology. It has no, and will have no, demand for rail freight to any great extent for the foreseeable future, if ever. The EY-DKM report drew the same conclusion. Research by the EU suggests that rail freight only makes financial sense when the distances involved are greater than 150 km. Almost all of Ireland falls within 150 km of a port and, as such, the demand for rail freight is anticipated to be muted.

The Minister has done incredible work in putting in place a budget of €1 million for every day for the lifetime of this Government for investment in active travel and sustainable travel infrastructure. We need to see that investment being made in the west. Please do not be the Minister who does nothing and leaves this crucial piece of public infrastructure bringing no benefit to the communities that urgently need such a benefit, not in the future but now.

To add to the debate, the Limerick to Foynes rail line is a project the Minister knows well. I believe this is one of low-hanging fruit pieces of rail infrastructure. We can get that open if we wish in a matter of just a few years. There is talk of trying to get it open in time for the Ryder Cup, but I believe we can do it sooner than that. If we open that rail line in the next 24 to 36 months, we can connect Limerick city, Patrickswell, Adare, Rathkeale, Askeaton and Foynes. There is a freight reason for this particular line in the west because of the nature of the industry around the Shannon estuary. There is also a passenger case to be made for it. It would also feed into the wider plans to develop a suburban rail network around Limerick. I ask that this be raised in the Minister's priority list and that we get it open sooner rather than later.

Deputy Niamh Smyth is right. We have a real challenge in that the number of Cavan and Monaghan people commuting to Dublin is very significant and they are coming into a city that is not going to have the same road capacity. When we introduce the BusConnects scheme, all the cars commuting from long distances as well as vans and trucks will be meeting a Dublin road network that is at capacity and restricted in terms of access. The remote working that will occur post the pandemic may help in that regard. It may help towns and villages in Cavan and Monaghan see a big revival. What my colleague, the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, is doing with the new hubs is an opportunity to rethink the way we work and commute. Rail can provide a massively useful component in that. It would help us meet our climate targets as well as address commuting.

However, I return to the fact that there is a constraint here, which is capital. Even if we do for the next decade what we do in this decade, the existing projects will eat up all that money. Every part of the country is looking at rail projects. There are also rural bus projects that we have to fund, and the Connecting Ireland plan is the most significant and important investment we have to prioritise. There is a challenge, therefore, in how we prioritise or how we do it, but I would not rule it out. I would go further in terms of reallocating more of our roads funding towards public transport that might help us overcome some of that difficulty, but that is something we have to agree on politically and that will be a challenge, as the Deputy knows.

To respond to Deputy O'Rourke regarding the Navan rail line, it is now very much in train as part of the series of projects that we will fund over the period of two decades. The route validation exercise for that route has been completed. There are two routes. Route A is 34 km as per the draft railway order completed by Iarnród Éireann in 2011.

Route B is similar to route A but with a section to the east side of Dunshaughlin. It is in planning and is being considered. Cost estimations for each of these route options is expected to be completed soon. It gives a clear picture of how it fits in with the real challenge we have in meeting all of the capital we need.

To come back to the north-west rail corridor and the future of freight, Deputy Cannon is right there are real challenges in Ireland because of the shorter distances and because we have developed road dependency. We have put tens of billions of euro over the years into closing our rail freight system and opening up alternative road-based systems. It is not a surprise the economics are challenging with regard to the shunting yards and all of the other equipment that would help make rail freight possible. I do not believe it is completely finished, however, or that it will not be part of the solution in meeting the climate challenge and having a vibrant modern economy. In Europe and throughout the world people are looking again at sustainable solutions.

Forest products are still moved by rail. A number of products from the north west are carried from Ballina by rail freight at present. As Deputy Leddin said, we will reopen the Foynes line. One of the reasons we will do so, as well as to get golfers to the Ryder Cup in a sustainable low-carbon way and benefiting the communities he mentioned with stations along the route, is that we expect new mines to be developed along the existing rail lines. It would be insanity to ship mine ore by road. It will go by rail. Once we start to have some products moved by rail the economics will begin to make sense because we will cover the main line costs and the incremental costs will begin to decrease. Earlier we were speaking about big industrial investment in Oranmore close to the rail network and on the rail network.

It is on the rail line. That is where we need the investment.

Then we will start to have nodes that attract international investment. This is where we will have industry. This is where we will connect to deep-sea ports and renewable power. It is not an impossible equation to start to make rail freight work.

Rail Network

Peadar Tóibín

Question:

6. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Minister for Transport the status of the Navan rail line assessment; and when the project will commence construction. [12105/22]

There is a confluence of crises happening at present. As the Minister knows there is a commuter hell experience for people living in County Meath in terms of trying to get to work in Dublin. There is a cost of living crisis with the increase in fuels. There is a global warming crisis happening at present. A rail line from Navan to Dublin would fix all of these issues. It has been spoken about for years. I am seeking from the Minister a commitment it will happen and a timeline.

A Navan rail link was included in the draft greater Dublin area transport strategy of the National Transport Authority, NTA, as one of the proposed projects to be delivered by 2042. I am aware that this issue is one that generated a significant number of submissions during the public consultation held by the NTA in November 2020.

On the proposal itself, the assessment report undertaken by the NTA was published as a background paper to the draft transport strategy at the end of 2021. It considered again the strategic rationale for such a rail link, assessed rail and bus options, re-examined the potential alignments of a rail link and provided a high-level assessment of cost and demand.

The wider appraisal, which examined the qualitative and quantitative benefits of the Navan rail line, has shown that the scheme has the potential to deliver significant economic, environmental and social benefits along the Dublin-Navan corridor. On the basis of the assessment, the report concluded there was a strong strategic rationale for the proposal and this is why it has been brought forward for inclusion in the draft strategy.

The NTA's transport strategy is subject to a formal statutory approval process and a final version will ultimately be submitted for my approval later this year. If included in the final strategy, this project will require significant planning and design before construction can commence. As it stands, the draft strategy proposes delivery of the Navan rail line in the latter half of the strategy period.

Meath is a special case. I know everybody comes in here thinking their own county is a special case. This morning, the majority of workers in County Meath left County Meath to go to work. This happens in no other local authority area in the 32 counties of this great country. People from Meath commute further to work than people in any other county. I know the damage it is doing to people. I know of people spending three hours commuting a day. They do not get to see their families during the week. They get to see their families at the weekend alone. It is having an enormous economic impact. Travelling these journeys on a daily basis costs families thousands of euro never mind the cost to the environment. The problem is that we have had dozens of feasibility studies. We have had analysis and reviews coming out of our ears for decades in County Meath. It is in a draft plan at present. What is missing is the political will. I have confidence that if it is going to happen it will happen under the Minister's stewardship. I ask the Minister to give it the political will. I ask the Minister to say today that it will happen.

There is no shortage of political will for this project. I am on the record in the House and elsewhere saying I believe it does make strategic sense because what the Deputy says is true. We have developed a completely unsustainable planning, housing, development and transport model particularly in the eastern region but also throughout the country. We have had doughnut development where we go out and out and out. It still continues. According to the latest statistics 74% of all new houses in the country are being built in the greater Dublin area, including counties Meath, Kildare, Louth and Wicklow. Half of the building in the area is in these surrounding counties. There is a real problem that if we do not start switching our commuting patterns away from road-based systems towards rail and public transport systems the maths just simply will not work. Many of the commuters coming into Dublin city will hit an M50 that is at capacity where no additional capacity can be provided. It is inevitable gridlock. The Deputy spoke about the human cost of long commuting times and being stuck in traffic as well as the environmental and economic inefficiencies of it. I am very supportive. This is why through the process with the NTA any time I have been asked I have said that it seems to make strategic sense. The NTA has come back to confirm this. We must now do the cost estimations. As I said to Deputy O'Rourke earlier, this is what we are doing. We are on track. It will take time. There is a queue and planning in this country takes inordinate time. There is no lack of commitment to the project.

Spatial development in this country is an absolute disaster. Ireland is a lopsided economy at present. Dublin is overheating. The Dublin commuter belt goes into Ulster, Connacht and Munster. Much of regional Ireland is being emptied of its young people. We have a situation where the average age in Baldoyle is 33 and the average age in Killarney is 45. Young people are being forced into this commuter belt. These young people are the collateral damage of this. Their lives and existence at present are a catastrophe. I know people from out as far as Castlepollard and Clonmel who stay in Dublin during the week because getting in and out of it is so difficult. People bought houses in County Meath 20 years ago on the promise there would be a rail line in 2010. We were promised it in 2015. My worry is that unless a solid gold commitment is made by the Minister to deliver this it will remain in feasibility studies forever.

The Minister has just said that planning takes an inordinate amount of time. We are on notice there will be opposition to this plan when it comes. That is the nature of privilege. We hear it through the national airwaves. The Minister said the planning process takes an inordinate amount of time and there is a balance of rights to be struck between development and environmental impact. How does the Minister see this progressing? There is an ongoing review. How will it be addressed to deliver these projects as quickly as is possible?

The answer is the Attorney General along with the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, have committed huge resources to doing a top-to-bottom review of the planning and development legislation. Originally the Planning Act 2000 was a very good Act but it has been amended so many times and is so complex, multilayered and multifaceted that it is very hard for anyone to implement.

The review, updating and recalibrating of that legislation is one of the most important projects the Government has under way. It will be completed by the end of the year and will help not just this project, but a whole range of projects, to get through the planning process more quickly. I keep coming back to the point that we should be straight and honest that, to get the country more balanced in this way, we will also have to invest in rail in Cork, Galway, Waterford and Limerick. We will have to invest in rural public transport and build a metro in Dublin, about which I am going to be asked questions. That is one reality. Planning is one issue but the allocation of capital expenditure will mean that not every project will be built tomorrow. However, as to the question of whether we should or will build the Navan rail line, we certainly will.

Questions Nos. 8 to 10, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

Park-and-Ride Facilities

Catherine Connolly

Question:

13. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Transport further to Parliamentary Questions Nos. 50 of 17 June 2021, 112 of 16 September 2021, 162 of 4 November 2021 and 82 of 16 December 2021, the progress made to date on the roll-out of park and ride facilities in Galway; the status of the ongoing detailed site options analysis and feasibility studies in Galway by the Park and Ride Development Office; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11942/22]

I am following up on some previous questions on park-and-ride facilities. I am asking a very straight question on the progress to date in rolling out park-and-ride facilities in Galway. What is the status of the ongoing detailed site options analysis and feasibility studies? Are they done? I know I am preaching to the converted but there has been no progress on rolling out park-and-ride facilities, an objective included in the city development plan in 2005.

As outlined to the Deputy in previous replies on this matter, the National Transport Authority has established a park-and-ride design office, PRDO, which works with Galway city and county councils and Irish Rail. The focus of the current work of the PRDO is looking at options and the feasibility of zones along corridors for the east and north east serving the city centre and Parkmore.

The areas currently being considered include zones adjacent to the Coolagh roundabout and junction 19 on the M6, locations on the N83, the old Dublin Road and the R339. Consideration is also being given to supporting additional park-and-ride facilities at Oranmore rail station. Detailed site options analysis and feasibility studies are ongoing for each of the areas identified.

The PRDO has undertaken site visits to the area and topographical drone surveys of lands in the zones identified have been carried out. These surveys give detailed information on the physical characteristics of the area, which help identify any potential constraints and inform the preliminary design and layouts of the proposed park-and-ride developments. Other information such as information on ecology, archaeology, flooding and public transport capacity, in addition to land title searches and traffic data analysis, is being utilised in a multi-criteria analysis to determine the preferred sites to bring forward to planning.

The development of the particular sites will be aligned with the delivery of other supporting infrastructure, in particular bus corridor infrastructure with a view to bringing sites forward for planning in the latter half of 2022. The appropriate planning consent process will be determined on a site-by-site basis.

I have read the response which, as I say, is one of the advantages of being in the Chair. These objectives were included in the city development plan in 2005 by the councillors. The Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, was there at the time. It was positive and proactive. We recognised that it was important. Yesterday or the day before, we saw the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which spelled out the terrible consequences there will be if we do not take action. The National Transport Authority was involved in developing the transport plan in 2016. At that point, it was fully aware that no action had been taken since 2005. The Minister's response today shows me that some progress has been made with regard to the east side of the city. The west has been completely forgotten. In previous answers, which I have to hand, I was told that sites on both the east and west sides were being looked at. They are the objectives in the plan. Here we are in 2022 dealing with an objective from 2005 and not one single site has been identified for park-and-ride facilities as traffic congestion in Galway worsens.

I share the Deputy's concern about the speed of development of a whole range of different transport solutions and sustainable transport solutions in particular. I hope I am not being controversial and I mean no disrespect to anyone in Galway but Galway is probably where we have our biggest and worst problem with regard to sustainable transport. The city has been very successful in developing but it has an unsustainable transport model that prioritises and promotes transport based on individual cars. I do not blame or fault people who have to use their own cars but it becomes completely unsustainable when a certain level of traffic is reached. That is where we are at in Galway. We need to accelerate some of the sustainable transport solutions in Galway, particularly some of the active travel and BusConnects infrastructure, which would help people use the infrastructure we are discussing, and the development of the railway station at Oranmore, which we mentioned earlier. That integrated approach is required. Park-and-ride facilities have to be part of wider sustainable transport solutions. We should also have bike-and-ride facilities. There is significant potential in providing bike parking, particularly at rail and bus stations. Particularly in light of new electric bikes, there is capacity to rethink how our cities and rural communities work. We need to accelerate development not only of the park-and-ride facilities, but of the active travel and bus travel infrastructure that needs to go with those facilities as part of an overall solution.

I honestly fully agree with the Minister but we are beyond all of that. We did this in our time as councillors. We asked for an integrated traffic solution. All of the eggs were put in the basket of the outer bypass and nothing was done. Reading the response, I see that we are still talking about some distant time in the future while the west of the city has gone off the record altogether. Of course, park-and-ride facilities are only one feature. Cycling, light rail, using Oranmore and Athenry and increasing the frequency of trains are all also features. The most frustrating thing is that Galway is a city destined to grow. We cannot destroy its natural beauty. Thanks be to God, we have a beautiful city. However, we have certainly messed up the planning and we continue to do so. We do not have a city architect or an overall master plan for the city that is a plan for the common good. We have no recognition of the urgency of lifting traffic off the road and providing sustainable alternatives. You cannot complain about motorists without providing sustainable alternatives. There is no recognition of how urgent this is in view of the climate change emergency.

I thank the Minister for his response. I am particularly pleased that he makes specific reference to the double-tracking of the line from Athenry to Oranmore and to the enhancement of those stations. I thank him and the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, for making this a priority. I ask that this be developed with the greatest expediency possible. Athenry is a town of just over 5,000 people. The population has doubled over the last 20 years. Oranmore is also a town of 5,000 people whose population has doubled over the last 20 years. In its most recent analysis, the Central Statistics Office tells us that there are 1,850 people commuting to and from Athenry and Oranmore to Galway city every day, almost twice the number of people commuting from the whole of County Mayo. This is the investment and this is the urgency. This double-tracking and increasing the frequency of the trains is exactly what we need to see happening, as Deputy Connolly has already said. Finally, there is a serious inequity between the fares paid by people from the commuter belt of Galway city, and those of Limerick, Waterford and other cities, in comparison to the fares paid by people living in the greater Dublin region. Irish Rail needs to look at that urgently.

We face a very great issue in meeting our climate change targets. Transport is a particular issue. In addition to the planning review to be carried out with the Attorney General's office, which I mentioned earlier, the Government has agreed to establish fast-track teams in a number of key areas. We need to set targets and work programmes for the remaining three years of this Government. One of the key project teams will be working on the area of sustainable mobility. These teams are only starting. The key project for that sustainable mobility team is to look at cities like Galway to see what transport-related emissions are projected for 2030 and what we could do in the next three years to move away from the current completely unsustainable high-carbon model, which will not be tolerable for any modern city seeking to place itself at the forefront of civilisation and where we are going. That sustainable mobility project team will look at the likes of the delivery of the BusConnects projects, the active travel projects and the park-and-ride projects that must integrate together and start to be delivered in that three-year period, although not every element will be completed within that time. We need to make progress. We are not moving fast enough.

With the approval of the House, we will step back to Questions Nos. 11 and 12. This means that, if other Deputies do not turn up, the last question we take will probably be No. 17 in the name of Deputy O'Rourke. I do not think we will get to any more.

Road Projects

Aindrias Moynihan

Question:

11. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Transport the progress being made on completing the N22 Macroom bypass; if auxiliary works to the N22 Macroom to Ballincollig corridor will be considered as part of this project under road safety for road users; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12076/22]

The works on the N22 Macroom bypass seem to be moving very quickly, which is very positive. Locals are raising questions about various aspects of the road and in particular the two tie-in points with the existing road at An Sliabh Riabhach on the west and at the Lee bridge at the eastern side. On the western side locals feel they might end up having to travel up to 2 km to loop around to get on the road to Cork. There is also concern that the eastern edge, where people get on and off the existing road, would be kept safe.

As Minister for Transport, I have responsibility for overall policy and Exchequer funding for the national roads programme. Once funding arrangements have been put in place with Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, under the Roads Acts 1993 to 2015, and in line with the national development plan, the planning, design, improvement and maintenance of individual national roads is a matter for TII, in conjunction with the local authorities concerned.

The ongoing new bypass project consists of the construction of a dual carriageway from Macroom to Ballyvourney, finishing just before the county bounds of Kerry. The project comprises a 22 km dual carriageway with four junctions beginning west of Ballyvourney passing north of Macroom and rejoining the existing N22 south of Macroom.

Construction commenced in the first quarter of 2020 and is due for completion in the first quarter of 2024. Construction is progressing to plan, with significant earthworks operations under way. Construction of a significant number of structures is ongoing. The longest precast concrete beams in Ireland, at 49 m, were manufactured for a bridge on this scheme and were successfully lifted into place in December 2020. In addition, a large steel deck was successfully launched across a river and valley in March 2021. A number of structures with decks in place will facilitate the mass haul of earthworks on the scheme from west to east.

Overall, works are approximately 60% to 65% complete with full completion expected in 2024 and a possible early opening of a section of the scheme in late 2022 or early 2023.

TII has informed my Department that signage will be provided at both ends of the scheme to warn the oncoming road users of the new road layout ahead. Cyclists and pedestrians will be asked to use the old N22 which will be adapted, where possible, to accommodate active travel modes.

Cork County Council is reviewing the existing junctions to ensure road safety. The N22-R585 Castlemore junction is currently under assessment and will be subject to safety improvements in early next year. Other junctions on this section of the N22 will be reviewed in order of priority, taking account of accident data.

Clearly great headway is being made on the road and the Minister has outlined some of the very large structures that have been put in place. It would be very welcome if there was an opportunity to open the piece around the town ahead of the rest as much of the work has already been done with bridges in place and so on. I would encourage the Minister to raise that with TII and the various authorities to see if it is possible to open the piece around the town first.

I wish to focus on the tie-ins, at the western end at An Sliabh Riabhach and the eastern end at the Lee bridge, which should be safe for locals - not people who are on the new road but people accessing the old road immediately adjacent to it. Every effort should be made to ensure it is safe at those points, for example coming up at An Sliabh Riabhach or at the Lee bridge and going up to the Danone plant.

I will contact TII and pass on the Deputy's suggestions in that regard. His first suggestion about the early opening of the section in order that Macroom town would be bypassed makes eminent sense. It is a town that has struggled and suffered from the volume of traffic through it. It is a beautiful town which I think will rise once the bypass is built.

I really hope that Cork County Council will consider removing through traffic from the centre of the town or providing for access only. We do not want to restrict anyone's access. Of course, the Deputy knows the town square very well. There would be enormous benefit if we take out that through traffic thereby creating a civic space which could bring a concentration of life back into the town. It became very much a commuting town for Cork, Little Island and so on with people commuting to work. By bringing the centre back to a really amazing public place, we will get people working and living in Macroom and a really strong sense of community. Putting the bypass in provides an opportunity to take the through traffic out and we should start with the main square in Macroom.

I agree with the Minister's positive outlook on Macroom and I welcome that. The progress on the bypass section is very positive. The section just east of it remains a concern, especially for people getting on and off the existing road, for example, turning in at the Danone plant or at Dunisky, Ballytrasna, Killcondy, Stage Cross, Cloughduv or Castlemore cross. Both junctions will remain there, totally independent of the bypass because they are east of the town. Can measures be put in place to make it safe for people to get on and off the existing road between Ballincollig and Macroom? Some people cross over and back, including students going to secondary school in Coachford, coming from Cloughduv, Aherla, Crookstown and Ovens, are over and back that road several times a day, as are people from Farran going to Éire Óg for training. There is much back and forth traffic and it is important for those junctions to be made safe.

While I know that road like the back of my hand, I do not know the details of how the junctions and slip roads will work. However, as I said earlier, I will ask Cork County Council and TII to look specifically at how the existing road network fits in. We do not want a major national artery which divides local communities. It needs to give them safe and easy access into the town. I fully accept the Deputy's point and will ask the engineers to look at it in detail.

Road Projects

Brendan Smith

Question:

12. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Transport if he will give further consideration to the introduction of specific funding on an annual basis to local authorities for the local improvement scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12061/22]

As the Minister knows, up until 2012 the local improvement scheme had a substantial and specific funding stream. Unfortunately, that ceased at that time. As we know the local improvement scheme provides for the upgrading of more minor local roads which are particularly important for rural communities. At present, most counties have a significant backlog of such roads in need of urgent attention. There is a limited scheme at present, but we need substantial investment by the line Department on an annual basis to ensure this backlog is eliminated as soon as possible.

Since the 2008 recession, a significant backlog of works on regional and local roads has built up in all local authority jurisdictions across the country. The estimated cost of the backlog is in excess of €5 billion. For this reason, grant assistance from the Department continues to be focused on the protection and renewal of the public road network.

It bears restating that the public regional and road network is over 96,000 km in size and while grant funding has increased significantly in recent years, it has not been possible to address the backlog of works across the country even with 90% of available funds being directed to protection and renewal works. For this reason and in view of the funding being provided under a local improvement scheme by the Department of Rural and Community Development, I consider that I need to continue to concentrate funding on public roads.

If I were to consider allocating funding for non-public roads, this would reduce the funding available for public roads. In this context, one initiative taken since the Department of Rural and Community Development's introduction of a local improvement scheme is the provision by my Department of ring-fenced funding for the community involvement scheme. This scheme is designed to provide for the repair of more lightly trafficked public rural roads, which tend to be considered only towards the end of road authorities’ annual roadworks programmes. Under this scheme, €29 million approximately was paid to local authorities over 2020 and 2021 and this year's grants include funding of a further €15.2 million for the community involvement scheme. All available grant funding for 2022 has been allocated. There was an increased allocation recognising that new investment in our local roads is important for safety and for rural connectivity. It also saves money in the long run because if we let them go, it is much more expensive to get them back. On that basis, we allocated the funding.

I thank the Minister for his reply. The reply prepared by the Department is somewhat inaccurate in that the backlog does not go back to 2008; it began in 2012.

The Minister and I were members of a Government that, until 2011, provided very substantial funding for the local improvement scheme. I agree that we need huge investment in our regional and local network. When the Minister met Fianna Fáil Oireachtas Members with me, he may recall that I highlighted the need to maintain investment in the non-national road network to ensure we did not lose the investment that had already been made. At the same time, I know many laneways and local roads along which ten or 12 families live. These are people of all age groups and people who, thankfully, have come back to live in their local communities. In many of those areas we have the social infrastructure in place, be it schools, sporting facilities or whatever. I now have queries from people who want to move back to rural Ireland. They want to go back to live in their home places and they ask me whether there is any chance that the roads along which they have their sites will be brought up to an acceptable and appropriate standard. These people pay their taxes, as do people living in urban areas, who have good roads and road surfaces, footpaths and public lighting. These people are being denied proper road surfaces leading to their homes, which is not acceptable. The Minister will agree with me on that, I am sure.

I agree. The Deputy is right that the Government formed in 2008 did a lot in very difficult times and with very stretched funding. It prioritised this investment. We need to do likewise in this post-Covid moment, when there is a chance to see a revival of rural Ireland. I accept that. That means we have to fund the new Connecting Ireland rural public transport system, which will be of huge benefit and help people in rural Ireland. That is why we increased the funding for local roads and made sure we maintained the funding for public road maintenance. If we let that go, it costs a lot more to bring it back. That is why the Minister for Rural and Community Development doubled the funding for the local improvement scheme under her budget allocation in 2021, providing an additional €10.5 million up to €21 million in funding. It is not that there is no recognition of the importance of rural connectivity. I refer to those three measures, namely, bus services, public roads and, through the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, local improvement scheme funding.

I welcome the funding that has been provided through the Department of Rural and Community Development. In the past, as the Minister will recall, when the Department of Rural and Community Development had a CLÁR programme, it used to involve a top-up to the line Department's funding. The people I am talking about live down small local roads where no public transport goes but they are entitled to a proper standard of road leading to their homes. The policy is contradictory. We want people out of the major urban areas and less pressure on housing in our major cities and towns. We have the infrastructure in place, by and large, in rural Ireland. With a relatively small investment, that important road network could be brought up to a proper standard.

Does the Minister happen to recall what capital funding in 2021 his Department did not draw down? If there is an underspend on the capital side in his Department during the course of this year, it should be reallocated to councils and allocated specifically for a local improvement scheme. That would see great value for Government investment. I appeal to the Minister again to look at the particular needs of rural communities of all age groups.

I should have mentioned in my last response that there is also, I said in my first response, my Department's investment in the community involvement scheme. Since the introduction of that ring-fenced funding in 2018, there has been a significant increase, with funding allocated in two-year tranches. Approximately €14.3 million was paid to local authorities for the community scheme last year. A new round of funding is starting this year for the 2022-23 period. While community contributions in the range of 15% to 30% had been required previously, depending on the mix of works and moneys, the contribution rate has now been reduced to a minimum of 10% for monetary contributions and 20% for work contributions. It is not that our Department does not have any involvement. Through that mechanism and through the Department of Rural and Community Development, what we spend on public roads and the new money we will spend on rural bus connectivity, I hope, will attract back those people who, as the Deputy said, are thinking of coming back to live in rural Ireland.

Will the Minister give me a commitment that he and his Department colleagues will carry out an analysis of the capital spend throughout the year? If there is a slowness in drawing down some of the capital funding under any given heading, will he give due consideration to providing funding that is not drawn down by other sections to the roads section specifically for the local improvement scheme?

We look at that constantly. There was an underspend last year, largely because of Covid. The underspend has never been on the roads programme. We have a machine for building and spending on roads.

May we conclude this question?

The underinvestment has been in public transport and active travel.

We have run out of road on this question. I am sorry.

As for rural Ireland, if there is that underspend, to my mind it is on rural public transport. That is what I would like to focus on.

Questions Nos. 14 and 15 replied to with Written Answers.

Heritage Sites

Cathal Crowe

Question:

16. Deputy Cathal Crowe asked the Minister for Transport the way in which he proposes to support the transition of tourism sites under the auspices of Shannon Heritage to local authorities, including Clare County Council. [10178/22]

How does the Minister propose, through his Department, to support Clare County Council and other local authorities in the mid-west as they take over the running of the iconic Shannon Heritage sites in the region?

I thank Deputy Cathal Crowe for his question and for giving me the opportunity to discuss this matter. I assure the Deputy that I will continue to support Shannon Group in its engagement with the relevant local authorities to secure the future of the sites currently within Shannon Heritage. I advise the Deputy that Shannon Group continues to work with the relevant local authorities, including Clare County Council, to reach agreement on the transfer of Shannon Heritage sites and its business. My Department is engaging with Shannon Group, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to ensure the smooth transfer of these sites. As the Deputy will be aware, the transfer of the sites is subject to agreement between the parties, completion of the required due diligence and the applicable consents of the Ministers for Transport and Public Expenditure and Reform. The agreement of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage will also be required.

I also advise the Deputy that the OPW has agreed to re-engage on its maintenance responsibilities and role in respect of the maintenance of Bunratty Castle and King John's Castle. In preparation for undertaking this role, the OPW has been carrying out the necessary assessments of both buildings to inform the programme of works needed and the associated costs. My Department continues to engage with the OPW in that regard.

I assure the Deputy that the Government acknowledges and appreciates the strategic importance of these heritage sites to the mid-west region and the country's tourism offering and the contribution they make to our built heritage. I understand that Bunratty Castle and King John's Castle are currently open on a four-day-week basis until March 2022. I am pleased to advise the Deputy that it is envisaged that those sites will reopen fully in April. I am also happy to report that, as the public health restrictions put in place due to Covid were eased in the second half of 2021, visitor numbers to Shannon Heritage sites have increased. With the removal of all the restrictions and the return of transatlantic flights into Shannon Airport this month, I am confident that visitor numbers to the sites will continue to grow.

The genesis of all this is a Cabinet decision taken in June 2021 that the sites would transfer from the Shannon Group, which always has its eyes on aviation and what happens in the skies. In recent years, however, it has also run the heritage portfolio in the mid-west. That has probably been a distraction, and Covid has exposed that. Everyone in the region wants this to be a success, but what we have seen since that decision was taken by the Cabinet is that the Shannon Heritage sites have slowly been run into the ground. Last Sunday I visited the tearooms, which were iconic. So many American tourists went in there for their Irish coffee and slices of apple tart. The roof of the building is falling in. It is being repaired. The thatch is falling off. It is the same with the roof of the castle, which is 800 years old. The castle has withstood sieges, fires and storms but its roof is now at risk of falling in.

While the Minister of State's response is welcome, it strikes me that too many cooks spoil the broth. We have the OPW, the Departments of Transport and Public Expenditure and Reform, local government and heritage organisations. There is a lot going on here, and a lot of line Ministries seem to be passing the matter on. The net loser will be Clare County Council because, at the end of May, it will take over these sites and it looks like there will be no subvention money coming. We would like to know if there will be subvention coming.

I reassure the Deputy that these sites are of critical importance and that work is ongoing. Because of the complexity of the matter and the need for due diligence, we do need the Ministers for Transport, Public Expenditure and Reform and Housing, Local Government and Heritage to sign off on this. Once the due diligence exercises are completed, the final business transfer agreements can be signed and all the necessary consents by the Ministers can proceed.

This is an extremely important transfer and everything is being done to ensure its success. There is a huge amount of engagement at Government level. It is a positive that all of Government is looking at the maintenance. The OPW's involvement is critical. It has expertise in conservation of historic heritage sites. We are working and engaging at every level to protect the staff as well. There are many different factors involved. I reassure the Deputy of the critical importance of these sites for the mid-west region. Work is happening on that at Shannon Group level and all Departments are also engaging.

I thank the Minister of State. I am reassured by the commitment but it needs to be backed up with subvention. Clare County Council wants to fulfil the wishes of Government and is fully engaged and committed to this. When it carried out due diligence, it revealed structural damage like cottage roofs falling in and the castle roof in poor repair, as well as umpteen things across the grounds of the folk park that could probably be deemed unsafe for people to go into. It is the same in Craggaunowen and Knappogue, where the beautiful walled gardens were not maintained and no longer exist. I recognise and appreciate the Minister of State's commitment but we also need a commitment in terms of funding. We are not sure what line Ministry that is coming from.

I am concerned for the 140 full-time workers. The supply chain is colossal. Things have been run into the ground and due diligence has thrown up many issues. We need to know where the funding is coming from and when it is coming in order that the May takeover and the summer season can both be successful.

I want to add to the case my Clare colleague made for Clare County Council and subvention for those sites. For Limerick City and County Council, taking on these sites is a new departure. The Minister of State and Department should support Limerick county council in every possible way as it hands over the iconic King John's Castle in the heart of Limerick city, which has vast potential. That potential will not be realised unless significant and solid support is given by the Department in the context of the handover of the site.

I thank Deputy Leddin for his query in respect of King John's Castle and Limerick City and County Council. Work and engagement is happening in relation to that site. The OPW work is important in the context of ascertaining the costs involved. We want to ensure that these sites are maintained and preserved. Funding issues are part of the conversations happening at the moment to ensure a smooth transfer.

I assure Deputies that my Department is liaising with the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media because that feeds into heritage sites in the context of possible funding mechanisms. Deputies can be assured of our commitment in relation to that.

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