National Development Plan: Discussion

No apologies have been received. Deputy Shanahan is substituting for Deputy Lowry. The matter at hand is Review to Renew, the public consultation on the national development plan, NDP. The purpose of our meeting is to examine the national development plan with a view to making a submission to the consultation process. From Irish Rail I welcome Mr. Jim Meade, chief executive, Mr. Peter Muldoon, director of capital investment and Mr. Barry Kenny, corporate communications manager. From the Port of Cork Company I welcome Mr. Eoin McGettigan, CEO, and Mr. Henry Kingston, port engineering manager. I welcome also Mr. Frank Ronan, chief executive at the Port of Waterford, Mr. Colin Dunne, joint managing director at International Warehousing and Transport and Mr. Glenn Carr, general manager, rail freight and Rosslare Europort. I thank the witnesses for attending at such short notice.

All witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory in relation to an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that they comply with any such direction. For witnesses attending remotely outside the Leinster House campus there are some limitations to parliamentary privilege. As such, they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a witness physically present does. Witnesses participating in this committee session from a jurisdiction outside the State are advised that they should be mindful that domestic law could be applied to the evidence they give.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise, or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I remind members that they are only allowed to participate in this meeting if they are physically located on the Leinster House campus. In this regard, I ask all members, prior to making their contributions, to confirm that they are on the grounds of the Leinster House campus.

For those watching this meeting online, Oireachtas members and witnesses are accessing this meeting remotely. Only the Chairman and staff essential to the running of the meeting are physically present in the committee room. Due to these unprecedented circumstances and the large number of people attending the meeting remotely, I ask everyone to bear with us should any technical issues arise.

I call on Mr. Meade to make his opening statement. As the meeting is limited to two hours due to Covid measures, I ask that he limit his remarks to five minutes.

Mr. Jim Meade

I thank the Chairman for the invitation to attend to discuss Review to Renew, the public consultation element of the NDP. I will briefly recap on our operations, progress to date on projects funded under the NDP and our engagement with the consultation process of Review to Renew.

Our team of over 4,000 colleagues in Iarnród Éireann is responsible for maintaining a network of 2,200 km, operating 4,900 train services each way across 144 stations nationwide, transporting almost 1 million customers per week pre-Covid, transporting almost 90 million tonne-kilometres of freight by rail and bringing 130,000 freight units, over 800,000 passengers and over 21,000 trade cars through Rosslare Europort - for which we are port authority - annually. I reiterate that those are pre-Covid numbers. While Covid is not the subject of the discussion today, I wish to place on record my appreciation for our team of essential workers for ensuring that we have continuously delivered a safe and sanitised service to those whose travel has been essential throughout this pandemic.

The NDP is funding a range of critical projects to cater for existing demand to allow us to expand the role we play in meeting transport needs and to deliver solutions to environmental sustainability, congestion and balanced development for Ireland. I will summarise our major projects and their current status. On the infrastructure of the DART+ programme, all phases of the electrification and network capacity enhancement under the programme are now in planning, with DART+ West which is the Maynooth to M3 Parkway line public consultation under way and consultation for DART+ South West, which is out to Hazelhatch and coastal, namely, Drogheda to Greystones, commencing in 2021. Railway order applications will also be progressed this year, beginning with DART+ West. On the DART+ fleet, a framework order for up to 600 electric and battery-electric carriages over a ten-year period will be placed this year, representing the largest and greenest order of fleet in Irish public transport history.

Construction of a new national train control centre at Heuston Station is under way. This will yield safety, punctuality and efficiency benefits. It will be our national control centre co-located with An Garda Síochána and Dublin City Council, thereby enhancing co-operation and emergency response. Construction will be completed this year and phased transfer of operations will be completed in 2023. On additional intercity railcars, 41 carriages have been ordered and are under construction, with delivery from mid-2022 for commuter and intercity services. A range of other enhancements are continuing, including: lift and accessibility enhancements at stations; station development, with a new station opening at Pelletstown this year; the Cork line rehabilitation project has commenced, with track relaying to enhance safety and facilitate journey time improvements through increased line speed and enhancement of car and cycle-parking facilities.

In our engagement with the Department for Transport as part of the Review to Renew consultation, we have highlighted further opportunities to develop the role of rail in meeting the future needs of our economy, environment and society. These include enhancing the role of rail in meeting the transport needs of our regional cities, aligned with the ambitions for our regional cities under Project Ireland 2040, the framework which will guide the Review to Renew and the NDP. This includes: advancing the ambitious plans for Cork commuter rail, including higher frequency, and new stations under the Cork metropolitan area transportation strategy, CMATS; developing the possibilities for rail in the Limerick area, as part of the Limerick-Shannon metropolitan area strategy, LSMATS, based on the existing network of lines around the city; double-tracking Athenry to Galway, to build capacity and frequency for both commuter and intercity and delivering the relocated Plunkett Station, providing for public transport integration and further frequency improvements, as part of the Waterford North Quays development.

Further such opportunities include: building climate resilience into our rail infrastructure, with specific focus on the Dublin to Rosslare Europort line and the necessary coastal protection and other works needed for the long-term resilience of the route, as well as more comprehensive review of potential climate change impacts and risk reduction measures around the network; further investment in our inter-urban routes to decarbonise inter-urban travel, including line-speed enhancement; capacity enhancement, including options for double-tracking at locations such as Portarlington to Athlone, and Limerick to Limerick Junction; and the development of proposals for further electrification of the network, with sustainability and journey time benefits. We are also port authority for Rosslare Europort. Mr. Carr will address our engagement on Rosslare separately.

It is clear that as a country and a society, the sustainability of our economy into the future and the impacts on our environment are becoming a greater concern for citizens and our customers. Covid-19 will change aspects of the way we live our lives and move about, but it also presents an opportunity to change habits and reset methods of travel. Sustainable transport can be a key driver for the recovery of growth and rail travel is an essential pillar of any modern sustainable public transport network, with a significant opportunity to strengthen its role to support Ireland's wider recovery. Iarnród Éireann looks forward to engaging further on the Review to Renew process. We are happy to take any questions members may have.

FI thank Mr. Meade. We now move to Mr. Glenn Carr, general manager, Rosslare Europort.

Mr. Glenn Carr

I thank the Chairman and committee for the opportunity to discuss Rosslare Europort today. Since we last attended the committee, the transformation at Rosslare Europort has gathered pace as, together with our shipping operators, we have developed new and expanded direct services between Rosslare Europort and the Continent of Europe.

There are now 16 direct sailings to Europe each way per week, offering 32 services between Rosslare and Europe. These services have played a vital role in ensuring continuity of the country's supply chain, which has faced the twin challenges of Brexit and Covid-19. For time purposes, I have outlined our services in our statement.

Increasing connectivity, the frequency of shipping services and developing Rosslare Europort as an offshore wind hub for Ireland are the key objectives in growing the port and maximising its potential for the region and country. Our figures for January clearly show the demand for these services, with the key highlights of January 2021 versus January 2020 as follows: ship visits up 37%, combined freight traffic between the UK and Europe up 43%, continental freight up 447% and UK freight down 49%. The growth of services to mainland Europe has been essential to protect our export and import supply lines to avoid the disruptions that the UK land bridge now brings post Brexit and to support the new supply chains created directly with Europe. We are very confident that these direct services will be maintained and we are in ongoing discussions and reviews to accommodate potential additional frequency and capacity to Europe, such is the ongoing demand for these services.

Extensive planning and significant investment in infrastructure and resources has gone into Rosslare Europort from all of the Government agencies and Iarnród Éireann, as a port authority, so that the port is in a position to meet these challenges. I would like to thank the Ministers, Secretaries General and their teams from the Departments of Transport, Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Health, the Revenue Commissioners, the Office of Public Works and Wexford County Council for their enormous support and guidance in our preparations.

There is still further potential to develop Rosslare Europort for the region and the country, and our plans and the opportunity provided under the review of the NDP can ensure this is realised. Our strategic plan for the port is progressing and master plan works have commenced, with an investment of circa €35 million in port facilities, infrastructure and technology over the next number of years to support the future roll on-roll off, ro-ro, freight and passenger services.

Rosslare Europort has also completed an extensive review of the potential of the port being developed as an offshore wind hub for Ireland. As the committee will know, significant offshore wind developments are planned in the Irish and Celtic Seas and Rosslare Europort is best positioned to be developed to meet the port infrastructure needs of this industry. A detailed design plan and business case for Rosslare offshore wind development has been submitted and we believe the proposal offers the offshore industry and the State the best investment and future required infrastructure to ensure that Ireland maximises the opportunity to address climate action needs and for these projects to generate and secure the benefits available for future regional development through investment and jobs.

Equally, it is critical that connectivity to Rosslare Europort and all major cities and industrial hubs throughout Ireland is further supported by improving road developments. As volumes through the port grow, it is essential that the Oilgate to Rosslare motorway and the new port access road are completed so that additional future traffic can be accommodated and Rosslare can be developed to its full potential to support the Irish economy.

We must not forget the traffic congestion problems that existed pre-Covid, and the over reliance on Dublin and the challenges this brought. Rosslare Europort is keen to maximise the benefits of our strategic national asset, and we would welcome the support of the committee in the plans and proposals I have outlined. I thank the Chairman and committee members.

I thank Mr. Carr. We will now move to Mr. Eoin McGettigan, chief executive of the Port of Cork.

Mr. Eoin McGettigan

I have been chief executive of the Port of Cork company since last October. I am accompanied by Mr. Henry Kingston, port engineering manager.

The Port of Cork is the second largest in the State, handling all cargo types, lift on-lift off, lo-lo, containers, liquid and solid bulks, ro-ro freight, project cargo and cruises. It operates facilities in Cork city, Tivoli, Ringaskiddy and Cobh. The port includes Whitegate oil refinery and the Whiddy oil storage facility in Bantry. The Marino Point site is currently being developed as a port facility and a new €80 million container terminal is nearing completion in Ringaskiddy. The Port of Cork is categorised as a tier 1 port of national significance in the national ports policy 2013 and a core port in the North Sea-Mediterranean corridor and on the Atlantic corridor of the EU TEN-T network.

The port is undertaking several significant infrastructural projects which have the potential to transform Cork Harbour. The move of port activities into deeper water, closer to the shipping channels, will mean more efficient links to markets, a significantly lower carbon footprint and a reduced requirement for dredging the River Lee. The urban regeneration potential left behind in the city and Tivoli docks is fully aligned with the national planning framework, NPF, objectives of compact living and sustainable transport. These opportunities have been recognised and supported in the NDP, the NPF, the regional spatial and economic strategy for the region and local city and county plans.

However, relying solely on individual port companies to invest in national port infrastructure may not be sufficient to serve the needs of the national economy, especially while facing disrupters such as Brexit, climate change, offshore energy, hydrogen and transition fuels such as LNG. A number of obstacles remain to the orderly and planned relocation of our city centre operations. The first is the fact that the road connectivity to the key lower harbour facilities in Ringaskiddy and Marino Point is not up to the required EU standards for core port connectivity. Full throughput from the terminals cannot be achieved with the current HGV access. The second is the relocation of a number of private companies operating Seveso designation site in Cork city docks and Tivoli docks to more compatible port sites in the lower harbour. The third is the investment needed to reconnect the freight rail link to Marino Point. The fourth is the fact that the ability of commercial semi-State port companies to self-fund major capital projects is limited by the financial capabilities of our balance sheet. Providing suitably upgraded freight connections from the national road network to Cork's new port facilities in Ringaskiddy and Marino Point will remove up to 600 truck moments daily from Cork city centre. This will allow for city centre growth and compact living, and will support sustainable transport mode in the city, such as the positive impact the Dublin Port Tunnel had on Dublin city centre traffic.

In conclusion, despite the fact our port projects are supported in the NDP, they face the same risks, such as planning challenges and legal delays, as other projects, as well as funding uncertainty. Efforts to streamline these processes have not been fully successful. The current investment required to deliver the transformational change for Cork city and the southern region goes beyond the incremental capital investment which can be supported by the port. The NDP has identified the opportunity for Cork city and the southern region in which the Port of Cork company must play a central role. A broader perspective on how to clear the obstacles to realise this opportunity now needs to be applied and resourced by the various State agencies involved such as the Port of Cork, Cork city and county councils, TII, the NTA, Irish Rail and others. I thank the Chairman and committee.

I thank Mr. McGettigan. We now move to Mr. Frank Ronan, chief executive of the Port of Cork.

Mr. Frank Ronan

I thank the Chair for the promotion to Mr. McGettigan's job. The Port of Waterford is the home port here. I thank the Chair for the opportunity to join the committee today. My statement is a summary of the submission we made to the Review to Renew consultation. The Port of Waterford made its submission to the Review to Renew consultation on 28 January 2021. This statement to the joint committee provides an overview of that submission.

The Port of Waterford operates from Belview Port point and handles more than 1.5 million tonnes of bulk products, mainly agri-related, together with another 100,000 or so tonnes of break bulk including bulk. timber, steel and project cargoes.

The port also operates in the container lo-lo sector, handling 50,000 20 ft. equivalent units, TEUs, annually, with spare capacity to significantly increase that throughput.

The Belview facility has excellent inland connectivity including direct access to the M9 and active rail connections into the port. With our positioning, the Port of Waterford is a tier 2 port of national significance and provides infrastructure that is relevant both regionally and nationally. The NDP provides enabling investment to implement the NPF, which sets the vision and strategy for the development of the State, balanced across all of our regions, towns and cities, out to the year 2040.

The importance of port connectivity in the context of Brexit and climate change is clearly signposted within the NPF with the inclusion of the following national strategic outcomes: outcome 2 is enhanced regional accessibility; outcome 4 is sustainable mobility; and outcome 6 is high-quality international connectivity. The programme for Government states that the Government will work with the State's port companies to ensure they have the capacity, finance and policy supports to deliver in the years ahead.

I now turn to challenges and opportunities for port development. The Port of Waterford masterplan sets out its strategic response to NPF policies and current challenges with respect to port development and the wider commercial environment. It identifies development priorities to 2044 that could be implemented to meet the needs of the economy over the next 25 years. Offshore wind investment as well as capacity constraints in Dublin, exacerbated by Brexit, will accelerate the requirement for new capacity and the need for the Port of Waterford's masterplan projects.

With regard to improving connectivity and sustainability, we are currently witnessing the relevance that Rosslare has assumed around the provision of services to ro-ro freight for direct to Europe connections. Waterford has the potential and available capacity to have a similar impact in terms rail freight and lo-lo off services, with direct lo-lo services to Europe providing a viable option against using the UK land bridge or more expensive direct ro-ro routes. Utilising best transport and logistics options also has the ability to make a significant contribution to transport decarbonisation.

We have requested an enhanced focus in the NDP around rail freight development, for overall support for network viability and for investment in rolling stock capacity. In Waterford, the portside element and connections are in place with no additional investment required.

Offshore wind investment is a key component of the climate action plan and support for offshore installations represents a significant opportunity for the State over the next few years. The port is actively involved in facilitating onshore wind installations and should be seen as a significant enabler. Port investment will be required and strategy alignment between the south-east ports on this issue is highly desirable. This opportunity will require the acceleration of some or all of the projects identified in the Port of Waterford masterplan.

The Port of Waterford submission requests that the revised NDP includes support for the Port of Waterford Master Plan 2020-2044 and the capital projects identified in this plan. We also request that the NDP supports the delivery of a rail freight network and investment to facilitate offshore wind, and ensures that prescribed bodies have sufficient capacity and resources to engage with capital project development and delivery.

I thank the Chairman. I kept my contribution as tight as I could but I look forward to answering any questions or providing more information on the port.

I thank Mr. Ronan, you were very concise. I now invite Mr. Colin Dunne, joint managing director of International Warehousing and Transport.

Mr. Colin Dunne

I thank the Chairman. Founded in 1981, International Warehousing and Transport, IWT, is an indigenous privately-owned Irish company with offices in Dublin, Rotterdam, Hamburg and Ballina, County Mayo. IWT is a leading provider of European and global shipping services. Since 2009, we have chartered in excess of 3,000 freight trains serving Ballina and Dublin Port, and we currently offer customers 14 cross-country rail freight services weekly. This is the only intermodal container rail service on the island of Ireland currently.

It is the ambition of IWT to expand and develop its services across the State. Having invested heavily in our rail freight operations in Ballina we see an urgent need in the post-Brexit era for rail connectivity to the ports of Waterford, Foynes when reconnected, and others. We are confident that many new business opportunities would arise if it were indicated that this infrastructure was to be made available.

The restoration of the rail freight connection from Mayo southwards to those southern ports, as proposed recently by the Minister for Transport, would allow for greater flexibility and alternative exit points for current business as well as the development of such new business opportunities. To support this rail service, IWT has invested in excess of €2 million in our depot in Ballina, with a capacity to operate the first and last mile on a 24-7 basis. We have a modern fleet of trucks and heavy lift port-type reach stackers for lifting laden and empty containers.

In mainland Europe, Ballina would be referred to as an inland port and countries such as The Netherlands consider inland ports of strategic importance for competitive advantage to local industry. Our existing rail freight service is a significant addition to our portfolio of international services. We are the largest single freight customer of Iarnród Éireann. IWT charters the trains thereby taking all the commercial risk, and slots are available for the entire market to use.

We fully intend to grow current rail services where possible with a focus on reducing costs, on reducing transport’s annual carbon footprint and on providing a statistically safer mode of transport. In 2015, a study by the Western Development Commission estimated that the rail freight market share in the western region could be increased fourfold. We are now interested in expanding our rail freight operations serving locations on the western rail corridor. A number of other potential customers have been identified, including potential traffics from Cork to Ballina, Foynes to Ballina and Waterford to Tuam, Claremorris and Ballina.

In addition to facilitating direct access to southern ports such as Waterford and potentially Shannon-Foynes and Cork, the restoration of the rail link between Claremorris and Athenry would provide us with an alternative route to Dublin in the event of unforeseen interruptions or congestion on the radial line from Claremorris to Athlone. There is already evidence of traffic congestion on the existing radial route from Dublin to the west. As our operations continue to increase this becomes a more pressing issue. There is a quick and available opportunity to commence a new service from Waterford to Ballina, and vice versa, immediately. IWT is willing to commit to this.

I will turn to the environmental factors that we are aware of. Rail freight emissions are 60% to 70% lower than road freight. Rail is one of the most environmentally sustainable forms of transport. The benefits of moving freight from road to rail to reduce carbon emissions are widely recognised in other EU countries and are championed by governments. The promotion of increased rail freight by the Irish Government would send a strong signal to Europe that we are serious about meeting our carbon targets. In line with our company’s commitment to the environment our charter trains contribute directly to carbon savings by displacing approximately 13,000 truck movements or 3 million truck kilometres annually. With a CO2 saving, this amounts to an annual CO2 reduction of 1,463 tonnes. Our rail service currently displaces approximately 85 million truck kilometres from Irish roads annually. Each train removes up to 36 HGVs from our roads. IWT is actively seeking to increase the volume of suitable container traffic by rail. Despite the fact that we are supposed to be incentivising carbon savings in the area of transport, Ireland currently has the second highest track access charges in Europe at approximately twice the average in the EU. Remarkably, there are no subsidies towards rail freight unlike most countries. By contrast, the Scottish Government recently allocated £25 million to support the country’s rail freight industry over the next five years.

We feel that more ambition is called for in these areas. To address these issues, we believe it is necessary to invest in the integration and expansion of the rail network, including the revival of strategically important disused lines, which can also contribute significantly to Ireland meeting its emissions targets and obligations, and increasing gross domestic product in areas outside the greater Dublin area. It is important to note that to date there has been no financial risk to Irish Rail; all the commercial risk lies with IWT, the charter party. This demonstrates the success of a public private partnership that brings significant societal, economic, and environmental benefits with significant scope for further expansion.

I thank Mr. Dunne. We now move to members, and I ask them to be conscious of time as we want to get responses back from our witnesses.

I thank the witnesses for their contributions. I wish to raise with Mr. Meade the issues of access and affordability of rail services. There are two projects I will cite, one of which is in my area with the extension of the Navan rail line from Dunboyne, and the other is in the west with the expansion of the western rail corridor. Neither of these projects is included in the current NDP as existing projects.

Irish Rail has not mentioned them in its engagement on Review to Renew. Can Mr. Meade please outline where he sees those projects? I want him to give a commitment that Irish Rail will expand rail services across the State. I fundamentally believe that both of the projects have the potential to serve a great purpose in modal terms so will shift people out of cars and on to public transport. He will have heard about rail freight from the other witnesses. Can I hear his response to both of the projects, please?

Mr. Jim Meade

In terms of enhancing rail services, both the western rail corridor, WRC, and the Navan project are in our sights. The National Transport Authority leads on the planning side as part of the greater Dublin area, GDA, review that is currently under way and the Navan rail link is part of that review. We feed into the authority any issues, respond to any queries they have for us and give any guidance we can to them on costs, alignments and all of that. We are fully committed to that. All we await is clarity from the Department and the NTA. It is a case of if and when they want to build it. Obviously we are here to operate railways. We very much welcome the expansion of rail across the network and we would welcome both projects.

On the case of the western rail corridor, at the request of, and subject to the terms of reference within the Department of Transport, we did commission a report that was undertaken by EY. It is a financial and economical appraisal on proposals to extend the western rail corridor, as outlined before, ultimately to Claremorris in two phases from Athenry to Tuam and then Tuam to Claremorris. The terms of reference specified in that appraisal were that we must ensure that any extension of the WRC meets all of the relevant appraisal procedures and value-for-money tests required under the public spending code.

The report was submitted to the Department in July 2020. It was subject to an independent review, commissioned by the Department, with the Joint Assistance to Support Projects in the European Regions, JASPERS. Neither report supported the extension of the WRC based on the terms of reference set out in it. I would note that the Minister for Transport has informed the Government of a proposed all-Ireland strategic rail review of the inter-urban and inter-regional rail network taking cognisance of the need for balanced regional development and cross-Border connectivity. While the Department is doing that we will be very involved with them and we will support them in any way they need. If the decision is made to develop either or both of those lines then we will not be found wanting in supporting that decision and delivering.

I want to pick up on one point. I hope that the committee will have an opportunity in the time ahead and I am sure other contributors will comment on the western rail corridor. There have been significant statements here on the foundation of the two reports, particularly in the context of the opportunity for rail freight.

For the remainder of my time I will focus on the Navan rail line and I have questions on the relationship between the national development plan review and the greater Dublin area transport strategy review. I am confident that we will get the green light for the project as it has political support across the board. I also believe that the economic and environment arguments for it is very strong and the social argument is without comparison. If the project gets a green light in the review how quickly can it start? What is the shortest timeline? How does the greater Dublin area transport strategy relate to the national development plan? How quickly can we get money allocated to the job to get it started?

Mr. Jim Meade

The funding is an issue for the Department of Transport. Ultimately, the planning phase will be done by the NTA. Once a decision is made and funding is allocated by the Department then we will deliver the project in about three years from start to finish.

We will move on to the first Fianna Fáil slot. I call Senator Dooley and he has six minutes.

I welcome all of the contributors and thank them for their presentations.

I wish to focus on the presentation made by Mr. Meade and will be parochial for a moment. I am sure he is very familiar with County Clare. The county has a couple of outstanding rail projects that I would like to see advanced, and they have been in the offing for some time. We would see an extension of the western rail corridor as very beneficial to the Limerick, Ennis and onwards to Galway line that currently exists. Anything that would improve passenger numbers through that area would be beneficial to County Clare, and particularly Shannon Airport.

A number of years ago there was a proposal to include a rail stop at Crusheen train station. Please update us on that and consider increasing the number of stops, for example, at places like Cratloe in south-east Clare and, possibly, Meelick. That rail line is under-utilised when it heads into Limerick. There could be much greater use made of stations that facilitate the Limerick Institute of Technology and the University of Limerick. I would be interested in hearing about proposals that Irish Rail might have in that regard.

Mr. Meade will be aware that the rail line as it travels from Ennis to Limerick frequently experiences difficulties at Ballycar because of flooding. The Office of Public Works, OPW, and Irish Rail have conducted a number of studies on the issue and I ask for an update on that.

The spur into Shannon or a Shannon rail line is back on the agenda. I am sure that Mr. Meade was familiar with the line over the years. The late Seán Hillery, former councillor, put a lot of stock in the project as a councillor who represented the Shannon region a number of years ago. I have recently heard comment from the Minister, Deputy Ryan, that he is relooking at the project. I ask Mr. Meade to give the committee his perspective on the project.

In terms of the south-eastern part of County Clare, Killaloe and access to the Birdhill line, does Irish Rail propose to update the Ballybrophy line, increase services or make improvements?

Finally, disability access at Ennis train station is an ongoing issue. Mr. Meade did mention the potential for some lifts and I ask him to talk to us about that. I am more than happy with everything the other contributors said.

Mr. Jim Meade

I thank Senator Dooley. He asked a lot of questions and I hope I noted them all. I will try to answer them in the order in which they were asked.

In terms of Crusheen, yes, before the financial crash there was a plan to consider building a station at Crusheen but that never came to fruition as part of the first stage of the western rail corridor. We would state quite clearly that the responsibility for developing a transport strategy still remains with the local authority, as part of its county development plan and policy. Subject to a positive outcome from any appraisal they may make we would, in principle, support the development of a station at Crusheen. It will be necessary for the county council to arrange for the production of the required business case, as it is the authority with such responsibility. We would support the development should that occur.

On stations into Limerick, I am happy to say that we have made a comprehensive submission to the Limerick-Shannon Metropolitan Area Transport Strategy, LSMATS, with the options that we see are viable for heavy rail as part of the overall transport offering for Limerick. We see the option of several stations between Ennis and Limerick: from Sixmilebridge in; a park and ride facility at Cratloe, if we want; stations at Moyross; and then stations further in as part of that overall development. We would welcome such developments. We have put those options forward as part of the LSMATS. I am sure that they will be taken into consideration by the NTA and will be subject to any final decision there. Whatever the outcome, we will be very happy to deliver those projects when they come our way.

It would benefit the two colleges.

Mr. Jim Meade

Absolutely. It would be at the back of Limerick Institute of Technology and right beside the spiritual home of rugby, Thomond Park, and Moyross, which is a big residential area. As it goes over the Shannon and swings around back into the city, it passes within ten minutes walk of University of Limerick, so it will serve all locations.

The Senator mentioned Ballycar, which has been the subject of a long-running saga. There is a big turlough at Ballycar that fills up slowly in the winter months. If we get a lot of rain, it results in the line being closed for anything from eight weeks upwards. Our worst closure in a very bad winter was for something like 15 or 16 weeks before it drained again. A report on flood relief options at Ballycar has been completed. We commissioned RPS Consulting Engineers and were involved in a round-table approach with other stakeholders such as Clare County Council, the Office of Public Works, the Geological Survey of Ireland and the National Parks and Wildlife Service. The 2020 study builds on previous studies. A preferred option for a technically viable drainage scheme that would prevent recurring floods has been worked up and submitted to the Department for consideration and, ultimately, funding.

On the rail link to Shannon, in 2007, a consultancy firm was involved and, as the Senator said, the late Sean Hillery was pushing on this issue. The Department did a study to look at a link into Shannon. As part of LSMATS, the current Minister has committed to revisiting that study and doing a further study on whether that link can or should be established.

On the Nenagh branch, we have proposed some activities on the Nenagh branch with a park-and-ride facility out near Birdhill, again as part of LSMATS. Beyond that, there are not currently many proposals for the Nenagh branch. With the Nenagh partnership, we have started looking more recently at how we could enhance services under the current restrictions relating to the branch. It would require a substantial upgrade in order to put a high-frequency service on it but it is our intention, at an absolute minimum, to maintain it as is and, where we can, to improve services.

The Senator mentioned accessibility at Ennis. He will be happy to note we are well advanced with a project to put a new over-bridge and lifts into Ennis to make the station fully accessible. That project is funded by the NTA and is under way, so that is happening. I hope I dealt with all the questions.

Yes. I thank Mr. Meade for his comprehensive response and for the work he does. Iarnród Éireann has done remarkably well under his leadership in the past number of years to take the direction it has. With the renewed focus at Government level on the modal shift towards public transport, we are fortunate to have him in the driving seat. I thank him again.

Mr. Jim Meade

I thank the Senator.

I welcome our guests and thank them for the presentations. I want to ask Mr. Meade, in the context of his contribution in terms of the Cork line rehabilitation project, will he clarify the position on track laying, the facilitation of journey times and what that means for the customer? In the context of high-speed electrification, what can we expect and how will we see Cork to Dublin traffic times improve?

The NTA was before the committee last week. With regard to the Cork commuter rail project, what do Mr. Meade’s comments mean in terms of advancing that ambitious plan? Can he put a timeframe on it and what does he expect to see under the metropolitan transport strategy?

I commend the port of Cork for the work it has been doing in a post-Brexit world. At this forum, I want to pay tribute to the outgoing chairperson, John Mullins, who is stepping down after eight years. I thank him for his dedication to the Port of Cork and the vision he has, with the staff and the former chief executive, and now with Mr. McGettigan and Mr. Kingston, to drive the port forward and to have a very ambitious plan for Cork port. In a time when we are rededicating to public service, John Mullins' commitment to Cork and to the Port of Cork is to be commended and praised. I thank him for his service.

In the context of Mr. McGettigan's and Mr. Kingston's presentation, it was stated that the emphasis on streamlining the process has not been successful in terms of the attempt to expand in the context of the national development plan. What does that mean?

I have been speaking with Deputy Paul Kehoe, who has been a very strong advocate for Rosslare. Will Mr. Carr comment with regard to offshore wind energy, which is being discussed for the Rosslare Europort?

Mr. Jim Meade

I will answer the first couple of questions and then pass to my colleague, Mr. Carr, to answer the question on Rosslare. The rehabilitation of the Cork route is about maintaining our assets and maintaining the rail infrastructure - the track bed and the rails - to a high level. What we are doing is improving and renewing with a view to maintaining the current line speeds of 100 mph. As we progress and extend the amount of 100 mph running that we can do, that is with the ultimate goal of getting the Dublin to Cork services to about a two-hour journey time. Our fastest train to Cork currently takes two hours and 20 minutes and, as we improve journey times by improving the track and increasing speeds, the target time would be to get key business trains to a two-hour journey time between the two major cities of Dublin and Cork.

On the passive provision for electrification, anything we are doing in no way hinders the long-term view of electrifying the network. Anywhere we can make passive provision as we do this now, we keep a weather eye on the fact that, at some time in the future, we will electrify, and we may even raise line speeds further. Therefore, where we can make passive provision at no extra cost as we go through this, we are doing so.

Mr. Glenn Carr

With regard to the offshore wind development opportunity for Rosslare Europort, just over 18 months ago we undertook an extensive study, recognising the growth of the offshore that was happening, particularly in the Irish Sea and Celtic Sea. We engaged CDG Offshore and Marine to review the industry, what it was bringing and, more importantly, the infrastructure that would be required, particularly at port level. We believe we have now put forward a very strong business case and a detailed plan and design for an offshore wind hub at Rosslare Europort. We are the closest and best positioned port for these offshore wind developments, and we have the infrastructure development potential in terms of land available around the port. It requires an investment of close to €200 million and, while I know that may sound a lot in these times, we believe it is a very worthwhile business investment that will give the best return for the State.

With regard to regional development, it is critical, particularly at the construction and installation stage of offshore wind energy, that the infrastructure at a port is available in the State. It is recognised that no port currently has the infrastructure for the requirements of the offshore developments. As I said, we presented a plan outlining this, with a detailed roll-out of the project, including everything from detailed design and construction to operation. We believe it is very achievable to be up and running in Rosslare Europort within the next three to five years to meet the needs relating to offshore wind development.

Mr. Jim Meade

I did not answer the second part of Senator Buttimer’s question but I was not avoiding it. On increased frequency for CMATS, what we meant is that, between Mallow, Cobh and Midleton, it is about increasing the frequency of trains and improving the offering to the customer over several phases. By 2023, we would see ourselves increasing capacity by cascading fleet into the area, and so generating more fleet. Prior to Covid we would have had capacity issues, particularly on the morning Midleton service, with people trying get into Cork city. In phase 1, we see ourselves investing in fleet to improve frequency and improve capacity on those lines. As part of phase 2, we would move to a 20-minute service on those lines, whereas it is currently a half-hourly service. Having increased the capacity, we would then increase the frequency.

In phase 3, out into 2027 and 2028, we could move to a 15-minute frequency with a through platform at Cork station and a Mallow-Cobh-Midleton commuter service that would be high-frequency, high-capacity and, over time, electrified. That is what we meant by that.

Mr. Eoin McGettigan

I echo Senator Buttimer's good words about our parting chairman, John Mullins, not least because of his part in the process that resulted in my recruitment.

One of his good decisions.

Mr. Eoin McGettigan

I will ask my colleague and the port engineering manager, Henry Kingston, to respond to the Senator's specific question.

Mr. Henry Kingston

The question concerned the efforts to streamline the processes related to plans which are supported in the national development plan and bringing them to fruition successfully. In our case, we are currently building an €80 million container terminal in Ringaskiddy and also looking to develop the Marino Point port facility, which was previously a fertiliser plant, and to regenerate it back into an active port which would be reconnected. The current freight links, road and rail, to both these terminals are substandard. There is the idea of an interagency approach to strategise on ports location and redevelopment for the activities many of our port colleagues have mentioned, including future wind development, offshore wind, etc., and their very laudable green benefits in the future. This needs a more streamlined approach at a national and strategic level in order that when the ports are being built and delivered and facilities are being delivered, they are already connected and we do not have to wait subsequently for road connectivity to realise the full capacity of our port infrastructure, which has cost us not only a significant amount of cash but also significant effort to get through the planning processes. That was what I was referring to.

I wish Mr. McGettigan well. It was a good choice by Mr. Mullins and the board.

Yes, we wish Mr. McGettigan well.

If I may, I will address my initial questions to Mr. Meade. I want to know what element of cross-Border planning has gone into Iarnród Éireann's submission. I am particularly interested to know what the plans are for the Dublin-Belfast Enterprise service. Some of the questions I have relate to cost and the need for greater frequency. I want to know about the planning regarding cross-Border services and the possibility of having the speedier rail links we are talking about designing in the future.

We are now all into remote working and, therefore, even long-term commuters will be looking at the possibility of commuting two or three times per week. I believe they should still be able to avail of commuter-based pricing, be it for one month or six months, taking into account that they might be travelling only two or three days per week. Have the witnesses had any interaction on that possibility?

Mr. Jim Meade

There are two key issues there. I am happy to report that there was a lot of close and detailed collaboration between us in Iarnród Éireann and Translink, which operates the services north of the Border. We have a group working between the two companies looking at enhancing the Enterprise service. We are working on plans to move to an hourly service and we have been talking to the Special EU Programmes Body, SEUPB. It has a funding pot and we have put to it a proposal as to how we would replace the Enterprise fleet and enhance the service. It currently consists of four trains delivering nine services a day. We are putting a plan to the SEUPB for a fleet of nine trains and proposing that the SEUPB fund it, which it is very interested in doing. It is still at the planning stage, but we expect the SEUPB to assist us with that funding in order to move to an hourly service along with the Weavers Cross development on Great Victoria Street in Belfast where a new transport hub will be delivered in 2024 or 2025. I am subject to correction on the date. We hope to deliver a complete new fleet in conjunction with Translink, probably in 2026 or 2027, to go to a full hourly service with reduced journey times. Our infrastructure south of the Border is in reasonably good shape. It is reasonably well maintained. The biggest issue for us is the level of congestion from Malahide into the city centre, with the ten-minute DART service as well, and finding slots to get services in. It slows it up a little, but we are also advanced with planning on that and starting to look at how we will improve it.

The pricing structure is very much an issue for the NTA, but we are looking at the issue with the NTA. We are already talking to it and discussions are ongoing about what the post-Covid travel patterns will be and what the pricing structure of tickets will be, moving away from the traditional monthly and annual tickets that were used heretofore. It is a work in progress between us and the NTA.

I appreciate those answers regarding the planning. If any of those details, particularly on the Enterprise service, could be passed on to the committee, I would really appreciate it.

The next issue falls between Mr. Dunne and Mr. Carr. We are all dealing with Brexit and its outworkings. We welcome the direct ferries to the Continent. Does anything need to be done from the point of view of the State? We have all dealt with Revenue, the Department of Transport, hauliers, etc., and there was a huge number of issues with systems and communications. Have some of those been sorted? I am talking about anything that would deal with services across the land bridge or directly. Even though we have a reduced amount of transport across the land bridge, I assume both Mr. Dunne and Mr. Carr are still involved. If I could get those questions answered, I would really appreciate it.

Who would Deputy Ó Murchú like to go first?

I suppose Mr. Carr.

Mr. Glenn Carr

In the first month we have seen a significant shift to direct services. Our continental freight, as I said earlier, is up 446%; our UK freight is down 49%. There are significant problems which are slowly being addressed, particularly in exports from the UK into Ireland. However, a lot of those challenges will form the new world we are in now, and people are working to put systems in place to address that. From our point of view, obviously, it is important we maintain those services with the UK because they will be an important part of our business going forward. At the same time, however, it needs to be recognised that there has been a fundamental change in aspects of the supply chain in Ireland, particularly directly with Europe. As a port, we have a lot of support regarding our border inspection facility. We are lucky in Rosslare. That has temporarily been built outside of the port, where all State agencies are on the one site together. From the perspective of a customer using that facility, it is working very well for anybody coming from the UK into Ireland. It means that customers go to one site and all the agencies are on that one site. As part of our master plan, we are incorporating the longer term Border inspection facility inside the port and working closely with the State agencies and the Office of Public Works on that. Very important for us is the road network and its continued improvement. We have already seen the benefits of the Oilgate bypass. Any road connectivity improvement makes Rosslare more attractive and helps relieve pressures in Dublin, which, we should not forget, were there before Covid. We are delighted with the performance of the first month. Despite all the additional traffic, we have managed to ensure that 98% of ships have left the port on time. We have also started our master plan for the port, amounting to €35 million.

That will bring other benefits for the roll-on-roll-off traffic in terms of space and availability. I would say that things are working well at the moment from a port perspective. That said, I am mindful that we are not seeing two very important aspects of our business to the full potential, one being passengers. Normally, we would have approximately 800,000 passengers going through the port. We obviously are not seeing that at the moment and probably will not see that for the remainder of this year given the restrictions. The UK traffic is also down 49%. The unknown at this point, and it will take another couple of months for this to work through, is how much of that traffic may migrate back to the land bridge or how many companies will revert to trading with some of their UK suppliers. We should also bear in mind that the UK starts some of its introductions of customs from 1 April. Its commitment is the full implementation of its systems from 1 July. We can, therefore, expect to see additional problems, mainly, again, on the UK side. My experience has been that UK industry has been poorly prepared for Brexit. While there have been some teething problems with some of the systems on our side, I believe one would find the bulk of the problems are very much on the British side.

As we are tight on time, Mr. Carr might conclude.

Mr. Glenn Carr

I am sure the issues will be addressed but they are not going to be addressed overnight.

I appreciate that comprehensive answer. Is it still possible that I can get a short answer from Mr. Dunne?

I am conscious of other members. Mr. Dunne might give a quick and concise answer.

Mr. Colin Dunne

The only thing I would add to that really are undoubtedly the cost implications. We operate a fleet of 160 trailers on the Ireland-UK routes. The key to being competitive is to be able to deliver and reload and combine one's collections and deliveries. This is proving challenging without the UK engaging. It currently is in a kind of light-touch way. Therefore, the only thing I can add is that the consequences to costs will definitely increase.

I thank Mr. Dunne. I call Deputy Cathal Crowe, who has six minutes. I ask members to hold to the six minutes as otherwise, we will not get everyone in. I appreciate the limitations.

I thank the Chairman. I wish to put a few points to Mr. Meade. As I was in an earlier meeting, I missed a share of what he had to say although I have read his statement. I apologise; as there are two other County Clare representatives present, I may ask repetitive questions. Mr. Meade might bear with me.

I wish to make a few points. First, I have a general comment relating to pricing. I believe pricing of rail tickets continues to be one of the major barriers to people using the service. If I was to take a return train today from Ennis to get to Dáil Éireann via Heuston Station, it would cost me €74 return. It costs me approximately €19 one way on diesel to get there in the car. It is obviously not all in Mr. Meade's gift but I believe the pricing in the future will continue to be an inhibitor to people using rail services and ditching the car to take the train. Perhaps he might comment on that.

At county level, I wish to query and raise a few things with Mr. Meade as concerns, hopes and aspirations. One is the idea of a Shannon rail spur. I am my party's spokesperson on aviation. We see a real bright future for Shannon, hopefully when Covid-19 passes, and it will. It helps to have an expansionary view for Shannon Airport. There has long been a corridor of protected land in south-east Clare, giving a rail spur from that Limerick to Ennis train line right into Shannon Airport. Landowners along the line bemoan the fact that it has not progressed for years and yet the land is frozen. I seek Mr. Meade's views on how he thinks that could progress. Is it necessary? Does Irish Rail see it as priority going forward in the national development plan?

On the issue of the western rail corridor, many of us were devastated to see the Ernst & Young report more or less rubbishing the idea of an extension of rail services along the west of Ireland. I believe there is still some chance to breathe new life into that. There are certainly communities in the west of Ireland but in particular, communities like Crusheen, County Clare, which have long awaited that upward connectivity along the west of Ireland giving them a decent service. Mr. Meade might comment on Crusheen and plans for a station there. It is something for which people there have long campaigned.

The other issue is the Limerick Shannon metropolitan area transport strategy, LSMATS, study looking at the transport needs and functions of Limerick city. I made a submission some months ago suggesting that a park-and-ride facility could be developed in the Parteen-Moyross-Thomondgate area in proximity to Thomond Park because the new northern distributor road will be put in place there. It is proximate to the city and third level campuses and a wonderful road network. Irish Rail's railway line passes through there. I believe it makes sense that there would be some kind of park-and-ride or rail-and-ride network there. I would like to hear Mr. Meade's views on that.

I will make two final points to which Mr. Meade should come back with a contribution. In terms of stations, I believe the Limerick to Ennis rail line has a number of densely populated communities. I am from one such community, namely, Meelick. Cratloe and Sixmilebridge are located above me and Parteen is on the approaches to Limerick city. As recent censuses have identified, they are highly populated and there is potential there for new park-and-rail facilities as things go on and perhaps even new stations.

Does Mr. Meade believe greenways and the rush to develop them are somewhat in contradiction to the priorities of Irish Rail? Finally, there is a well-publicised illegal encampment at the Irish Rail station in Sixmilebridge at present. As the tenants and lessees of the car park, I ask Irish Rail to engage with the authorities in order that this functional car park and the essential facility it provides to that community can be restored in the quickest possible time.

Mr. Jim Meade

Some of those points have been covered already so perhaps I will be a bit shorter and sharper with these responses.

As I want to let Deputy Crowe in at the end, Mr. Meade should be direct.

Mr. Jim Meade

On the pricing of tickets, absolutely. The closer it comes to the time to walk up and go on a train, it costs more, the same as the airline industry pre-Covid. However, prebooking online is very efficient for tickets. The pricing structure is set by the NTA but we offer very competitive prices when a person books in advance and online for his or her tickets. If a person arrives half an hour before the train departure time to buy a ticket, it is more expensive. The structure on pricing is to encourage prebooking in order that we know our load demands well in advance.

Regarding the Shannon rail spur, Iarnród Éireann did an exercise in 2007, to which we referred earlier. It is part of the process under the LSMATS currently. We have made a fairly detailed submission to the NTA on what we see as viable options under that consultation process, which is currently under way.

Certainly, the report that EY delivered, which I mentioned earlier as regards the WRC and which was discussed and reviewed by JASPERS, dealt with the terms of reference under which that report was delivered. We also noted that the Minister has proposed an all-Ireland strategic rail review. In that context, there may be a second review looking at the western rail corridor in the all-Ireland context to see if there is a viable option for it at that point.

Crusheen station is part of the responsibility of the transport strategy of Clare County Council as the local authority. Iarnród Éireann would, however, support the development of a station there once the business plan from the county requires it. The funding is in place. We would be happy to build it should that happen.

Regarding the Deputy's comments around Thomondgate and Moyross, part of what we have proposed in our submission to the LSMATS is for stations there, perhaps at the parkway at Moyross or park-and -rides, as the Deputy outlined, on the new ring road or outside it, somewhere like Cratloe, where one could have a park-and-ride and increased frequency then on that line. It would, therefore, create a commuter line around Limerick, which is part of the overall ambitions of the Minister and of Limerick as a whole.

Broadly, we support greenways. Anywhere we have disused lines or where there are no short-term plans to have a live railway on it, we work with the relevant local authorities and we will give them licence to use our lands for a greenway. It is built into every greenway agreement we make that if there is a requirement for transport or to put rail back on it, we can take back the right of way again.

We can put public transport back on that right of way but support them in the main.

On the issue of the car park at Sixmilebridge, I remind the Deputy that we do not own or lease that car park. It is a county council car park so it has almost nothing to do with us. I am aware the county council is dealing with it. We have been in contact with it and with the local gardaí from a safety perspective in terms of having people and young children so close to the line but it is an issue for the county council. We neither have ownership of nor licence for the area.

I thank Mr. Meade and appreciate his time.

I thank the witnesses for their presentations. I want to put a few questions to Mr. Meade. He will recall the body of work the previous Oireachtas Joint Committee on Rural and Community Development, which I chaired, did regarding the flooding issue at Ballycar, on the Ennis to Limerick line. A report has been finalised, which brought together all the stakeholders - Clare County Council, Irish Rail, the Office of Public Works, OPW, the National Parks and Wildlife Service - and including others also. When was that report submitted to the Department of Transport?

Mr. Jim Meade

I believe it was submitted at the back end of last year. The Deputy is correct in his understanding of it. The report makes a recommendation on the best course of action and has costed it out. I believe it is with the Department since late last year.

Could Mr. Meade give us an overview of the solution proposed for Ballycar?

Mr. Jim Meade

Yes. For those who do not know Ballycar, it is a big turlough. It is a cast limestone area with one underground stream outlet from it. It is no different from the bath at home. If one fills it one third of the way and pulls the plug, the water is gone in a minute but if one fills it to the top it takes five minutes. That is what happens with Ballycar. When we have a particularly prolonged wet winter, and I do not mean a couple of storms, it fills slowly and eventually floods the railway line. The railway line is probably 2 m above where it was historically so we have been raising the line to the maximum we could do over the years but Ballycar literally gets bigger and bigger as we see the effects of climate change.

On the preferred proposal, various options and solutions were looked at, including raising the line even further, but it was felt that if we do not do something to allow Ballycar drain naturally the water levels would eventually catch up with whatever we do so we are looking for a permanent solution. Ultimately, it is about cutting out a channel from Ballycar, through the back of Newmarket-on-Fergus, out the back of Lough Gash and out onto the estuary. That will be through some existing waterways but we are making them significantly bigger. That would allow Ballycar to fill to a point. It would take a lot of the rainwater but then when it comes to a particular point it overflows out into the estuary. At a very basic level, that is the preferred option. It would ensure that no matter how bad a winter we get we will not have the ten and 15 week closures we have seen in the past.

Is it a priority of Irish Rail to sort out that issue? More than 1.4 million people used the Limerick to Ennis line in 2019. Would it be safe to assume that it is a priority of Irish Rail to make a recommendation that it should be prioritised?

Mr. Jim Meade

It absolutely is a priority for Irish Rail to find a solution. We do not want the line being closed for extended periods at what is almost a two or three year frequency now but the solution does not lie in Irish Rail's hands. We do not have any authority to go beyond our own footprint. That is the reason we involved Clare County Council, the OPW, etc. While we led the project we got RPS Group to do the review. We have managed the process and in agreement with all stakeholders we have come up with the most viable solution. Once funding is put in place the delivery of that solution will not be in Iarnród Éireann's hands.

In terms of the railway station proposed for Crusheen, has Irish Rail had discussions with the Clare county manager on developing a station at Crusheen? Has it had any contact from Clare County Council in that regard?

Mr. Jim Meade

In fairness to the current CEO of Clare County Council, we have not had contact. We have had contact with previous CEOs in the past when it was a live option. The Deputy may know some of the history but at the time we were looking for funding, before the financial crash came a decade ago, to put in a station at Crusheen. It is outside the remit of the Limerick-Shannon metropolitan area transport strategy, LSMATS. It does not go that far north. As I said earlier, essentially it would be a requirement for the county development plan and the council's transport policy across the county. It is the authority for the policy so once it builds it in and we get the funding, we will build it.

I welcome Mr. Meade's comments on LSMATS and Irish Rail's submissions and plans in terms of developing park and ride facilities in Cratloe and the possible development of a rail spur to Shannon Airport. Would such a rail spur also include access to the Shannon free zone? Would that make sense to Mr. Meade?

Mr. Jim Meade

Absolutely. In the original one that was done in 2007 it was to go all the way to the airport via the town centre and the industrial estate. It was to run through the side of both of them. If this project was to become a live project it would make perfect sense but the study has to be done. The Department has said that as part of the LSMATS a study or review of that original study will be done. The decision will be made on the findings of that but the Deputy's comment is a valid one. It would make sense to include the industrial estate.

I received correspondence from a constituent who has a background in rail. He put it to me that we could use the Limerick-Ennis-Athenry line as a means of getting to Dublin Heuston and that it would be a more timely option for commuters originating at the Ennis station. I can share this correspondence with Mr. Meade and it is an issue we could examine. It would provide an option for Clare commuters to get to Dublin in a more timely fashion but I will be in touch with him about that.

Mr. Jim Meade

I thank the Deputy. I will certainly have a look at that.

I thank Deputy Carey. I call Deputy Matthews.

I thank the witnesses for their attendance and their opening submissions. I acknowledge Mr. Meade's contribution in which he thanked the staff of the railways for keeping the service going and providing vital travel services to people who needed to get to work through a pandemic.

I refer to regional rail. Representatives of the National Transport Authority, NTA, were before the committee last week. They said that they do not deal with regional rail or suburban rail in the regional cities. Does Mr. Meade believe that an NTA heavy rail division would be beneficial in the development of good regional rail services in terms of interconnectivity between the regions but also the suburban service within regions such as Cork or Limerick?

Mr. Jim Meade

The short answer is "Yes". In fairness to the NTA, we work closely with it. There is a very close and strong working relationship with the NTA. While it does not have the authority, as the Deputy rightly pointed out, it does work with us on some of these projects and, where possible, it helps. Some of that activity happens in more of an informal way for the funding but the Deputy's point is valid. If the NTA had more authority and responsibility in that area we may get a more unified approach to inter region and commuter rail in the regional cities.

I thank Mr. Meade. I suggest that this committee could make a recommendation that the NTA would develop a heavy rail division and become more involved in regional rail services.

The second question is for Mr. Dunne and Mr. Carr. It relates to Rosslare Port, which has seen a massive increase in business, and we know the reason for that. How many extra trucks is that putting on the N11 every day? How many extra trucks are rolling off at Rosslare Port every day?

Mr. Glenn Carr

We envisage an increase of somewhere between 50,000 to 70,000 freight movements through the port. In simple terms, that is approximately 70,000 trucks.

That is 70,000 trucks per-----

Mr. Glenn Carr

Extra. We normally handle between 120,000 and 125,000 movements. If current trends continue, we would see that grow to roughly 190,000 units going through the port.

That is a large amount of road-based haulage traffic. We know the contribution road traffic is making to emissions. With respect to a €200 million potential investment in Rosslare Europort, and this is a question for Mr. Dunne also, is there an opportunity for Rosslare Europort to operate rail freight with lift-on, lift-off operations? Is that type of investment possible? There is connectivity to Belfast on the Rosslare line and connectivity, via Rosslare Strand and Waterford, to the western rail line. Alternatively, does the proximity of Belview Port make that impractical?

Mr. Glenn Carr

Anything is feasible but the key issue is the scale and cost of a project and the return to the State. To maximise the potential for rail freight, a connection with key ports is required. Rosslare Europort is a roll-on, roll-off port. We see opportunities for offshore wind development. That would address potential lift-on, lift-off opportunities at the port. However, the challenge is with respect to the rail infrastructure that would be required to justify taking freight to and from Rosslare Europort as against developing an alternative in Waterford for the south east, which would provide an opportunity there. The other port with connectivity is Dublin. There are challenges there. We should also note the Waterford to Rosslare line is not currently operational. There is a single line from Rosslare Europort out towards Dublin. In addition, it would bring freight traffic out on to one of the busiest, if not the busiest, commuter networks in the system. A number of challenges would need to be examined with respect to rail freight being linked into the port as against, from a south east regional perspective, developing Rosslare Europort for further roll-on, roll-off operations that would alleviate some of the pressures in Dublin and as the offshore wind hub for the country, which would bring many national and regional benefits, and also developing the Port of Waterford to play a greater role in rail freight.

Mr. Jim Meade

May I add a further comment?

Yes, Mr. Meade.

Mr. Jim Meade

I remind the committee that as part of its all-Ireland study, the Department of Transport is examining regional rail and also freight infrastructure and the best use of that.

Mr. Colin Dunne

To respond to the question the Deputy put to me, with Waterford being a lift-on, lift-off port, it has the capacity pretty much immediately to accommodate rail freight from Ballina to Waterford and vice versa. That would, therefore, be a quick win. The Deputy will have heard the chief executive officer of the Port of Waterford, Mr. Frank Ronan, talk about the additional capacity that is available today to take more twenty-foot equivalent units, TEUs, which are lift-on, lift-off containers. From the charter party’s perspective, which we are, we would be ready to roll pretty much straight away, notwithstanding my comments with regard to track access fees.

I have one final question for Mr. Meade on electrification. The DART+ programme is an ambitious electrification proposal. We are quite far behind most other European countries with regard to our ambitions to electrify. Does Mr. Meade see opportunities for electrification in the regions, for example, in Limerick or Cork, or further expansion of the DART+ programme for electrification Given the cost of electrification per kilometre, it would bring many benefits for the environment with respect to speeds, capacity and a reduction in emissions as against new road building.

Mr. Jim Meade

Absolutely. Electrification is very much a part of our future from a heavy rail perspective. We can make significant inroads in the reduction of our current carbon footprint. Heavy rail has done very well in reducing its carbon footprint historically. We achieved the 2020 Kyoto targets, which were set in 2005, in 2016 with a growing network. We had been improving services dramatically but on foot of many of the initiatives we took, we hit the targets in advance. We are doing a lot of work on the carbon footprint and sustainability front across the business to achieve that. Certainly, the Department of Transport study will consider electrification in the regional cities. If a decision was made to put commuter rail into the regional cities, there is a case to be made for seriously considering electrifying them. At a minimum, one would examine battery electric with some limited charging or electrification. The line between battery electric or going for full electrification is defined by frequency. As one gets to a higher level of frequency, full electrification outweighs the benefits of batteries and charging stations. Electrification should be and, I think, will be part of our future.

I will be as concise as possible as we are running a little behind. I thank the witnesses for their detailed opening statements, which were very interesting. I will direct my questions to Mr. Meade, although the other witnesses may also respond as they cut across a number of the ports. If there is anything the witnesses would like to add to their previous responses, I would appreciate them doing so. With respect to plans to develop commuter potential on the Limerick to Ballybrophy line and developing the line through Castleconnell, Birdhill and Nenagh as part of the commuter belt for Limerick, does Mr. Meade have anything he would like to add in that respect? He mentioned that this would require a substantial upgrade. What does that mean in euro and cents or is there any other information he would like to add on that?

Has Irish Rail reviewed the business case for reopening services on the Rosslare-Waterford railway line, as submitted by South East on Track? What is the company’s intention regarding the Rosslare-Waterford railway line on developing freight traffic arising from the recent changes in freight flow patterns?

Unfortunately, anti-social behaviour and crime occurs regularly on the Dublin commuter lines. What impact is it having and what measures are in place to tackle it? What communications are there with the Garda? Has consideration been given to having a transport police service or any such provision?

Mr. Jim Meade

I will respond to the Deputy in the order in which he put his questions. We all know the history of the Ballybrophy line. It did not get much investment during the lean years - for the past 20 years. The line needs significant upgrading to bring it up to the standard of any of our main lines such as the Galway, Waterford or Westport-Galway lines. Several level crossings need to be upgraded and several signalling issues need to be dealt with. While it is safe to operate trains on the track infrastructure, speeds on it cannot be increased until there is significant investment in the line. I would be slow to put numbers on the cost of upgrading it today but it would involve serious numbers, tens of millions of euro, to do the 53 miles of track on the line. I do not have a costing with me but I would be happy to get a detailed costing for the Deputy and pass it on to him in due course. That is the first step that would be required if we wanted to put high frequency on the line.

On the Rosslare issue and a line to the south east, as my colleague said earlier, we do not see a major opportunity for freight out of Rosslare because it is a roll-on, roll-off port. As part of the study we are doing, we see the opportunity for having the Port of Cork at Marino Point, the Port of Waterford, as previously mentioned, and, in the long term, Shannon Foynes, as a tier one port, connected to rail with freight traffic moving to them. This will become part of the overall study the Department is doing, taking account of what is the best value for money in investing in these various facilities. The biggest one to invest in would be Shannon Foynes because it is relatively easy to reconnect at Marino Point, as we passed by it today, and it was formerly rail connected. As we said, the Port of Waterford is currently rail connected.

It is about generating capacity to feed into those ports and attracting customers back to the network. The biggest challenge for us will be generating more traffic through working with partners such as IWT and developing new partnerships across the board with a view to migrating to rail freight. That will include the way in which the Government may want to incentivise companies to move to rail, as opposed to road.

Could I have a comment on antisocial behaviour on the Dublin suburban lines?

Mr. Jim Meade

It is an ongoing issue. Sadly, it is a reflection of society and what it has evolved into. In the past year, under Covid, it has been more apparent because those concerned are not able to hide in the crowd, so to speak. It is an ongoing issue for us. We have very close ties with An Garda Síochána. We brought on board a chief security officer, an ex-Garda superintendent, about a year and a half ago to examine this. The officer understands the business and what we need to do. It is an ongoing battle; I am not going to say otherwise. It is about people's perception of safety as much as a high risk to staff and customers on our services. We spend a lot of money annually on security. Expenditure has doubled in the past couple of years. We will continue to spend on security and to invest where it is deemed necessary to deal with antisocial behaviour but there is no quick win or panacea. It continues to be an ongoing issue for all public transport providers.

I thank all the staff represented by the witnesses today for helping to keep the country going over the past year. I will give the rest of my time back to the committee.

We very much share the Deputy's gratitude to the staff.

I thank the Chairman and secretariat for allowing me to contribute today. I congratulate the port of Rosslare, particularly on its excellent work on Brexit, and I also congratulate Irish Rail, including Mr. Meade, on its continuing activities. I have some questions for both Mr. Frank Ronan and Mr. Meade.

Can Mr. Ronan identify the unique selling points that Waterford port has to offer? How would a rail freight extension, that is, a rail corridor that allows for Waterford-Ballina connectivity, assist port development and enhance importation and exportation opportunities? Might Mr. Ronan also highlight how Waterford port can facilitate offshore wind installation considering the port has been active regarding onshore wind energy installations already?

Could Mr. Meade comment on the tourism potential of the Waterford–Rosslare rail line, which is already connected but currently redundant? Could he give a strong opinion on the development of rail freight services from Waterford to Ballina?

Mr. Frank Ronan

On the unique selling points in Waterford, it might be worth reminding ourselves for a second that the Port of Waterford has a throughput worth €2 billion per year. It supports between 900 and 1,000 jobs in the port zone. There is €100 million invested in the port's facilities and the adjoining partner facilities. There is a very serious business handling a serious amount of bulk and freight cargo. The lift-on and lift-off freight cargo we handle is particularly well aligned and associated with the rail, which is why we are making such a push about rail freight and why it is important to keep the conversation going.

With regard to our free capacity on the freight line, given our direct connections to Rotterdam we could actually take all the 50,000 freight units going to Rosslare, which Mr. Carr spoke about, and do so on a lift-on, lift-off basis. We do not expect to see that happening in the next six months but we do expect to see some transfer, rebalancing or remodalisation of some of the flows. On the unique selling points, we are actually available to do what I suggest now. We are waiting to see a freight train coming in, whether it is from Mr. Dunne or some of his colleagues or competitors, in order to start the service and start taking carbon out of the system. Rather than having a discussion about it, we believe it is something that can actually happen. We would like to see it happen sooner rather than later. Again, our profile in the south east is inclined to be a little low. The port is there, however, and it is doing an important job. It will become more important. Dublin will recognise, as it fills up, that capacity in Belview is as important as is capacity in Rosslare.

On offshore wind developments, we would like to be supportive of the Rosslare picture. As matters stand, the Waterford and Rosslare offerings are highly complementary. There is no conflict in terms of the business we do. We see the world in the same way in terms of rail freight and so on. Maintaining the complementarity would be really useful, and we would like to support that. We envisage Port of Waterford offering not the main drag services on the offshore side but assistance with the many necessary elements that go with the business, including cable laying, foundation laying and supporting the support ships. There will be a lot of business as offshore and renewable energy developments come down the east coast and around the south coast. Mr. Kingston and the others in Cork are waiting to welcome it with open arms as it comes down into the Celtic Sea and goes around the west coast. This is not about one port; it is about the taxpayers' investment in ports and ports operating sensibly and strategically together to drive value and not kill it in any place. I am trying to be a little holistic in my response. I hope the Deputy appreciates that. I hope I have left a little time for Mr. Meade in which to answer.

Mr. Jim Meade

There is tourism potential, including on the Waterford-Rosslare route. Having grown up in west Clare, I have seen the benefits of the Wild Atlantic Way in recent years. Any facility that adds significantly to tourism will always be of benefit. As to whether we would reopen the line for tourism, I am aware there is a proposal from the local authorities to put a greenway on it. As I stated in an earlier contribution, we will support greenways where appropriate, with the caveat that if we need the infrastructure for public transport in the future, we can take it back. The sugar beet industry was the anchor tenant of the line historically. It went into care and maintenance shortly after the sugar beet industry left. If there were an anchor tenant which needed the line reopened or something very viable, we would consider the matter. If the greenway is the best way to go and it is deemed appropriate, we will support that under licence with the caveat that we can take it back for public transport use should it be needed.

Could I have Mr. Meade's opinion on the proposed development of a freight line from Waterford to Ballina?

Mr. Jim Meade

It is part of the all-Ireland strategy. I am aware that the Department and its Minister are interested in considering freight as part of that and developing such linkages. Iarnród Éireann would support the proposal.

I thank Mr. Meade.

I thank the Chairman and secretariat for facilitating me. I will be quick because many of the areas have been covered.

I am incredibly disappointed by Mr. Meade's presentation in respect of rail plans and services. In the national context and the context of the west, there was a perfunctory mention of the Athenry-Galway double line, and that was all. That is just not good enough considering that the region gives a lot in terms of freight and passenger numbers. We surely deserve much more consideration than that.

What are Mr Meade's thoughts on the IWT proposal? The ambition of IWT is what we need from Irish Rail, particularly in terms of connecting Ballina and Mayo to Waterford and Foynes. I have been listening to the discussion on wind energy developments off Rosslare and Waterford. I share the views of Mr. Ronan in this regard in that I am aware that Foynes has an equal ambition to be a centre for offshore energy. Given that the west will be home to much of this, it would make sense to have a combination of ports, with Foynes being part of it. How does Irish Rail propose to connect Foynes to the rail network? Mr. Meade said he wants to do it. What are his views on the IWT proposal? IWT has shown what can be done from Ballina and what can be done by working with the good team Irish Rail has in Ballina.

My second question is on the EY report, which has been referred to a lot today. Who commissioned it? Was it Irish Rail or the Department of Transport? What was the final cost of the report?

As he knows, it will be discussed again and there are many concerns about that particular report, about how it arrived at its conclusions and about the data used, but that is for another day. I want to know who commissioned it and who paid for it, and what level of engagement there was between Irish Rail management and EY in the preparation of the report.

What is Irish Rail’s policy on greenways? Does it give up disused lines to them relatively easily or does it have a plan for lines that may not currently be used? To use the phrase Mr. Meade has just used, if a heavy user or an anchor tenant was to come looking for them, would they be available? What if someone comes looking for a greenway to be put on that line before the anchor tenant? Has Irish Rail not just given up an asset without giving it much consideration?

Mr. Jim Meade

I thank the Deputy. On the International Warehousing and Transport plan, we work closely with IWT and have worked with it in the past, so I think we are part of that plan and we will continue to work with IWT. We have ambitious proposals for freight. In-house, within Irish Rail, we have recently commissioned a study around freight to understand how we can grow that freight service and get back into it. Currently, freight services cannot be subvented by the State and they must wash their own face, and that is one of the considerations we are looking at. We have ambitious proposals. We are putting those proposals on the table and briefing the Department on them. As part of the overall strategy, we are looking at reconnecting Foynes Port, and that is part of the overall freight strategy. To be fair to the Department, this is also part of its long-term review.

As regards the western rail corridor, subject to the terms of reference detailed with the Department of Transport, we commissioned EY to undertake that study of the western rail corridor. EY then went about its business and it referred back to us if it needed detail. However, it was commissioned to do an independent report and it was allowed to do an independent report. That report was subsequently reviewed by Jasper Consulting and, as we know, neither the review nor the report supported the extension of the western rail corridor based on the terms of reference that were set out at the time.

Who set out the terms of reference?

Mr. Jim Meade

They were joint terms of reference set by the Department and Irish Rail. This was not done in isolation by us and it was worked through with the Department. However, as I said earlier, I would note for the committee that there is a proposal to re-look at this matter under the all-Ireland rail study that has been requested by both Ministers for transport.

How much did the report cost?

Mr. Jim Meade

I do not have that number with me but I think it is closing in on €300,000. I can establish that accurately for the committee but it is of the order of €250,000 to €300,000.

We always support greenways, although there is a caveat on any greenway licence we currently have out there. I remind the Deputy we do not set the requirements for public transport. That is the remit of the Department. We operate the existing rail service and while we support greenways and come up with some of the ideas, and we also have the expertise in the industry, it is ultimately a decision for the Government and Department if they want to extend, expand or put in new rail services. The greenway is a win-win for both because it keeps the asset in State ownership and utilised, and if there is a decision at some point in the future that the asset needs to go back into a public transport mode, the licensing arrangement is such that it can do so.

To go back to the setting of the terms of reference of the western rail corridor report, Mr. Meade says it was done by the Department and Irish Rail. Was that done by civil servants in the Department or was there a ministerial input?

Mr. Jim Meade

It was civil servants, I believe, from memory.

Was there consultation beyond just the Department management and Irish Rail management about the terms of reference? Was there consultation, for instance, with the NTA or any other group that might have a regional focus which was missing from Irish Rail and the Department in regard to this project?

Mr. Jim Meade

I honestly cannot comment at this stage. I was not directly involved at the time. I would even go so far as to say it was before my time as CEO. I can check the detail for the Deputy.

On an issue that was briefly discussed earlier in regard to connecting Waterford and Rosslare, will Mr. Meade run me through his thoughts on that again? Is it in regard to different kinds of freight or is it just that he does not see a business model there?

Mr. Jim Meade

We currently do not see a business model there. There is not a requirement today. My colleague, Mr. Carr, referenced that the infrastructure cost of making Rosslare a rail freight port would be prohibitive, with Waterford not far away and Cork, which can also be rail connected, not much further away along the coast. There is not a business case there today for Rosslare.

My point on the anchor tenant was that, when it was in operation, there was an anchor tenant in the sugar beet activity at Wellingtonbridge and there was three to four months of very intensive work there every year, bringing sugar beet to Wellingtonbridge while it was operational.

On a question to Mr. Dunne, the IWT submission is incredibly ambitious and IWT has done huge work in Ballina. What does Mr. Dunne make of the reaction from Irish Rail? How will we move on the IWT submission?

Mr. Colin Dunne

We are ambitious because we have done this and we have been at it now for 11 years. It is not new to us. Of course, our ambition is to work with Irish Rail to open up this new route and get it going. From our side, we are ready to go and it is just a matter of trying to put the various elements in place to get going. Let us remember that 11 years ago, we started with two trains per week and we now have a daily train. It is still a very substantial amount of freight that is taken off the road and a substantial amount of carbon dioxide savings today. It is the only inland port in our country and it is of very significant importance to the west, I believe, and also to our international customers. For a very significant amount of the cargo we move on the rail line, the decision-makers are not on this island but are scattered around the world.

I have several questions. First, I want to thank everyone for keeping services going during this pandemic, in particular all the staff involved. I have a few areas I want to touch on with Mr. Meade. First, Mr. Meade attended a public meeting on the Limerick Shannon metropolitan area transport strategy, LSMATS. Irish Rail has made a submission to the NTA about developing the rail network around Limerick. The NTA was before us last week and it is going to do a further process of public consultation, which will now include use of the existing rail network around the city. How long does Mr. Meade believe it will take before that project commences? What is the likely cost? How long will it take to put in place? What route will it take around the city? Mr. Meade gave some information but perhaps he could be a bit more comprehensive.

Second, on the M20 route, once again, there was a public consultation on the M20 and we were looking at the upgrade of the link between Limerick Junction and Limerick city, where Irish Rail is putting double tracking at various locations. When does Mr. Meade expect that project to go forward? Where is it at in terms of planning and design? What is the likely cost of such a project?

With regard to the Ballybrophy to Limerick rail line, we have had quite a lot of correspondence from the North Tipperary Community Rail Partnership and I know Mr. Meade has had dealings with it. The partnership has looked at the new Irish Rail strategy for 2020 to 2027, and it has concerns that, on the map on page 34, there is no development of service between Nenagh and Ballybrophy, servicing Cloughjordan and Roscrea, but only towards Limerick. Mr. Meade has dealt with this. What are Irish Rail's plans in respect of that line?

On another issue that is being brought to our attention, is there a sufficient number of train drivers in the employment of Irish Rail to ensure the company can expand services? This issue is coming up with some groups.

I have a more straightforward question, and Mr. Meade’s colleague, Barry Kenny, will be very familiar with this as I have raised it with him over many years. I use the Limerick to Dublin rail line frequently.

I had severe problems with the broadband coverage but it has improved significantly. The mobile coverage of late is good but it was dreadful. Has Irish Rail put work into it? I believe that if one puts the services in place with proper broadband and mobile coverage, people will use rail more frequently for business, normal day-to-day and leisure purposes.

Mr. Jim Meade

On the Limerick Shannon metropolitan area transport strategy, the timeline to deliver is probably two years. The network line comprises the existing Ennis line which goes towards University of Limerick and swings out over the Shannon Bridge, via Moyross and Limerick Institute of Technology. That line is in service.

On the other side of the city, we have a line that used to go to Foynes but it is not being used. Off that, there is a line which goes down to Castlemungret, the old cement factory, that runs by a major shipping centre, some large residential areas and is within walking distance of the University Hospital Limerick. This is strategically placed to be of great benefit to the local communities and local industries.

Will it encompass all of the city?

Mr. Jim Meade

It will encompass the whole city. I have used the term before that describes it as a horseshoe around the city. Then one has the line out to Limerick Junction.

The cost is being worked up. There is a high-level cost to bringing all of this back into full passenger use. Those costs can be spread over time. Between the fleet, putting stations on these lines and reopening the final lines, the cost could be in the order of €120 million.

Over how many years would it take to put all of this in place?

Mr. Jim Meade

One has to go through several processes. One would be starting in 18 months to two years. One would deliver it in a further two years or so in its entirety.

Does that mean it would be within the next three or four years?

Mr. Jim Meade

Yes and certainly within five years.

What about the Limerick to Limerick Junction line?

Mr. Jim Meade

We are working on that. As that is not a completely new redesign, we believe we would not need planning for it. It is about reinstating the existing live line. It is within our own footprint. We have the designs for the tracks. As soon as funding starts to flow for that, we could be at that by the middle of next year.

Has Irish Rail an application in for funding for this?

Mr. Jim Meade

Yes, we have been talking to the Department and the National Transport Authority about this. To be fair, we are getting a favourable ear on that point.

When does Mr. Meade see the work being done on that?

Mr. Jim Meade

We would have that completed in 18 months to two years, up and running.

What would be the cost of that?

Mr. Jim Meade

We have not finished the costings yet. It is always dangerous to put values on them because they get quoted. A high level estimate would be somewhere in the €60 million to €80 million bracket for the complete project.

What about the Ballybrophy line?

Mr. Jim Meade

I understand the Nenagh Rail Partnership commentary around this. Our strategy, however, to 2027 was aligned with the original national development plan. It was how Iarnród Éireann was going to deliver what was in it. The national development plan is a subset of the national planning framework. The first phase of it was Dublin-centric, meaning there was not much spend in the regions in the initial plan. That is why our strategy to align with that plan does not have much. However, matters have moved on. We are revisiting the national development plan. The current Administration is focused on the regional cities and asking us what we can do for them. We believe that funding will be forthcoming.

Will Mr. Meade make contact with the North Tipperary Community Rail Partnership to give it some level of assurance that the service for the Nenagh to Ballybrophy area is being looked at?

In terms of the €120 million for the Limerick Shannon metropolitan area transport strategy and the use of existing rail lines, no new rail line is required. Is Irish Rail including the rail spur to Shannon Airport in that costing?

Mr. Jim Meade

No, the spur to Shannon Airport will be totally independent of that. That study has not commenced yet. That will be a completely different spend. That would involve a new line that does not exist.

Who will do that study?

Mr. Jim Meade

There would be a CPO involved. Without pre-empting the study, that would be several hundred million euro in its own right.

Who will commission that study and who will carry it out?

Mr. Jim Meade

The National Transport Authority will deliver that study. We will support it.

It gave a commitment to do that.

On a more personal matter, the mobile coverage on the Limerick to Dublin rail line has been very poor. I feel strongly about this but it is probably a housekeeping issue. I am a passionate believer in rail travel. I use it every single week. For me, it is the nicest and best form of travel. However, it is difficult to function if mobile coverage is poor. It appears to be good at the moment but that is probably due to the fact that are fewer passengers on the train due to Covid. Is Irish Rail looking into this?

Mr. Jim Meade

I agree with the Chairman that it is the best mode of travel. We upgraded the broadband facility last year. The improvement the Chairman is seeing is due to the new kit we have on board.

Mr. Jim Meade

The cellular network, however, is not good in some parts of the country. If one goes through a patch where the cellular network is poor, whether one is in a car, train, bus or bike, one will still have poor coverage. There is not much we can do about that. We talk to providers and ask them to improve coverage along the rail network because of the levels of customers they would have travelling on the network. It is an ongoing issue with us. The improvement in Wi-Fi is a by-product of investment, in conjunction with the National Transport Authority, that we put in last year. Our customer base is telling us that Wi-Fi coverage is quite good.

If I may come back to another issue, there is no issue with train drivers. We have sufficient drivers and a constant training programme which we have maintained even through Covid. We are constantly replenishing. We are looking ahead at what the demand curve will be and training and providing drivers for that.

I want to bring in Deputy Dillon. He will have a maximum of three minutes back and forth. We have to be out of here at 3.01 p.m.

I thank the secretariat for fitting me in.

I welcome the news that the Minister for Transport plans to undertake the strategic rail review on an all-Ireland basis in co-operation with the Northern Ireland Executive. On the proposed review for the interurban and inter-regional rail network, what role will Iarnród Éireann will play in it? How long will it take? Will there be elements of this outsourced to consultants? Will the western rail corridor be a central consideration of this review?

On the western rail corridor EY report, what type of analysis or peer review was undertaken by Iarnród Éireann which commissioned this report? Following critical analysis, some major flaws and errors were identified in the report. I would like to get an understanding of what peer review was undertaken.

I have written to Mr. Meade on several occasions about the Killnageer unmanned level crossing between Breaffy and Castlebar in County Mayo-----

Deputy Dillon, we have little time left. We have to be out of here by 3 p.m. due to Covid restrictions. The Deputy needs to allow Mr. Meade to come back in.

No problem.

In regard to the Killnageer crossing, planning permission was being worked out with Mayo County Council. What stage is at it currently?

Unfortunately, Mr. Meade needs to be quick.

Mr. Jim Meade

We are part of the steering group for the all-Ireland rail review. The scope and terms of reference have not been fully defined and this is still a work in progress with the Department. We will have an input and one of my team will sit on the steering group.

The western rail corridor will have its place as part of the terms of reference and will be looked at again.

The Deputy has written to me on the level crossing at Killnageer. It is a work in progress.

I would have to check its current status. Maybe I could drop the Deputy a note after the meeting to update him on its exact status because it is not fresh in my mind at the moment.

On the peer review, as with any report there were several iterations back and forth in the Department. We had a link person working on it so it was reviewed in house. I am aware there are a few deep data errors in the report that were not picked up in the final draft but I do not think they made any substantive difference to the outcome of the report.

If Deputy Dillon has further issues, he can follow up directly with Mr. Meade. I thank the witnesses for attending and engaging with the committee. I apologise for the restrictions caused by Covid. I would like to have spent more time on these issues. The joint committee will hold a private virtual meeting at 4 p.m.

The joint committee adjourned at 3.01 p.m. sine die.