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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 16 Feb 2005

Vol. 179 No. 8

Regional Transport Policy: Statements.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Callely, to the House for statements on regional transport policy.

I thank Senators for the opportunity to address the House on regional transport policy. It is appropriate that this debate take place today, not because of any media reports concerning me but because of the national launch earlier this month of the regional planning guidelines. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, stated at the launch in Ennis on 4 February 2005 that, for the first time, Ireland now has in place the entire hierarchy of strategic plans envisaged under the Planning and Development Act 2000. These range from the national spatial strategy, to regional planning guidelines and to city, town, county and local area plans. The national spatial strategy and the complementary regional planning guidelines recognise that the various regions have different roles to play in the country's development.

With the regional planning guidelines in place, the next task is to shift emphasis to the achievement of these guidelines' objectives in each region. The economic and social potential of our regions can only be achieved if the various players collaborate more closely on agreeing strategies for development. As far as transport is concerned, the individual regional planning guidelines provide a structured framework within which we can plan to meet the transport challenges facing each region. This framework will also help to achieve better integration between transport and land-use planning. Moreover, it will provide a clear context and direction for future investment within each region. In this regard, the Department of Transport established a national spatial strategy cross-cutting team, which contributed to the preparation of the regional planning guidelines for each region. This team will now work on the longer-term investment requirements of the different regions. Hence, my Department will work closely with regional and local authorities and with other Departments and State agencies in seeking to ensure that our transport requirements are met during the implementation of the regional planning guidelines.

Let me turn to the significant plans for investment which are being prepared by my Department. In his recent Budget Statement, the Minister for Finance agreed in principle that an extended ten-year capital envelope was appropriate for investment in transport. This reflects the long lead-in times required for design and planning as well as the substantial construction periods required for major capital projects in the sector.

The Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, stated in the Dáil yesterday that the ten-year transport investment framework will identify the investment and outline the measures required to develop further all elements of national transport infrastructure. It will address existing bottlenecks, many of which have already been eased. I hope many people have enjoyed the benefits of the work undertaken at places like Monasterevin, Cashel and Monaghan. Ten new projects started in 2004 and a further 16 projects to rectify bottlenecks have begun.

We are also considering capacity constraints, quality improvements, network use optimisation and prudent advance provision for future economic growth. One statistic that recently struck me indicated that based on projections from the 1996 census, the population of the Dublin area will expand by approximately half a million within the next 20 years. Four fifths of the nationwide increase will occur in the Dublin and mid-east regions.

The ten-year framework will take account of the recent substantial changes. We have seen large increases in our population, wealth and employment. Economic growth has led to significant increases in the transportation of goods as well as strong growth in car ownership levels, increased travel demand and increases in the numbers of people and goods passing through airports and ports. The ten-year framework will also take account of the linkages between transport, land use and spatial planning so we can develop a transport system that contributes to sustainable development in its economic, social and environmental dimensions. The framework will be informed by and will support the policies set out in the national spatial strategy. It will also take account of the regional planning guidelines to which I have already referred, and will be informed by and support a number of regional land use and transportation strategies for the cities, such as the Dublin Transportation Office's long-term strategy, A Platform for Change, and the Cork area strategic plan. I might say in light of some recent media coverage I received, that A Platform for Change is a very interesting document that should be digested by Senators who might be interested in transport development. The metro-Luas proposal is mentioned in the strategy. Officials from my Department have been engaging with CIE, the Railway Procurement Agency, the National Roads Authority and the DTO and the expertise and inputs of these agencies have been significant in helping to identify broad lines and priorities for programmes to be undertaken under the auspices of the new framework.

The current five-year envelope for transport investment is over €10 billion for the period 2005 to 2009. The precise financial parameters for the period to 2014 will be subject to final agreement with the Minister for Finance and my Government colleagues. My colleague the Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, hopes to present his proposals to the Cabinet sub-committee on infrastructure next month.

The Minister of State does not jump the gun.

No, I would never do that but I am ambitious. I would like to think that the electorate believes I am a good, ambitious, young politician who is setting out some positions that should be developed, particularly for a population that is growing, especially in the Dublin region. I welcome the support I have received in this House in that regard.

Time does not allow me to go into detail on the range of transport investments that are currently being undertaken but there are a few areas I believe I should mention. One of the most significant areas of transport investment is national roads. One need only refer to the fact that Exchequer investment in national roads is at an all-time high of €7.8 billion for the period 1997-2005; and over €1.4 billion in 2005. The investment framework provides for a further investment of €7.7 billion over the period 2006-09. This scale of investment is needed to maintain the pace and momentum of the programme built up over the past few years.

Excellent progress has been made. Nothing less than a major transformation of the national road network is under way. The beneficial impact of the major increase in investment is evident throughout the country in the elimination of the major traffic bottlenecks leading to shorter journey times, greater time certainty and a safer road network. The high-quality network we are putting in place is contributing significantly to supporting our national competitiveness, job creation and more balanced regional development. The past few months have seen a number of major projects opened to traffic on time and within budget. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government also recently announced the 2005 allocation of almost €500 million for non-national roads. This is continuing evidence of this Government's commitment to upgrading regional and local roads which are the backbone of the rural transport network.

As regards rail, the strategic rail review provides us with a policy framework to assist in making important decisions for the future of rail. It is the first major report in the history of the State to recommend the rebuilding of the railways. There is now clear evidence of considerable investment being made in rail. Over the past four years, more than €1 billion has been spent on the railways, both on infrastructure and new rolling stock, after decades of underinvestment. We have been playing "catch-up" and significant investment in the network and in passenger services has occurred. All of the investment has been put into upgrading existing lines and more than half of the expenditure on infrastructure over the past five years has been spent on keeping the network safe.

This investment will continue with major projects currently being implemented under the National Development Plan 2000 to 2006 and the additional DTO strategy. Newer projects will be funded under a rolling five-year multi-annual framework, resulting in continuous improvements in our rail services. We have reached a situation now where almost all track on the main lines is new and continuously welded. Over 400 miles of tracks have been renewed over the past six years across the regions. A new network-wide signalling system is being installed and work is well advanced on this project.

Now that substantial progress has been made on renewing the infrastructure, we are turning our attention to upgrading services. A major programme of rolling stock acquisition is being undertaken by Irish Rail. Some 67 carriages are due to start delivery later this year for the Cork line alone. The Minister for Transport recently announced the placing of a contract for 120 regional railcars costing in the region of €460 million, representing a commitment to the railway itself and the development of services to the regions. We are working toward hourly frequencies on the Dublin to Cork line, two-hour frequencies on other intercity lines and service improvements on branch lines as this rolling stock comes on stream.

Now that the "catch-up" process is almost complete, I am aware that Irish Rail is looking at improving other regional rail services. In this regard, I wish to refer to one particular and significant project, namely, the Mallow-Cork-Midleton commuter rail system. This is a highly significant example of central government responding positively to strategic planning at local level. In this regard there was an announcement of a €90 million investment in the Mallow-Cork-Midleton commuter rail system. This rail announcement follows through on the Cork area strategic plan, CASP, and shows investment in critical infrastructure being prioritised to encourage new and innovative development patterns. This commuter rail strategy was developed in Cork in line with a land use development strategy. The plan recognises and highlights the need for supporting and complementing land use strategies to these proposed public transport developments. A subsequent feasibility study endorsed the viability of the proposals, as did the strategic rail review. This endorsement was grounded substantially in the fact that the rail development would only proceed on the basis that the CASP land use strategy for the rail corridors would also go ahead. Both Cork City Council and Cork County Council are working closely with my Department. It is hoped the project will be completed by 2007.

One other rail project has also been given a lot of attention in the recent past. I refer to the western rail corridor. As Senators will be aware, the previous Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, appointed a working group to carry out an examination of the proposal to reopen the western rail corridor. The track on the Limerick-Ennis section has already been largely renewed, but significant infrastructural investment will be needed to bring the rest of the line up to passenger standard.

Although reinstatement of the corridor was considered in the course of the 2003 strategic rail review, the western rail corridor was not included in the review's recommended investment strategy, primarily because it was not supported by complementary land use and settlement strategies. The strategies are necessary for all major transport projects because without them, there may not be the required level of potential travel demand to justify the required investment.

The review did, however, identify the western rail corridor as fitting particularly well with the aims of the national spatial strategy, especially as regards balanced regional development. As a result, the Minister identified the need for the proposal to be carefully evaluated and its potential to be examined from all relevant perspectives. In establishing the working group, the Minister was anxious to provide every opportunity for the case to be made for the proposal. When launching the group, Deputy Brennan made the point that new railway proposals can only be justified on sound economic, social and commercial grounds that accord with public expenditure guidelines on capital expenditure and provide value for money. Such proposals must also be underpinned by the relevant planning authorities adopting and implementing appropriate and complementary land use, settlement and local economic strategies. The working group and its five sub-groups have been considering the question of the feasibility of the western rail corridor since June last year and I understand that they may now be nearing the end of their deliberations. I would be happy to give that information to the House as soon as it is available. We will address the group's conclusions in the ten-year transport investment framework, to which I referred earlier.

Not all our transport solutions are rail-based. Some very good work is taking place to improve public transport through bus priority schemes. As a Dublin-based public representative, I should refer to the success of some of the light rail projects, in particular, the Luas project. Both the green and red lines have been enormously successful. They have assisted in transforming people's mindset on public transport in producing genuine time savings and guaranteed journey times. We are now exploring extensions of the Luas system. I am pleased to indicate that moneys have been allocated for the commencement of a new rail station at Spencer Dock. A significant amount of money has been invested in the DART services in the greater Dublin area. By and large, whether rail, light rail or metro, there is much to look forward to in terms of new services, more capacity, passenger comfort and improved journey times.

My Department is providing funding for the development of quality bus corridors, green routes and other bus priority measures in a number of regional cities. These include two green routes and a park and ride site, which I was pleased to open in Cork last December, a bus lane on the Dublin Road in Galway, completed last month, and technology to give buses priority at key junctions in Limerick, which will be operational within weeks. A bus priority study is currently under way in Waterford from which specific bus priority proposals will emerge later this year. We have allocated €8 million for bus priority measures in the regional cities this year. I therefore expect further substantial progress in implementing bus priority measures later this year. Work planned this year includes a further three green routes in Cork, the commencement of work on the first bus lane in Limerick and work on giving buses priority at junctions in Galway. Discussions are taking place between the NRA and Galway County Council exploring whether it is possible to enable buses to use the hard shoulder on part of the N17 close to Galway city. I am examining other options to approve the use of hard shoulders for quality bus corridors. I invite Senators to let me know if there are areas where bus services, in particular quality bus corridors, can assist in transport measures. Some of the agencies working with my Department have indicated that journey times on quality bus corridors at peak hours compared to travelling by car can be improved by 72%. We should not lose sight of this fact, nor the fact that money is available to invest in these quality bus corridors which have proved to be extremely successful.

Before completing my reference to relevant examples of large transport projects, I would like to refer to the somewhat smaller but no less important work being undertaken under the rural transport initiative. There are currently 34 rural community organisations around the country which are being funded under the rural transport initiative to address the particular transport needs of their areas through the provision of local transport services. I am pleased I had the opportunity to launch the rural transport initiative on behalf of my colleague, the then Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, when I was not in the Department, and now learn of the huge benefit the rural transport initiative has been to the regions. It is now operational in virtually all counties, with some 2,500 transport services being provided on approximately 380 new rural routes established under the initiative. More than 40,000 passenger trips per month are being recorded on these services.

Area Development Management Limited manages the RTI on behalf of the Department and makes specific annual allocations to individual projects from funding provided by the Department. The Department has provided €3 million for the RTI in each of the years 2002, 2003, 2004 and has increased this to €3.45 million for 2005. By the end of 2005, we will have provided in excess of €12 million for this initiative, compared with €4.4 million committed in the national development plan. We have also committed to funding the programme in 2006, to the end of its pilot phase.

On transport development, the mandate given to my Department in An Agreed Programme for Government is to implement an integrated transport policy which will connect all routes. All of us have identified the work that has been taking place in the regions where bits of roads and services have been improved and new rail services have come on stream. We now need to ensure there is a co-ordinated approach to managing what will effectively be a new transport network and fully integrated services. Therefore, there is much to which to look forward.

I have also shown how we are building bridges between strategic planning at regional and local level and the realisation of our national investment priorities. More practical supports and investment will be needed in the coming years to give effect to the regional planning guidelines and achieve the Government's key objective of more balanced regional development. In this regard, the Department of Transport has a key role to play in ensuring that an efficient and effective transport system is provided to meet increasing demands and that it contributes to social development in terms of promoting regional balance, social inclusion and sustainable development. While a great amount of development and enhancement work has taken place in Ireland's system and transport networks in recent years, more is needed. There is a real challenge for my colleague, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, and me, in working with the implementing agencies to continue the significant investment programme to ensure the right projects are pursued at the right time.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Callely, to the House. The Minister, Deputy Cullen, must have run for cover. His absence in this House prior to and since Christmas, and since the debacle on the e-voting project, has been noted.

He has gone to the Department of Transport.

The poor man is lost in his tracks somewhere along the line.

He is not half as lost as Fine Gael.

The tracks are in much better condition than when Fine Gael was in power.

If it were April fools' day, we would smell a rat. What better day to debate transport policy than in the wake of the Minister of State's pre-emption of the Minister, Deputy Cullen's, hardly credible announcement on transport initiatives? There is an old saying that if we all pulled in the same direction, we would topple over.

If we were going in the Senator's direction we would go over the cliff.

The Minister of State should be congratulated on having world stability on his mind but I am not sure about the Government parties. The Minister, Deputy Cullen, must watch his back because Opposition Members are not the only ones after his job. The Minister of State gave a clear indication today that he is after his job and he wants to bury him sooner rather than later in the area of transport. This was evident in his announcement last night.

Not at all. We are a good team.

A team effort how are you. The Ministers are all pulling in different directions. I used to see goats in my part of the country doing that.

The Senator is tied to one of them most of the time.

Even as we speak, there is a similar arrangement between the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Cullen. However, less adherence to the old saws and more attention to cohesive policy would benefit the Government and, by extension, the citizens it purports to serve. It is important that this policy looks after the needs of our citizens.

We had an important debate earlier on the mid-term review of the BMW region. The Minister of State should ask the people of that region how they feel about the proposed annual offer of €1 billion for road construction. I hope he will bring that message to the Cabinet. Much was promised for the BMW region but little was delivered.

Much was delivered.

They have heard it all before. The Minister of State's ten year projection was nothing more than a figment of his imagination and a promise waiting to be broken. We have had evidence of this time and again since the last general election.

Infrastructure and transport issues are top of the list in rural and urban areas. While proportionately southern and eastern regions have been the winners in funding in these areas, issues such as a second terminal at Dublin Airport, a metro service for the north side of Dublin — the reasons for the provision of which we are all aware — and road construction have come to the fore once again due to the Minister of State's pronouncement, but for some local transport is a continual burning issue.

The Minister of State referred to the rural transport initiative. There is a major shortage of funds for its implementation across the country. The budgets in local authority areas will run out by September to October of this year. That is a fact in respect of which I have evidence in my county.

They have been very successful.

That happened last year. The Minister, Deputy Cullen, has only guaranteed funding for this initiative until 2006 after which it will have to stand alone, so to speak. That is not possible as this service caters for many elderly people. This is a great initiative and it should be maintained. The Government should have a lifelong commitment to its provision.

The Government is blinkered in its approach to this initiative when it only provided funding for it until 2006.

That is the extent of the period of the pilot phase.

Senator Bannon to continue without interruption.

The Minister of State has admitted that this is more than a pilot initiative.

The Senator should address his remarks through the Chair.

The Minister has admitted that this is more than a pilot scheme; it will and should continue to operate. That is the view of the people we serve. I am disappointed the Minister of State is treating this as a pilot initiative. It is extremely successful. Senator Wilson is nodding his head in agreement. It has been successful throughout rural Ireland. Several programmes on national and local airwaves have covered the success of this initiative. Local authority members and Members of the Oireachtas are of the view that this initiative should be continued. We should ensure it is supported and continues to operate.

Currently 40% of people living in rural Ireland do not have access to even a basic bus or rail service; that is where this initiative comes into play. This is particularly the case in the BMW region. Some 20% of those rarely, or never, have access to a car to go shopping or attend health checks. Only 30% of people living in the country or in towns or villages with populations of under 1,500 have daily morning or evening commuter services. Most affected are the elderly, the ill or disabled, young people and those on low incomes.

Apart from the lack of transport services, there is a lack of critical infrastructure, spending on which in 2004 fell by 11.5% on 2003 figures. There is also the matter of the appalling condition of some of our roads. This will be brought to the notice of all public representatives when they visit rural parts of the Kildare and Meath constituencies during the next three weeks. It is also a safety issue. Visits from politicians representing urban areas to rural areas will exercise their minds in this regard.

The number of deaths caused countrywide through traffic accidents, according to the National Safety Council, is shamefully high. Road deaths in 2004 reached their highest level since 2001 despite efforts the Government was supposed to be making in deal with this issue. This indicates that we are back to the level of road fatalities we had prior to the introduction of the penalty points system. Deaths can and must be reduced. They have been reduced in every other country in Europe with the exception of Ireland. That shows that the Government is not taking the necessary action. Currently the death ratio in traffic accidents here is twice that of nearest neighbour, Britain.

Remedial action must not only involve investment in better training, testing and safety procedures; it will require the enforcement of existing law. However, we do not have a traffic police force such as that which exists in other developed countries. This is where we are falling down compared to our counterparts in Europe, America and other parts of the world. Road checks are not frequent enough and there is widespread flouting of the law. We do not have sufficient gardaí to deal with this problem. Where are the 2,000 extra gardaí that were promised in the run up to the last general election?

They are on the way. It takes time to train them.

Everything is on the way.

It takes time to train people. One cannot simply ask them to wear a uniform and then deploy them.

We should have law and order. What the electorate wants from any Government is honesty but we have not got that from this Government because it has reneged on all its promises.

All of them?

Recognising that HGVs in particular are potentially hazardous to vulnerable road users, the Irish Road Haulage Association — I declare an interest in that association as I was nominated by it to contest the Seanad election——

Were its members not lucky?

They spoke highly of the Senator when I met them recently.

That association, the National Safety Council and the National Council on Ageing and Older People have launched a joint safety campaign to highlight the existence of a danger zone or blind spot around HGVs. Their valid contention is that if a person cannot see the driver of such a vehicle, the driver cannot see the person.

According to the National Safety Council, there was a total of 3,360 fatal, serious and minor injury collisions between 1998 and 2002 involving HGVs and pedestrians. Of these, 10% resulted in fatalities and 20% in serious injury. Older pedestrians are more likely to suffer fatal or serious injury in a collision with a HGV. The three organisations involved are calling on HGV manufacturers to fit special mirrors on all new cabs to eliminate the driver's blind spot. That problem must be examined, even in terms of other vehicles on our roads. Hauliers and fleet managers are also being asked to fit these mirrors, and I am aware hauliers are complying with that request.

Regarding Dublin's public transport network, the Government has produced five separate blueprints to consider its improvement. While it was compiling those, the number of cars in Dublin reached 720,000 in early 2003, which was the projected number for 2016. As we all know, traffic congestion in the city is costing in the region of €650 million annually. That is a problem about which we have heard many promises. The only Minister for Transport in recent years to move to solve that problem was the Leader of this House, Senator O'Rourke, when she was Minister. We have only heard promises from the Minister of State; he has not yet delivered.

Fine Gael has called for a number of measures to rectify our transport problems, including speedy implementation of the full range of penalty points. Out of a total of 69 offences, four have so far been introduced. We have called for a penalty points system to include offences to tackle drug driving, which is currently not tested by gardaí. We have been told by people who have witnessed accidents that many speed-related offences are committed by people on drugs. The Minister of State must get on top of this because more than drink is involved in many late night deaths.

We also call for the establishment of a new Dublin transport authority and reform of the national speed limits before the introduction of up to 50 new speed cameras. The Government missed an opportunity with the move from miles to kilometres per hour. Local authorities are up in arms because the elected members were not consulted. In County Longford they are reviewing the speed limits today and the introduction of new speed limits will cause an extra burden on the taxpayer.

That is not true.

They are reviewing the entire county when the kilometres per hour signs are already in place.

They were asked to do it in January 2003.

It will cost money to put up the new signs and that is happening in every county. The Government had an opportunity to alert local authorities to this and it did not happen.

It did not happen. Elected representatives were not consulted.

There must be reform of the driving test system and driving instructor techniques. I have received numerous representations from people who have had to wait up to ten months for a driving test, a process that the Minister of State should speed up.

Fine Gael calls on the Government to produce a White Paper on aviation policy. We spoke this morning about air transport but there is no airport in the midlands, although there is an airfield in Abbeyshrule which offers a golden opportunity to put funding in place and develop it as a regional airport for the midlands. I ask the Minister of State to support me in that request.

I agree with that.

The Leader of the House will also support me in this regard.

We must establish an accident investigation unit to investigate the cause of all road accidents. There are reports on accidents but this investigation unit is essential because when we find out the cause of accidents, we can act to eliminate them. There are often blackspots in countryside locations where up to ten people have been killed but no action has been taken to address the problem that caused those accidents.

We call for the introduction of a dedicated traffic corps and the provision of a fully accessible public transport system as part of a broader package as part of the Disability Bill.

Our capital city's transport network and our rural infrastructure is failing due to the Government's incompetence and while Ministers squabble and indulge in one-upmanship, the problem is not being resolved; it is getting worse to everyone's detriment. There are problems with the N63, the N55, the N4 and the N3 while the upgrading of the dual carriageway from Kinnegad to Galway has not happened.

The Minister of State referred to the school bus network. This is in a chaotic state with many of the buses that carry our children to school well over ten years old.

That is not so.

There are serious problems with the quality of school transport that must be addressed but the Government has not made any provision for it in the past decade. On the day the Kyoto Agreement comes into force the emissions from some of these buses are shameful. The Government should fund the rural transport initiative and ensure it is a lifelong process — we are all heading for old age and will want those facilities to be in place. We should also support those who currently use it.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House to discuss this critically important issue. I am taken aback by Senator Bannon's contribution because it appears nothing in Fine Gael policy has changed. He has outlined proposals for massive spending and any of us who remember the failed policies of the past know that we do not spend beyond our means. He wants new school buses and roads sorted out overnight.

This Government has been in power for almost a decade and has done nothing about it.

We have a relatively wealthy economy but only recently has that been the case. For many years we suffered from a lack of investment because the money was not available. We have done well in recent years on the back of the Celtic tiger and of good policy decisions by all sides — the Government is to the fore in that but Fine Gael also had an input. Senator Bannon should recognise, however, that the country was very poor for a long time, with weak infrastructure. Some of the eastern European countries have fantastic infrastructure that predates their current difficulties. We can only spend at the rate at which we are earning.

I am talking about the €60 million that was squandered on e-voting that could have been spent on public transport.

How does Senator Bannon propose to raise the finance to deliver all he will do in such a short time? Will he increase taxes or make cuts in other areas?

We would not squander money.

The Senator is usually on his feet giving out about proposed cuts so I wonder from where the money will come. Perhaps he has some rare ideas that we might hear in the debate on the Finance Bill.

There were many calls in the House to discuss urban and rural transport initiatives and it was decided to split them between two debates. The debate dealing with Dublin was helpful and set out clear policies on the metro and other areas. I am sure we will see those issues delivered in time.

Today's debate is a wider examination of Government policy on transport initiatives outside Dublin. People often get caught up in the belief that congestion is only a problem in Dublin and on the east coast. That is not the case. There are bottlenecks in many provincial towns and it is incumbent on the Government to alleviate them. The roll out of the road investment programme as detailed in the national development plan will achieve that end. The Minister has already given details of measures on bypasses and new roads that have been put in place and that are coming on stream all the time. People living in these areas have just as much right as people in Dublin to quality infrastructure and to be able to go about their business in an orderly way.

We only hear from lobby groups based on the east coast. They tend to bring the debate on transport deficiencies in Dublin to the fore and that tends to grab the attention of the media. The delivery of the metro within a particular timescale becomes hugely important. That imbalance is being addressed by this debate on transport outside Dublin.

Transport is a vital cog in the wheel of economic development. Transport policy must continue to be an integrated part of a suite of policies in enterprise, tourism and spatial planning. Transportation infrastructure is the cornerstone of many of these policies. It is critical to the principle of balanced regional development, balance between over-congestion on the east coast, particularly around the conurbation of Dublin, Wicklow, Meath and Louth, and the creation of a reasonable infrastructure on the other side of the country that would help to solve the congestion problems by encouraging people to live in their own areas. Decentralisation is an issue for the Government. I hope the Minister will continue in his current vein. I know from the views he has expressed that he will do so.

The brief is wide and we could talk all day. That is why I will confine myself to a couple of specific points. I am sure my colleague, Senator Wilson, and others will deal with issues with which I cannot deal.

Government policy on motorways has for some time been about developing the inter-urban routes between Dublin and Limerick, Dublin and Galway and Dublin and Cork. However, it is necessary to look at other economic corridors. The road from Port Laoise to Limerick is part of the inter-urban route from Dublin to Limerick. There is probably not the same need to fast track the section of road from Port Laoise to Limerick because there are no real hold ups on that road now. There is a greater need to look at the economic corridor from Limerick to Galway. Most of that is under way through the completion of the Ennis bypass which will be of motorway or dual carriageway quality from Limerick, bypassing Shannon and Ennis. The onward connection to Galway, which is the next phase after the Ennis bypass, is of critical importance for the future of Shannon Airport. It is also critical for the development of a reasonable quality of life for the people who travel between those two cities and within them; for the encouragement of investment in the region through foreign direct investment; and for job creation. I am aware I am being parochial, given that it is in my constituency, but that economic corridor could be a microcosm of balanced regional development. Measures must be put in place that will generate growth in the region and set it apart, putting it in a position to act as a balance to the east coast. The region has been identified in the spatial strategy. Limerick, Shannon and Galway are gateway towns with Ennis as a hub in the middle. It is an ideal area for a pilot programme for delivering critical road infrastructure.

There has already been discussion regarding rail infrastructure. Tremendous progress has been made in terms of railways over the past few years particularly given the lack of investment by successive Governments in this area. The Leader was to the fore as Minister for Public Enterprise in securing the significant investment and commitment to investment that made the announcements now being made possible. The rail infrastructure has suffered from neglect and lack of investment for many years. Much work is being done behind the scenes, the benefit of which is not yet evident. The Minister talked about continuous welded track and the upgrading of stations. That has paved the way for investment in the delivery of rolling stock and the recent announcements by the Minister and the Minister of State. It is an exciting new phase for railways in Ireland. We are taking a leap of almost a century in terms of the kind of service that can be delivered. That will have a number of impacts. First, it will generate much greater demand and put pressure on the Department of Transport to invest further to roll out more rail service with greater frequency and uniformity of service.

The Minister of State touched on the western rail corridor. I am aware that Senator Kitt will want to make some specific points on that issue if he gets an opportunity to speak. I hope the review will come through quickly. It is a great opportunity to put in critical infrastructure for a relatively small amount of money along the western seaboard which has the capacity to deliver on regional development and allow for badly needed growth. It will put in place a foundation on which people can build their homes and lives in that region. I strongly support the people who are proposing the redevelopment of the track and the approach they are taking. The review group is critical; it must taking account of the views of county managers and business interests in the region so that there is proper land usage.

There are lessons to be learned from what has been delivered through the Ennis bypass and the rail connection between Ennis and Limerick. Given current passenger numbers on that line, when a quality service is in place demand will increase. This should be taken into account in projections on the other section of track. The success of the Ennis to Limerick line proves that if the service is of good quality and is frequent and punctual, passengers will use it.

The next phase is to look again at the Ennis to Galway line, which is currently a strong commuter link. It also has the capacity to go onwards to Limerick. These are two fairly large cities with quite a bit of economic activity between them. If that can be done it will open up the possibility of connecting Shannon Airport to that line with the connection of the Shannon rail spur at Sixmilebridge. That is critical to the future development of Shannon, particularly as Shannon Airport is trying to position itself as a low-cost airport to cater for increased demand from companies such as Ryanair and EasyJet. The provision of a rail service from the airport is a critical component of service delivery because the people who come on cheap flights for a short stay are not interested in hiring a car. Linking Ennis, Limerick and Galway with the airport is critical in encouraging people to use that service. The Department of Transport has been in contact with Iarnród Éireann with a view to having a feasibility study carried out.

It is important to examine the impact of the State Airports Act. A new board has been appointed at Shannon which is working quite well. Ryanair has announced nine new routes there this year. The Department is examining issues regarding the cost of restructuring and its financing. That must be kept under review, and I would be delighted to hear the Minister of State's comments later. There is concern in the region regarding the impact on Shannon Development of some of the recent announcements. I understand other airlines are looking at this lower cost model and the new offers the board is able to put in place. I am aware that some have come on board and that Aer Lingus is also considering future developments in that area.

I compliment the Minister on the decision to retain a golden share in Aer Lingus. That is critical as the airline is a strategic asset. It is strategically important in protecting tourism and enterprise through the provision of direct access.

The dual gateway status of the Shannon stopover, as it was known, is of critical importance. There is expectation of changes there. The current policy is a vital component for regional development, not merely a crutch for the airport. It has a critical role in economic development, foreign direct investment, tourism and enterprise development not just in County Clare but throughout the wider region, in Limerick, Kerry, Galway and north of that. Any changes to this policy must be made on sound analysis and on the current facts. It must be based on an analysis of the impact of all the elements I have mentioned.

Unfortunately, a very unhelpful report was produced yesterday by the Chambers of Commerce of Ireland which tends yet again to espouse east coast issues. That report contended that the ending of the dual gateway status would lead to a 10% growth in economic activity. In anybody's estimation, that is wide of the mark. On questioning, one of the authors indicated it would probably be spread over three years. In my view that is well wide of the mark. There was no sound basis for the conclusion. On reading the report it became clear that the proposition is based on data that is five years old. The number of changes that have taken place in the aviation sector in the past five years is phenomenal.

The whole industry has done an about face, many of the key players are gone out of business and the Chambers of Commerce of Ireland are generating a report by two gentlemen which was supposed to be the most authoritative report on the whole open skies discussion for many years. Yet those two gentlemen are taking information from somebody else's report, based on data that is five years old. That has been hugely unhelpful because it has resulted in headlines today which seem to suggest that if we get rid of the dual gateway status in a short period there will be 10% growth in the economy. That shows a total disregard for the facts and it is an issue that needs to be highlighted because it is misleading, given that many people rarely get the opportunity to read behind the report or the facts associated with it. I hope the Department of Transport will not take into account the spurious conclusions of the Chambers of Commerce of Ireland.

I wish to refer to the rural transport initiative which is critically important. Senator Bannon raised some issues about it. As I understand it, the Government has spent approximately €4 million more than was budgeted for in the national development plan. There is a statement also in the programme for Government to the effect that when the programme ends the Government will put in place a new programme to continue to support the rural transport initiative. We all know the benefits and I do not want to get parochial. However, there is a particularly good one in east Clare, the east Clare accessible transport initiative, which has been doing particularly good work. It allows many in isolated rural areas to draw their pension, go to shops, visit friends in hospital and to go to the local village. If society cannot give to those who may not have learned to drive, because of the economic climate in which they grew up, it is incumbent on us to recognise the tremendous work they have put into building this country to its current level. It would be wrong if anybody took from it. I am supportive of the work of the rural transport initiative.

I wish to share my time with Senator McCarthy.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Callely, and his officials to the House and thank him for setting out comprehensively the regional transport policy. I wish to confine my remarks to the issue of rail in the mid-west region. The Minister of State will be aware there is much concern in the region due to the lack of investment and the need to upgrade the rail infrastructure. Senator Dooley said the success of the Limerick-Ennis rail line was due to the upgrading, frequency and punctuality of the service.

The Limerick-Ballybrophy line goes through Nenagh and Roscrea and is a low grade service. While some of the stock and the line have been upgraded and there has been some investment in recent years, I noted from the Minister's speech, when referring to the western rail corridor, that he said significant infrastructure investment would be needed to bring the rest of the line up to passenger standard. If that does not happen, there is no hope of the Limerick-Ballybrophy link being upgraded.

For the economy of the region, particularly the north Tipperary-east Limerick area, the railway line is probably the most under utilised resource. A huge amount of public money is being invested in upgrading the road infrastructure in the area and the figures the Minister of State quoted are extraordinary. He said €7.8 billion was invested in national roads between 1997 and 2005 and €1.4 billion in 2005 alone. That is excellent and we are all pleased. Those who travel the N7 are particularly pleased at the opening of the Monasterevin bypass which has made a huge difference. A sum of €500 million has been invested in non-national roads in 2005, all of which is justified. However, in the past four years €1 billion has been invested in rail infrastructure and rolling stock.

In this regard there was an announcement of a €90 million investment in the Mallow-Cork-Midleton rail system in the context of the Cork area strategic plan and the Minister of State is looking at the western rail corridor. On a simple comparison, rail is the poor relation. I do not say rail should have the same investment as road, but it is clear where rail appears in the order of priority.

Given that the Kyoto Agreement comes into force today, one way of reducing emissions is to upgrade the rail infrastructure and encourage people to leave the car at home and take public transport. The success of the Luas has shown that is exactly what people are doing. As in the case of the election slogan regarding the DART to Dingle, we cannot have the Luas all over the country, but we can upgrade existing infrastructure. A line such as the Limerick-Ballybrophy line is a classic one. With relatively small investment it could be linked to the national rail grid but there is no sign of that on the Government's agenda. I appeal to the Minister of State to put that issue on the priority list. His colleague, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, is being written to by public representatives in the region with regard to holding a meeting with the rail partnership which comprises the local authorities and other interests in the area to promote the idea of investment in this line. For economic investment alone it is essential to have the line upgraded.

Senator Dooley mentioned Shannon Airport which is a key part of the infrastructure of the region. The railway line is also a key part of the infrastructure. It is an under-utilised resource. I recall being at a meeting when the then Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, said the Government was committed to keeping it on track. Unfortunately, that is not enough. We are being left behind in the region due to under investment in the railway. I appeal to the Minister of State to have that issue put on the priority list as soon as possible.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Callely, and his officials to the House. I welcome also the opportunity to debate regional transport policy. Those of us from rural areas have continually made the point that there is a mindset that invariably confines the debate to the greater Dublin area.

From a national and a regional perspective, road transport is by far the most important mode of transport in Ireland and very important in terms of the areas furthest away from urban centres. Many improvements in roads projects have been made in recent years. When I was elected to this House two and a half years ago there were huge bottlenecks on the N8 and N7, particularly in the towns of Monasterevin and Kildare. It is now a pleasure to see the last 50 miles stretch from Port Laoise to Dublin and to bypass the bottlenecks of Monasterevin and Kildare. These bypasses are fine examples of infrastructure.

Much progress has been made in and around Cork in recent years. I have continually said the Jack Lynch tunnel is one of the finest examples of engineering in this part of Europe. It has reduced journey times and has improved road safety. Watergrasshill is now bypassed and gradually the links from Dublin south and Cork north will meet and eventually there will a motorway from Cork to Dublin. That is welcome in terms of shifting concentration from one centre to another and it makes for easier passage from the capital city to the real capital city. The Ballincollig bypass is an outstanding piece of infrastructure, built albeit under controversial circumstances in terms of those employed to build it.

I appeal to the Minister of State about a proposal submitted to the Department of Transport by the western committee of Cork County Council in June 2002. I am aware that Deputy Callely has very strong connections with west Cork and possibly knows the terrain there better than most. Cork County Council proposes to upgrade the R586, particularly the stretch between Enniskean and Bandon. It is an impediment to the infrastructural development of west Cork. In this day and age it is unacceptable that the speed limit restrictions on that road include a stretch where the speed limit is 80 km/h which is unrealistic. I am aware the local authority has discretion in this regard but it is worthwhile making the point that a number of newer limits have been introduced on that road. It has proved to be an impediment when it comes to finding replacement jobs for industries which were siphoned out of west Cork such as the Molynlycke facility in Dunmanway. This road has been consistently referred to as one of the reasons investment would not come into the region. This road is an important corridor for the Bantry-Castletownbere section of west Cork. Senator Dooley referred to being parochial but that is what regional transport policy is all about and we are required to raise these issues.

Significant sums of money were spent on the development of the Castletownbere road 15 years ago by the Department and the local authority assisted by European funding. This stretch of road on the eastern side of west Cork is hindering the development of the region. The proposal and costings are being considered by the Department. I am aware that road projects are expensive but this road project is important for the economic viability of that region. I know that Deputy Callely has as good an interest in this as anybody else.

At one stage the rail network reached into the heart of west Cork. A decision was taken in the early 1960s to close that line. The rail network is underutilised but until such time as there are decent alternatives to people using their cars, the uptake of public transport and rail will be somewhat less than is desirable. The underinvestment in the railways is an issue that needs to be examined. The carriages currently being used on the Kerry line could be called "bone-shakers". They have been in use for 25 years. They do not owe the State much money but it is an indication of the underinvestment in that sector. Unless the train service is of a professional standard and delivers a public service that is appealing to the public, there will not be a significant uptake.

The roads deficit in my constituency and the underinvestment in the rail network are the two points I wish to make. I reiterate my call to the Minister of State, Deputy Callely, to examine that section of the road. Perhaps on the next occasion when we meet on the first Friday in Bantry, we might have an unofficial discussion about it.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House for this debate on rural transport policy. Sometimes when we speak about transport policy in this House, we seem to think primarily in terms of transport in Dublin. I note that all the speakers are from rural areas, except for the Minister of State and myself. I will not dwell on that aspect too much because it has been given a good airing so far.

The Minister of State in his contribution referred to the Platform for Change document. He said that this document should be digested. For anyone who cares to read it, I must warn them they will get indigestion. Every figure in the document is wrong and every forecast is way off. I do not blame the authors but they have not kept pace with new forecasting techniques and the manner in which the economy has moved along. The only certainty in the report is that the figures forecast for 2016 are already with us. We are experiencing 2016 levels of traffic around Dublin and around the country. The off-peak hours of a few years ago are now the peak hours but still the 2004 levels of investment apply. The Minister of State believes we have almost achieved catch-up but I think we have many miles more to go. We need to get to the 2016 levels of expenditure now and we cannot wait a further ten years.

I take great exception to some of the advice being given to the Department. It is working on the advice of the DTO but also that received from the NRA. In yesterday's Irish Independent, National Toll Roads stated that putting 7,000 extra trucks on the M50 as a result of the tunnel will lead to massive sprawl on the M50 at a time when it is being upgraded. It is as if the major players are warning that we should not come to them in five years because they told us this five years ago. The NRA stated at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Transport that the M50 will be at capacity on the day its upgrading is completed.

The plans for the upgrading of the M50 are quite advanced. As an example of the lack of joined-up thinking, only three weeks ago at the public inquiry dealing with the upgrading of the M50, the consultants to the NRA did not know about the bus depot at Harristown which will be opened next week by the Taoiseach. It will cater for 240 buses and is situated at the Ballymun interchange.

I contacted the NRA last week and asked what the levels of traffic at the Blanchardstown interchange would be when the M50 is upgraded and the Dublin Port tunnel and the M3 are open in a few years. The answer from the NRA was that it was not its responsibility, that it was upgrading the M50 and that it had not computed those figures.

I asked if the NRA had taken into account the proposal for a rail link to Dunboyne which is likely to happen. The reply was that this had not been considered by the NRA. I asked if it had taken into account the fact that there might be a carpark for 1,200 cars in Dunboyne to accommodate park and ride. The reply was that this had not been considered. I insisted that I should be told the figures for traffic that would use that junction. I was told that when it is all done, traffic which currently travels at 5 km/h along the Navan Road will travel at 40 km/h. If traffic will be travelling at 40 km/h, the only certainty is that everybody will be driving and will not use the train if the roads are so good. It beggars belief that the NRA can say that the M50 will be at saturation point when the upgrade is finished and at the same time suggest that traffic will be able to travel at 40 km/h.

When the M50 was first mooted only 25 years ago — and it is not yet completed — there was also supposed to be an outer ring route. Some 23 out of 24 councillors in the Fingal area voted in May 1999 to sever that route which was always on the old Dublin County Council map. I was the councillor who was the exception. Erroneous comments have been made that the toll plaza is the point of congestion. The interchanges, rather than the toll plaza, are the problem, as I witnessed this morning. Although traffic was backed up beyond Clonee at Blanchardstown, drivers could fly into town once they cleared the interchange on the M50. In excess of 20,000 cars travel from Blanchardstown to Lucan along the M50 every day, clogging up interchanges on the M3 and M4 and being forced to pay a toll because there is no alternative except to go through Strawberry Beds or take the winding roads of west Dublin.

I welcome the Taoiseach's comment two weeks ago that an outer ring road is necessary. The local councils have still not even picked up the telephone to each other to discuss the possible location of an outer ring. In light of the time required to build the M50, I wonder how long it will take to build an outer ring road. We now have freeways running across the M50 from the M1, N3, N4 and N7, bringing traffic rapidly from the regions into town. On the other hand, we are not creating additional space inside the M50. I have no problem with reducing space. However, at the same time as Dublin City Council pursued a strategy which reduced car space and cut car numbers inside the ring by 11%, the National Roads Authority has pressed ahead with creating freeways that bring traffic into the city via interchanges.

Greater emphasis should be placed on the bus network. While the bus network and fleet have improved dramatically in recent years, quality bus corridors have not been given the priority they deserve. Despite major investment in QBCs, Dublin Bus has had to fight for every metre of white line along certain routes, whereas Luas, a fantastic system, has benefited from a railway order giving it priority, which I welcome. Buses must be given similar priority if we are to benefit from recent investment in the bus network.

I cannot understand the delay in announcing and proceeding with the Irish Rail five-year plan. It is a no-brainer that the plan is the correct way to proceed. While a metro would be a fantastic system, were it to be built, it would not be of much benefit to those living in Dublin's suburbs, which now stretch to Mullingar, Carlow and Dundalk. These commuters must get into Dublin either by road or rail and it is preferable that they do so by rail. Irish Rail's five-year plan should be implemented without further delay.

While I understand the Spencer Dock project is proceeding, we can no longer wait for significant investment in the rail network around Dublin. Projects to construct double tracking to Kildare, open the line to Dunboyne and build an additional station in the docklands to relieve congestion at Connolly Station must proceed. We have placed too much emphasis and invested too much time on the metro in recent years to the detriment of the regions. Young couples have been forced further and further out of Dublin into the regions. When we start canvassing in County Meath shortly, we will hear stories of people getting up at 6 a.m. to get through Blanchardstown. This is no longer tolerable. The economy is growing apace due to the policies of the Government. We must ensure, however, that people can get to and from work. I plead with the Minister of State to bring his energy to this task and identify what can be done to upgrade the rail network.

I was surprised by some of Senator Dooley's comments on the fantastic report produced on behalf of the Chambers of Commerce of Ireland yesterday. The organisation did us a service by launching the Sorensen and Dukes report, around which I believe all future aviation policy will be debated. The report will stand the test of time. The authors took a positive approach and concluded that it is a question of when rather than if dual gateway status will be abolished. The Government must take a positive approach and seize the opportunities arising from it by introducing policy initiatives. Rather than regarding the end of gateway status as a threat, we must ensure our other airports, such as Shannon, Cork and Kerry airports to which the report also alludes, have proper access. In that regard, the Shannon rail link feasibility study should be concluded. I ask the Minister of State to ascertain from Irish Rail what progress has been made in this regard. The report concludes that Shannon Airport will only survive if it has proper road and rail access.

The report refers to a 10% improvement in the current 4% forecast of economic growth. It does not forecast additional growth of 10%, which would give a figure of 14% growth. This additional growth would provide considerable benefits to the tourism sector, which has significant untapped potential. These are challenges and opportunities we must pursue. We can no longer rely on a protectionist policy in the area of aviation because an EU-US open skies policy will ensure protectionism does not stand in the way of the development of aviation internationally.

There is no doubt our roads have improved dramatically. As Senator Dooley and others stated, it is a pleasure to travel to Cork since the completion of bypasses at Monasterevin and other bottlenecks. Despite these improvements, we must ensure our railway system receives the required investment.

Last week I raised the issue of the Dublin Port tunnel on the Adjournment and discussed the advice provided to the Government by the National Roads Authority. The NRA has seriously misled the Government on the port tunnel and this matter will have to be addressed in time. It raised safety concerns to cover up for its mistakes. It is erroneous to suggest that reducing the lane width of the tunnel to 3.5 m would give rise to safety concerns. This width is a European standard. For example, a tunnel between France and Spain, which was built in 1941 or 1942, is being replaced by a new tunnel built to 3.5 m gauge. This is allowed and it is all that is being asked for with regard to Dublin Port tunnel. It is inconceivable that we are digging a 12 m hole in the ground yet cannot find the few centimetres required to accommodate certain vehicles. Many thousands of jobs depend on getting our exports to their destinations. The current approach will result in smaller trucks being accommodated in the tunnel while larger trucks are kept on the city's streets. Dublin City Council will not be able to introduce a ban on the movement of supercube trucks which have been licensed by all Governments over the past 15 years. This should not happen because too many jobs are dependent on it. It is something the Department should consider in regard to the advice it receives from the NRA.

As part of the construction of the M3, a park and ride facility with capacity for 1,200 vehicles will be developed in Dunboyne. A mile outside Dunboyne, on the Navan side, there will be a toll booth. It displays a lack of joined-up thinking on the part of the NRA to suggest that people will pay a toll coming into town and pay again to avail of park and ride facilities before getting the train. The toll booth should be on the other side so that one pays a heavy toll on passing the carpark. There are cases in which the NRA has not looked at the other transport networks, as they have confirmed to me. I ask the Minister of State to utilise his own advisers in ensuring that the advice received from the NRA on some of these major projects is sound.

In view of the number of Members wishing to contribute on this issue, with the permission of the House, this debate will be resumed on another day.

Is that agreed? Agreed.