Air Services

The Minister of State might also mention to the Minister of State, Deputy Moloney, my concern that he has not mentioned the current building programme for mental health services in Letterkenny. There must be a form of paranoia in the north west when we think we are being ignored.

I am glad the Minister of State, Deputy Roche, is here to respond to the matter I am raising, that of the withdrawal of the public service obligation, PSO, for the Dublin to Derry route. I was aware a debate was ongoing and an investigation or report was done on what PSOs, if any, should be maintained. I spoke to the relevant Minister and a number of other Ministers on this. I outlined the case that while improvements in road and rail links would necessitate a reduction of PSOs routes and in the need for them, the north west was not one of them, that it had not had investment in rail services or in the road network, and that the argument for the withdrawal of the PSO on the Dublin to Derry route should not be made.

It is with absolute disgust and total shame that I read an e-mail last week which announced that the PSO for Derry would be withdrawn while other PSOs should remain in place. I understand we have made very tough decisions in this House and the other one to achieve economies, and they have been made on the basis of the lack of moneys available. I tabled this Adjournment matter to ask why it was determined the PSO service for Derry was inappropriate when it has remained appropriate for other places to have such a service.

We all know the Government has invested in services. It has invested in the expansion of Derry Airport, in the PSO down the years and in the Dublin to Belfast rail service. It has been the Northern Ministers and the current Minister, Conor Murphy, MLA, who have neglected the Coleraine to Derry section of the rail service. Not many people in the South know that one can take a train from Dublin to Derry but the problem is that it takes a minimum of five hours to get there.

We accept the Government has invested serious money in the A5 road project and we know that project is developing. Minor complaints have been made from landowners but we know the major concern road users have is that they do not have access to even a dual carriageway that they were promised. We did not get the motorway that was built from Dublin to Waterford, Dublin to Cork, Dublin to Limerick, Dublin to Galway, Dublin to Sligo or Dublin to Belfast. All we got was a promise of a dual carriageway. Deputy Costello of the Labour Party has said that if his party gets into office, that project will not happen.

We are in power now and there is a possibility that we will not be in power in a few months' time. The Northern Ministers are not delivering on the train service, the Labour Party has promised it will not deliver on the A5 road project and the Government has pulled the PSO from the Dublin to Derry air service. I hope there is a valid reason for it and that there is a commercial reason for this PSO not to be pulled. I am the person who fought the corner initially with the then Minister, Deputy O'Rourke, and every successive Minister for Transport. I sat down with Michael O'Leary, Padraig O'Ceidigh and all the operators and begged them to fly into Derry Airport. It is galling for me after almost 15 years in national politics to see the PSO being pulled on this route. The issue is not the pulling of the PSO but the timing of it.

The Derry city of culture year is approaching, we have had the Clipper stopover and we have had many acknowledgements of what is important for the north west and its main city of Derry. This year will mark the 400th anniversary of Letterkenny, and how will we celebrate it? Rather than increasing the access for people to get to the north west for 2011, 2012 and 2013, we are telling them we are closing shop. We are closing down the access to the region. It is simply not acceptable.

I hope there is an argument and a reason for this. I could read the Minister of State the e-mails I have got from the people who use that flight route. I can hear their despair. Those people who leave Derry to come to Dublin on business do not have the opportunity to make a return journey by public transport. I hope we have answers for them. I hope the people of Donegal ask serious questions about the future Government of the Labour Party and Fine Gael, about which everyone is talking, which will pull the money allocated for road projects. We accept that sensible economies need to be made. We are not against Donegal Airport maintaining its investment but we ask what makes the people in the east of Donegal who use Derry City Airport different.

I fully appreciate the Senator's passion and concern about this matter. I was checking some details in the reply provided by the Department. The Minister for Transport assures me he fully appreciates the concerns raised in regard to the recent decision that has been made on the PSO route. The decision involved the Government's agreement to support the continuation of a PSO route between Donegal and Dublin and between Kerry and Dublin. In line with the value for money review of Exchequer expenditure on the regional airports programme, the Government also agreed to cease requiring PSO routes between Dublin and Sligo, Knock, Galway and Derry from July this year.

In the context of a regional strategy, the Government decision took account of recent improvements in alternative transport modes, the change in EU legislation covering PSO services, the completion of the value for money review and the requirement to make best use of scarce Exchequer resources. The review, published on 12 January last, involved extensive consultations with a wide range of stakeholders, including the regional airports, the Border, midlands and west regional assembly, IDA Ireland, the IAA, Fáilte Ireland, Tourism Ireland, Enterprise Ireland, Aer Arann and Ryanair.

In recommending that the Derry PSO be discontinued, the review noted that the numbers of passengers on this route have been falling consistently since 2006. In the past three years, passengers on the service have accounted for between 5% and 6% of total passengers at the airport. Derry has also been the second most expensive route in terms of funding per passenger. The cost per passenger has ranged from €89 in 2006 to a peak of €111 in 2009.

Derry has good air service connectivity to other destinations which, according to the review, account for 30% to 40% of total passengers in the past three years. Members of the public in the region wishing to travel to Dublin can, as the Senator mentioned, avail of the PSO flight from Dublin to Donegal or Donegal to Dublin.

They are an hour and a half away from that airport.

Alternatively, they can journey by road where road improvements on the N2 have reduced travel times significantly.

In the context of the St. Andrews Agreement leading to the restoration of the Northern Executive in 2007, the Irish Government made a commitment to provide funding of sterling £400 million. This will contribute to a roads investment programme for Northern Ireland which includes the upgrading of the A5 road from Aughnacloy to Derry-Letterkenny to dual carriageway standard. Progress to date on development of the A5 project has been good with all scheme milestones met on schedule. The third key project milestone, publication of draft orders, was achieved in November 2010.

As the Senator mentioned, the Belfast-Derry train upgrade is a matter for the Northern Ireland authorities. Overall, the Minister for Transport believes that the combination of an improved surface transport network together with a more consolidated air service network to regional airports, along with the State airports at Cork, Shannon and Dublin, provides the necessary transport arrangements to underpin sustainable development. The Irish Government has made a significant investment in Derry Airport, as the Senator acknowledged, in recent years through the PSO route and in funding development works at the airport. It is hoped that this funding will assist in securing a commercially strong airport which benefits the North and north west of the country.

I do not accept the Minister of State's answer. Am I right that the review that involved extensive consultations with the BMW regional assembly, IDA Ireland, the IAA, Fáilte Ireland, Tourism Ireland, Enterprise Ireland, Aer Arann and Ryanair recommended that the PSO be discontinued? That is how it reads. For it to say 5% to 6% of total passengers are going elsewhere other than to Dublin makes sense when London is a major hub. I draw the Minister of Transport's attention and that of his officials to the fact that it would be quicker for me to fly to London and back to Dublin than it would be to drive to most parts of the area being serviced by Donegal Airport. That is no reflection on Donegal Airport. That is a reflection on the size of the county.

It is unacceptable to say the Northern authorities are in charge of the Belfast to Derry train service. There should be a Dublin to Derry train service, which would be a European cross-frontier train service that could attract funding if anyone was interested in looking for it.

I hope the Minister of State will take those points back to the Minister because I will write to the stakeholders to ask what case they made for the retention of the PSO because it appears they made the case to get rid of it and that is a scandal.

I will pass on the Senator's concerns to the Minister. It may not be correct to suggest the consultations with the BMW regional assembly, IDA Ireland and other authorities I mentioned led directly to this. It was simply a reference to the fact there were consultations with them. It is a harsh reality that the per passenger costs on the route were significant at €111.20. It is a tender issue but it is, nonetheless, an imposition on taxpayers at a difficult time. I will ask the Minister to pay attention to the specific points made by the Senator.

The Seanad adjourned at 8.35 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 20 January 2011.