Wednesday, 28 January 2004

Questions (11, 12)

Bernard Allen

Question:

129 Mr. Allen asked the Minister for Transport his plans for the development of rail freight; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2293/04]

View answer

Michael Noonan

Question:

170 Mr. Noonan asked the Minister for Transport his plans for freight; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2294/04]

View answer

Oral answers (13 contributions) (Question to Minister for Transport)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 129 and 170 together.

Responsibility for the development of rail freight rests with Iarnród Éireann. I have stated consistently that every effort should be made by the company to develop its rail freight business. Iarnród Éireann's immediate priority is to achieve financial viability for this division of its operations.

The company's strategy is to develop the profitable traffic it already has, such as bulk freight and trainload traffic, and reshape the loss-making container business. I understand the company has won back new business in recent times and the fortunes of its freight operations have improved.

I thank the Minister for his brief response. The Minister said that responsibility for freight lies with Iarnród Éireann. The Minister is allegedly in charge of the Department of Transport and he is supposed to frame policy for semi-State companies. We do not expect the Minister to interfere on a day-to-day basis, but he is supposed to frame policy.

It is stated Government policy to develop rail freight in this country. It seems to be Iarnród Éireann's policy to downgrade rail freight on a daily basis. For example, it proposes to close the Athlone and Galway freight depots, to bring freight as far as Claremorris and then to bring it back by road to the freight yards in Athlone and Galway from where it will be distributed. Does the Minister think that makes logical sense? Should he support and develop rail freight to take pressure off our already congested roads rather than washing his hands of it and stating it is the company's responsibility?

The Deputy is right that it is Government policy to develop rail freight and that has been communicated to the company. Commercial companies are involved in this area in renting and using the facilities. Iarnród Éireann should make every effort to achieve the maximum financial viability in this area. It showed a loss of €15 million in its rail freight division in 2002. The company has taken some action along the lines suggested by the Deputy. However, if action was not taken, it would show losses in its freight division of €18 million by 2007. Iarnród Éireann does not have plans to exit the freight business. However, it knows Government policy ——

Are there no plans to develop it?

—— is to develop the rail freight business on a commercial basis and to seek more business for it. This is taxpayers' money and we must be very careful in this area.

Will the Minister elaborate on the level of subvention provided by the taxpayer for rail freight? My understanding is that there is none.

The Minister is now the chairperson of the Council of Ministers dealing with the transport brief for the next six months. Before Christmas the EU spoke about the development of a "motorway of the sea" from the Irish Sea to Spain to relieve the congestion on continental roads. Does the Minister agree with that proposal and, if so, does he not believe that we should either have good roads from areas in the west and along the western seaboard to ports such as Rosslare or good rail freight services so that we can access those port facilities?

There is no direct subsidy to Iarnród Éireann's freight division in the sense of a direct grant to the freight division. Iarnród Éireann is in receipt of substantial taxpayers' funds of approximately €180 million a year. I presume the loss from Iarnród Éireann of €15 million in 2002 came out of that.

I support the idea of the "motorway of the sea" and the Deputy's view that we should proceed with the motorway programme to Cork, Galway, Rosslare, Waterford and elsewhere, and continue to invest in the railways. At present €400 million per annum is invested in the rail and public transport networks, much of which is being spent on tracks such as the line to Rosslare.

On a point of information, no motorway is being developed from the western seaboard to Rosslare. Does the Minister not agree with the development of rail freight to take pressure off Dublin Port and relieve traffic congestion in Dublin city centre and that removing heavy goods vehicles from the road would reduce the number of deaths involving these vehicles, of which there were 81 in 2000?

Does he also not agree that it is a scandal that €4 million was spent two years ago on 22 new rail freight wagons which have not been used. Iarnród Éireann is a semi-State company which means that was taxpayers' money. Will the Minister outline an initiative he will take in the next six months to ensure that rail freight is developed rather than wound down?

I am not sure that there was any suggestion that a motorway be constructed from Galway to Rosslare.

There is no good road from the western seaboard.

The Deputy is familiar with the published plans of the National Roads Authority to develop motorways from Dublin to Galway, Cork and Waterford and the inter-urban routes. I have not seen a proposal for a direct motorway from Rosslare to Galway other than using the Dublin to Limerick route. The purpose of Dublin Port tunnel is to take the traffic from the port to the M50 where it can be distributed throughout the country.

If it fits.

I am not aware of the issue about the wagons. I have made it clear to the only company we have in freight that I expect it to develop, not exit, the freight business and to do so in a professional manner. Some of the rationalisation has effected a significant improvement in the financial situation of the rail freight division.