Road Network.

Questions (10)

Joe Costello

Question:

128 Mr. Costello asked the Minister for Transport his views on the tolling of roads, especially given the joint submission made by the National Roads Authority and the National Development Finance Agency; if he has considered this document; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2112/04]

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Oral answers (20 contributions) (Question to Minister for Transport)

The national development plan provides for significant private sector investment in the national roads development programme. In line with this policy, a number of major road upgrade projects are being implemented by the NRA by means of public private partnerships, with the private sector being remunerated, in part, by user tolls. This will ensure earlier delivery of vital national road infrastructure. Through PPPs, private sector innovation will be harnessed in the areas of scheme design, construction and long-term operation and maintenance.

The NRA's current PPP programme comprises eight projects. In selecting these PPP projects the NRA had regard to a number of factors: a geographical spread of tolls across the network; the extent of service improvement to be provided by the improved route; the availability of sufficiently high traffic volumes to ensure commercial viability and the setting of tolls at an affordable and acceptable level to reduce diversion and gain public acceptance. Having regard to these criteria it is clear that there is limited capacity, over and above the projects already identified by the NRA, across the national road network to support viable tolling arrangements.

Despite the greatly increased levels of investment in the national roads programme, the increased cost of the programme combined with the more difficult economic and budgetary circumstances which limit the capacity to allocate more Exchequer funding requires that we consider all possibilities for generating additional funding to accelerate the implementation of the national roads programme. In this context and that of a broader review of the arrangements for the delivery of the programme, the NRA has recently identified a number of options for the development of tolling policy to enable the NRA to raise additional funding for the national roads programme. These options provide,inter alia, for the consideration, in conjunction with the NDFA, of the possibility of securitising toll revenue. The proposals submitted by the NRA are being considered in my Department.

I asked the Minister about those proposals. I read the newspaper report about the fact that the NRA and the NDFA made a submission to the Minister. I was interested to know his views on that. In the newspaper report the Minister was ducking and diving in an attempt to play both sides over the issue of tolls. He blamed the NRA by saying it would put tolls everywhere if it was given a chance, which should not be allowed to happen. The Minister was putting his usual spin on it.

The purpose of the question was to ask the Minister's view on the proposals those agencies made. If we accept tolls on certain motorways, the submission made by those two agencies seems sensible. Does the Minister accept that the manner in which the Government has dealt with tolls to date on the Eastlink and the Westlink has resulted in cash cows being set up by the private sector with massive incomes being generated over a long period of 30 years? Does the Minister accept that it would make sense for the State to invest in those roads and to receive the tolls as they come in over the subsequent 25 or 30 years?

I remind the Deputy that there is a one minute time limit.

That is a more sensible way to fund major motorways.

The Deputy should be careful about supporting a submission which she may not have read carefully because there are some things in it on which she might have a different view. I have read the NRA report and am studying it. I will bring it before the Cabinet shortly.

What is the Minister's view on it?

I want to discuss it with the Cabinet first and then we will publish it. I will give more detailed views on it at that time. I thank the NRA for and compliment it on the work it has done on this report. It has given it careful consideration. I have difficulty with some aspects of it. There were suggestions, for example, about tolling existing roads. I must study that area carefully.

The principles of tolling are simple. This is not a large country. We can only tolerate a certain number of strategic tolls throughout the country. We cannot proliferate the country with tolls. Any tolling we do must incorporate a state-of-the-art electronic system. That means we should not have any barriers so that vehicles can go through the tolls without having to slow down. I have asked the people at Westlink to examine that. That is technologically possible and is what we must do. The tolls we have must be strictly used to fund the public private partnership elements of motorway developments. I will deal with the NRA report as soon as I can. It is a fine report, although there are aspects of it which must be seriously considered. We will do that as soon as we can.

I am not talking about the detail but about the principle of State finance being used to develop motorways and the State taking the tolls rather than giving them to the private sector. I support that principle and would like to hear the Minister's view on it.

We must be extremely careful when considering any type of tolls because they are a stealth tax on employment and industry, especially in the regions. This country is fast becoming uncompetitive without putting such taxes on decentralised employment and civil servants. Has consideration been given to alternatives to hard tolling? Have investigations been carried out in that regard? Alternative systems are in place in other countries.

What does the Deputy mean by hard tolling?

Hard tolling refers to the system of paying by cash to get through a barrier.

That is what we have.

Yes. Are there alternatives to hard tolling? Franchising services along motorways is one method which has been used in continental Europe. What is the Minister's opinion about tolling roads such as the Jack Lynch tunnel, the Dublin Port tunnel, the M50 and the Portlaoise bypass? These projects have been funded by taxpayers, yet the National Roads Authority proposes to toll them which means the people will pay twice.

Regarding the changes to compulsory purchase orders which were announced in the budget, has the Minister had discussions with the Minister for Finance to relax those in this year's Finance Bill?

Deputy Shortall asked me if the State could keep the tolls. It could do that in theory, but that would involve the State directly running the tolls. As long as we are committed to PPPs, we must reimburse them in some way. If we take in private capital, we must find a way to reimburse it. Deputy Naughten mentioned other ways to reimburse it. One can reimburse it by paying it out of the Exchequer every year.

What about investing the pension fund?

The pension fund is a capital item. I want to be clear about this. The taxpayer is paying for the bulk of the roads. Over the next five years, approximately €9 billion of taxpayers' money will build motorways. Approximately a further €1.5 billion to €2 billion will come from the private sector. If we take the €1.5 billion from the private sector, we must reimburse it either through tolls or a cheque from the Exchequer every year. That is a form of leasing the road.

Why is it not possible to use State finance?

Does the Deputy mean we should not use private funding?

That is an option, but I am not considering it at this stage.

Rail Services.

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]

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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]

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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.

Public Transport.

Questions (13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18)

Willie Penrose

Question:

130 Mr. Penrose asked the Minister for Transport the progress on the implementation of the proposals contained in his statement to the public transport forum on 7 November 2003; the timetable for the legislation required to give effect to these proposals; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2134/04]

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Eamon Ryan

Question:

133 Mr. Eamon Ryan asked the Minister for Transport the way in which the franchising of 25% of the routes in the Dublin bus market to companies other than Dublin Bus will be done in a way which protects the security and terms of employment of existing bus workers as promised by the Minister in his statement on the opening of the bus markets in November 2002. [2153/04]

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Pádraic McCormack

Question:

138 Mr. McCormack asked the Minister for Transport his plans for bus deregulation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2302/04]

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Damien English

Question:

180 Mr. English asked the Minister for Transport his plans for bus re-regulation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2303/04]

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Róisín Shortall

Question:

181 Ms Shortall asked the Minister for Transport the position in regard to his plans for the restructuring of the CIE group of companies and, in particular, his proposals for the franchising out of Dublin Bus routes; the position in regard to his Department's discussions with the CIE group of unions; if he remains committed to the principle expressed in Sustaining Progress that public enterprise should be managed in a spirit of social partnership; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2147/04]

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Ciarán Cuffe

Question:

182 Mr. Cuffe asked the Minister for Transport the arrangements he proposes to introduce for the transfer of buses from Dublin Bus to new operators in the Dublin market; and when he will have the details of such arrangements worked out given his comments to the Joint Committee on Transport on 25 June 2003 (details supplied). [2154/04]

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Oral answers (38 contributions) (Question to Minister for Transport)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 130, 133, 138 and 180 to 182, inclusive, together.

I refer the Deputies to my reply to Question No. 124 on the restructuring of CIE.

I take that reply as read. Will the Minister concentrate on the issue of regulation? Over the past six to nine months when Deputies on this side of the House were trying to draw him out on his proposals, he gave the impression that the question of regulation had not occurred to him. I recall his asking us one day whether we thought he should establish a regulator before he made changes.

I put it to the Minister that his reply to Deputy James Breen about the service to Shannon Airport is nonsense. Does he accept that the public is often severely critical of Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann for not providing services that are clearly required? When one looks for the source of that problem one discovers that either Bus Éireann or Dublin Bus has applied for a licence but that the applications seem to go into a black hole in the Minister's Department.

Does he accept that there is no transparency about the system for granting licences within his Department and that, invariably, where one of the national companies has established a demand for a service, someone in the Department discovers there is already an application from a private operator? Much of that stinks. There is no transparency in the operation of the licensing system.

Does the Minister accept that, in the case of Aircoach to which he refers regularly, it is not sustainable for the State to hand out free licences for profitable routes and then expect Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann to operate the unprofitable routes, often at great expense, while losing the profitable ones? On what basis are licences given out? There is no transparency. Will the Minister do something about this?

I object in the strongest possible terms to the suggestion that anything in my Department stinks when it comes to issuing licences. The fine public officials who deal with these put many hours of hard work into their recommendations which I almost always accept because they are experts in the area. The Deputy should re-think that suggestion.

There are no criteria. It is an arbitrary decision.

I wanted to defend the fine people who make these proposals. There are criteria in the 1932 Act. The Deputy's claim that the Shannon issue was nonsense does not stand up. I have a chronological order of what has taken place but the Leas-Cheann Comhairle will not allow me to read it into the record. Bus Éireann does not need a licence.

It needs approval from the Minister's Department.

There are issues connected with timetabling but Bus Éireann can initiate a route wherever it wishes.

With approval from the Minister's Department.

There is no reason Bus Éireann cannot initiate routes wherever it wishes. That is the situation.

That is not the case.

That is not the case.

The Deputy should withdraw her remarks about the Department's decision-making process. The delay in regard to Shannon arose because we delayed granting a licence to a private operator. The Deputy has tried to suggest something else but I have the data here. The delay suggested by Deputy James Breen was in granting a licence to a private company. This was done because Bus Éireann was involved in the route. Those are the facts. I have them here and will table them before the House if the Deputy wishes.

Why did the Minister not give the company approval to operate a route to Shannon Airport?

To whom does the Deputy refer?

Bus Éireann.

The company is on the route.

It was willing and able to operate that new route.

The Deputy does not have the facts right. The application was from a private company and that was delayed.

Why is there such a delay in processing an application for a licence within the Minister's Department? Is it a fact that there is a lack of resources within that section of the Department? There are significant delays in processing applications. Much of the frustration on this side of the House could be addressed if decisions could be dealt with quickly.

Bus Éireann cannot develop or open up a new service. It must have the approval of the Minister before it provides that service. That is the situation for any service.

The Minister said he would introduce legislation in 2004. Will he be more specific in this regard? Can he guarantee that a regulator and integrated ticketing will be in place prior to the market being opened up? In that context, does the Minister accept that his original deadline of 1 January, which has now passed, was a fallacy? What deadline is now in place for the opening up of the Dublin bus market?

I do not want to go into the Dublin bus market again because I believe we dealt substantially with the issue earlier. My position is clear. I do not have much more to add to the matter, except to lay out the objectives, which I did, and speak about the mechanism for achieving what is set out.

Under the 1932 Act Bus Éireann is required to notify the Department of its intention to commence a route.

The Minister should talk to his officials.

If other services are on the route, presumably the officials in the Department will bring this fact to its attention. My note states that the company is required to give notification to the Department.

Let us be clear about delays and giving out licences. The people who are waiting for the licences are almost exclusively, with the odd exception, private operators. The people we are holding up are the private sector by not giving them the licences they are demanding. There are substantial companies, including international, multi-national and local companies, being held up. We are not holding back Bus Éireann, Dublin Bus and others. There is a suggestion that State companies are being held up in regard to licences. The people who are being held up in seeking licences are the private sector.

I did not make a point to that effect. I said there are significant delays in processing applications for licences, no matter who is putting in the application. What action is the Minister taking to address this issue and what is the reason for it? I cannot believe the Minister has refused to answer my question in the House.

Is it his intention to have the regulator and integrated ticketing in place before he opens up the Dublin bus market and there are private operators involved? Will he give us an idea of the timescale involved? Are we talking about 1 January next year or 1 January 2006? Give us some idea of the timescale.

Of course the regulator must be in place before there is a formal opening up of the marketplace because it is the regulator who regulates the playing field, so to speak.

It was not the original intention.

It is logical that the regulator should be in place first.

The Minister should look at the record. It did not appear to occur to him that regulation in this area would be required. Is it not the case that he and his predecessor have presided over a situation where the market has been opened by the back door, certainly the market in respect of the national bus service?

Does the Deputy want it opened or not?

The national bus market has been opened by the back door, without any regulation. The Dublin bus market has been opened by the back door without any regulation. The way operators get into the business now is completely unsatisfactory.

It is called the 1932 Act and we want to get rid of it.

Does the Minister accept there are several obvious examples where he has held back the progress of Bus Éireann or Dublin Bus in favour of private operators? Deputy Breen cited one example today. He raised the fact that Bus Éireann was not given permission to operate a new service via Shannon Airport and the reason for this. The Minister said this was because at some stage, long after the application had been made, his Department discovered there was a private application in.

I previously raised with the Minister the issue of the Cavan bus service to Dublin, where Bus Éireann was operating under an agreed NDP programme. Because a private operator came along, he put Bus Éireann off the route, to the annoyance of people who had been using the service. These people now have an inferior service provided by the private sector at a time that does not suit them.

Recently there was an example of an established demand for a Dublin bus service from Balbriggan. Dublin Bus was willing to provide the service. The application had the support of local residents and public representatives but it was turned down in favour of a private operator. Is it not the case that the Minister has seriously restricted Dublin Bus in expanding services over the last couple of years because he is holding it off until private operators come into the picture? He is limiting the services being provided without any transparency in regard to the criteria he is using or what the licences should be valued at.

None of that is factual. The 1932 Act lays down the criteria which are very clear. This is why the 1932 Act needs overhauling, which we are working on. I reject completely the notion that the Government has not invested and been very supportive of Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus.

The Deputy will not let them run new routes.

There has been enormous investment in Dublin Bus in the last couple of years. The taxpayers have, rightly, supplied the company with a huge number of new buses, approximately 100 or so yearly for the past couple of years. This is enormous investment in the company.

I asked about new routes.

Many of the buses operate on new routes. Taxpayers are investing very heavily and subsidising the company to the tune of approximately €50 million.

It is small by European standards.

It is important for taxpayers to understand that they have supplied a substantial number of new buses to the company which put them on new routes.

I will not go into the issue now but I will lay it out at a appropriate time. On what the Deputy said, the evidence is to the contrary because it is private companies that are being turned down.

Written Answers follow Adjournment Debate.

Sitting suspended at 3.35 p.m. and resumed at 4 p.m.