Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Questions (53)

Marc MacSharry

Question:

53. Deputy Marc MacSharry asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport if his attention has been drawn to capacity issues being experienced across the rail system; if additional capacity will be delivered within the next couple of years; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29957/19]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Transport)

Is the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport aware of the considerable capacity issues being experienced across the entire rail network, from the commuter towns to Dublin and other major cities, and on intercity lines? The Minister is surely aware of the chronic overcrowding on services and the commuting misery suffered by many families. While we encourage people to use public transportation, we are unable to facilitate them.

I thank the Deputy for his question and welcome him to his new role as transport spokesman. I pay tribute also to his predecessor, Deputy Troy, who fulfilled his role extraordinarily well.

The Deputy is quite right that due to increased demand, there are capacity issues at certain times and on certain parts of our rail network. I am happy to inform him that additional capacity has been, and will continue to be, delivered over the short, medium and longer term. As to the short term, ten-minute DART services and expanded services through the Phoenix Park tunnel and on other commuter lines have been introduced. The focus now is on off-peak expansion with a view to easing pressures during the peak period. This year, construction will also start on the new national train control centre, which will improve management of the network generally and allow for some capacity increases once completed.

As the commuter rail fleet is fully deployed at peak times, however, we must also increase the volume of rolling stock. That will be achieved through medium and longer term measures. In the medium term, the National Transport Authority, NTA, and Iarnród Éireann are proposing to purchase additional carriages for the existing fleet known as the ICR, or intercity, fleet. I expect a business case on this proposal to be submitted shortly. Once approved, I understand the additional carriages will come on-stream in approximately two years. While the NTA and Iarnród Éireann are also evaluating tenders received in an earlier process to seek second-hand fleet stock, the proposal is complicated by the different rail gauge in use in Ireland.

In the longer term, it is proposed to massively expand the fleet. A pre-qualifying notice for the relevant procurement competition has issued. The new carriages will be a mixture of bi-mode, or battery electric, and fully electric and form part of the DART expansion programme. It is expected contracts will be awarded during 2020 in respect of this proposal. These are significant investments and, obviously, value for money is an important consideration. The Deputy can be assured that I am making funding available to expand the capacity of our rail network and I look forward to his support in that regard.

The "live horse and get grass" approach is not working for us. The Minister says he expects a business case shortly. There is an administrative merry-go-round from the board of Irish Rail to the NTA, the Department, the Minister and Cabinet. What sort of timelines are we looking at? It will take 18 months to make rolling stock available for use after it is ordered. My understanding is that the business case for the 41 vehicles to which the Minister referred has gone from Irish Rail to the NTA. Is there any way to take account of the families suffering all over Ireland, in particular those commuting to the cities and in respect of the intercity service? What are the timelines in respect of the ordering of the 41 carriages? After that, we will be into the 18-month countdown. In the meantime, what has the Minister done in co-operation with his colleagues in other Departments to alleviate some of the pressure by encouraging flexible working hours or other arrangements by way of additional bus services?

One must realise, as I am sure the Deputy does, that one cannot just go into a shop and order carriages or trains here, there and everywhere. These things have to be considered carefully and procurement procedures must be followed. The Deputy would not for one moment suggest that should not happen. It is very important. The Deputy referred to the 41 additional carriages for the existing fleet and he is correct. While the possibility of purchasing or leasing second-hand stock as a quick fix is being evaluated, the Deputy is probably aware that procurement recently commenced to source 300 new bi-mode carriages. The order will be placed next year with delivery taking place in the next two to three years. We have to approach this issue by taking action in the short, medium and long term and we have a plan for all that, depending, of course, on the expansion of demand. The Deputy will be well aware that the increase in demand for public transport in recent times has been unexpectedly successful. Public transport is attracting a large number of additional passengers, due partly to prosperity but also to the fact that public transport, whether it is bus, rail or Luas services, has improved immensely, which I applaud. We are determined to move people to public transport and we are doing so successfully. There are capacity difficulties, to which the Deputy referred, but we are determined to resolve them and we have a well spelled out plan to do so.

The targets for Irish Rail are 75:25. It is at 48 million journeys and heading for 75 million journeys by 2025. The Minister said the procurement process for 300 carriages has started, albeit it is intended to be 600 new vehicles over ten years, but all that has been issued is a call for expressions of interest that it is hoped to receive by the end of July. At the snail's pace at which we tend to operate, delivery will not be within two to three years, as the Minister has just said, it will be in 2024. Those are the words of Irish Rail, whose representatives told me so today. The 41 shorter-term solutions to which the Minister referred are still two years away. What level of priority and emergency is the Minister declaring in this regard? When it comes to other aspects of procurement, we have seen how projects can be fast-tracked depending on the level of focus. The Government is not applying the appropriate priority to fast-tracking this process. Rather, it is going around the houses while families continue to experience commuting misery and the detrimental effects continue to be felt in our ability to attract people to public transport. The more people are squashed into a train, the more liable they are to resort to their cars.

We are increasing the number of commuter trains, improvements have been made to the Phoenix Park tunnel and ten-minute DART services have been introduced. We regard with a sense of urgency the short-term difficulties to which the Deputy has quite rightly referred, but he will also know that a successful transport system of this sort will always have capacity issues if demand increases at a faster rate than expected. Luas cross-city, which was introduced barely 18 months ago was, overnight, a victim of its own success. We introduced a very successful cross-city project and it immediately attracted an significant number of people to public transport. It is a tribute to public transport in Ireland and something we are going to match and alleviate in a very short time. The projected number of Luas trams we will bring to the green line in a short period will certainly alleviate the difficulties to which the Deputy referred. We will not sort it out in five or six months, but we will sort it out by way of a medium and long-term plan, the details of which I have spelled out clearly to him.