Thursday, 24 September 2020

Questions (6, 26)

Rose Conway-Walsh


6. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Transport the steps that will be taken in 2020 and the resources that will be made available for the development of the western rail corridor; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25686/20]

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Éamon Ó Cuív


26. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Transport when it is expected that a decision will be made on the reopening of the Athenry to Claremorris section of the Western Rail Corridor; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25016/20]

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Oral answers (21 contributions) (Question to Transport)

This week, Mr. Colman O'Rahilly in an editorial rightly wrote: "One stroke of the minister's pen can drive revitalisation of the entire western seaboard". Never a truer word was said. Will the western rail corridor be included in the economic plan that is currently being framed?

No, the Minister will reply first. There is just one 30-second slot for an introductory question. We will revert to each of the Deputies afterwards.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 and 26 together.

There are important and differing views on this issue across the House. It is a critical issue and we must consider whether to reopen phases 2 and 3 of the western rail corridor. Regardless of our views on this proposal, what we all agree on is that we need to make a decision soon. On 1 July, my Department received from Iarnród Éireann a copy of EY's report on the proposal. That report was prepared in accordance with the commitment given in the current national development plan.

As was signalled publicly at the time of its commissioning, the report is subject to a short independent review to inform my consideration fully prior to bringing the matter to the Government. However, Deputies can rest assured that this independent review will be completed soon and, importantly, can add real value to the process. It is being conducted by Joint Assistance to Support Projects in European Regions, JASPERS, an agency established by the European Union and the European Investment Bank, EIB. JASPERS has vast experience in advising member states and public authorities on regional development proposals such as the proposed reopening of phases 2 and 3 of the corridor. Its analysis will provide a broader perspective on issues such as the potential wider economic impact, freight services and climate impact and a view on the potential for securing EU funds if the proposal were to go ahead. Deputies will acknowledge the importance of all these issues as we consider the matter and an independent perspective on the question of freight is something that I am particularly keen to see. The work is expected to be completed shortly and I will then bring the matter to the Government.

Since I have the time, I will elaborate on that last issue. I have had a series of discussions with people interested in the project, including those to whom the Deputy referred. We need to consider this matter, not just as it relates to the section of the rail line between Athenry and Claremorris, but in the wider regional context. I would go even farther south and add to this the potential reopening of the Foynes freight rail line, which I understand is a prerequisite if Foynes is to get any support in developing as a European TEN-T international port, in that the port in any such development must have rail freight capability. That makes sense because Europe is moving towards rail freight as a significant part of our climate change agenda.

We are going to examine this possibility in real detail. If we include it, and I believe we should, then it opens up a strategic question. Putting in a rail connection between Athenry and Claremorris opens up the whole north west to the rail freight capability of Foynes, which is a high-quality deep water port. From an industrial economic perspective and in light of the bigger picture of a zero-carbon world by 2050, we will have to develop a very large renewable wind energy capability offshore in the west. In the Shannon area and the wider west, we have significant clean water resources that modern manufacturing industry needs. In the north west, we have some of the most advanced and best manufacturing capability in the world, including high-quality expertise in high-quality manufacturing. Put clean power, clean water and a highly educated and highly skilled manufacturing workforce together and we have a long-term economic potential like what we have in Ballina and what we had in Asahi. This industrial development would be on the back of an international rail freight capability, which would allow us to access international ports.

I would extend the development farther from the Limerick-Shannon-Foynes connection to Waterford. We would then start to have an island-wide spine of rail freight capability that also delivered passenger capability. I am keen on examining the overall question from this wider perspective. It would change the perspective on what we were doing.

To explain, I will take Deputy Conway-Walsh for one minute, Deputy Ó Cuív for another minute and then the Minister, after which I will take the same two Teachtaí Dála again, followed by Deputy Calleary.

I agree with everything the Minister said. He does not have to sell the project to me or my colleagues in the Chamber, but we need action on it. This is a shovel-ready project and the time for tweaking and talking is over. We are impatient. We need the Minister to do what he says he will do. The reopening has been included in every plan, including the sustainable public transport infrastructure plan. The regional spatial and economic strategy reads:

(a) It shall be an objective to deliver the Athenry - Tuam - Claremorris - Sligo Rail to an appropriate level of service and to a standard capable of facilitating passenger and freight transport.

(b) It shall be an objective to progress through pre-appraisal and early planning the extension of the railway from Athenry - Tuam - Claremorris - Sligo.

We know what is needed. This is a vital piece of infrastructure and a chance for the Minister to deliver, regardless of whoever the Taoiseach or the proxy Taoiseach is. It fits everything in terms of sustainability, connectivity and balanced regional development. I call on the Minister to act. Do not be swayed by EY and the many other auditors around. Please, get this started.

I am reassured by what the Minister has said but it is also important that we focus on the statement that we hear every day in every plan about balanced regional development, given that it is rarely implemented in the west and north west. Recently, the Minister announced an extra four stations on the Luas line at a cost of a few hundred million euro, but what is a few hundred million euro up in Dublin? He also announced the electrification of the Maynooth line, which will cost another few bob. He announced that we would examine the prospect of high-speed rail from Dublin to Belfast, Dublin to Cork and Dublin to Limerick, but there would be nothing for the west.

We can call this the Lazarus line. Actually, it would not be Lazarus, but the guy who was at the gate, could not get food and asked people to send a few bob his way.

According to the figures, Athenry is doing very well because there is a reasonable frequency of trains into town in the morning. In other words, there is a large commuter demand. The population of Tuam is twice Athenry's and the population of Castlebar is three times Athenry's. There are plenty of people in those towns commuting to Galway city. Someone could make it to within approximately ten miles of Galway more quickly by car in the morning, but it is the last three, four, five or six miles that hold people up, depending on the morning. That is where the train scores, as the Minister knows.

It is time for decisions, not talk. We are just looking for a few bob for the west.

All of those investments in public transport from Dublin make sense. They have to make sense. One cannot proceed unless one has a good business case. There needs to be the same for rail investment in the west.

I have mentioned the freight issue in various meetings I have had with several Deputies. I did so because, if we try to win this project on the basis of it being a commuting route from Tuam or Claremorris to Galway, an argument based on those numbers will be difficult to win.

Castlebar and Ballina as well.

The Minister without interruption, please.

However, if one considers the route in a wider strategic context of economic development, it is only when passenger rail services operate on the back of what is really the key strategic benefit - an industrial rail freight capability that brings employment and manufacturing to a region that has clean power, clean water and a highly skilled manufacturing workforce - that this starts to make sense. To my mind, none of the reports to date has examined the question in that broader context. No one has asked the big 20-year or 30-year industrial development question about what we need to do in the north west.

This would not just be good for the people of the west, but for the whole country. It would bring income, tax breaks and balanced regional development. It is not a Dublin versus anyone else situation. Rather, it makes logical industrial development policy sense. It means that the IDA can go abroad and tell people that, if they want high-quality, guaranteed and low-cost energy, high-quality water supplies, a very good workforce and rail connectivity to an international port that allows them to ship their goods to anywhere in the world, then they would have a choice between Foynes or Waterford as part of a spine that extends right the way up the west.

I thank the Minister, but we are over time.

The need for this is shown by the fact that we must ask certain questions. For example, are there constraints on the Ballina-Dublin-Waterford rail freight services? I believe there may be. It is this type of question that we need to answer if we are to make a business case for a national freight rail strategy.

The reports and some people claim that rail freight will not work in Ireland. I question that.

Minister, we are over time.

In the wider 30-year or 40-year climate context, where will we go? Do we want large-scale manufacturing? I believe we do. We are good at it and have done it before, for example, in Asahi and Ballina.

Why can we not do the same at Castlebar, Westport, Tuam, Athenry and all the other stations along that line? Tuam used to have an industrial rail freight-based system. We know it has worked in the past.

The Minister's time is up.

It makes more sense to focus on that rather than the Tuam commuting route, because a bus route from Tuam into Galway city would provide an equally good service. Rail freight wins the case, in my view, but we need to examine all the options.

I thank the Minister for his impassioned response. Rail freight does win the case and the Minister does not have to doubt his belief in it. Deputy Canney and I emphasised that point when we spoke to him at the West-On-Track meeting some weeks ago. A total of 1,000 freight trains a year leave Mayo to serve Dublin and Waterford ports. Those freight train journeys displace 20,000 long-distance truck movements annually but there is potential for much more. The Minister is absolutely on track, if I may use that phrase, in this regard.

I recognise that there are constraints. We have one of the highest freight rail costs in the EU. Irish Rail needs to be far more aggressive and competitive in its selling of freight as an opportunity. Deputy Ó Cuív is correct that if we open up the rail side and drive it on to Sligo, it will increase the attractiveness of the proposal even further. If we open up the passenger side, that opens up the city of Galway as a commutable city in terms of healthcare, work and education. This proposal has always added up. I welcome the Minister's passion and interest. However, after the discussion we had earlier with representatives of Ireland West Airport Knock, he will need that passion to fight against sceptical officials and doubters if he is to advance this project. He will have the support of us all in that fight and I will give him my political support in it. This projects adds up, economically and regionally. I welcome the Minister's passion and commitment as demonstrated here this morning. By God, he will need it over the next few weeks and he will have our back-up in that.

The debate on these issues has to be reasoned and there must be an economic argument behind it. As I understand it, Iarnród Éireann has commissioned a study by AECOM to look at the future of rail freight. That will be available at the same time as we publish the JASPERS study and the EY-DKM study on the Claremorris-Athenry link. We must be real about this. At the moment, it is mainly fertiliser and other bulk goods coming into Foynes. We have to look at port strategy, which is connected to the rail issue. We need to consider which products would be suited to rail freight transport. In Ballina, for example, it works for Coca-Cola's operations and it also worked in the past for the former Asahi factory. The same is true with sugar beet and so on at Tuam. We have to consider issues such as the development of forestry. We are moving forestry products up and down the country on a road haulage basis. Could some of that be switched to rail freight? I believe it could and I am interested to see what the Iarnród Éireann report will find in terms of what systems are available.

The EY-DKM report and other reports argue that the distances are too short in Ireland for rail freight to work and that such systems only work where there are long-distance rail freight trips. My understanding is that the EU is changing its position in this regard. In the case of the development of a europort at Foynes, the requirement for a rail freight solution is because Europe is saying that as part of its low-carbon future, we must switch to rail freight and start designing around it. If I were to go to the Minister for Finance and say I want to build a new rail line from Ballina that extends right up to Sligo and right down to Waterford, I would be told it was a mad idea that would cost €5 billion or €10 billion and it could not possibly be done. However, it would be a different prospect if I were to say to him that we have an existing underused rail line running through Waterford, Clonmel, Tipperary town, Bansha, Limerick Junction and all the way up that has just two small sections missing. In the case of the first, from Limerick to Foynes, a station could be put in at Dooradoye and another at Adare. The second missing section, the Athenry-Claremorris line, is relatively small and there would be no real difficulty in redeveloping it.

I ask the Minister to conclude.

Developing those two small links would give us a national rail freight service connected to two international deepwater ports. I would go to Europe with that proposal. I would take it to the EU's climate action recovery fund and say that this proposal makes economic sense. This is a region with clean power, clean water, manufacturing expertise and two deep-sea ports that can be connected by rail freight. I do not see why it cannot work.