Rail Network

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]

View answer

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.

Bus Services

Questions (7)

Aindrias Moynihan


7. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Transport his plans to improve the frequency of bus services between mid-Cork villages and the city; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25671/20]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Transport)

The wider mid-Cork area is well recognised as an area of significant population growth. A range of bus services operate in the area but there are well recognised difficulties with the overall level of service. A number of places do not have a regular service, there are problems with the frequency of services and some villages have no service at all. We need an established plan to improve those services. Will the Minister outline how he proposes to improve bus access for people across mid-Cork? They need to have reasonable access to Cork city and Killarney for college and work.

I have to admit a slight bias in this matter in that my mother grew up in Macroom and I spent my childhood holidays on the banks of the River Sullane visiting my grandparents. As Minister, I have responsibility for policy and overall funding in regard to public transport. However, I am not involved in the day-to-day operations of public transport. That is the responsibility of the NTA in conjunction with public transport operators.

The NTA has statutory responsibility for securing the provision of public passenger transport services nationally and the development of an integrated, accessible public transport network. The authority also has national responsibility for integrated local and rural transport, including management of the rural transport programme, RTP, which now operates under the Local Link brand. Local Link public transport services comprise both demand-responsive transport, DRT, door-to-door services and conventional fixed services.

In this context, the authority seeks to deliver an efficient, accessible and integrated public transport system in both rural and urban Ireland. It funds public bus services in rural areas through its public service obligation, PSO, arrangements, mainly with Bus Éireann and through the Local Link service.

I understand that the Deputy's question relates to a number of PSO services in Cork that are operated by Bus Éireann, namely, the 233 Macroom to Cork route, the 235 Rylane to Cork route, the 236 Castletownbere to Cork route, the 239 Butlerstown to Cork route, and the 243 Newmarket to Cork route.

Having consulted the NTA in regard to future service plans, I can advise the Deputy that there are no specific plans at present to increase frequency on the routes in question. However, it is important to note that the authority keeps the network of bus services operated by Bus Éireann under regular review and consideration of increased services is part of that review process.

In regard to Macroom specifically, my understanding is that there were plans for the expansion of services in 2020. Unfortunately, those plans were put on hold, similar to many other projects, as a consequence of the Covid pandemic. My understanding is that the Macroom route will again be taken into consideration. Any development in that regard must fit within the policy approach being taken by the NTA and Local Link services in resect of all routes and the assessment of which will be put forward for prioritisation. I can see the good logic in the proposals for Macroom. Given the plans to proceed with the Macroom bypass project, it makes sense, at the same time, to take steps to deliver high-quality public transport services.

I thank the Minister for that overview. As he points out, the Macroom service was one of the services identified as being particularly problematic and as offering an opportunity for growth in serving villages such as Ballingeary, Inchigeela, Kilmurry, Crookstown, Cloughduv, Aherla and on down to Killumney and Coachford. If one wants to get in and out to Cork city from Coachford, for example, one can get a bus in the morning at 7.40, but to get back home again, one has to be out of the city before 1 p.m. It is not practical. For people living along the Bride Valley who want to get in and out to work, they can get a bus at 7.30 a.m. but they must be out on the Model Farm Road at 4.30 p.m to get home. That does not suit most people who are going in and out of Cork city.

There were plans to expand the service, as the Minister outlined, but plans do not get put into place immediately. It takes a bit of background work to take them forward. It should not be the case that we should park all such projects at this time. The coronavirus crisis should not mean that everything stops. Plans should continue in the meantime and there should be a readiness to switch projects back on. I understand that these cannot be advanced overnight but preparations can be made. The Minister referred to the 243 bus service that goes out to Grenagh and on up to Bweeng. Grenagh is 20 minutes from the city centre by car but it feels like a week by bus. Improved services need to be rolled out as soon as possible and the preparatory work must be going on in the background in the meantime.

One of the most significant things in the programme for Government is the towns first idea, which seeks to bring life back into the centres of towns. I am taking Macroom as an example because it is very familiar to me. It is very important that we have good, high-quality and high-frequency public transport services on services such as the Macroom to Cork route.

It is also important to integrate local transport services, including Local Link, that have been very successful in Cork. They need to be connected to ensure accessibility to Macroom. In this Covid-19 world, many people living and working in Macroom may have commuted previously or they may be staying in the town to work for three days a week rather than commuting into Cork for work. We need to get right the co-ordination of Local Link services and more regional bus services. We should use examples like Macroom to make sure the hinterland is connected in to that bus service, the timetable works and the system is seamless and integrated.

Even with the new bypass in Macroom, if we try to develop Ireland on a roads and car based transport system, and even if we restrict the numbers of people who commute, we will still reach bottlenecks when we get to the edge of the city and that will not work. The only way of managing our future development is active travel, local travel and Local Link bus services. We need this hierarchy with public transport services between large towns and cities, such as Macroom and Cork. That is the future development of public transport and transport in general in our towns and cities. This holds out the key prospect of restoring towns and bringing life back to the centre of towns. That towns will not be choked full of cars is one of the benefits of this whole process.

I very much agree with the Minister on supporting services in and out of Macroom. Ballingeary and Inchigeelah only have one bus to Macroom a day, which leaves people having to return home very early in the day. In the absence of bus options, we see huge tailbacks at the Ballincollig bypass near the EMC facility and at Leemount Cross. Macroom is being choked. Bus services to both those villages need to be improved. People also want to be able to get in and out to Cork and that bus service needs to be advanced. These needs have already been recognised. There are new sewerage schemes in Dripsey, Coachford and Ballyvourney, for example, which are advancing further housing development. There will be a need for bus services to Cork and Macroom. That will not happen instantly but the Minister needs to advance those plans. Background work has already been done on those plans, which should not be parked up. The Minister should be bringing along those plans and making bus service improvements available to people within months, rather than pushing them off into the never-never or for several years.

I agree with the Deputy. On Macroom specifically, I understand that plans are afoot and quite far advanced in terms of reviewing the frequency of the Cork-Macroom service. Once there has been a restoration of some normal services after the pandemic, I will be supportive should the National Transport Authority, in consultation with regional transport systems, decide that those plans are now ready for development. That would be a very positive development.

Transport Infrastructure Provision

Questions (8, 21, 30)

Duncan Smith


8. Deputy Duncan Smith asked the Minister for Transport the status of the MetroLink development as of September 2020; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25666/20]

View answer

Eoghan Murphy


21. Deputy Eoghan Murphy asked the Minister for Transport the status of strategic transport infrastructure plans for Dublin, including but not limited to BusConnects and the MetroLink project. [25678/20]

View answer

Eoghan Murphy


30. Deputy Eoghan Murphy asked the Minister for Transport the status of strategic plans of the transport infrastructure of Dublin, including but not limited to rail capacity and new measures needed. [25679/20]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Transport)

I would appreciate the Minister giving an up-to-date status report, hopefully a positive one, on the vital MetroLink project, which has been long in gestation. Hopefully, we will see progress on it soon. The Minister, when he was previously in office and held this brief, supported moving the project forward. At that time, it was known as metro north. Any update the Minister can provide will be greatly appreciated.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 8, 21 and 30 together.

I will give a general response to all three questions and I will then specifically address the MetroLink project. I am happy to go into detail on MetroLink, but I should also set out the status of some other major transport projects in the greater Dublin area and the current status of the transport strategy.

There are three current mega-projects under development in the greater Dublin area, namely, BusConnects, DART+ and MetroLink. Each of these projects are multibillion euro investments, among the largest public investment projects ever to be undertaken in the State and each is significant in its own right. Together they have the potential to utterly transform sustainable mobility in the region.

On BusConnects, I am pleased to see continued progress with today’s announcement of the final network redesign. Implementation of this new network will now commence in 2021 and I very much welcome this move towards implementation. Work is continuing on the development of the preliminary business case and in finalising the infrastructure requirements for the core bus corridors, with another round of public consultation scheduled for November.

Over the summer, I launched a consultation process on DART+, specifically proposals for the Maynooth line. DART+ will effectively double the capacity of the commuter rail network and is hugely important. Alongside that consultation process, work continues on developing the preliminary business case and assessing tenders received in relation to fleet expansion. As required by the public spending code, all of these preliminary business cases will require Government approval to allow the three projects to progress together, and I expect to bring these business cases to Government early next year.

At a strategic level, the Transport Strategy for the Greater Dublin Area 2016-2035 is being reviewed and will be updated if required. A review is required every six years and the NTA has already commenced work on this, which will include examining the potential for further metro routes into the future. I understand a public consultation will commence next year.

On MetroLink, the finalised business case is expected to be submitted to the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport during the first quarter of 2021 and brought to Government for its approval in line with the public spending code. It is expected that the railway order and planning permission application will be lodged with An Bord Pleanála next year also. Construction will begin once that procedure is completed.

It is my hope and expectation that the business case presented to the Department will be the strongest one possible. I do not know of any other strategic project in planning that meets such a transport deficit. MetroLink links the third largest town in Ireland by population, Swords, with our capital city, our international airport, Dublin Airport, and Dublin City University through Phibsboro and into the city centre. It is vital infrastructure.

Many people have asked me and the Acting Chairman, Deputy Alan Farrell, if the issue of MetroLink comes up at the doors when we are canvassing. It does not come up because people in north County Dublin and Swords do not believe it will happen. In recent months, however, people have seen some exploratory works and ground testing taking place. The MetroLink insignia has also been seen on barriers near Seatown Villas and other areas around Swords. That gives people hope that the project will move forward and ultimately be delivered.

I ask that the railway order and the business plan be arranged as early in 2021 as possible. The Minister referred to the first quarter but we have an hourglass for this important project and we cannot allow quarters or years to pass.

I fully agree with the Deputy. We are 20 years late on this project. We started it in the late 1990s when I was on the Dublin transportation advisory committee. At the same time, the Danish city of Copenhagen was looking at a project involving a similar length of line. In the meantime, I believe Copenhagen has built three metro lines while our project is still stuck in planning. We have to get it out of planning and start building.

The debate earlier focused on Dublin versus the regions. MetroLink is a critical piece of national infrastructure. The case for it has always been the planning gain. It is not just a metro to Dublin Airport but a project that will allow us to align our housing with sustainable transport systems. It will allow us to plan for sustainable development of housing in the city as well as the development of transport. Transport-led development is where we need to go in addressing our housing crisis. We need real certainty for developers and local councils in the city. We need to tell them that whatever they do, they must ensure new housing is built in close proximity to the new stations that will be in this project. That will guarantee quality of life and an efficient, clean and social city. This is why this project and all the other public transport infrastructure we have are important.

The Deputy is right that we need to move into planning. Given that an earlier iteration of the project has already gone through planning and it has probably been the most researched, assessed and tested project on the planet in the 20 years we have waited for it, I hope we can quickly get the business case completed and the project moved into planning and built.

I am encouraged by the Minister's reply. We have spoken about this outside the Chamber as well. The Minister is consistent in his view on this both behind the scenes and in this House which is very encouraging.

The town of Swords, which will benefit from MetroLink, is an example of an area where we can improve active travel, to which the Minister referred in earlier answers. We can improve the cycling infrastructure in order to be able to get people from the west side of Swords to where the MetroLink stations will be located without them having to use their cars. We need to improve walking routes and disability access as well. If and when this is delivered, and I am an optimist on MetroLink, we must make sure that people will not have to get into their cars to travel from one side of Swords to the other. They should be able to travel quickly, efficiently and in an environmentally friendly way to the metro to go to college or into town. This will benefit all of Fingal, particularly those living in the rural villages and rural areas who will be able to get to Swords relatively quickly and then on into Dublin city. It is not just a service for Swords or the airport; it is infrastructure that will benefit the whole of north County Dublin. It is something I will be bringing up on an annoyingly regular basis in this Chamber during these questions and I hope we can continue to see progress on it.

Again, I am in danger of agreeing with the Deputy. I will go back, if I can, to the Copenhagen example and how the Danes made it work. These are very expensive pieces of infrastructure. They are multibillion euro projects. In Copenhagen, outside the train station there is a very low-cost bicycle park which has thousands of bicycles. The surrounding community, through a ten or 15 minute cycle, has access to the train service which is easy, reliable, quick, clean and cheap. Such low-cost solutions deliver high-quality local communities and attractive places to live which are not dominated by cars and where everyone has good quality connectivity that is not expensive. That is the gain according to the cost-benefit analysis. To go back to what I said earlier, it is the wider planning gain we get from this type of public transport alongside connected, active travel through pedestrian, cycling and local bus service connections. It is that sort of vision and if one costs the benefits from all of that, it makes these projects stand up and make sense and that is why we need to build them now.

Bus Services

Questions (9)

Denis Naughten


9. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Transport further to Parliamentary Question No. 229 of 8 September 2020, the specific supports to be provided for small coach operators in view of the severe financial pressure being placed on businesses; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25674/20]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Transport)

The Government has allocated €10 million to the coach industry which is very welcome. The fund is to be distributed via Fáilte Ireland. However, to date not one cent has been allocated. The private hire market has completely collapsed. There are 1,700 operators in the country employing 11,500 people. The aforementioned fund is equivalent to €870 for each of those employees. This is insufficient to deal with the specific problem that the industry faces, an industry that normally carries approximately 75 million passengers per year.

I assure the Deputy that the Government and the NTA are actively engaged in entering into contractual arrangements for new temporary funding supports with licensed bus operators who are providing necessary public transport services. Both the NTA and my Department have been engaging directly with commercial bus operators throughout the crisis to help inform policy decisions in relation to the public transport sector as we continue to deal with the impact of Covid-19. I am aware of the very difficult business environment that the commercial operators have been facing. Indeed, across Government we are acutely aware that the Covid-19 situation presents huge challenges for so many business sectors.

Public transport is a key facilitator of interaction in the economy and society. It is an efficient and sustainable way of getting people to work, education, shopping and other social engagements. The essential nature of these services has been acknowledged a number of times by the Government in recent months, most notably in the decision to provide additional funding for public service obligation, PSO, services and the introduction of temporary funding measures for the licensed bus sector. These temporary funding supports have been introduced to help ease the financial pressure on operators arising from the fall in passenger numbers and associated drop in fare revenue as a result of Covid-19. They are aimed at ensuring the continued operation of essential licensed bus services for a period of up to six months and are targeted at covering the gap between specified costs and the revenues generated on the services. The supports are targeted at those classes of bus services where a clear public interest justification supports such intervention, in line with relevant state aid considerations. The National Transport Authority is responsible for administering the funding support and is in the process of entering into contracts with the relevant operators.

These supports are in addition to the suite of other financial support measures that the Government has introduced to help mitigate the impact of Covid-19, including the pandemic unemployment payment which operators can avail of and which remains open to new applicants until the end of the year and a Covid-19 enterprise support grant which can be put towards the costs associated with reopening a business, including the purchase of cleaning materials and personal protective equipment. These measures are in addition to rates waivers, lending facilities, equity injection and business advisory supports, all of which will help to improve cash flow. The Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation has also set up on online tool to help support Irish start-ups and SMEs to navigate the range of Government supports and identify which support may be most relevant to their business.

To synopsise what the Minister has just said, if you are not a licensed bus operator providing a licensed service, if you are not contracted to Bus Éireann, then there is nothing for you. As the Minister knows, the NTA has washed its hands of the industry outside of the licensed sector.

I wrote to the Minister and the NTA in August regarding the private school bus operators who had not received even a single sheet of paper on how they should operate their services from 1 September in order to meet the Covid-19 criteria. The NTA came back and said that it was not its problem and I am still waiting for a response from the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport on that issue. The vast majority of coach operators are being ignored. The only fund that has been put in place is through Fáilte Ireland and not a single cent has been distributed to the operators.

I am very glad the Deputy mentioned the school transport service which is a key element in the jigsaw of coach and bus operators. The Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, and I met a wide spectrum of operators across tourism, school transport, PSO services and others. However, primary responsibility for managing the engagement with school bus transport providers lies with the Department of Education and Skills. One of the mechanisms being considered by the Government will hopefully be of benefit to a wide variety of coach operators. Given the public health advice, albeit issued at short notice, on restricting bus capacity, the Department of Education and Skills has been engaged in recent weeks with various operators on the provision of further services and the contracting of additional buses to meet the public health criteria in the provision of the school bus transport service. The Department of Education and Skills has indicated that this process will take some time to complete because it is not a small operation. It will involve a very large number of buses and drivers. It will require a range of systems changes in order to manage the process. I understand the Department of Education and Skills is currently engaged in that process and is in talks with the industry. That may provide one outlet for operators which are otherwise very quiet. There is very little in the way of bringing football teams to matches, there are no tourists and the myriad other vital services the coach and bus industry provides are not available at present. I hope the additional requirements for school bus transport will generate business for operators and help them through the crisis.

The reality is that the taxi, chauffeur-drive and private school bus operators have been completely ignored by the Government to date. Five weeks ago, I wrote to the Minister regarding the private school bus operators but he has yet to respond to me. These operators do not come under the remit of the Department of Education and Skills which is only interested in those that are contracted to Bus Éireann. In fact, private operators that are providing private services had to borrow copies of the documents that were circulated by Bus Éireann to find out what specifications they needed to meet. That is not good enough. The private hire market has completely collapsed at this stage.

I ask the Minister to intervene with regard to the second level school bus system. Will he explore the possibility of buses bringing half the number of students on a first run and then going back for a second run, to be rotated on a weekly basis? In that way, we could double the capacity of the bus fleet very quickly and help to address some of the problems at second level.

I would not rule anything out but I would point to one word in what the Deputy said, which is that these are “private” bus operations. I have myself asked the question as to whether we could look at options such as having two runs. However, to make that work, we would have to get into arrangements with the schools and we do not know if they would be happy to have staggered arrival of pupils or whether that gets in their way. Inexorably, we are brought back to the Department of Education and Skills because we would have to get agreement from the schools via the Department of Education and Skills as to how that would be done.

Believe me, all of these various options have been looked at. It has to be done in a co-ordinated way in order for solutions to be found. The ultimate solution, I would argue, is for us to be able to stabilise the level of Covid and not have to proceed with this 50%, which would then bring back into operation the system that had been set up through private arrangements. However, that is something we do not have full control over.

In the meantime, I will ask the Minister for Education and Skills to follow up on the Deputy’s proposal and on whether this is possible for those schools which have private bus service operations. The difficulty is that some children may come from a local town and some from a further town, and having different arrangements for different students could be very difficult. That may be one of the constraints in terms of a specific solution. However, I will follow up and I will come back to the Deputy if there is any possibility.

Light Rail Projects

Questions (10)

Cormac Devlin


10. Deputy Cormac Devlin asked the Minister for Transport the status of plans to extend the Luas to Bray, County Wicklow; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25822/20]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Transport)

My question relates to the much-needed extension to the Luas green line from Bride’s Glen and Cherrywood. I note the extension of the Luas lines to Bray, Lucan, Poolbeg and Finglas were included in the National Transport Authority’s 2016 transport strategy for Dublin, and news that the Finglas line is proceeding is welcome. However, residents in the other areas are wondering where they stand. In particular, will the Minister provide an update on the status of the extension to the Luas line from Bray?

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue of public transport in the Bray area, including the issue of light rail. I note, of course, that Bray is set to benefit from investments in BusConnects and DART+, both of which will boost public transport capacity in the area. I am delighted that the final BusConnects network will be published today and that the National Transport Authority, NTA, can move forward with delivery of a much improved network of bus services.

The transport strategy for the greater Dublin area is the strategic framework within which transport infrastructure in the region is considered and developed. It has a statutory basis and, importantly, is integrated within land-use plans across the region, thus laying the foundation for a much more sustainable approach toward development generally.

The strategy is a 20-year framework and it makes a number of proposals in regard to light rail infrastructure over that period. These proposals include the Luas cross-city, which has been completed; the Luas green line capacity enhancement, which is well under way; and the proposed extensions to Bray, Finglas, Lucan and Poolbeg. Building on the strategy’s recommendations, the current national development plan provided indicative funding toward planning and design of those Luas extensions to Bray, Finglas, Lucan and Poolbeg in the greater Dublin area. Indeed, a number of weeks ago, I was pleased to launch a public consultation on the emerging preferred route option in regard to the proposed Luas Finglas project.

The transport strategy’s proposal in regard to extending Luas services to Bray was predicated on an upgrade of the existing Luas green line to metro standard. This was considered a prerequisite in order to ensure sufficient capacity on the line to cope with additional demand generated by the extension. More recently, the Bray transport study was published in 2019 and sets out a number of sustainable mobility interventions designed to facilitate continued population growth in the area. It recommends the introduction of a new bus service from Sandyford to Bray, via Old Conna, until such time as a Luas extension might be delivered, as well as other measures for the area.

Residents across Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, not just in the Bray area, want to see delivery on public transport improvements. I note what the Minister has said about BusConnects and DART+, which is very welcome. However, development is currently taking place in areas such as Cabinteely, Carrickmines, Cherrywood and Old Conna, to name but a few. I estimate some 50,000 people will be living and working in that area over the next few years. Development plans were agreed on the basis that public transport would be upgraded, along with the extension to the green line. There were three preferred routes back in 2006 and any delays to projects such as the Luas link to Bray or the construction of the new Woodbrook DART station, on which I have another question today, would put serious pressure on the road network. Something needs to happen.

Any development plan should, to my mind, be conditional on real certainty as to where the public transport is going to go in. We should not be developing any area or putting this into any development plan if we do not have concrete certainty around the development of public transport nodes in those areas. Otherwise, we are confining people to a future of car-based dependency, which will not work, will not serve the community and will not serve the country.

The issue about the extension of the line beyond Cherrywood will be critically dependent on what happens to the metro and, as I have said, that is not yet even in the planning system. Even when it is, MetroLink will be a project which runs to and stops just south of Ranelagh. There will be a further study looking at the alternatives after that because, for example, if it was to extend in a south-west direction, that would not resolve the problem of capacity on the existing green line. The other options would be to upgrade the green line or to run a spur via UCD and Stillorgan to Sandyford, which would address the capacity issue on the green line.

That capacity issue is not a short-term issue. We should be very careful to say to Wicklow County Council and others that they should not be developing sites for projects or housing in areas on a speculative basis where we think there might be particular projects down the line. We should focus on those areas where we know there is expansion, with BusConnects and with the DART+ programme, and where we know the Luas extensions, for example, the Finglas extension, are going to come. We have to start integrating planning and development. I, more than anyone else, will support public transport extensions but we cannot have housing where we do not have certainty we will have public transport.

While I agree with the Minister's view about future development, the development plans are under way and I hope the Minister's office will contact the relevant local authorities. As I mentioned, the Cabinteely, Carrickmines, Cherrywood, Shankill and northern Bray area has enormous development already planned and, on the back of that, it is anticipated public transport will be delivered. In fact, many of the developments that have happened are on the back of the idea that public transport will be delivered in those areas. One of those projects is the Luas green line, the B2 line, which, as I said, had three options. People want a high-frequency, high-capacity link from Bride’s Glen to Bray. In addition, as the Minister mentioned, there are key employment areas such as Sandyford, Dundrum and Cherrywood. It is critical we have an alternative to the car, that it is a reliable service and that the capacity is there to accommodate all of those people living and working in those areas.

I ask the Minister to commit that, in the national development plan, we would fast-track and reconsider that extension to the Luas line.

I will be engaging with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the local authorities on this issue. While I cannot give a commitment on the fast-tracking of any one project, the planning connection is what I really commit to.

Park-and-Ride Facilities

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.

Questions (11)

Catherine Connolly


11. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Transport if his attention has been drawn to the fact that park and ride facility for the east and west side of Galway city has been an objective of the Galway city development plan since February 2005; the engagement he has had with the city council to progress the roll-out of park and ride in the city; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25893/20]

View answer

Oral answers (4 contributions) (Question to Transport)

Park and ride has been an objective in the Galway city development plan since 2005 but it has never been rolled out. Has that been brought to the Minister's attention and can he make a statement on the matter?

I am as frustrated as anyone with the congestion that grips Galway and that has the potential to choke the city’s social, cultural and economic development. I am acutely aware of the need to implement improvements urgently to the city’s transport network, centred on the hierarchy of pedestrian, cyclist and public transport. While the Deputy will know that I am long aware of these issues, they were reinforced yet again in meetings I have had with various representative and interest groups from the city and region since assuming office. I am determined that my Department will provide the right type of policy framework and the overall levels of funding required to enable delivery on the ground by local authorities of the infrastructure set out in their various transport strategies.

This summer’s July stimulus, I hope, provided a signal as regards our intentions. I emphasised the need for the rapid roll-out of active travel measures and allocated significant funding for that very purpose. During the summer, I met with Galway City Council and urged it to take advantage of this funding and roll out new and improved active travel infrastructure to support local communities and businesses as they learn to live with Covid. July’s stimulus also contained additional money for new and improved bus services, including in Galway, and I know the NTA is continuing to develop and plan those services with the operators.

While the local authority is at the heart of delivering change in Galway, I know central Government needs to support it in ways over and above pure funding and needs to consider issues such as technical support. In this regard, this year, the NTA established a park and ride development office, which is working with local authorities to deliver park and ride in all the cities, and that office is also working with Galway City Council.

I am also aware that the county council, in co-operation with Iarnród Éireann, is also exploring options to further improve facilities at Oranmore station. From conversations with other Deputies from the Galway area, including the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, and Deputy Grealish, I understand that park-and-ride facilities were introduced on the site of Galway Airport. This was close to the Parkmore Industrial Estate and the route travelled by some coming in from the east of the city. I am interested in hearing from the Deputy as to why that project did not progress after its operation on a trial basis. These are practical quick wins we should be looking at as potential ways of delivering facilities.

I appreciate the Minister's frustration, engagement and determination but 15 years have passed and park-and-ride facilities have not been operated in Galway. There was a failed attempt by the chamber of commerce to run a facility at the former airport site when the airport fell. This project was not led by the city council. Indeed, its planners advised against it. Park-and-ride facilities have never been rolled out except at Christmas, when they are very successful.

Some 15 years later, what are we going to do about this? It is clear the council will not implement such facilities. I am told it has made progress in identifying sites but this measure is not going ahead because it is utterly dependent on the ring road, which may or may not go ahead. Once again, we are putting all our eggs in one basket and failing to deal with traffic congestion in Galway. Park-and-ride facilities are just one aspect of this. I agree with the Minister that we also need an integrated school transport service and so on but this will not happen because of the doublespeak regarding a road which will sort out all our problems and a failure to take action.

Again, I fully agree with Deputy Connolly. I had a series of meeting with representatives of the various cities across the country this summer and I was disappointed and felt that Galway was missing out most on the opportunities afforded by investing in active travel, public transport and sustainable solutions. I absolutely agree that, if the city authorities believe waiting for a ring road to solve their problems will make matters better, they are making a fundamental mistake. Real urgency is required in the delivery of public transport solutions, greenways and active travel measures. The funding is not the problem. There seems to be a problem in getting resources together locally to deliver projects that have, by and large, been agreed. I will continue to press for that and to push for those solutions because they are the way forward. They will allow Galway to thrive.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.