Transport (Railway Infrastructure) Bill, 2001 [ Seanad ] : Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The primary purpose of the Bill is to provide for the establishment of an independent commercial statutory body to be known as the railway procurement agency. It will also provide for a single statutory railway order procedure for the approval of railway infrastructure projects, including the light rail and metro services. In addition, it will provide for the regulation of light rail services when they are operating on stream.

The main focus of the Bill is on railway infrastructure. The provision of high quality infrastructure to support a reliable and efficient public transport is one of the greatest challenges facing us today. We are all well aware of the traffic congestion that has arisen in recent years due to the increased level of car ownership. That is continuing to grow at levels that could not have been imagined ten years ago. It is important to have an infrastructural system that will not threaten the development of our future economic prosperity. The Bill will enable such an infrastructure system to be put in place.

Before the introduction of this legislation, many decisions were taken by the Government to improve the infrastructure system. The national development plan sets out a public transport investment strategy for the period 2000-2006 which is designed to achieve, among other things, a radical transformation of the public transport system. An investment of £2.2 billion in public transport is provided for in the plan. It is an unprecedented level of funding which has already enabled significant advances to be made, and will continue to do so in the years ahead. To date, for example, 275 additional buses have been acquired by Dublin Bus, 16 new DART carriages entered into service this year, and 60 Arrow rail cars have been ordered.

And the Luas is out on the road.

Some 148 buses have been purchased by Bus Éireann, 40 of which are for use in the greater Dublin area and the remaining 108 for provincial cities and rural areas.

What about the Luas?

In addition, Dublin Bus has acquired 156 replacement buses in the past two years. We have seen, therefore, major investment by the Government to increase public transport facilities. These are required to ensure that our roads will not continue to become clogged up.

During the past year there have been improvements in the Dublin-Maynooth railway line which have helped to reduce pressure on the roads.

There has been further investment in safety. About 220 miles of track have been upgraded as part of the NDP programme, 189 level crossings have been improved and another 50 are being worked on. The number of bridges renewed is 190 and work on a further 45 is to be completed by the end of the year. Tremendous work and investment are being put into rail services.

It sounds to me like a repetition of the Minister's speech.

I cannot improve on the facts. Does the Deputy want me to make up figures myself?

I do not want the Deputy to be repetitious.

These facts must be spelt out. I feel sure the Opposition will wish to congratulate the Government on bringing forward and implementing its plans. It is important we have action and not just words. The Deputy raised the issue of Luas. The Luas system is going ahead according to plan and is working according to the dates set down at the outset.

We have a Luas that is going nowhere.

Allow the Deputy to continue. He has only a limited time.

It is important that work goes ahead according to schedule. We are well aware of the disruption that any works, especially in a city, cause to the public. The people will accept disruptions provided they are aware that plans are being complied with and provided they know there will be an end to the disruption.

We have had over a number of years, in my own area, the question of the reopening of a railway line from Cork to Midleton. Development of the east Cork area has taken off, especially in the past five years, and there has been tremendous growth in the towns of Midleton, Carrigtwohill and the whole hinterland area as a result of the booming economy. We have a motorway from Midleton to Cork which has improved travel and the Lee tunnel has helped in improving traffic congestion. Continual growth and development are likely to cause problems unless there is further infrastructural development.

The Cobh-Cork rail line was upgraded and new carriages were added. It has been a tremendous success and the number of people travelling from Cobh by train has increased enormously. People from the Midleton, Cloyne, Whitegate and Carrigtwohill areas even drive to Glounthaune or Little Island and get the train to Cork. These people would love to have the service available from Midleton.

The development of Kent Station is also in the pipeline. I understand that money has been put aside to develop the station and the Cork-

Midleton, Cork-Mallow, Cork-Blarney lines and to put in new signalling. The relevant authorities in Iarnród Éireann should get started on the work.

There was a vote on the CIÉ board about six years ago for the opening of the Cork-Midleton line. Nothing has happened. Times have changed and there is a new board now. All political parties are committed to the reopening of that line. Initial studies have shown it is feasible and I do not understand why there is a need for another feasibility study. Can Iarnród Éireann or CIÉ management tell us why this project is being held up? Is it being held up by the Munster region, the Cork region or by head office? I look forward to getting a note from somebody on that.

I congratulate the Minister on bringing forward this Bill, which is a step forward in the development of our infrastructure. We must look forward with confidence and not spread doom and gloom. The basics of our economy are sound. If our infrastructure is in place we will ensure that when there is an upturn we will be able to move forward. If it is not in place we will not be in a position to take full advantage of any change. Our philosophy and policy is to continue building our infrastructure, rail, road, water systems, telecommunications, etc., so that when the world economy improves we will be in a position to benefit. I commend the Bill to the House.

I wish to share time with Deputies Deasy and Sargent.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on this legislation and I am glad to see the Minister of State, Deputy Moffatt, here because I intend to deal with the lack of rail infrastructure into the western region. He will, I know, agree with most of the proposals I intend to make and the difficulties we have with rail development into the region.

I do not want to be critical of Iarnród Éireann but there is one thing I find astonishing. The timetables for all railways changed in early September but the timetables became available to the public only in mid-October. I do not know where the blame lies but this blunder sums up the inefficiencies of Iarnród Éireann over recent years. Inefficiency must be resolved.

In regard to western development the report on the state of the west dealt with a number of issues concerning rail infrastructure into the western region. It stated, "The National Development Plan recognises the lack of development in rail infrastructure which significantly erodes its competitive position as a mode of transport in comparison to the road network." The line coming into the west is the line from Dublin to Sligo which takes three hours and ten minutes. In the last general election Mrs. O'Rourke came to Sligo like Granuaile, promising that if she became Minister for Public Enterprise she would resolve the problem of the Sligo-Dublin railway line, but it still takes three hours and ten minutes to get from Dublin to Sligo, just as it did four and a half years ago.

A hotel in Sligo, where the Minister of State, Deputy Moffatt, celebrated the 75th anniversary of the foundation of Fianna Fáil last Friday, has received several complaints from guests that a locomotive is left running all night in a nearby railway yard. The hotelier has been told that if the engine is turned off it will be in danger of not starting in the morning. As a representative of Sligo and Leitrim I have had to listen to this topic being discussed on the national radio channel for the past couple of weeks.

The work on the track from Carrick-on-Shannon to Mullingar is welcomed but much work remains to be done between Carrick-on-Shannon and Sligo. The Fine Gael proposal for the development of the west proposes a commuter service from Carrick-on-Shannon to Sligo and other towns in the region. We are a long way from achieving this because of the Government's unwillingness to provide the necessary investment. The journey from Dublin to Westport and Ballina, with which Deputy Moffatt is familiar, takes four hours. Last Friday week two interns, one of whom works for me, left Dublin by train to go to Westport. The train hit a cow – a regular occurrence on that line – but the passengers were left on the train for three hours with no information and then moved by coach. I do not know why so many cows are hit by trains on this line but the lack of co-ordination between Iarnród Éireann and the Department is difficult to understand. I hope someone will take responsibility for dealing with these situations.

The Dublin-Galway train takes two hours and 30 minutes and the Dublin-Ennis-Limerick train takes three hours and 15 minutes. These journey times need to be reduced. We have become a commuter society and the development of our rail corridors is vitally important.

A feasibility study should be carried out on the western rail corridor. The State of the West report states clearly what should happen. The western rail corridor, for passenger and freight, should run from Sligo or Ballina to Limerick with onward connections to the south west and the port of Rosslare. In the context of the national spatial strategy this route could prove valuable in linking the towns of the western region, thereby enhancing the development of critical mass. It would allow for the possibility of the development of tourism on the railway route and would diversify tourism growth to more inland regions. Several sections of the track, which are still in the ownership of Iarnród Éireann, need to be upgraded significantly. These are the Collooney-Claremorris, the Claremorris-Athenry and Athenry-Ennis sections. To open up and upgrade the western rail corridor from Collooney to Ennis, which would allow passenger traffic at speeds of 60 to 70 miles per hour, would cost in the region of £100 million. This includes the cost of ancillary works. This corresponds to less than 1% of the transport initiative which has been taken in Dublin and shows, once again, the Government's lack of commitment to the development of the western region.

I welcome this opportunity to discuss our rail infrastructure. I appreciate that much good work is being done at present and has been done for several years. I acknowledge that it is the ambition of the Minister for Public Enterprise to give the country a rail network which would provide us with the service we all wish to see. The present rail network is being replaced in many parts of the country. The old jointed track is being replaced by a continuous welded track which will allow trains to travel considerably faster and make life easier for everyone.

The only decent rail tracks in the country are those running from Dublin to Cork and from Dublin to Belfast. The Dublin-Cork line is excellent. The journey of 160 miles can be travelled in two and a half hours. I would like to see other parts of the country enjoying a service of a similar standard. If I travel by rail from west Waterford to Dublin I have to motor either to Waterford city or Thurles. My preferred option is to go to Thurles because I can travel from there to Dublin in an hour and 15 minutes by fast train whereas the fastest train from Waterford to Dublin takes two hours and 20 minutes in the early morning and two hours and 40 minutes later in the day. That is not an acceptable time for a journey of less than 100 miles. The train makes numerous stops on the way, making the journey very unpleasant. We should be able to provide direct rail services between all the large urban centres and Dublin.

The road system is so bad that it is no longer desirable to travel by road to Dublin. Traffic congestion in Dublin is dreadful, the standard of the roads throughout the country is so poor that they are dangerous and it takes an inordinate length of time to cover the distance. A road journey from my home to Dublin takes more than three hours. A fast train should be able to travel from Waterford to Dublin in one hour and 15 minutes, but at present the train takes a minimum of two hours and 20 minutes. This is highly unacceptable. The journey from Thurles to Dublin is only ten miles shorter but it takes only one hour and 15 minutes by train.

The situation has been made more serious by the opposition to the efforts of the National Roads Authority to provide dual carriageways to five major urban centres. If the current agitation means that the plans are set back by several years the situation will become even more critical. It is highly desirable that the rail network be brought up to standard as quickly as possible.

The Minister has been helpful in her replies to date. Will she indicate when the works to upgrade the rail system will be completed for each of the centres involved? The agitation against the road development is highly undesirable and I condemn it. We need a proper road network.

We need both.

We need a safe road network. It is despicable that people should delay this development for their own selfish monetary gain. I sympathise with the Government, the Minister for the Environment and Local Government and the National Roads Authority in this difficulty. I hope the Minister for Public Enterprise can help us by providing a proper rail network as quickly as possible.

We realise the value of a good rail service when we see property values in areas 50 or 60 miles from Dublin going up because they have access to Dublin by rail. People can now commute to Dublin from as far away as Thurles. We see houses advertised in areas such as Portarlington, Portlaoise and other towns within 40 or 50 miles of Dublin. These towns have become prime development sites because of their access to the railway. The railway should be extended to make Dublin readily accessible to all major urban centres. It is all about access. People want to get from A to B quickly. We in Waterford find it difficult to attract industrialists to the city because of the poor rail service and exceptionally poor road from Dublin. The Minister will have used it.

Several months ago I tabled a parliamentary question to the Department of the Environment and Local Government but did not receive a reply, so perhaps the Minister could investigate the following matter. The best sources of information tend to be taxi drivers. Recently, a taxi driver who was involved in public transport for many years informed me that a tunnel system already exists in this city.

From Heuston Station.

I am aware of it.

I have gone through it.

It obviously dates back to the British occupation. What is the extent of that tunnel system, what condition is it in and can it be used? How much would it cost to upgrade the tunnels for use, one of which leads from Heuston to Connolly Station? That information could be very interesting.

As the issue at stake here is access, how soon will one be able to travel from Dublin to Waterford in an hour and a quarter?

Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil le Fine Gael as a chuid ama a roinnt. This Bill has been referred to as the Luas Bill and the railway procurement agency Bill. However, it addresses a compendium of issues and provides us with an opportunity to see railway infrastructure in its totality. It refers to safety on the railways, unlawful use of railways and a code of conduct. I will focus on several of the issues arising from those aspects of the Bill.

Apart from the huge investment in infrastructure we have all been discussing today and yesterday, above all the railways need an element of public accountability. As the Minister is aware, I am a rail passenger, which gives me an opportunity to hear the views of other passengers, some of which are expressed quite angrily. The Bill proposes to establish a procurement agency. Will this mark the start of the kind of public accountability passengers want in terms of how Iarnród Éireann and other companies associated with rail transport provision operate?

As I mentioned yesterday, I have learnt from correspondence with Iarnród Éireann that there is a passenger charter. I have not yet seen it displayed at stations. It should be displayed, but I have a feeling certain people might oppose such a move because passengers would not be pleased to learn that under the passenger's charter a train is not declared late if it arrives within 15 minutes of the published time and the driver is not obliged to make an announcement until such time is reached. This is unacceptable. In this day and age people need to be told of a delay, regardless of its duration.

Late trains are no longer acceptable. As members of the EU we aspire to the same standards as other member states. I vividly recall, during a visit to Switzerland, a person standing at the end of a platform with his hand aloft waiting to press a bell as soon as the second hand of a clock reached the appointed time of departure. As the bell rang, the train moved off. The Swiss are famous for that level of punctuality. We should be just as efficient.

Contracts must also be delivered on time. Luas is probably the most famous of these projects because of the various plans which were changed causing deadlines to be repeatedly pushed back. There is a sanction available to people who are not satisfied the Government has delivered on these contracts, the general election, which is the ultimate sanction available to us all.

Companies which default, delay, experience cost overruns or fail to comply with the tender they submitted in any other way should be subjected to penalty clauses. Had we been stricter in these matters in the past, the Committee on Enterprise and Small Business might not be so bogged down with the mini-CTC inquiry now. This is preventing the committee from examining the detail of the Aer Lingus dispute and various other public transport and energy matters, including Sellafield. We should learn from our experiences so as not to repeat our mistakes. I hope the procurement agency will do so. That remains to be seen.

The customer also requires accountability. The UK has an office for public complaints concerning public transport staffed and financed by the Government. We have a broadcasting complaints commission, a victims support commission and a Garda complaints commission. Rather than expressing themselves by firing off missives to the Minister or Members, we need a new vehicle to allow customers to deal with their growing and justified frustration with public transport services. Voluntary attempts are being made to set up railway user groups and transport user groups, all of which are valiant and hard working. However, they are not able, nor should they be expected, to match the type of resourcing available to other bodies such as the Garda and broadcasting complaints commissions.

I belong to a cross-party group of Members from Dublin north which is urging the Minister to accept the case for a transport users group. We constantly receive various suggestions and reports.

There will be a regulator. It is not the same thing, but it will provide a framework.

There are models in other countries. I appreciate the willingness of the Minister to debate the matter, but I would like to discuss it at a more appropriate time.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Ellis. I welcome the Bill and the opportunity to speak on the issue of rail infrastructure, which is a very topical matter not only in the capital, but throughout the country. Historically, we have consistently undervalued our railways. In more recent times, however, we have started to appreciate the legacy left to us in terms of railway construction. It baffles me that we are stuck in a mind set which does not envisage building further permanent routes. We will have to change it.

I am not aware of the exact cost factors involved. However, building a motorway requires a 200 metre wide strip of land along the entire length of the route. I understand it would be equally cost effective and efficient to build railway lines because of their nature. In the long-term, they are a worthy investment from the point of view of both the environment and efficiency. We talked about public-private partnerships for road development and the potential for including tolls to fund further road development. There is a case for allowing private companies to come in when they are willing to put their money where their mouth is in order to further enhance the existing infrastructure.

If development is to be moved from the east out to the west and to the north-west which has a deficiency of population, the rail infrastructure is a very important factor in the success of that development. We should examine all the aspects and not become stuck in the old mindsets of using the railways only as they are and not developing them. We would be remembered in years to come as the people who oversaw that transition.

CIÉ has recently commissioned a feasibility study on the development of a rail link from Midleton to Cork and a commuter service up the Dublin track as far as Mallow. I welcome that but I am disappointed that we now have to wait for another feasibility study. We are up to our necks in feasibility studies on the rail services in Cork. There has been huge development in recent years on the eastern side of the city, particularly in Midleton, with the potential for further expansion in Carrigtwohill. It would be very timely for CIÉ to go full steam ahead and make an application for funding. The population base is there and so are the resources. I am disappointed that CIÉ has used the stalling tactic of a feasibility study.

I am confident that when the study is completed that we will get the support of Government to move immediately ahead and develop a proper commuter service from Midleton and perhaps even further to Youghal. It would open up Carrigtwohill and could extend up to Mallow and open up the stations at Kilbarry, Monard, Blarney and Rathduff. That would present an opportunity to implement the greater Cork area strategic plan which has been commissioned and passed by both local authorities. That plan specifically pinpoints the railway line as the focus for industrial and population development. CIÉ has no excuse for not moving ahead to ensure the plan is put in place as soon as possible. It would be of huge benefit to the city itself.

A decision has been taken to stop further encroachment on the green belt in the Cork area and to advance towns such as Fermoy, Mallow, Midleton, Carrigaline and Ballincollig. They would use the lines and the public transport system to feed into the city.

The Muskerry line and the Bandon line could be re-opened.

We did not find any tunnels in Cork.

Cork has its own tunnel.

We have our own tunnel and we might have to put a train under that as well. If we are to advance that plan it is essential that we move ahead with the funding and ensure a change of mindset in CIÉ.

It was a very good idea to place one of the light rail carriages on display in Merrion Street. It is good that the public can see it—

Forty thousand people have come to see it.

—at first hand and know that in time it will be developed on the streets. It will allow the citizens of Dublin to put up with the inconvenience in the knowledge that they will have a proper, modern public transport system in place in a number of years. It is important to inform the public. People are patient and understanding if they know something positive will come out of the present works. It is a huge undertaking and I know the Minister and the Government are very committed to it. There is no capital city in the world without a proper public transport system. It is time that Dublin finally should take its place among the capital cities of Europe with a modern infrastructure.

I am fascinated to be informed by Deputy Deasy and his taxi driver, who is obviously a historian, that there are tunnels in existence in Dublin. There has been a debate about whether the system should be underground or overground but whatever is the most practical is the correct way to go. The decision has been made and we should all support this development and hope that it comes in on time and that we will see a modern, vibrant infrastructure in place in Dublin.

We will all welcome it.

The Bill is very comprehensive on the issue of safety and the unlawful use of the rail network. I ask if it can be envisaged that a private company will be allowed to buy rolling stock and run a train on the existing railway lines. I believe it is an idea that could be investigated further. It would not be privatisation, rather competition. There would still be a State-run business but it would have a competitor. As people travel more they see that competition is not to be feared but to be embraced.

I congratulate the Minister on bringing this Bill to the House. I hope that CIE will move full steam ahead with the development of the Midleton rail line and the commuter facilities from Kent Station out to Mallow. I hope it will address the infrastructural deficits and allow the greater Cork area study and the county and city development plan to shape Cork for the future.

We all welcome this Bill and the opportunity to make comments on the rail infrastructure and the development of the national railway system both in city and rural areas. When this Minister came into office, suggestions were being made that certain railway lines should be downgraded and that there should be no expenditure on them. The railway line that I am most familiar with was one of those singled out for special treatment and suggestions were made that it should be mothballed or even closed down. The Minister in her wisdom gave a commitment prior to the last general election that if she were to be Minister in the future she would ensure that the line was brought up to a proper standard. She has kept her promise. She has put in the investment and by the end of next year, Dublin to Sligo will have a totally new and upgraded rail system. We may not yet have the carriages that are needed but at least we have the track and the opportunity for Iarnród Éireann to upgrade the standard of the carriages. That needs to be done urgently.

I wish to make a few comments about Iarnród Éireann and how it operates on the Dublin to Sligo line. Every bank holiday weekend there is absolute chaos. Passengers end up standing on trains travelling to Sligo on the Friday and returning to Dublin on the Monday. Iarnród Éireann should examine if it could provide extra carriages at times when it is aware there will be extra passengers travelling. Failure to do so shows a lack of management strategy regarding rural destinations, especially at peak times.

Iarnród Éireann should favourably consider providing a late evening and early morning service on the Dublin-Sligo route seven days a week. There is a need for a train to depart from Dublin at 9 p.m. or 9.30 p.m. which would arrive in Sligo at around midnight. The flyer which departs from Sligo on Monday at 4.30 a.m. or 5 a.m. should operate for the remaining four working days. This needs to be addressed, if we are to help to reduce the volume of traffic on the roads from the north west to Dublin. If such a service was available, many would use it rather than their private cars.

Iarnród Éireann is not doing the best it could in seeking to transport freight business. It should be able to compete favourably for quite an amount of freight business if it were to provide the necessary handling facilities along the route at Sligo, Carrick-on-Shannon and Longford, which would make it attractive to send goods by rail rather than by road. It would also help to alleviate the volume of traffic on the roads.

I compliment the Minister on the way she has tackled the problems facing her. Her predecessor suggested that the Dublin-Sligo railway line should be mothballed. We have one mothballed railway line in Sligo-Leitrim, the line from Sligo to Claremorris and on to Limerick. That line should be examined with a view to reopening it. There is probably sufficient business available for it to be viable. If we want to develop the west, this proposal should be examined.

I express my appreciation to the Minister for her being prepared to consider favourably the provision of a commuter service from Ballymote to Sligo to serve south Sligo. As the rail system there is unused for a large part of the day, a local service could be easily provided to help further alleviate traffic problems. Such a service would enable people from south Sligo who must commute by car to Sligo to commute by rail, which would help to alleviate the traffic chaos in Sligo town.

We are all delighted that work on the Luas is progressing. The fact that it will give commuters a greater service within the greater Dublin area will encourage people to use it rather than their private cars, which will help to alleviate the traffic problems in the city. Anyone who studies this subject will realise there is a need for a rail ser vice in order that people will not have to bring their cars into the city.

We want to make sure that there will not be overruns on the Luas project. We are aware of the position regarding the mini-CTC project which is the subject of an inquiry. If proper management had been applied by Iarnród Éireann, there would not be a need for an inquiry into the project. It was negligent in not bringing the problem to the Minister's attention until it was an absolute mess and it had to divulge it. The way it handled that matter was wrong. There is a need for accountability from Iarnród Éireann to the Minister who is not responsible for the day-to-day running of any of the institutions within her remit. When I heard some of the comments during Private Members' Business last night I felt like saying the Minister would want to have 40 heads to keep track of the various semi-State organisations which come under her umbrella.

It was said I should ensure the windows are kept open on the trains.

In keeping windows open, the Minister would be blown across the spectrum. There is a need for semi-State companies to keep the Minister of the day informed on a regular basis. There are chief executives and boards of directors of semi-State companies, but in many cases they do not seem to get down to the nitty-gritty of day-to-day operation of the organisation that is necessary to keep everybody informed. The only time we ever hear about anything in this House is when there is a crisis, and we are aware of all the crises that have arisen.

Aer Lingus is a crisis that has been waiting to happen for years, but nobody in the organisation took a decision to examine what needed to be done in that very competitive business. The same applies to any other transport provider. This issue must be addressed, if we are to maximise the effort that has gone into providing a new rail system and for rail safety. Some 88 miles of track were replaced in 1999, 84 miles in 2000 and 57 miles up to September 2001, making a total of 229 miles since 1999. Fencing works, bridge renewal works and works on level crossings have been carried out. We are lucky that major tragedies did not occur at level crossings due to defective lines. The incident at Knockcroghery, where thankfully nobody suffered to any great extent, was a warning that was heeded by the Government regarding the need for rail safety and rail upgrading.

We need to ensure the light rail system that will operate in Dublin will run on time. If the service is to operate every five to ten minutes, those responsible for running it must be held to account to this House or its various committees to ensure it runs on time. One can stand at a bus stop for 25 to 30 minutes and three buses, which should have arrived at ten minute intervals, may all arrive together. The situation needs to be addressed. It shows a lack of management and organisation. If one was to drive around the city, one could observe that to be the position on many routes. The bus lanes are clear for quite a length of time, but then three buses travelling to the same destination may arrive at the same time and in another 30 minutes another three buses may arrive at the same time. We all understand there may be traffic problems or a hold up, but I cannot understand how three buses may arrive one after the other when they should have arrived at ten minute intervals.

I welcome this opportunity to have made a few comments on what is happening. This Bill is important and the proposed Bill on rail safety is equally important. I encourage the Minister to try to ensure that Bill comes before the House at the earliest possible date. Rail safety and safety in general affect each and every one of us. As legislators and ordinary citizens, we have a duty to make sure the public are protected. I hope that whatever is necessary is done to ensure the rail safety Bill comes before the House as soon as possible.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. The debate on this Bill is flawed as it seeks to establish an agency which is profoundly undemocratic, non-transparent and unanswerable to the Oireachtas and the people. The Railway Procurement Agency will provide the Minister with a cop out in answering for the activities and responsibilities of the agency. That it will only be required to report to a committee of this House every now and again is not acceptable.

We should learn from the ongoing dispute between the National Roads Authority and the people who live in the areas where the authority is building roads. We must learn from that case that the citizens of this country demand more by way of accountability and transparency from the State agencies. Everybody in this House is aware that the NRA is one of the most unanswerable agencies in existence. It is not answerable to this House, the Minister or, ultimately, the people. It operates behind closed doors, as will the Railway Procurement Agency which the Minister wants to establish under the Bill.

When the Labour Party was in government it spearheaded the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act, which sought to open up the operation of Government, and its agencies, to the public by making it account for its decisions and actions in Parliament and beyond. This Government, however, has failed to adopt such an ethos. Instead, it puts every possible obstacle in the way of Opposition Deputies seeking answers from Ministers. Last night, for example, I tried to get answers from the Minister for Public Enterprise about the postal service in my constituency only to be told she had no responsibility for it. If the Minister does not have responsibility for the postal service, I do not know who has. This Bill seeks to remove from the Minister responsibility for answering in this House for the activities and projects of the railway procurement agency. For that reason my party will table amendments to the Bill on Committee Stage.

I urge the Minister to consider the use of existing unused railway lines throughout the country. The thrust of the Bill relates to the acquisition of new railway infrastructure. What about the existing rail infrastructure which may have fallen into disuse and disrepair but which would serve to expand the rail network if the necessary resources were provided? A case in point is the Killarney to Kenmare line. If reactivated, it would be of enormous benefit to local people, not to mention the tourism industry which is in difficulty at present. Many Members of the House will be familiar with the Tralee to Blennerville line, which was opened a number of years ago to ferry tourists to and from a number of tourist attractions. It has been extremely successful. There is another railway line to Cahirciveen. There are many such lines and the Minister should examine the feasibility of using existing lines as well as developing new lines.

Many of the old lines were located in very beautiful parts of the country and they would be a tourist attraction.

The Cahirciveen line is beautiful.

Yes, as is the Killarney to Kenmare line. A study of these lines should be carried out to assess how they can be used for the benefit of the local population. If somebody from Valentia Island has an appointment in Dublin at 12 midday, he or she must get up at 5 a.m. to make that appointment. It could be 12 midnight when they get home. A rail service in that area would be extremely beneficial.

The line used to go to Renard Point.

I do not have much time. Otherwise, we could discuss the beauty of Kerry.

Another important issue which has not been discussed is the ludicrous plan of Irish Rail to reduce by 46% the volume of freight carried on the rail system. This proposal will result in people dying on our roads. It is unbelievable that, at a time of so much public concern about the number of accidents involving heavy goods vehicles and the damage they are causing to the environment, Irish Rail should even consider dropping so much of its freight business. The result of this proposal will be the transfer of approximately 1.25 million tonnes of freight from the safe and environmentally friendly rail system to the already overcrowded and inadequate road system. It will mean many thousands of additional lorry journeys, many through small towns and villages.

The Government has an obligation to intervene directly in this regard. If necessary, additional investment should be provided to prevent this disastrous transfer of freight from rail to road. The Minister must review the proposal immediately.

Another important matter is access for people with disabilities to public transport, particularly trains. I am sure the Minister heard the horror story of the young student who was travelling to Dublin from the west of Ireland by train one Sunday night some weeks ago. She had immense difficulty getting on to the train at her local railway station and she was obliged to travel in the guard's van because there was no suitable carriage for her wheelchair. When the train arrived in Heuston Station, her friend left the train in search of a ramp so she could disembark. That took so long the train emptied and started to leave the station again. Luckily, the girl in the wheelchair had a mobile phone and was able to contact her friend and have the train stopped. The use of the rail system by people with disabilities must be a priority. The incident I mentioned is just one example of the difficulties faced by people with disabilities who use public transport.

The Bill is flawed in that the agency it provides for will neither be accountable or transparent. We do not want another National Roads Authority. There is difficulty with the National Roads Authority throughout the country. We cannot get answers from the authority and we should get answers when public money is involved.

I thank the 36 Deputies who contributed to the debate. That is a huge number of contributions. The Bill is basically about procurement for Luas and the metro but it gave rise, quite rightly, to huge debate about rail lines in Members' constituencies. There is a dedicated group of railway buffs, as it were, but the contributors were not railway buffs. They are people who know their areas, where there are tracks, the state of existing tracks and carriages, the journey times for trains and what is required in the local rail service. It all made for a most interesting debate. I was present for more than three quarters of the contributions and they made interesting listening.

Trains generate amazing interest. Many of the speakers in this debate made the point that everybody fell in love with cars. Everybody thought they would not get a motor car under their bottoms quickly enough. If it was not that, it was a case of wanting a second and third car. This happened throughout the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Nobody figured that the roads would get crowded because road space was limited and nobody wondered how we could continue in that way. It was only in recent years that the need for dependence on the railways arose.

Many speakers talked about new lines and reviving existing disused lines. I will explain the situation as it was when I took this job in 1997. I do not intend to criticise the previous Government because all Governments that neglected the railways over the past 25 years were at fault. In 1997 there was a crash in Knockcroghery, County Roscommon, within three months of my appointment to office. Nobody was seriously injured but there could have been 100 fatalities. The train was not overcrowded but it was full and it went off the line. It was buttressed by two small cliffs in the area. If the incident had not happened at that area, it could have been hugely serious.

The accident happened on a Saturday and I went to look at the scene. I came to the Cabinet meeting the following week and said an independent rail study would have to be carried out. The study reported on all the rail lines that required work. It involved relaying lines, as Members who have seen that work taking place in their constituencies mentioned. It was a programme costing £500 million just for track renewal, level crossings and bridges during the five years of 1999 to 2003. The repair of lines in other areas under the safety programme is to continue for another five years.

The independent engineers who carried out the study, IRMS, laid out how much was to be spent and, more importantly, the priority in which the money was to be spent. I am bound by that programme not only from the point of view of rail safety but because the House approved it. We are now working through that programme. I make that point to outline the position for Members who have made cases for defunct lines in their areas, such as the Cahirciveen line mentioned by Deputy Moynihan-Cronin which has been defunct for about 50 years. My first task is to complete the safety programme. I would fail in my duty if I did not do that.

However, there is a definite need to look at stations that were closed, such as Monasterevan which has been rebuilt and opened at a cost of £2.5 million, where there are tracks which are used by trains but at which the trains do not stop. It is what one might call commuter line traffic. There is a great need to look at where this can happen. The LUTS study in Cork was mentioned by Deputies Stanton and Creed.

I would have loved to discuss the matter, but the Minister stood up too early and I missed my slot by half a minute.

I did not jump up. Somebody who must not have known the Deputy was coming asked me to stand up. I know the Deputy shares my interest in the LUTS study. Many Deputies, including Deputies Stanton and Creed, have tabled questions on the matter. The first phase of the Government's railway policy was to try to put the house in order by laying track costing £500 million. It must be remembered that we started from a low base and a huge amount of work was necessary. The second stage is to examine the studies that have been done into the viability of commuter lines in Cork and Sligo and heritage lines which have been proposed by various tourism interests. We must consider if old lines should be revived. Deputy Keaveney wishes there were trains in County Donegal when she hears Members grumbling that trains are late in their constituencies. It is a difficulty the people of County Donegal would be glad to have.

The financing of the refurbishment of the rail network will be normal from now on. When I started in the Department it was thought that trains did not need money and that they could run on their own, on tracks that have been in place since 1848. Most of the tracks that had to be replaced were laid over 150 years ago. The thinking on this matter has come full cycle and people know that travelling by train is safer, less stressful and more suitable for working and eating. I am not saying that everyone should travel by train, as roads will always be needed. A decent and well-serviced train system is also needed. I mention safety as many Deputies asked the reason new lines are not being developed. It is more important to first ensure the lines we have are tight and right.

Many contributors to the debate spoke about the need for a railway safety Bill, which I hope will be printed by the end of the month, or at the start of December at the latest. This important Bill will be debated after Christmas. The Bill establishing the Railway Procurement Agency will give shape to the railway system. The safety structure to be set up will be hugely important. The fact that the agency will be independent means that structures will be far better than those in the United Kingdom or other European countries.

Deputies Ring and Cooper-Flynn asked me about the upgrade of the Castlebar-Westport line, which I understand is to be completed next year, in line with the railway safety programme. All recommended procedures will be followed. Deputy Kelleher spoke about the new railway lines and the names that may be given to them. Deputy Sargent spoke of delayed trains and the fact that if a train is 15 minutes late, it is still deemed to be on time. I understand this idea is employed in areas where trains may be late as a result of the upgrading of the line or safety restrictions. Thankfully, such delays are gradually being eliminated as the lines are being completed. Trains could not have run if there had not been safety restrictions when improving rail lines that were in bad condition. Deputy Deasy asked several questions, one of which related to the upgrade of the Dublin-Waterford line. Nine miles of that route are to be upgraded this year and the rest will be completed within the first tranche of the railway safety programme next year. As I was unable to get the exact information sought by the Deputy, I will send him a letter in reply to other matters he raised.

The Railway Procurement Agency Bill will essentially deal with Luas and the new metro system. In response to Deputy Moynihan-Cronin's question, the agency will be accountable to an Oireachtas committee whenever the committee sees fit. The legislation ensures accountability by stating that the agency will have to attend a com mittee when it is requested to do so. I do not know if the NRA will come to an Oireachtas committee, but the procurement agency certainly will. I freely admit that there should be accountability to elected representatives in both Houses, given that large sums of money are being spent on the railways.

Deputies Seán Ryan and Brian Lenihan spoke this morning about north Dublin and the need for a metro line to the airport. There is no doubt that the first part of the metro proposals, which I hope will emerge after Christmas, will relate to the metro line between Dublin Airport and the city centre. We hope the aviation industry will improve, but the speed of the upturn is not the point, as there is a need for a rail link to the airport in any event. Such a link will happen and the Railway Procurement Agency Bill is needed to facilitate it. Luas has kept completely to schedule, which is very rare for an infrastructural project. When interim arrangements were made three or four years ago the date mentioned for completion was October 2003.

We live in hope.

I was amazed that thousands of Dublin people turned up to see the tram.

They will sleep better as a result.

I cannot understand the reason people begrudge those who wish to see the trains. I do not refer to anyone in the House. Luas is not for me or other Deputies, but for the people of Dublin, thousands of whom went to see it. Deputies should have gone to see it.

Why should the people not go to see the carriages? After all, they are paying for Luas.

They are paying to look at it too.

It is the people's tram. It is not our tram, it is their tram.

They would prefer to use it.

They are entitled to see it. To say to people that they could not look at the tram was the daftest thing I ever heard. It is not ours, it is theirs. I hope we will all be around to use Luas when it is running.

I read debates from this House during the introduction of DART, although none of the Members present contributed. The exact same language that we have heard about Luas was used to argue that the DART would be a white elephant, that nobody would use it and that it would be a distraction and a destruction. Nothing like that happened, however, as the DART has proved to be an outstanding success. I do not doubt that Luas and the metro will be similar successes.

Returning to what I said at the beginning, I welcome the huge interest and level of debate about railways. It shows quite clearly that the priorities of elected representatives regarding what is needed throughout the country are quite right. A properly and decently run railway system is needed and the journey to provide such a system has commenced. We are about to enter the fourth year of the safety programme, which will cost £500 million and which is a necessary part of the journey. At the end of the fifth year, 2003, tracks will have been relaid and level crossings, bridges and other surrounding amenities will have been completed.

I warmly welcome what was said this morning about railway stations and those who run them, many of whom are women. Bright and smart people are employed in our railway stations, such as the station mistress in Athlone who is a delight in the way she does her work and the way she keeps the station. Deputy Ring mentioned the railway station in his area which is also run by a woman. I have nothing against men running railway stations, but women do a good job of it. They attend to the decor and order everyone around in a good way. They also make the trains run on time, which is remarkable. I thank the Members of the House.

Question put and agreed to.