Railway Safety (Reporting and Investigation of Serious Accidents, Accidents and Incidents involving Certain Railways) Bill 2020: Second Stage

I move: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”

The Bill is to provide a statutory basis for a continuation of the powers of the Railway Accident Investigation Unit, RAIU for the reporting and investigation of serious accidents and incidents involving certain categories of railways that are specified in section 3. The RAIU is the independent statutory body that carries out railway accident investigations in the State.

I refer to the background to this matter. The EU railway safety directive of 2004, Directive 2004/49/EC, established a common regulatory framework for railway safety across member states through the harmonisation of safety rules, certification, the roles of national safety authorities and investigation of accidents. The directive required that member states established an independent national investigation body and to that end the RAIU was established here. The objective of the RAIU investigation is to identify the causes of accidents but it is also a means to improving railway safety in general and preventing future accidents from happening. I am sure that all Deputies will agree that in the operation of the states railways, safety is paramount. To enable this, it is essential that the RAIU has a strong statutory basis to underpin its role in regard to the reporting and investigation of accidents and incidents on our railways.

The EU railway safety directive of 2004 applied to all categories of railways and the provisions in chapter 5 of the directive for the investigation of accidents were transposed here in the European Union (Railway Safety) (Reporting and Investigation of Serious Accidents, Accidents and Incidents) Regulations 2014. These regulations are referred to in the Bill as "Regulations of 2014". The RAIU was conferred with powers and functions under the 2014 regulations in respect of all railways. This includes heavy rail, that is, the railway operations on the Iarnród Éireann network and light rail, which includes the Luas tram railway in Dublin. Those powers and functions also covered the metros and other railways such as heritage railways, of which there are a number throughout the country.

The need for the provisions in this Bill arise from a change in law at EU level. Under the EU fourth railway package agreed in 2016, the EU railway safety directive of 2004 is being repealed and is being recast by Directive EU (2016) 789 on railway safety. This replacement directive, which I will refer to as the recast railway safety directive, will come into operation on 31 October 2020. The focus of the EU fourth railway package is on the promotion of the rail market in a single European railway area and on the technical interoperability of the Union railway system to support rail passenger and freight transport services. As a result of this, the recast railway safety directive has a reduced scope and it expressly excludes light railways, metro and other local railway systems. In the context of the railway systems in Ireland it is only heavy rail, that is, the railway operations on Iarnród Éireann network, including the DART, that now come within the scope of the recast railway safety directive.

Last week, the Minister for Transport made the European Union (Railway Safety) (Reporting and Investigation of Serious Accidents, Accidents and Incidents) Regulations 2020. These regulations are referred to in the Bill as "Regulations of 2020".

These regulations transpose Chapter V of the recast railway safety directive and provide the railway accident investigation unit, RAIU, with investigatory powers and functions in respect of the heavy rail system. The regulations will take effect from 31 October 2020 to meet the EU transposition deadline.

As the regulations of 2020 only provide the RAIU with the necessary powers and functions to carry out reporting and investigations in respect of heavy rail, that leaves us facing a situation where, on 31 October 2020, a gap will arise in the legislation that would leave the RAIU without a statutory basis to investigate accidents involving any of Ireland’s other railways, including the Luas and heritage railways. The measures in the Bill will provide a solution to prevent any such gap arising. The application and modification measure that is proposed in this Bill will operate so as to apply the regulations of 2020 to the categories of railways that are specified in section 3. The RAIU will, through the operation of the measures in the Bill, be in a position to use the regulations of 2020 to carry out its full investigation functions, the same as it has done in respect of light railway, Luas, heritage railways, etc.

The Bill also contains saver and continuity safeguards to provide for a seamless continuity of the work of the RAIU as regards investigations that are under way at present or reports that are in preparation or existing reports and safety recommendations. The net effect will be that the status quo will be maintained regarding the powers for investigating and reporting on all railway accidents. From 31 October 2020, with the combination of the regulations of 2020 and the provisions of this Bill, the RAIU will have a complete statutory basis and can continue to carry out investigations in respect of any accidents and incidents involving heavy rail, the Luas light railway in Dublin, metros and other railways such as heritage, tourist and privately owned railways.

It has taken some time to get this RAIU related legislative proposal published in a Bill. Steps were initiated in 2018 to bring forward a legislative provision to address the matter that is in the present Bill. A head was included in the general scheme for a Railway Safety (Amendment) Bill 2018 which advanced as far as it being subjected to pre-legislative scrutiny by the relevant Oireachtas joint committee in June 2018. Since then, however, while the Bill was included in the Government’s legislative programme, it was not possible to progress it, mainly due to the competing demands of other priority legislation, including those relating to Brexit.

Towards the end of 2019, because of the increasing urgency attaching to this issue, the Department developed the provisions into a single-issue Bill and, at the same time, explored the option of attaching these provisions to some other priority legislation within the Department’s remit that was close to being published. However, those options were effectively closed off when the general election was called earlier this year and, since then, the extended impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has removed any opportunity for progressing the matter until now.

I will give a short overview of the Bill’s provisions. Section 1 is a standard Interpretation section to provide for the specific terms used in the Bill. The terms “heritage railway”, “investigation unit”, “light railway”, “metro” and “public road” are existing terms under other Acts and the relevant cross references are given. The term “regulations of 2014” refers to the regulations that transposed into Irish law the previous EU Railway Safety Directive 2004/49/EC and which gives the RAIU a statutory basis to investigate accidents involving all railways. “Regulations of 2020” refer to the statutory instrument that was made by the Minister for Transport on 13 October 2020 and transpose the relevant part of the new recast railway safety directive. As already mentioned, these give the RAIU a statutory basis to investigate accidents involving heavy rail only.

Section 2 is also a standard provision and provides for the commencement of the proposed Act on 31 October 2020. As I mentioned already, the recast railway safety directive comes into operation on 31 October 2020, which is why this Bill is needed to be enacted by that date.

Section 3 on reporting and investigation of accidents is the main provision in the Bill. This section provides that the regulations of 2020 will apply to the other types of railway that are not included within the scope of the recast railway safety directive. These include metros, trams and other light railway systems, including the Luas.

They also include privately owned rail networks used for freight, to the extent that those railways interface with public roads or with another railway system. As Deputies may be aware, there is one such railway currently operational in Ireland and that is the extensive Bord na Móna network used for its peat operations.

Heritage railways are also included and there are a number of these throughout the country, including in Clare, Donegal, Kerry, Laois, Leitrim and Waterford. The running of vintage steam train leisure excursions on the Iarnród Éireann network are also covered. Through the operation of section 3, the regulations of 2020 will therefore apply to all of these railways, as well as to the heavy rail network.

Sections 4 to 6, inclusive, are, once again, standard provisions that seek to ensure the continuity of the reporting and investigation work that the RAIU has done to date and is continuing to do at present. Section 4 ensures that any investigation and the preparation of any report that have been already commenced by the RAIU under the regulations of 2014 can continue and be completed under the regulations of 2020 from 31 October 2020. Section 5 ensures the continuity of any relevant existing investigation reports or other reports of the RAIU and section 6 ensures the continuity of any relevant safety recommendations issued by the RAIU prior to 31 October 2020. Section 7 is a standard citation provision.

This is an important Bill to provide that the RAIU is provided with full statutory powers to enable it to continue in a seamless manner from 31 October 2020, to carry out reporting and investigation into accidents and incidents involving all railways. I commend the Bill to the House and look forward to the Deputies’ contributions.

The Department was in contact with us and it explained the background to this Bill, as she has done again today. I thank her for that. She outlined the nature of the time pressure due to legislative changes at EU level so Sinn Féin is happy to support the legislation. I will keep my comments brief given the requirement to deal with all Stages this week to ensure the legislation can be put in place by 31 October.

Railways are an incredibly important part of our transport infrastructure serving workers, tourists and businesses across the State. The neglect of our railways by successive Governments in the 20th century set us back decades and it is a price many people continue to pay today. Some 81% of people who leave my county of Meath daily to go to work do so by car because the rail infrastructure was allowed crumble and disappear in the past 60 or 70 years. It is a terrible shame which is replicated in many other areas, most evidently in the north west where there is a total absence of rail connection.

I spoke to the Minister of State previously about the need to invest in our railways to make up for lost time and contribute to our efforts to reduce carbon emissions. There is a compelling case to be made for passenger and freight rail.

The work of the RAIU is to investigate when things go wrong on the rail network. The purpose of an investigation carried out by the RAIU is to improve railway safety by establishing the cause of an accident with a view to making recommendations for the avoidance of similar incidents in the future. In 2019, the RAIU completed 43 preliminary examination reports into a wide range of incidents on our railways. These included tram road traffic collisions, a trap and drag incident on the Luas, level crossing collisions, derailments, fires, cattle strikes, apparent self-harm occurrences and a near miss collision between a train and a rail worker. It is clear from those few examples that the work of the RAIU is very important and is central to establishing what has gone wrong in a particular situation to try to prevent its recurrence in the future.

It is vital that these powers of investigation are available for rail accidents including those on light rail and heritage railways. This Bill seeks to ensure that continues to be the case after 31 October taking account of changes at EU level and therefore we are happy to support the Bill and facilitate its expedient passage. The RAIU is a small operation that comprises very few individuals but the work they do is extremely important and often goes under the radar. We want to thank them for that work.

At the outset, I congratulate the Acting Chairman, Deputy Murnane O'Connor. I know the people of Carlow will be very proud of her. I wish her well.

I wish to speak about two matters. The Minister of State might have heard of the first, the Kilnageer railway crossing in Breaffy, Castlebar. This feeds in to what my colleague Deputy O'Rourke has been saying about the RAIU. The railway crossing is unmanned and it needs automated gates. It is extremely dangerous. For years, the community has been asking for a solution. The solution is quite simple in that the crossing just needs automatic gates. We must be careful not to make unmanned crossings inaccessible to those with disabilities and the elderly, who have to get out of their cars when trying to get from one side to the other. There have been many accidents and near fatalities at the crossing. We need to do the simple jobs and tackle the health and safety issues that need to be addressed on the railway.

I welcome the declarations and intentions of the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, regarding the western rail corridor. We very much hope in the west that the work on this corridor will proceed at speed.

The need for this Bill arises from the changes to the EU law related to the EU fourth railway package, passed by the EU in 2016. I caution against the move to harmonise arrangements across Europe. I refer to the privatisation of railways in Britain and other countries. We have seen the aggressive move to privatise railways in France. That is not the way we need to go in this country; we need rail to be a public good. The western rail corridor would never be developed if it were privatised. I caution against privatisation but, as my colleague said, we support this Bill.

The Minister of State will be fed up, having seen me a number of times in the past while. That the RAIU should be able to investigate for all rail types is a necessity. That is a given. This is an anomaly Bill and clean-up Bill and it needs to be passed. We could not possibly operate without decent rail safety infrastructure. I am reminded of a book I once read, Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed, which refers to new thinking on aviation. The idea was that after a near miss or near accident, there would be a two-week amnesty period in which pilots could report it. The idea was that one could analyse what happened and ensure the mode of operations could be improved to avoid a recurrence. It led to major safety improvements and, obviously, the saving of lives. When I saw this Bill, I was reminded of the book. We need this kind of thinking to be introduced to ensure we have the best safety infrastructure possible.

We completely support this necessary Bill. I agree with comments that have been made by some of my colleagues on the missed opportunities regarding rail in this State. We are living with the consequences. Regarding the difficulties experienced when installing the Luas, it would have been a hell of a lot easier had we been dealing with the tram system that never should have been removed in the first place.

I engaged in questions and answers with the Taoiseach earlier, specifically on the shared-island unit. He spoke about the difficulty experienced by the State over the years regarding many projects it agreed to. He talked about cross-Border projects, such as Narrow Water bridge and the A5, and promises that were made. When the projects were left with individual Departments, they found reasons, probably genuinely good ones, not to proceed with them. They found other things to do. While I might have difficulties with some parts of the terms of reference of the shared island unit, I believe the unit is necessary if we are to complete some of the necessary cross-Border projects. We have all heard tell in the past while of possible high-speed rail, particularly on a cross-Border basis. This needs to happen.

Many commuters in the likes of Dundalk use the Enterprise train, which runs from Dublin to Belfast and back. The problem is that, in many cases, it only runs every two hours. We need to have a greater level of connectivity and ensure more trips so it will be more possible to use the rail network for commuting. The price can also be a dissuader. We need to examine this. We have to give people opportunities. We are talking about the benefits of rail travel in dealing with the climate problems we face so we need to make it easier for people. We need to consider an overall strategy - a cross-Border strategy but also a strategy for this State and beyond - to ensure we will have the best possible rail infrastructure and a system that delivers for passengers. Obviously, rail safety and security are absolutely necessary.

I support this Bill. We welcome it. I wish to take the opportunity to remember the Buttevant rail disaster that occurred on 1 August 1980, those who were injured in it and the 18 who died. This is pertinent to this legislation because the response to the disaster by the community, emergency services and Iarnród Éireann, or CIÉ at the time, was absolutely tremendous. The event still haunts the community of Buttevant and the wider area. It is appropriate that we are discussing legislation on railway safety and the reporting and investigation of serious accidents and incidents on certain railways. I pay tribute to everybody involved in the response to the disaster, which left so many people scarred. It is still remembered today.

I pay tribute to the workers in Irish Rail. I am a weekly user of rail services from Cork to Dublin and also a weekly DART user. At this time of Covid, I pay tribute to those who operate the railway service for us in very difficult circumstances. When I depart Mallow on a Tuesday morning, there is always great banter on the platform with the workers. They are always jovial and full of good humour. The same applies to the staff on the trains. They bring professionalism and friendliness to dealing with customers such as me in their daily work. We should remember this as something that is positive and contributes to society. What underpins it is the ethos of safety on the railway system.

I welcome this Bill. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, for her deliberations and introducing legislation that codifies and tidies up elements of railway safety in respect of investigations into serious accidents and incidents.

It is important that we have this legislation. I again pay tribute to everybody who was involved in the response 40 years ago to the Buttevant rail disaster. The people within the community and those who professionally responded to that disaster still carry the memories of that fateful day with them. It is important that we acknowledge their memories and also acknowledge the people who were injured and still bear the scars of that disaster.

I congratulate Deputy Murnane O'Connor on her appointment as Acting Chairman and I wish her the best of luck in the role. I want to concentrate my remarks on the Ballybrophy to Limerick rail line which has been seriously neglected over many years. Reports about the line often focus on the cost of keeping the service open. Journey times remain too long and there is little uptake on a route that stops in four locations in my constituency. Until the issues facing this line are addressed, it will become increasingly difficult to convince people to avail of the service. The status quo of no increase in train speeds, no revised timetable and continued restrictions on the line due to works must change, as otherwise the numbers using the service will continue to decrease, the gap between revenue and the cost of operation will continue to increase and a valuable piece of infrastructure will be lost to rural Ireland. In the context of climate change, we should be investing in rail rather than contracting services.

I have been asked by North Tipperary Community Railway Partnership to work with it to improve the quality of Ballybrophy to Limerick rail service. What they are asking for will result in very little cost to the Exchequer. The partnership has a number of different requests, including that a district engineer at Limerick Junction be tasked with reviewing the line speed between Ballybrophy and Limerick. This has not been done for years and, as such, line upgrades have not been taken into account.

Irish Rail has invested considerable sums in this rail line in order to upgrade worn jointed track which was responsible low speed restrictions on the line. Continuous welded rail track is now in place for the 31 mile journey from Ballybrophy to Limerick. What is the point in spending huge amounts of money on improving the line if it does not result in the increased speeds of which the line is capable? I recently submitted a parliamentary question requesting that an engineer be sent to inspect the line in order that faster train speeds can be signed off on. The reply I received from Irish Rail did not even address this issue. It is my understanding that an engineer is required to sign off on these newer, safer tracks so that trains can operate at faster speeds. These new lines should be able to support speeds of up to 60 mph rather than the 30 mph or less that currently pertains on this route. Such speeds will reduce the journey time between Ballybrophy and Limerick considerably. By doing this, this form of public transport could become more popular in my area and be used more frequently. By introducing minor changes to the current timetable, an additional service could be operated every day at midday between Ballybrophy and Limerick, alongside the morning and evening service. A little initiative and drive are all that are required to improve the quality of this form of public transport in my constituency, resulting in increasing numbers availing of the service.

The partnership is also calling for the appointment of a dedicated regional manager for regional lines so that priority and attention can be given to regional lines that have the potential to transform the way people in rural areas commute. I am calling for action to be taken on this route. In today's world, we need more efficient, reliable, safe and faster public transport, not less of it. We need major investment in our rail network so that those commuting have viable alternatives to driving. As it stands, the Ballybrophy route does not offer this service but it has the potential to do so. I ask the Minister of State to act on these issues, listen to the community-based group and invest in transport need in rural Ireland.

I welcome the Minister of State and the legislation. Irish Rail has an excellent safety record. I will focus on an incident that occurred on 21 August 2009 on the Balbriggan to Pearse Station service. As the train, carrying 60 passengers, was crossing the Malahide Estuary, 20 m of the track started to collapse. Were it not for the professionalism and ability of the driver, not only would those 60 lives have been lost, the lives of those travelling on the trains coming in the opposite direction at a key peak commuter time would have been lost. Those trains were packed to the gills with commuters from Drogheda in particular, but also many other stations. The driver saved all of their lives. A shocking accident was avoided, but this was a hugely serious event. Any money that can be spent on improving our rail safety merits that investment. Any improvement or further oversight of rail safety in our country is warranted.

Notwithstanding the comments from across the House by Sinn Féin, the programme for Government provides for very significant capital investment in our railways. A sum of €2.6 billion is to be spent under the national development plan. Under that plan, the DART service will be extended to my constituency, and thousands of new commuters will be carried on the northern line. We want the extension now but hopefully it will come sooner rather than later. This will allow people to live away from the city of Dublin and at the same time have access to rapid transport to their places of work. That new carriages have been ordered points to a very significant development in this regard.

The programme for Government also provides for improvements to the Dublin-Belfast rail line and improved rail links to Cork. These works are extremely welcome and necessary. I take this opportunity to highlight the significant concern in County Louth in regard to the discrimination of commuters from Drogheda, Dundalk and Laytown by Irish Rail in regard to the what are known as promotional tickets. Commuters in these areas pay double the fare for double the distance in that the cost of travelling to Dublin from Balbriggan is half the cost of travelling to Dublin from Drogheda. Irish Rail operates promotional fares which discriminate against towns outside of the greater Dublin area. This matter needs to urgently addressed.

I have one question for the Minister of State. The most recent rail accident in the United Kingdom occurred due to flooding on a line which was unexpected. Sadly, but luckily, the number of people killed was low. Is Irish Rail or its safety inspection unit looking at the impact of climate change on our railways, in particular in areas which may flood suddenly? I ask that the Department reply to me separately on this question, if that is appropriate, or, if necessary, I can submit a parliamentary question on it. Things are changing in our society. In the last year, 100 million people travelled via Irish Rail or the Luas, which is a huge number of passengers. The vast majority of these journeys were safe. We need to keep up the good work and the investment in rail. We need to address the climate change issue to ensure commuters can get to work safely. Rail is the way to go.

I thank Deputies for their support for the Bill. As stated already, it is an important Bill to ensure that the railway accident investigation unit will continue to have the full range of statutory powers from 31 October. The transposition regulations of 2020 will provide the statutory basis in respect of heavy rail and through the operation of this Bill, the RAIU will be in a position to apply the provisions in the regulations of 2020 to light rail and other railways from 31 October. In this way, the Bill will ensure that the status quo will be maintained in regard to the RAIU powers for investigating and reporting on all railway accidents.

I again thank Deputies for their contributions. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.
Sitting suspended at 4 p.m. and resumed at 4.20 p.m.