Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Aviation Industry

Darren O'Rourke

Ceist:

1. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for Transport the actions he is taking to support the aviation sector (details supplied); the discussions he has held with the Minister for Health and members of the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, regarding the use of serial antigen testing to aid the sector’s recovery; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32822/21]

I ask the Minister for Transport what actions he has taken to support the aviation sector, noting the collapse of Stobart Air last weekend with the loss of hundreds of jobs. What discussions has he held with the Minister for Health and members of the National Public Health Emergency Team about the use of serial antigen testing to potentially aid the sector's recovery and will he make a statement on the matter?

Throughout the Covid-19 crisis, the Government has made significant funding available to the Irish aviation industry through a range of business supports. The bulk of the support to airlines is through the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS, and employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, which were specifically designed to maintain the link between employers and employees. It is estimated that by the end of June 2021, the sector will have received approximately €300 million in such supports. Liquidity funding is also available through the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund pandemic stabilisation and recovery fund and the DAA and Aer Lingus have both availed of substantial support through this mechanism.

The Government has also committed an €80 million direct funding package for Irish aviation in 2021. A new regional airports programme for the period 2021 to 2025 was published on 4 February.

This programme committed a budget of €21.3 million for this year and will continue to support Ireland’s smallest airports at Knock, Kerry and Donegal. A figure of €11.1 million has been paid out so far through the programme.

By virtue of their size and passenger numbers, Cork and Shannon airports have never been eligible for such funding. In light of the impacts of Covid-19, however, and taking account of the recommendations of the task force for aviation recovery, the Government has also committed to providing Cork and Shannon airports with access to capital and operational supports of €32.1 million in 2021 under a Covid-19 regional airports programme.

The allocation to Shannon Airport, which will support the delivery of a broad range of projects at the airport, is in addition to the €6.1 million already approved for a significant hold baggage screening project for the airport in 2020.

In addition to the projects announced, an application for funding in respect of a runway overlay project at Cork Airport is being assessed. Given the costs involved, this project is subject to appraisal under the public spending code. Pending a satisfactory explanation, I hope to be in a position to formally approve funding of €10 million for the project in the coming weeks.

The Government recognises the importance of regional connectivity and the importance of our regional airports to the regions they serve. It reacted immediately to the sudden announcement by Stobart Air that it was ceasing operations at the weekend. My Department has initiated an emergency procurement process with a view to restoring air services linking Dublin with Donegal and Kerry airports.

The Minister will get a chance to come back in. His time us up; I am sorry.

I thank the Minister. There is very serious frustration in the aviation sector with the Government. Ground workers, airport employees, cabin crew and pilots feel abandoned by the Government and despair at the lack of a plan for their sector. They recognise that Covid-19 is devastating but they have argued for the best of public health and public confidence in aviation.

I have been critical of the Minister and his predecessor that they did not do enough to put systems in place to provide protections and confidence. It was hands off at all stages. Perhaps the position would not have been made better but the Government did not try.

Last November, I raised the need for a comparative study between antigen testing and PCR testing. I had an exchange on this at the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications Networks. We have the Ferguson report. Yesterday, I asked who calls for such studies. The House was told the Department, the Minister and the sector work together. Deputy Duncan Smith asked if the Minister and Minister of State had asked for a pilot study. We were told they had not. I read an article in the Irish Independent today, which indicated that the Department had suggested a study. Did the Minister, Minister of State and Department forcefully request that a pilot study take place?

Yes. In April, on the back of the report produced by the National Civil Aviation Development Forum, the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, wrote to the Taoiseach and all Government Ministers, including the Minister for Health, promoting the recommendations of that report, which also made the case for using antigen testing on a trial basis. In public and internally, I have been completely supportive of Professor Ferguson's approach with regard to the benefits of antigen testing for screening.

I watched with interest reports on the committee hearing yesterday. We will sit down with the Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Holohan, and work on whether he is willing to introduce such tests, as requested. We will work with him and make that happen straight away. It will be with the Chief Medical Officer's support, however. We must get public health measures right in this regard. Throughout this crisis, we have been testing every option and listening to the health officials as they came back. We have looked at all these options.

It will be hugely frustrating for people to hear that this was recommended in April and we still have no action on it. I listened this morning to the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science speak on the radio about an argy-bargy on the issue of antigen testing and the need to properly assess. We heard yesterday there is no evidence base. We could have been preparing such an evidence base. We do not know where the evidence will take us but it is legitimate to pilot antigen testing to identify if a combination of this system or a particular formula or platform could work.

The Minister with responsibility for third level education also stated this morning that the Government was looking at the possibility of paying for PCR tests for children travelling with parents after 19 July. We should have had an antigen test system in place and we should, at least, have tested the system. Is the Government considering funding PCR tests?

The Deputy should remember that what the aviation industry wanted more than anything else - we have had extensive discussions on it throughout this crisis - was an end to the Government recommendation on essential travel only and the reintroduction of flying. That will take place from 19 July. Critically, coming with the mass vaccination of our society, that will allow people to be able to fly without having to take a test. That is the preferred option for all concerned. The position will continue to evolve, as it has changed right through this crisis, including how we manage children and the potential vaccination of younger age groups.

The answer, therefore, is "Yes". We should look at all options but first things first. We need to get to 19 July and get people back flying, which we have always recognised was essential for the connectivity of the country to allow families and friends to unite and let people go on holidays. That is the first thing we need to get back working, and we will do that.

Transport Policy

Darren O'Rourke

Ceist:

2. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for Transport if he will extend the ten-year rule for taxis, acknowledging the severe financial pressure taxi drivers remain under as a result of the pandemic; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32823/21]

Will the Minister extend the ten-year rule for taxis, acknowledging the severe financial taxi drivers remain under as a result of the pandemic, and will he make a statement on the matter?

The National Transport Authority, NTA, is the statutory body tasked with the regulation of the small public service vehicle sector, SPSV, and it is responsible for the regulation of vehicle age limits under the provisions of the Taxi Regulation Act 2013.

The Deputy may be aware that the NTA has extended age limits for taxis and hackneys three times since the start of the pandemic. The most recent extension, made last month, ensures that no vehicle will be forced to exit the fleet due to age limits alone in 2021. I trust the authority will keep this issue under review as society and the economy reopen and passenger demand returns.

The authority's extension of age limits is an emergency measure, taken in recognition of the particular challenges occasioned by Covid-19. The ten-year rule was recommended by the 2011 taxi regulation review and came about following a public consultation on vehicle standards for taxis, hackneys and limousines held that year. It was adopted in recognition of the need to strike a balance between achieving standards that offer the customer confidence, comfort and safety and allowing industry members to operate successfully, cognisant that the replacement of a vehicle is a SPSV operator's single largest cost.

I remain committed to supporting the transition of the fleet towards zero-carbon, low-emission vehicles. For this reason, I increased the funding available to the electric grant scheme for taxis for 2021 to €15 million. I also doubled the amount payable under the scheme to €20,000 for operators who scrap older vehicles and make the switch to fully electric models. There has been a strong interest in the revised scheme since its launch in February, with nearly 600 applications received to date.

As the Deputy will be aware, many other measures have been taken to support the taxi industry. At the start of the pandemic, the NTA waived late licence renewal fees and engaged with the insurance industry to facilitate a suspension of SPSV insurance for those operators who decided to temporarily stop working.

I thank the Minister.

I will come back to the rest of the answer.

The response from taxi drivers to the full package of measures announced last week is that they are underwhelmed. They are frustrated and angry at the extent of the engagement they had with the Minister, Taoiseach, Tánaiste and various backbenchers and with the support package, which amounts to a sum total of a couple of hundred euro for each individual taxi driver. That is completely unacceptable.

On the ten-year rule, a video circulating on social media shows a taxi driver walking around his Toyota Avensis, which has a 12 D registration and is in immaculate condition, asking the Minister why he is going to be driven out of the taxi sector because he will not be able to renew his vehicle. Will the Minister put a plan in place instead of doing this yearly or every six months? Will he tell the taxi sector what he is doing with regard to the ten-year rule?

Last week we stated that a further €3 million is being provided to waive licence renewal fees for this year. We also announced a further allocation of €3.5 million to operate a scheme to refund the cost of national car tests, NCTs, and motor tax, so that is a further €6.5 million. Critically, the most important thing for taxi drivers was the ability to earn income while being on the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, which has been extended into next year. Similar to the aviation industry, the most critical thing, which most taxi drivers want more than anything else, is for passengers to come back and to have fares. That will happen on a transitional basis in these coming months as business starts to go up and they will still be able to avail of the PUP, get their costs covered and have an income. The return of business in the autumn, as we expect it will in September with office workers coming back and colleges coming back in person, as well as pubs and restaurants opening up across the country from 5 July, will be the best way of getting the taxi industry back. The Government will continue to see what supports are needed depending on what the numbers are in that regard.

I have a question about the ten-year rule. I hear what the Minister is saying about the moves that have been made but there has to be NTA consultation before a decision is made and in the meantime, taxi drivers have experienced 15 months of no work and insufficient supports, whatever way it is cut up, and are losing money every day. The prospect of breaking even is a long way off, yet the decision about renewing their vehicles is imminent. That is what is hanging over them and they are frustrated with the Minister and his Government for not providing clarity and assurance in that regard. What is the Minister's plan for the taxi sector? There are in the region of 26,000 taxis in Ireland. How many does he envisage will be operating at the back end of 2022?

I would like there to be 26,000 taxis because one of the things I want to do is switch the way our cities work. That is going to take time, support from this House, budgets and funding. It will also have to get through the planning system. One of the big changes coming to our cities is bus corridors and BusConnects schemes that will radically transform the city and give taxis a huge advantage in being able to get around cities quickly. There are all sorts of rumours that we are going to stop taxis doing this, that and the other but it is all nonsense. The key thing is reallocating space and reimagining how our cities work and taxis, as a public transport service, will have a huge role to play as part of that. I foresee an expansion in our taxi fleet.

Yes, it has been a tough time. This has been a terrible crisis for many different sectors and people and the Government has put €38 billion into a variety of different supports for every industry in every way. Specifically in the taxi sector, we tried to provide that extra bit of flexibility by allowing taxi drivers to get the PUP while also earning an income and getting their costs covered. It has not been easy as there were not any fares. The best way back is to get the fares going and that is starting to happen. I hear the numbers are starting to rise quite significantly.

Rail Network

Jennifer Whitmore

Ceist:

3. Deputy Jennifer Whitmore asked the Minister for Transport the efforts he is undertaking to expand access to rail services for south County Wicklow; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32228/21]

What efforts is the Minister undertaking to expand access to rail services in south County Wicklow? As he will be aware, there has been a considerable population increase in County Wicklow but it has not been matched by our public transport infrastructure, particularly rail infrastructure. Many people have to commute long journeys on heavily congested roads when they would much prefer to have rail services available to them. I ask the Minister to make a statement on that matter.

I am very glad to talk about the expansion of public transport in the south Wicklow area. I am not just talking about rail but also the wider context. It is important that we take a multi-modal approach to transport planning and the provision and integration of public transport services and infrastructure. That approach is evident in the statutory transport strategy for the wider greater Dublin area, which includes south Wicklow and which the National Transport Authority is required to prepare under the Dublin Transport Authority Act 2008. The Act requires the NTA to develop a 20-year multi-modal strategy and requires it to review and update the strategy every six years to take account of developments and revise the strategy as needed. The current strategy sets out a range of proposed interventions required across all modes and progress is under way on a number of those interventions. These include the DART+, which will provide enhanced capacity as far as Greystones but could provide associated benefits as far south as Wicklow, and the N11 bus priority project, which will seek to enhance bus priority along this route and enhance the attractiveness of the bus as an option for south Wicklow commuters.

Specifically looking at rail, aspects of the Wicklow rail line are challenging and potentially susceptible to coastal erosion. That is why my Department, through the NTA, is funding a programme of works over the coming years to protect the existing railway line from coastal flooding and coastal erosion and improve the reliability and availability of the existing rail services across County Wicklow. In addition to the above, there are two reviews under way which are of relevance to potential further improvements to rail in the county. The first is the ongoing review of the transport strategy for the greater Dublin area, which is under way with a draft strategy to be published by the NTA later in the year for public consultation. The second is a strategic rail review, which my Department is leading on and which will look at inter-urban and inter-regional rail and will be of relevance to south Wicklow, given the intercity services that operate on the line.

What I am hearing is that there are a lot more plans for south County Wicklow. People have been hearing about plans for south County Wicklow for years and what we need is a commitment to extend the DART to Wicklow town and to look at extending it to Arklow. The infrastructure is there. The rail line is there and we need to build on it. It takes years to put in these plans and people are suffering now. People have long commutes and are being forced further and further away from their workplaces and families. They need access to public transport services, and our environment needs that as well.

I also raise the Avoca train station. As the Rosslare to Dublin train goes through this station, it does not make any sense at all that it is not open. Will the Minister look at reopening that train station and making the most of the infrastructure we have?

I will speak to Irish Rail about the Avoca train station and see what the possibilities are. With regard to rail, and particularly the Wexford line going into south Wicklow, there are developments going on across the country. This strategic rail review will look at how we can extend commuter services and I would do that as we electrify. The DART will be fully electrified on certain services, such as the one to Maynooth, with overhead power lines and so on. There may well also be a possibility of running battery electric trains, which can avail of that power supply and then run on a battery system if they go beyond the grid network. This technology is still evolving and the types of trains that would operate on a service running as far south as Wicklow or Arklow are only at an early stage of development but it is something at which we are looking. It might provide an opportunity to enhance our rail services. There are real benefits to electrified trains rather than diesel ones when it comes to starting and stopping times and that might make commuting from the likes of Wicklow town a possibility.

I organised a meeting between the NTA and the five Deputies from Wicklow a few months ago, at which it mentioned battery-operated trains to Wicklow town. I ask that a focus be put on providing that service, including further south to Arklow. It is critical that we give people public transport and rail options. People who are living in south Wicklow have to travel an hour or two hours to work and get stuck on the N11. I am aware that work is happening on the N11 but as the Minister said, we have to have a multi-modal response. The best bang for our buck would be using the infrastructure we have in place, such as the rail line. A battery-operated train service to Wicklow town and Arklow would give people the options they need. We need people to move away from their cars. We passed the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021 last night. It is critical that we give people options and invest in enabling them to take public transport in an efficient way.

I agree with what the Deputy said about the multi-modal approach and the potential for battery electric trains. Regarding the area south of Greystones, I had a meeting with Geological Survey Ireland, GSI, recently and we looked at coastal erosion risk maps.

The south of Greystones jumps out like a red beacon. We have a perilous situations with the line and significant engineering works will have to be done. That takes time and involves a major cost. It is not an insignificant engineering issue, so we have to remember that for anything south of Greystones in particular.

There are also budget constraints. There are a variety of different calls in terms of metropolitan rail services in our regional cities, as well as Dublin with the DART+ scheme and so on. It will take time but the advances in that battery train capability in one area will help in other areas once we have demonstrated that they can work. That may allow projects to advance more quickly, learning from one city and implementing that elsewhere.

Rail Network

Darren O'Rourke

Ceist:

4. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for Transport the status of the ongoing review of the Navan rail line; the date on which the review will be completed; the date on which the results of the review will be published; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32459/21]

I want to ask the Minister about the status of the ongoing review of the Navan rail line, the date on which the review will be completed and the date on which the results of the review will be published.

As the Deputy is aware, the issue of a rail connection to Navan is being re-examined as part of the NTA’s review of the transport strategy for the greater Dublin area, GDA. The strategy, as we all know, is a multimodal, 20-year transport strategy for the region and one that must be reflected in relevant land use strategies across the GDA. The relevant Act requires the NTA to review and update the strategy every six years and that review is well under way. The NTA has already held the first public consultation as part of the review, with the publication late last year of an issues paper. I know that as part of that initial consultation process, people made their views known about a possible rail line to Navan and no doubt the Deputy contributed to that process. As part of its overall review, the NTA has engaged external expertise to specifically re-examine the feasibility of a Navan rail line and this specific assessment will be an input into the overall review. This assessment will be a factual report, detailing the feasibility of the project by addressing its need and its alignment with national, regional and local policy, establishing its benefits and providing a comprehensive economic and financial assessment of the project in accordance with the requirements of the public spending code.

The next step in the process is a second round of public consultation on a draft revised strategy and I am informed that this public consultation will take place in early autumn. As part of the consultation process, all background reports, such as the one being prepared for the Navan rail line, will be published in full, allowing for detailed review by all interested parties and assisting with developing their feedback. It is expected that a revised strategy will be ready by mid-2022. I would note of course that delivery of projects and programmes under any revised strategy over the medium term will be determined by the allocations we receive as part of the ongoing national development plan, NDP, review.

Last night, my party and almost all of the Opposition supported the climate Bill. It is not easy for the Opposition to support the Government. Our party did that because the Bill states that this State is taking climate action seriously and that it recognises climate change as a challenge. In addition, targets for 2030 and 2050 are enshrined in the Bill. How we get there will be contested and so our support was reserved support. We will continue to fight for just transition. The Navan rail line will be a measure of that. The opportunity is there to take people out of private cars and put them on public transport and it is what they want to do, although cars will have an important role into the future. We want to see commitment. Will there be additional funding for projects such as the Navan rail line? It will take additional funding.

It will take additional funding and I appreciated Sinn Féin's support yesterday. It is conditional support and there will be hard choices that will have to take place over 30 years when we have to get net zero. We will have choices because we will be looking for funding for the rail extension in Wicklow as we have just heard. We will be looking for the likes of the extension of the Luas to Fingal. We need rail stations across Limerick, which I am sure Sinn Féin and the Green Party will be looking for funding for. We also have massive public funding requirements for housing as we all know. There are a lot of tough choices to be made.

Putting housing and transport together is the one that always makes sense to me. That is why I have been supportive of the Navan rail line. It has the potential to start concentrating development in Meath, which is growing rapidly, close to public transport stations. It is in the context of this wider review that we will do this. It is also in the context of the NDP review, which will only look at this decade, but we have to do it in the context of where we are going to in 2050, which is net zero. That is a modal shift to electrification and reducing the amount of travel. This and a range of other projects will be key to that.

Meath County Council and the people of Meath are doing everything right with this project. They are putting their hands up and preparing plans. The focus on Dunshaughlin and Navan for compact and transport-led development is entirely consistent with existing policies. The people of Meath, the local authority and the representatives are doing the right things and they should be rewarded for that if the policy means anything.

On the selection of the route, there was an argument initially that this project was designed to fail because the proposed route went west of Dunshaughlin rather than east towards Ratoath and Ashbourne. Will that be considered? On the appraisal framework, the Minister heard from the Joint Committee on Climate Action about how we assess these major infrastructure projects. Is that being developed? That would benefit the Navan rail project.

The national investment framework for transport in Ireland is our assessment of transport infrastructure and it is based on a hierarchy of supporting active travel first and trying to reuse existing assets second before getting down to new assets. This rail line is new in that it is laying new track and we do not have an existing line. We cannot use the other lines into Navan with circuitous routes via Louth so it is a significant investment. This would not be a cheap project. Like a lot of transport projects, we are looking at the cost estimates for what a project would be running into multiples of what people might have thought a few years ago. To cover the cost of that, it has to bring huge planning gain and housing development gain that makes the economics work. Included in that appraisal is a complete reassessment of the cost of carbon and other factors that one takes into account, while public transport is beneficial.