Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Aviation Industry

Darren O'Rourke

Ceist:

64. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for Transport the status of the implementation of the recommendations of the aviation task force report and the aviation restart plan; his plans to sustain the aviation sector and aviation jobs over the upcoming winter period; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [44104/21]

Will the Minister of State provide an update on the implementation of the recommendations of the aviation task force report and the aviation restart plan and what plans there are to sustain the aviation sector and aviation jobs over the coming winter period?

The Irish aviation sector is critical to Ireland's economic development by being a key enabler of international trade and business, including foreign direct investment and tourism. However, the impact of Covid-19 on travel is the most challenging crisis in its history. Many analysts are predicting that it will take several years for the sector to return to 2019 levels of activity. While air traffic data for Europe show some recovery, the pace of recovery is still slow in the Irish market, with traffic currently at approximately 50% of 2019 levels.

The Government has put in place a range of supports for businesses, including those in the aviation sector. These supports include: the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS; waiving of commercial rates; deferral of tax liabilities; the Covid restrictions support scheme; the credit guarantee scheme; and the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland, SBCI, working capital scheme, with some of these now extended to the end of the year. My Department has estimated that Irish airlines and airports have availed of over €300 million through a number of these supports to date. Furthermore, liquidity funding has been provided through the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF, pandemic stabilisation and recovery fund, bringing funding to almost €500 million.

As regards supports specifically targeted at the protection of employment, the EWSS has been a key component of the Government's response to Covid-19 and has been extended to the end of the year. In November 2020, in recognition of the difficult circumstances facing the aviation sector, the Government agreed a revised funding package of €80 million specifically for Irish aviation. The European Commission has approved, under state aid rules, a €26 million Irish state aid scheme to compensate airport operators for the losses caused by Covid-19.

The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and I have continued to engage with all aviation stakeholders throughout the Covid crisis, including through the National Civil Aviation Development Forum, NCADF. Separately, the Labour Employer Economic Forum, LEEF, brings together representatives of employers and trade unions with Ministers to discuss economic, employment and labour market issues. The LEEF has played an important role during the crisis. In March, a LEEF aviation subgroup was established to consider the needs of the sector. I chair this subgroup and it has held five meetings since March, most recently on 14 September.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The Government's economic recovery plan, published on 1 June, recognised that further targeted supports may be required later in 2021 to assist the restoration of Ireland's air links and to protect jobs in the sector, and my officials are currently considering options in this area.

Most of the recommendations from the aviation recovery task force's final report of July 2020 and the NCADF aviation restart plan of April 2021 have been progressed insofar as practicably possible. For example, non-essential international travel was permitted to resume on 19 July. The EU digital Covid certification system has been successfully introduced in Ireland, wage subsidies have been extended, other targeted financial supports have been made available, slot alleviation measures for airlines have been implemented, and EU Aviation Safety Agency and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control protocols for safe air travel have been fully implemented. My Department will forward a report to the Deputy, in tabular format, on the status of the implementation of each of the recommendations from both reports.

Ultimately, I believe the continued successful roll-out of the vaccination programme and reduced risk of transmission of the virus will provide the basis for the return of consumer confidence and an increase in forward bookings. With continued support from the Government during the coming months, the sector will be well placed for strong recovery next year.

I thank the Minister of State for that update. She outlined well the challenges facing the sector. Covid has had a major impact everywhere. Now it is a question of how we recover. While I appreciate the extension of the EWSS until the end of the year, the Minister of State and I know that the season is over and will only pick up again around St. Patrick's Day of next year. That is what the industry tells us.

Is consideration being given to extending the EWSS beyond the end of the year? I understand that there were proposals from unions at the LEEF regarding an aviation-specific EWSS, a German-type model or however it might be termed. I am asking about wage subsidy supports for workers in the sector.

We are having constructive conversations with trade unions and employer groups as part of the LEEF subgroup, which is helping this engagement on the needs of the sector. In the Government's economic recovery plan, which was published on 1 June, we were clear that aviation was one of the sectors that would take longer to recover. Officials in my Department are considering further supports for the sector in order to protect jobs and ensure that we can restore much of our key connectivity at international level. Our airports know their business best. These supports would enable the airports to ensure such a restoration.

The number one call from the aviation industry was to reopen international travel, which we did on 19 July. Regarding further extensions of the EWSS, that will be a matter for the Minister for Finance and other Government colleagues, but I assure the House that all of these matters are under consideration.

I wish to make a couple of follow-up points. A number of recommendations in the aviation task force report specifically targeted the aviation environment. Recommendations Nos. 5 and 6 related to rebates and a common fixed sum per passenger. Have these measures been considered? Will they be included in the budget or among upcoming supports for the sector?

The issue of transatlantic travel is of major concern for the sector. It is a large part of the market. To what extent has there been engagement to try to reopen it?

As the Deputy knows, the European Commission gave us approval under EU state aid rules for €26 million to compensate airports for the damages caused by Covid-19. My objective was to enable commercial business within airports and allow them to deal directly with airlines in terms of route incentives and the issues the Deputy raised. That is the business of our airports, and the Government has enabled them by providing funding. This forms part of our Department's deliberations with the aviation sector.

The Deputy is correct regarding transatlantic flights. They are critical for us - I do not need to explain why. There is considerable engagement happening at EU level as well as at Irish level within the Departments of Foreign Affairs and the Taoiseach. As the Deputy knows, the US Administration has put in place severe entry restrictions, but there is ongoing engagement around opening those lines of connectivity up again.

Road Projects

Peter Fitzpatrick

Ceist:

65. Deputy Peter Fitzpatrick asked the Minister for Transport the status of the Ardee bypass project (details supplied). [44462/21]

I wish to ask for an update on this project. It should be noted that the N52 Ardee bypass scheme received planning approval in 2006. I have been informed that delays have occurred due to issues with routes and junction preferences and that a revised planning application process is expected. In 2020, and with the support of Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, Louth County Council conducted a detailed review of the scheme and considered alternative junction strategies.

As Minister for Transport, I have responsibility for overall policy and securing Exchequer funding for the national roads programme. Under the Roads Acts 1993 to 2015, and in line with the national development plan, the planning, design and construction of individual national roads is a matter for TII in conjunction with the local authorities concerned.

The proposed bypass scheme to the west of Ardee is 4.5 km in length from Mandistown crossroads on the N52 west of Ardee, just inside the Meath county boundary, to Glebe townland on the N2 just north of Ardee. It is designed as a single carriageway road and comprises six junctions, including a proposed roundabout on the N2. The scheme includes two river crossings at the River Dee and the River Garra. Construction may commence in quarter 3 of 2023, with completion in quarter 4 of 2025, though it should be noted that this is subject to planning issues, approval under the public spending code and sufficient funding availability.

The N52 is important for enhancing regional accessibility and improving connectivity to Border counties. The bypass of Ardee would provide greater capacity for passenger and freight traffic on the route, which would support economic expansion of the region. In addition, the project supports improved road safety, reduced vehicular traffic in the town, better air quality and more active travel opportunities in the town, thereby providing for a better quality of life for local residents.

The current section of the N52 is arguably not fully fit for purpose, with the town of Ardee being subject to congestion, particularly at peak periods. The route serves both passenger and freight traffic every day and the legacy infrastructure is causing daily delays and journey time uncertainty for road users. The existing road runs directly through the town centre, resulting in an inability to regulate traffic flow and reducing the efficiency of travel on the overall network. In addition, the urban environment of Ardee is being negatively impacted as a result of the route running directly through the town centre.

The N52 is a national secondary road connecting the M7 motorway from just south of Nenagh in Tipperary to the N2 north of Ardee. Through the provision of reliable transport infrastructure, the proposed project aims to manage better traffic efficiency along the route.

The Minister has just wasted two minutes. I asked him for an update, but all he gave me was a response. He needs to show some respect to the people in Ardee. In fairness, Louth County Council and TII held a public consultation and the people of the Ardee area had the decency to attend and make submissions. The new design team is working hard to minimise the impact of the scheme on the surrounding areas and communities. I cannot believe that the Minister would waste my time and that of the people of Ardee. I ask him to please give us an update on the situation. Planning permission was granted in 2006. The traffic in the area is hazardous. His response has knocked me for six. I want to know that funding has been set aside and that it will remain in this scheme. Instead of waffling, can he please give me an update?

I mean no disrespect to the Deputy or the residents of Ardee. He is correct, but I wanted to read out the Department's official response so that the full assessment is clear. I will now read the remaining part of that response which, I hope, will give him some of the detailed information he seeks. I will further engage with him in the detail of it.

In January 2018, Louth County Council provided the preliminary overall plan for the scheme to public representatives and to members of the public. Concerns were raised regarding the junction layout and the impacts the scheme might have on local traffic movements. The Deputy will be aware of some of this detail, but it is important to set out the history. Detailed submissions from resident groups were received by Louth County Council and TII. In September 2019, officials from TII, along with Louth County Council, were invited to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport to discuss the issues. I attended that meeting and listened to the full hearing. It was agreed to request the council to undertake a review of the scheme design in advance of progressing the project to build in order that these issues could be fully considered along with matters raised.

A public consultation was held in October 2020 to engage on the emerging preferred junction option for the N52 Ardee bypass. A review of the road design and planning to date, including junction options, planning application issues, an environmental review and compulsory purchase order, CPO, matters, is currently being carried out by technical advisers for Louth County Council, to be completed later this year. In parallel, an environmental impact assessment, EIA, screening report and appropriate assessment, AA, screening report are currently with An Bord Pleanála for review and determination on the proposed amended scheme. The changes to the original scheme include amended junction layouts, additional cycle facilities, flood attenuation and soil management issues.

Subject to the outcome of the review and determination by An Bord Pleanála of the EIA and AA, it is intended to bring the scheme through the Part 8 planning process of the Planning and Development Regulations 2001, as amended. The next step would be to lodge an application with An Bord Pleanála for a further CPO, if needed. On this basis, Louth County Council could be in a position to tender the main construction contract for the scheme in quarter 3, 2022, which could allow a potential construction start date in quarter 3, 2023, with completion in quarter 4, 2025. It should be noted that this would be subject to sufficient funding availability and approval under the public spending code. A total of €8.1 million was incurred on this project up to the end of August 2021.

I mean no disrespect to the Deputy and apologise for the lengthy reply. We have a significant funding problem, but this type of project, which promotes town centres such as Ardee is, to my mind, a real priority. If we can overcome the planning difficulties, I believe funding can be provided.

The Minister has given me the response I wanted. Had he given it in the first instance, I would have been very happy. I must once again point out that the people of Ardee and the surrounding areas have heard nothing but empty promises since 2006 when this project first received planning permission. All I am asking is that the Minister give us confirmation of the status of the project and confirmation that funding previously set aside for it will be ring-fenced. The town of Ardee suffers from chronic traffic congestion, which has a serious effect on the business of the town and the surrounding areas and on people living in the area. I ask the Minister to confirm that this much-needed project will go ahead. Is there any possibility he might visit Ardee to engage with people in the area on this project for which they have been waiting since 2006? I believe, on the basis of the information just given to me by the Minister, that this project will go ahead, but there is so much happening in relation to it. People are not aware that information is awaited from An Bord Pleanála. I ask the Minister to visit Ardee and meet with the people. As I said, this process started in 2006 and it is now 2021. People have been waiting a long time. I put my trust in the Minister that he will help the people of Ardee.

Bus Services

Darren O'Rourke

Ceist:

66. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for Transport the status of BusConnects in Dublin; if he has engaged with Dublin Bus management and unions to try to resolve the current dispute over pay and working conditions at the company; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [44105/21]

I would like to ask the Minister for an update on BusConnects in Dublin, if he has engaged with Dublin Bus management and unions to try to resolve the current dispute regarding pay and conditions at the company and if he will make a statement on the matter.

I thank the Deputy. BusConnects is a transformative plan to improve and expand bus services in all of our major cities. The programme is initially being rolled out in Dublin, followed by Galway and Cork, and then Limerick and Waterford. Traffic congestion currently costs Dublin city approximately €350 million per annum and this figure is forecast to rise to approximately €2 billion per annum by 2033. It is essential that we tackle that.

It is a key part of the Government’s policy to improve public transport services nationally and to address the impact of climate change. To this end, ambitious targets are included in the National Development Plan 2018–2027, the Transport Strategy for the Greater Dublin Area 2016–2035 and the Climate Action Plan 2019.

BusConnects Dublin includes the network redesign of bus services, the core bus corridors and next generation ticketing. In September 2020, the NTA published the finalised network redesign and the first phase of the new network redesign - the H Spine which is Howth to city centre corridor - was launched at the end of June. The launch went very well, and the feedback has been mostly positive. The customer experience team are continuing to provide support to the public as they familiarise themselves with the new routes. The second phase - the C Spine, which is Lucan to Ringsend via city centre - will be launched by the end of November.

The NTA has also completed a series of public consultations on the 16 core bus corridors proposals in quarter 1, 2020 and quarter 4, 2020.  These corridors will make bus journeys faster and more reliable and reduce journey times by 40% to 50% on each corridor.

With regard to the second part of the Deputy’s question, which was relates to pay and working conditions at Dublin Bus, I would like to begin by explaining that industrial relations issues in Dublin Bus are a matter for the company, its employees and trade union groups. Dublin Bus management engages with its trade unions on an ongoing basis on various matters of common interest. While my Department receives regular updates from Dublin Bus on industrial relations issues, neither I nor my Department have a direct role in and nor do we intervene in such operational matters. 

Go raibh maith agat. There was a resounding rejection of the proposal that was on the table by workers at Dublin Bus, and for a range of reasons, including the impact it would have on pay and conditions. Is the Minister aware of that and has he heeded it? There was a direct call on him by the workers to intervene and get involved. I ask him to set out his understanding of that process, where it is at now and if he is taking a hands-off approach to it, which is my sense of the situation at this stage, or at what stage he will intervene, if at all, and what his understanding is of the rate of progress in terms of the negotiations and the timeline for resolution to the range of issues that have been legitimately raised.

I am very aware. There was a deputation outside my offices on, I think, 20 August. I was away, unfortunately, but I understand the Deputy was in attendance with the 100 plus drivers from Dublin Bus. My understanding is that Dublin Bus drivers have been outside of a pay agreement dating back to 2018-19 and that this agreement, which was on working conditions and pay, was rejected by, I understand, 98% of the drivers balloted. My understanding from soundings from Dublin Bus, the unions and employees is that there are still mechanisms by which they can go back to further negotiate. We have a good approach here. To my mind, the unions and the company have had a good record of working together. I do not think it is appropriate for me to step into that. I am keeping up on it, but will not take a central role.

From my engagement with workers at Dublin Bus I know they are committed to delivering on BusConnects. It is about it happening in the right way, one that works for everybody.

On the issue of delivering on BusConnects, while I appreciate we have the H line and the C line as early pilots or test cases, the big hurdle is delivering on the quality bus corridors as an essential part of the improvement in the network. Will the Minister outline the approach that will be taken in the time ahead to engage with communities to ensure the services that are provided deliver for communities and for the transport service as well?

I will give the key next steps. We will first have the review of the national development plan, which will come out later this month. That will renew our commitment to the BusConnects projects, not just in Dublin but in the other regional cities as well. Very shortly, I hope, we will then go to Government with a business case for the project. It is a significant investment of several billion euro, which will take some time to implement fully. It is critical we act fast. We are seeing with Covid that car traffic is coming back but public transport is slightly slower. We have climate targets that are challenging and the congestion that comes from all that traffic is going to prevent Dublin from working. There will be a tight budget. The budget line is not an easy one because there are so many public transport projects coming through at the one time. BusConnects can be done on phased basis, including rapid development of some of the key traffic management measures we must put in place. That is something the NTA, the local authorities and the bus companies are going to be charged with and which they must deliver quickly.

Road Projects

Michael Collins

Ceist:

67. Deputy Michael Collins asked the Minister for Transport if he will address a series of matters (details supplied) regarding road infrastructure in west Cork. [44395/21]

Will the Minister tell me the date work will commence on the Innishannon bypass? Will he also give the start date for the long-awaited completion of the Bandon southern bypass and start dates for the full northern relief road in Bandon and the Bantry bypass? Will he also tell us whether there are any plans to insert passing bays on the N71 from Ballydehob to Bandon or the R586 from Bantry to Bandon via Dunmanway roads? The people of west Cork have had announcement after announcement about these projects for decades but not a sod has been turned. Today we need nothing less than start dates so we can progress west Cork roads and bring them up to the same standard as those in other constituencies.

The following information is the most up-to-date information available to me on TII's delivery of projects on the N71: regarding the Innishannon bypass, the route feasibility study was previously commenced but was suspended. As this scheme is not included in the current NDP, I have been advised by TII that the project remains suspended at this point in time.

On the Bantry bypass, a feasibility study on possible options was completed previously by Cork County Council. This scheme is being progressed in two phases by the council. Phase 1 design is currently being progressed under European Investment Bank, EIB, funding. TII has been in discussions with council officials concerning phase 2.

On the Bandon bypass extension, a feasibility study was completed by Cork County Council and TII is currently reviewing this. The project appraisal plan was approved by my Department in 2020. This work on early planning and design will continue in 2021, with a preferred route for the bypass extension to be identified. TII allocated €100,000 to Cork County Council to progress this pre-appraisal work during 2021. The current N71 relief road around Bandon ties back into the existing road network via a steep downhill gradient and drivers must also negotiate a number of roundabouts and priority junctions within the built-up area of Bandon. The N71 in this area experiences heavy traffic, with annual average daily traffic of between 9,000 and 14,000 vehicles. The proposed relief road extension would involve bridging over the R603 to remove the existing steep gradient and the construction of approximately 2.5 km of new single carriageway tying back into the existing N71 just west of the town.

The timeframe for the delivery of any major or minor works projects that require statutory approval, whether for an environmental impact assessment report, EIAR, or CPO, or both, is between eight and 13 years.

The Minister is talking about eight to 13 years. That is a hell of a long time. This has been going on much longer than that for the people of Bandon who require the southern bypass to be completed and the northern bypass to be started. It the same with the Innishannon bypass, as I said. This is appalling. I hear nothing I can go back to the people of west Cork with and say that these projects are going to progress, other than reports upon reports that have been going on for decade after decade. The lack of moneys spent on west Cork roads in the past 20 years has left them in appalling condition throughout. The Skibbereen bypass was opened in 2003 and since then no proper funding has been spent on the N71 from Innishannon to Bandon, Clonakilty and Skibbereen. In some parts the road is a danger to people who travel on it. I have told the Minister we cannot wait for another eight years. We cannot wait any longer. I would like the Minister to give me a start date for at least one of those bypasses. We cannot wait for another four, five, six, seven or eight years. The people of Bandon and of west Cork must be respected the same as those of every other constituency in the country, and they need delivery. The Minister is failing in his duty to the people of wes Cork to deliver a proper bypass and open up our roads so we in west Cork can compete.

I share the Deputy's concern about the long time our planning system takes. We are all agreed on that and the need for that to be assessed and changed. There was an additional €4 million in grant allocations this year to the N71 route for various improvements. There was a further €325,000 allocated to Cork County Council under the specific improvement grant programme to progress the road realignment at Ilen Bridge on the R586.

On the €4 million, I understand the Deputy's desire to see those bypasses be progressed. I have been clear that the prioritisation in our overall road schemes should be on bypasses of towns. However, that is a national question. We have hundreds, almost, of towns right across the country where bypasses are the preferred option. We will have to allocate the resources and TII is going to have to prioritise within the overall NDP allocation it has. Bypasses should come first and the towns mentioned are examples of projects that make sense.

The Minister is talking about €4 million for improvements but that is for pothole repairs. That is what he is saying. Those are the facts. I would like him to visit the roads of west Cork. He perhaps knows west Cork better than most Ministers. I can show him some of the roads that are in appalling condition. I took the former Minister, Shane Ross, down there. I should have taken Shep the dog down to west Cork because Shep the dog would have barked whereas Shane Ross did nothing for us. I do not want to be saying the same thing about the Minister in a couple of years. I do not want to say he did nothing about bypasses for Innishannon, Bandon and Bantry. All we hear about is further reports and no delivery for the people of west Cork. A journey from Skibbereen to Clonakilty takes 45 minutes to an hour if one gets stuck behind a lorry. Passing bays must be put in place. It would not cost magic amounts. The Government is looking at astronomical money to do small jobs and it does not look at how simply these jobs can be done. We have no delivery, zero delivery, on further thinking about west Cork since 2003. For almost 20 years successive Governments have failed to deliver for west Cork. I ask the Minister to deliver. He should get up and say that at least one of the bypasses will start in the next 12 months for the people of west Cork.

The ghost of the former Minister, Shane Ross.

What I presented to the Deputy is the best, latest information I have from TII. I have every intention of trying to deliver and improve the bypass options in west Cork.

On the reality of where we are with funding, the Deputy says €4 million is nothing. We are spending €1.2 billion to €1.3 billion per year just to maintain our roads. Thus of the €2.5 billion or so this year, roughly half is going to maintain the existing road network, which is important. If we did not do that the Deputy would rightly be telling me that it is dangerous, that people's vehicles are being damaged and that that work must be done. It is not a small amount. It is huge within our overall capital budget and it must be spent because if it was not we would have to spend more in subsequent years. Out of this year's budget, if roughly half is effectively going to maintenance, the remainder must go on public transport. We must invest in that and in active travel. We are limited as there are certain budget constraints we must recognise and admit. We are giving significant moneys to the transport sector but it must be spread across the country. That is a reality that cannot be ignored.

Transport Policy

Darren O'Rourke

Ceist:

68. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for Transport his plans to reduce the number of private cars used on journeys to and from centres of primary, secondary and third level education; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [44106/21]

I ask the Minister to outline his plans to reduce the number of private cars used on journeys to and from centres of primary, secondary and third level education and to make a statement on the matter.

I am very conscious of time and want to provide the key information to the Deputy. I will set out the details of very specific schemes to support active travel, particularly for our student population, which is the key consideration in the question.

My Department funds the delivery of CycleRight training through Cycling Ireland which delivers cycling training to school children around the country and equips them with the skills to cycle safely. In partnership with the Department of Education we also launched the Safe Routes to Schools programme earlier this year which aims to accelerate the delivery of safe walking, scooting and cycling infrastructure on key access routes to schools. By the deadline for expressions of interest in April, over 900 applications had been received from schools in every county in Ireland and 170 schools were notified on 21 June that they have been selected for inclusion in the first round of the programme to support walking and cycling infrastructure for primary and post-primary schools. All schools that initially applied for funding under this programme will not need to reapply in later rounds as they will come into the programme on a rolling basis. Finally, my Department also provides funding for the Smarter Travel Workplaces and the Smarter Travel Campus programmes, which are overseen by the NTA. These are national voluntary behaviour-change programmes that work with large employers and third level institutions to implement workplace travel plans that facilitate sustainable travel on the commute and beyond.

The step change in funding for active travel in both urban and rural areas together with the commitments to improved and expanded public transport projects should work towards providing our citizens, including students travelling to and from school and college, with a viable alternative to private car use and should encourage a modal shift towards sustainable transport modes, whether walking, cycling, bus, tram or train.

One element that the Minister did not touch on is the school bus transport system. I know that technically it falls under the remit of the Department of Education but it is very clear that there is an interdepartmental responsibility in terms of transport and encouraging people out of private cars and onto the school bus transport system. I would urge the Minister to work with his colleague, the Minister for Education, on opportunities to expand the school bus transport scheme. Bus Éireann has set out its ambitions up to 2030 but I firmly believe its targets are not ambitious enough and the company needs to improve on that.

The Minister will have my full support for efforts to increase active travel to school and I urge him to be even more ambitious in that regard. In recent days the Minister referred to the planning system and possible changes to ensure that some active travel measures, including cycleways, can be approved. I ask him to expand on that and to outline his intentions in that regard.

On that last point, the Deputy will be aware of the High Court's decision this summer with regard to Strand Road in Sandymount. I will not go into the specific details of that case but there is real concern that the judgment might have a chilling effect on the delivery of our Safe Routes to School infrastructure, our BusConnects infrastructure and other active travel infrastructure, as well as on our decarbonisation plans which require innovative and quick traffic management schemes. To address concerns about any potential chilling effect of the judgment, we have tried to see what we can do to help. We have determined that a Committee Stage amendment to what was the Road Traffic (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, which will now be called the Road Traffic Bill, due for debate this autumn will provide us with an opportunity to give greater clarity and greater responsibility back to councils by giving councillors a clear say on these matters. We will put down in statute mechanisms to allow experimental traffic measures to be carried out which will help councils to innovate and test out various traffic management options. I have asked my Department, in consultation with the Attorney General's office, to start drafting amendments that we may introduce on Committee Stage that might help in that regard.

In my own constituency, one of the ways we could shift students at different levels from private cars would be through a rail line to Navan. Does the Minister have an update on that? The Tánaiste and local representatives were at the old Navan train station - with photographs published in the local media this week - ahead of their party think-in. Does the Minister have an update on the review? Is it positive? When will it be published and most importantly, when will we see funding and a start date for this essential project?

I expect the review to be concluded very shortly. I have not had a chance to see it yet but I understand a draft version is very close to being presented by the NTA. The first thing will be the NDP review. As I said on radio the other day, and am happy to repeat here today, I expect some €35 billion in our overall capital allocation for the next decade. A lot of the projects we need to deliver we have to think about in a 2040 context, such is the scale of the investment we need to make. I refer here to DART+, Metro, BusConnects, metropolitan rail in Cork, Galway and Waterford as well as Dublin, Rural Link and Connecting Ireland. We need an incredible array of projects and it is going to take two decades to deliver a lot of them. The Navan rail line is just one example of the myriad of projects which make real sense in my mind, as I have said in this Chamber previously. I have not seen the NTA's draft report yet but I hope that Navan may be included. We will certainly support it within the NDP but I cannot give specific timelines and start dates because we have such difficulties with our planning system in getting any projects through the planning process in any reasonable timeframe. Planning approval is the first prerequisite.

I thank the Minister. I have specific timelines to implement as well so we must move on to the next question.

Public Transport

Denis Naughten

Ceist:

69. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Transport the steps he is taking to support public transport outside of the major urban centres; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [44067/21]

The last Government, after a lot of encouragement, designated Athlone as a major growth centre under Project Ireland 2040 and the town is expected to become a regional city over time. However, under this Government we have already seen a reduction in public transport connectivity between the local towns within its catchment and the town of Athlone itself, with the withdrawal of the Bus Éireann route 20 service just as the town's institute of technology secures university status. Where is the joined-up thinking?

There has been a substantial increase in funding for Local Link services since 2016, going from €12.2 million in 2016 to over €28 million in 2021, comprising rural transport programme, RTP, current and capital funding, Covid-related funding and PSO funding for rural regular services. The additional funding since 2016 has enabled the introduction of 85 new rural regular service routes, as well as improvements to demand responsive transport, DRT, services and the piloting of evening and night-time services in certain rural areas which have now been mainstreamed. The new rural regular services operate at least five times per day over a schedule of five, six or seven days per week. They are specifically designed to ensure connectivity with other public transport services and better linkage of services between and within towns and villages.

Bus Éireann operates a substantial PSO business under contract with the NTA, providing subvented bus services outside Dublin and in regional and rural locations throughout the country. It also has a separate, commercially-run business, Expressway, which operates a number of interregional bus routes.

The Covid-19 health emergency brought a profound and swift shock to the public transport sector. Public transport’s designation as an essential service throughout the pandemic means that although fare revenues have collapsed, most of the shortfall has been met by the Government in order to meet our broader policy objectives. In 2020, we spent over €620 million supporting PSO services. For 2021, over €670 million has been provided in funding in order to ensure the existing level of public transport services is kept. By comparison, the level of PSO and Local Link funding provided in 2019 was in the region of €300 million. Furthermore, in June 2020 the Government decided to introduce new, temporary financial support for certain licensed services provided by commercial bus operators to ensure the continued operation of these essential services.

That was the key joined-up thinking on maintaining, developing and broadening out public transport services for all parts of our country. As I told Deputy O'Rourke earlier, we must make sure we meet the needs of every different community and balance that funding throughout the country as we best can.

The hospital for the town of Athlone is Portiuncula Hospital in Ballinasloe. There has been a 60% reduction in the number of buses facilitating patients and visitors attending Portiuncula as a result of the decision by the National Transport Authority not to replace the lost Bus Éireann services. An analysis of the current Citylink replacement service with that provided by Bus Éireann shows that, between 7.30 a.m. an 9.30 p.m., the service has gone from 226 buses a week to a current offering of just 84 buses a week outside Portiuncula. There is now a different bus stop, pick-up point and drop-off point in the town of Athlone for the connection services to the local hospital in Ballinasloe and for the other regional services that stop via Bus Éireann at Southern Station, the bus station in Athlone. There are now two different pick-up points in the town of Athlone. If someone has an appointment in Ballinasloe at 11 a.m. and they have to travel from Athlone, they must get the bus at 9 a.m. and spend an hour and a half waiting in Ballinasloe for their appointment.

The Deputy makes a valid point. I have met with local representatives for the area and had a series of discussions with my own officials to try to address the concerns. I have told them we need to look again at the very specific issue of Portiuncula Hospital and ensure that, as we change the overall route alignment, we maintain critical connectivity to those types of facilities. The NTA is charged with working with the local operators, Bus Éireann and others to ensure we address some of the concerns that have been raised. I will have to ask the Department for an update on that as it was not specifically asked for in the question as written. It is something we are very aware of and have been working on.

I thank the Minister and welcome his comments on that. I want to put on record that we will now see a development of health services in Portiuncula with the development of a new ambulatory care centre which will expand the outpatient services available there. Someone going from Roscommon town to Portiuncula for one of those appointments at, say, 11 a.m. will have to leave Roscommon town before 6 a.m. It would take that person four hours to get to Ballinasloe travelling from Roscommon town, into Galway city to the cathedral, then walking a kilometre over to the main bus station, then getting the Cork service to Oranmore and then a connection from there to Ballinasloe. There is a bus service going from Westport through Castlebar and Roscommon that terminates in Athlone. If that terminated in Ballinasloe, it would connect three hospitals together and the appointments could be organised around that.

The Deputy makes a good point. We are looking at a new strategy, connecting Ireland, which looks at developing rural bus transport systems. Critically, we want to achieve an efficiency where we can connect the transport needs to health facilities into that system and look at various solutions and options. We will have to be creative and connect our health and transport needs with our general public transport needs. Portiuncula could be one example of that as we make the amendments we need to make.

Road Projects

Aindrias Moynihan

Ceist:

70. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Transport the level of funding in place for N22 surfacing works at Coolcower, County Cork; when contractors will be appointed to carry out the works; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [44088/21]

Aindrias Moynihan

Ceist:

86. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Transport the progress being made in making safer the N22 between Macroom and Ballincollig, County Cork; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [44087/21]

The N22 between Ballincollig and Macroom has numerous dangers, including the poor surface at Coolcower just east of the town, and the right-turn junctions at Nutricia, Dunisky, Ballytrasna, Kilcondy, and Castlemore. There are many other junctions where people turn into their own homes. The road needs to be made safer. Will the Minister outline plans to make the N22 safer between Ballincollig and Macroom?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 70 and 86 together.

Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, tells me it has recently approved funding to Cork County Council for a surfacing contract at Coolcower on the N22. TII understands a contractor has been appointed by the local authority and that the works will be completed this year. A previously proposed N22 Macroom to Ballincollig-Ovens major improvement scheme remains suspended due to funding constraints within the current national development plan, NDP, and no further work has been carried out by Cork County Council on planning and design. TII has informed me there are no plans to do any pavement or safety works on this stretch of road at present.

The N22 Ballyvourney to Macroom route, the N22 runs from Cork city to Tralee, passing through several towns and villages including Macroom, Ballyvourney and Ballymakeery. The bypass project includes the construction of a dual carriageway and consists of a 22 km dual carriageway with four junctions beginning west of Ballyvourney, passing north of Macroom and rejoining the existing N22 south of Macroom. The estimated cost of the project is €280 million.

Following approval by Government in October 2019, construction commenced on 6 December 2019, with very good progress being made on site. The construction of the many structures required for the project is almost complete. The longest precast concrete beams in Ireland, 49 metres, were manufactured for a bridge on this scheme and were successfully lifted into place last December. In addition, a large steel deck was successfully launched across a river and valley in March.

Overall, works are approximately midway through construction, with completion expected by early 2024. The N22 project strengthens the links between Cork and Kerry. By reducing traffic volumes on the existing N22 by approximately 12,000 vehicles per day, the project will improve journey times and allow for safer and more reliable journeys for road users.

I acknowledge the planned works at Coolcower. Since tabling the question last week, there was confirmation of the update on the contractor being appointed and works getting under way in the weeks ahead. That is positive. There are other sections of that road, such as the bridge in the town of Macroom itself and sections east of the town, where funding was to be made available and where contractors need to be appointed and works carried out on making that road safer and better. There is a section of the bridge inside the town where there is a trench running the full length of the bridge immediately adjacent to the footpath so that the traffic is almost leaning in on top of the footpath. It is a hazard. It is dangerous and needs to be attended to. If there is funding available, it needs to be released and contractors appointed. Will the Minister confirm that, where funding needs to be made available for these other sections of work, it will be released to the council so that it will be able to carry out works such as the bridge and sections east of the town of Macroom?

On the Macroom-Ballyvouney bypass, €280 million is not a small investment. It is a huge, significant investment. We have to make sure we get the best return from that. In Ballyvourney and the town of Macroom, we have to work on the public realm and get as much traffic as possible out of the centre of town and create what has already happened in other towns in west Cork such as Clonakilty, Skibbereen, Bandon or Bantry where real life has been brought back to their centres and they are vibrant towns. That town, more than anything, deserves to rise and get away from the gridlock it has suffered for the past 20 or 30 years. Talking to Cork County Council last year, it appraised the need for such public realm works. It is about taking out a lot of traffic and parking and creating a good pedestrian space, to my mind.

The budget for that would not come from the national roads budget plan; it is more local. The county council has to allocate a lot of its budgets within its own resources provided by central funding. Those decisions are very much country council oriented, working with our Department. Having spent €280 million on the bypass, we now need to spend on the public realm measures that would see the full benefit.

I need to shift the focus east between the Ballincollig and Macroom section, separate from the bypass. This is a stretch of road where there are repeated accidents. There are very dangerous right-turning junctions such as those at Nutricia, Duniskey, Ballytrasna, Kilcondy, Castlemore and others.

There are more than 30,000 cars travelling at speed via the Ballincollig bypass onto this road every day, in addition to the north-south traffic on the R619 from north Cork, the R585 from the west and traffic coming from Bandon. For the locals, whether they are coming from Aherla, Cloughduv or Crookstown, or even doing the school run over to Coachford College, they are crossing that road four times a day. It is very dangerous for many of them. It is very much a concern. The road east of the town between Ballincollig and Macroom needs to be advanced. It was very concerning that the Minister would say it would be suspended. Plans had been progressing on this for quite substantial works. Even no safety works are planned. Plans had been designed for Castlemore junction, for example, and to hear that those kinds of works would be suspended is very concerning for locals. It needs to be put back on track so the road would be made safer for people travelling daily through these junctions and on these routes in and out, and also for those people passing east to west between Cork and Tralee.

I will conclude by asking the Deputy to cast his eyes even further east. One of his colleagues, Deputy James O'Connor, from the eastern side of Cork, is rightly making the case that towns and villages such as Castlemartyr are currently suffering what Macroom is suffering with through traffic throttling urban and village life. We must think about where is our first priority. I know that section of road very well from Ballincollig. Deputy Moynihan is correct. There tends to be a lot of high-speed traffic. Not only are there a lot of small roads feeding in, there are also many residences along that carriageway that are, effectively, opening out onto a national road. There are very difficult circumstances. I must be hones,t however. I cannot go to Deputy O'Connor to say that his project has priority and at the same time say to Deputy Moynihan that this road also is a priority. Funding every project is going to be difficult given the funding constraints we have. There may be other measures we can look at in the meantime, pending the funding approval. Can we examine the issue of speed on that road for example? If road safety is the key issue, which it is, are there other measures we can implement that may be lower cost but with more immediate traffic management results that might improve the safety performance of the road? This is one of the questions I might put to TII.

Dublin Bus

Mick Barry

Ceist:

71. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Minister for Transport if he will report on any recent communication he has had with Dublin Bus management or trade unions on industrial relations matters in the company; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [44062/21]

Will the Minister for Transport report on any recent communication he has had with Dublin Bus management or trade unions on industrial relations matters in the company?

I thank the Deputy for asking the question and I will take the opportunity to again thank all Dublin Bus employees for continuing to provide an exemplary service throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.

I must clarify, as I did earlier to Deputy O'Rourke, that industrial relations issues in Dublin Bus, as is the case for all public transport operators, are a matter for the company, its employees and trade union groups. While my Department receives regular updates from Dublin Bus on industrial relations issues, neither I nor my Department have a direct role in, nor do we intervene in, such operational issues.

As I outlined in my earlier response to Deputy O’Rourke, Dublin Bus management continuously engages with its trade unions on various matters of common interest.

I understand from soundings during engagement with the company and from correspondence I have received, including a letter that was hand delivered to my Department following a gathering of Dublin Bus employees on the 20 August to highlight their opposition to the proposals, that the primary reason for the rejection of the proposal was the concern of drivers regarding the proposed changes to work practices.

I have been advised that both Dublin Bus management and the relevant trade union officials believe that there remains an appropriate industrial relations process to engage with and the parties confirmed that they have commenced further engagement on this matter.

I reiterate that, ultimately, all issues related to pay and productivity negotiations are a matter solely for the transport company, employees and trade unions. I urge all sides to continue their engagement with a view to reaching an acceptable agreement.

The backdrop to this question is the fact that 97% of Dublin Bus workers who were balloted rejected the proposals. The proposals were for changes to work practices, changes in their rostering and included lower rates for part-time drivers. The ballot was conducted with the threat of privatisation hanging over their heads but still 97% said "No". I ask the Minister to take serious note of that vote and the anger represented by it.

There is also the registered employment agreement, which was agreed in the Labour Court, that no driver should have to transfer if he or she loses a route to bus tendering. Does the Minister recognise that agreement? Does he agree that where anyone is transferred over, the NTA should fund it? This is in the agreement.

In 2015, there was an agreement that only 10% of routes were to be tendered and then only new ones. Why then is Bus Éireann, which is a sister company, tendering routes 133 and 101 over and above what was agreed back in 2015?

I very much recognise the vote. I will support the process to hopefully get a resolution to it. Our labour relations processes have, to my mind, served us well. Our trade unions do a very good job for the workers in the process. I trust the company, the management, the unions on behalf of the employees and the customers of Dublin Bus to be able to resolve this.

I do not believe what the Deputy said about the threat of privatisation. There is not a threat of privatisation. As I have said, I am a huge supporter of Dublin Bus and the provision of public services by public companies such as Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann. There are ongoing changes and variations. Earlier questions asked by Deputy Naughten on Bus Éireann showed there are constant variations in how these services are provided, including which routes they manage and how they are managed. There have also been changes with the introduction of new routes such as the new orbital routes in Dublin, which are subject to tender. There are other services where Bus Éireann has won tenders, as I recall. There are also areas in which the NTA may assess that the current service level is not meeting the public's needs and in those circumstances is able to put it out to tender, which relates to the cases referred to by the Deputy.

In a situation very similar to that at Dublin Bus, we have breaking news this morning that Aer Lingus cabin crew at Dublin Airport have voted by 87% to reject proposals for a 10% wage cut, a four-year pay freeze, lower starting rates, and cuts to sick pay and shift allowances. These austerity measures are proposed by a company where the wages are, in large measure, paid by the State and which is far from idle. A total of 20 Aer Lingus flights left that airport before 8 o'clock this morning. As with Dublin Bus, these proposals were put to the workers under threat of privatisation, this time in the form of outsourcing. I congratulate the workers on their vote. I appeal to the ground staff there who are balloting from now until next Tuesday to follow the cabin crew example. I put it to the Minister that the race to the bottom and to privatisation will not work in Dublin Bus and it will not work in Aer Lingus. Does he feel that it is time the Green Party stopped supporting this privatisation, that it renationalised Aer Lingus, and that it put an end to these austerity policies that seek to put the burden of the Covid crisis onto the backs of working people?

The exact same applies, or maybe even more so, in not intervening in those labour relations issues. We do, however, have a role with regard to trying to restore our aviation industry. We have taken a series of measures including, as the Deputy said, the significant public support for workers in that industry as in other sectors, and the management of safe travel systems within Covid-19 to try to make it safe for people to get back flying. I am encouraged that 20 flights left this morning, as the Deputy said. We need to get that back. That is the best way of protecting the interests of workers and the aviation industry. We are not going to jump into the middle of an industrial dispute in that regard. Our job is to try to get all of the country back working, including the aviation sector and the vital work it does in providing connectivity to the State, including tourism and the other benefits it brings.

If the Minister will excuse the pun, we are going to bypass Question No. 72 and move on to Question No. 73 in the name of Deputy Fergus O'Dowd.

Question No. 72 replied to with Written Answers.

Road Projects

Fergus O'Dowd

Ceist:

73. Deputy Fergus O'Dowd asked the Minister for Transport the current status of the Ardee bypass; the funding spent to date on the project; the targeted timelines for commencement; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43908/21]

Ardee town has been choked with traffic for decades. Fumes and heavy goods vehicles clog the town. It is critical that the bypass be built. Money has been allocated to it. How much funding has been spent to date, what are the timelines for commencement, and will the Minister make a statement on the matter?

I answered some of these questions earlier so I will not read out the full response. To answer a very specific question, however, €8.1 million has been spent to date. I recall the Deputy was Chair of the transport committee when we had a specific session to consider the road. As I recall, there were concerns from local residents around some of the traffic management implications of it. There were also some environmental concerns around the bogland to the west of the proposed route alignment. I hope we can overcome those.

My understanding is that we are still waiting, in a sense, for the planning issue in regard to that and for An Bord Pleanála to issue a direction. Subject to those planning and other assessments being put in place, it is hoped that we can get the road approved through both the planning system and the public spending code system.

It is the type of project that will really create opportunities, going back to what I was saying earlier about towns in west Cork. The same applies in Ardee, a town with huge amounts of traffic going through it and a very historic, beautiful town centre, which could be restored and brought back to life if we can get this project up and running.

The key issues, therefore, are around that planning and consenting system, subject to that being agreed. We would have to get funding, obviously, and there are difficult funding choices, but this project is very far advanced. It would be the end of a very long and extensive planning system. With the resolution of those local traffic management and environmental issues, I see no reason it should not proceed.

I thank the Minister. The point is that people like Councillor Dolores Minogue, who is a former chairman of Louth County Council, have fought very hard for improved quality of life in Ardee. There has been significant investment in Ardee Castle and in urban regeneration. Clearly, the town is ready now having suffered greatly as a result of the recession and so on.

For absolute clarity, is the Minister supporting the national development plan, NDP, inclusion of this road? It is in the plan. Will it be in the next plan? Will the Minister provide the funding for it? As I see it, there is some ambiguity in his response. The planning has been dealt with. It is before An Bord Pleanála now. Is the Minister saying there are other or new obstacles in his mind that may arise at this stage or can he say that there will not be such obstacles?

No, I do not see obstacles. There is a funding constraint more broadly. The existing NDP included a huge number of different roads. The reality is the funding of those would eat up the budget for the next 20, 30 or 40 years if they were all to be completed at one time. We will have to prioritise and it will be difficult. It is not a question of saying "No" to particular projects but we will have to prioritise certain projects in a very tight funding situation. I think there has been broad agreement in this House every time I have said that in a funding-constrained world, we should prioritise town bypasses that promote the Town Centre First strategy, and particularly, obviously, those that are right at the end of the planning system. The likes of the Ardee bypass should be first up, in my mind, but there is a real constraint. That €250 million on the Macroom bypass is not an insignificant chunk of funding. We are spending another €250 million in Westport on the Castlebar road. It does lead to a funding constraint. The priority, in my mind, for the funds we have should be on further town bypasses.

I welcome the Minister's commitment to towns but I do not hear his absolute commitment to Ardee. I still hear ambiguity in what he is saying. As far as I am concerned as a backbencher in this Government, it is in the national development plan. That, to me, is sacrosanct and it cannot and must not be changed. The people of Ardee will not accept that it should be changed, after waiting decades for this development. It is a wonderful location with an awful lot to offer but the quality of life has been affected by the fumes and heavy goods vehicles. I invite the Minister to come and visit. I do not accept that it may be excluded in the next round of funding when it is clearly and absolutely identified for funding in this round.

It has to get through planning. The Government has to make decisions on a sequential basis and that has to be the next key issue. Something being in the existing national development plan is not the best way of securing funding. In truth, if one said that all the projects being in the existing NDP means they will receive guaranteed funding, they would break the budget ten times over. As I said, what I believe gives the best guarantee and certainty around funding is a real commitment to support bypasses first. Ardee ticks exactly the right boxes for the sort of project we should be supporting. I am saying that here and I hope to say exactly that in the NDP review. We have to give Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, certain flexibility in that regard. We have to assess the planning stream and the work stream. I believe, however, that what limited resources we have should go to bypasses first before anything else. In my mind, that is the greatest security for the town of Ardee compared to anything written in the existing NDP.

Regional Airports

Cathal Crowe

Ceist:

74. Deputy Cathal Crowe asked the Minister for Transport when a chairperson will be appointed to the board of the Shannon Group; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [44116/21]

Violet-Anne Wynne

Ceist:

80. Deputy Violet-Anne Wynne asked the Minister for Transport the status of the appointment of the CEO for the Shannon Group and the proposed review of the Shannon Group governance structures; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [44157/21]

I wish to ask the Minister for Transport when we can finally expect to see a chairperson appointed to the board of the Shannon Group.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 74 and 80 together.

The Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, and I have recently concluded interviews for potential candidates, who were proposed by the Public Appointments Service. All five people we interviewed were eminently qualified, which makes for a difficult decision. We hope to conclude that process within the coming days, and return to the Government and then to the Dáil with details of the appointment of a suitable chair. I am confident that we will be able to get someone who is very well qualified for the role.

The chairperson, whoever takes on the job, will have a very real challenge. As the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, said earlier, we are in an environment where still, to this day, the American Government is effectively restricting transatlantic traffic. There will probably be a slow return. There is no immediate return in sight of business travel and while there has been a significant return to travel for personal reasons, holidays and so on, it is still at a very low level compared to what was happening historically. One should not underestimate the challenge and crisis our aviation sector is in - Shannon Airport as much as any other airport.

I am encouraged since talking to officials this week that we are seeing a number of flights planned for right through the winter. The Shannon Airport to Heathrow Airport route has been restored, but there is only one flight per day. We would like to see that back to its pre-pandemic schedule of three flights per day in order that it facilitates business traffic. Whoever the chair is will have to work with what I see as a very good management team in the airport to get flights back. It will help that the group has been focused down now on the industrial estate building and the airport operations. It is appropriate that the heritage role has been taken on by the county council and local authorities. It is, therefore, focused and tighter. The job is to get those flights back and the region with them.

I thank the Minister. I want to thank his colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, for coming on site to the airport two weeks ago and seeing first-hand all the preparatory work that is under way to ready ourselves for the season ahead.

It was August of last year when Rose Hynes stepped down as chairperson of the board. We then saw an appointment process getting under way and that ran until February when Aaron Forde was appointed. His tenure lasted a matter of hours; that was a botched exercise really. We then asked that this process be slowed down ever so slightly to get the right person. We do not want someone with an agribusiness or economist background. We need someone in Shannon who understands aviation to be the helmsman or helmswoman of an airport that for decades has been the economic catalyst in the midwest. I am keen to know what kind of timeframe the Minister is talking about here because we have had delays. We asked the Minister to slow it down ever so slightly. We were talking about weeks at the time, and certainly not the 13 months at which we now find ourselves since the departure of Rose Hynes. I would love to know whether it will happen this month because we are really looking for some direction where Shannon Airport is concerned.

We know that Shannon Airport is a great driver of economic growth in the midwest region. Shannon Group comprises Shannon Airport, Shannon Commercial Properties and Shannon International Aviation Services Centre. I also seek an update on the appointment of the chairperson for the Shannon Group governance structures.

To answer Deputy’s Crowe’s point, we expect to be able to do it this month. That delay or that sequence of events was unfortunate.

It was done at a time when the airport was effectively closed because of the Covid crisis. Now is the time to come back to get that chair in place. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, to answer the question too because she is centrally involved, and to give her perspective on the approach.

The Minister and I are acutely aware of the importance of putting in place a chair of Shannon Group and I am listening very closely to the concerns of Oireachtas Members. We share those concerns about the future of Shannon Airport and the need for leadership there in terms of a chair being put in place. As the Minister has said, I commend Mary Considine and the management team there who have steered the airport through the most difficult time and all the staff, in terms of the pressures they are under due to Covid-19. This is an absolute priority for us and we need somebody who can show that leadership, not only for the airport but for the midwest region.

It is not just a geographical stepping stone between Europe and the United States; Shannon Airport offers much more than that. We have the pre-clearance facility in Shannon which is so important. We need to see that back up and fully functioning again. In the past number of weeks, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, was in the airport to open and see at first hand the new baggage screening facility which is unique in Europe. It is a €12 million facility backed hugely by the Government. It is unique in Europe in that the United States and European security requirements are now perfectly aligned in Shannon Airport for screening baggage. Along with pre-clearance, that gives us an edge over other European airports, but we need to drive it on more now. We need to see planes back in the sky. I am delighted we are hearing that United Airlines should be back there in the springtime. That is certainly something we need to see. In the Minister's concluding remarks, I ask him to refer to policy proposals I submitted to both him and the Minister of State some weeks back, to note if his Department looked at them. Much has been done for Shannon Airport but a hell of a lot more is needed. Until we have planes back in the sky, we will not see a full recovery of our airport and the many people who depend on it.

The role of the Minister and the Department in appointing the members of the board is also questionable. This is further exacerbated and demonstrated in that the track record is far from impressive. First, we had a six-month gap from the exiting of Rose Hynes in August 2020 and here we are, over 12 months later, with the appointment still left vacant. That is completely unacceptable and on the ground, the Clare folk feel the exact same. They do not want excuses any longer. They want results. The Minister also committed to undertaking a review of the Shannon Group structures in August 2020. We still have no conclusions or results from that either. This goes hand in hand and what the Clare folk would say is "actions speak louder than words". We have no confidence or faith in this Government giving Shannon Airport the priority it deserves and needs.

We followed the appropriate Public Appointments Service approach here and it is absolutely correct and proper. Unfortunate circumstances meant we had to run a second process but that could not have been foreseen. It was appropriate for us to respond in the way we did. The Public Appointments Service has done a good job. From what I have seen, it carried it out properly. It did take time but sometime this takes time rather than being rushed and I am confident the right approach was taken.

I concur with the Minister. Deputy Crowe was right about the US pre-clearance in that Shannon Airport has an edge. As he knows, certain things are out of our control because these severe entry restrictions are on the US side but I assure him there are a number of bilaterals happening at EU level with the US and between Ireland, the Taoiseach and the US. We understand the importance of that. With regard to Shannon Group, there is restructuring around the heritage sites, as a result of that review process. The number one ask has been the reopening of international travel. That has happened. As I said earlier, in my previous replies, we are also looking at further supports for the aviation sector. Shannon Airport, Cork Airport and all of our airports will be part of that ongoing process.

Driver Test

Darren O'Rourke

Ceist:

75. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for Transport if he will provide an update on his efforts to clear the driving test backlog including the plan to hire additional driving testers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [44094/21]

Due to the suspension of driver testing services during the initial pandemic response, along with the health protocols required since the resumption of services, they are operating well below normal capacity and a significant backlog has developed. Covid-19 has had a profound effect on the delivery of these services, which must comply with occupational and public health guidelines. Fewer daily tests can now be conducted due to social distancing and priority is given to essential workers and then to those who have had tests cancelled due to Covid.

In line with the gradual reopening of services this summer, driving tests for all those who are eligible to take the test and have been waiting longest have now recommenced. Critical front-line workers continue to be the priority for the driver testing services. The latest figures available to Sunday, 12 September, show, in spite of the Covid challenges, 101,870 tests have been offered and the Road Safety Authority, RSA, has delivered 92,672 driving tests in 2021. It is highly significant that no Covid case has been attributed to the driving test.

My Department is liaising with the RSA on an ongoing basis to meet the growing demand for tests. The RSA has a complement of 100 permanent driver testers. An additional 40 temporary driver testers have been authorised, along with 36 approved for retention or rehire in 2020. These testers have been recruited and trained and commenced live testing in July. In addition, sanction was granted at the end of June to add a further 40 testers to the cohort. When trained and in place, this will increase the number of testers to 216. The RSA is looking to increase the number of tests from six to seven per tester, per day, from the end of this month, as well as extending operating hours and expanding facilities at existing centres or opening new centres.

There is an average of 3,254 tests conducted per week and the number of tests scheduled is increasing on a gradual basis. However, it has be noted that approximately 5% of all tests scheduled are not conducted or are abandoned on the day for a number of reasons, such as the driver not having NCT certification or adequate insurance. In addition, it is disappointing to note that a number of people do not turn up on the day of their scheduled test.

I thank the Minister of State for the update. We appreciate the challenges but there is a significant backlog of tests. Some 105,000 is the latest figure I have in terms of numbers waiting for a test and at different stages of preparedness, in fairness. That is more than a year's backlog, based on last year. From what the Minister of State is saying, we hope to increase the number of tests that can be conducted. I hope it does not take that long. Can the Minister of State outline the timeline for the additional recruitment of the additional 40 extra testers? The RSA asked for those last October and we are one year on. When will they be recruited and how quickly will we see the backlog being addressed?

The previous 40 have been recruited and they are now fully trained and started live testing in July. I know the question was not on theory tests but there is really positive work happening in that space. In June, we had a backlog of 129,431 theory tests. That is down to 71,227 and there are free slots available for the driver theory test. Some 9,000 to 10,000 tests per week are happening. That is in a very good space, for which I commend the RSA. From 12 September, some 67,684 people were waiting to receive an invitation for a driver test, while 10,094 had received a test date. A further 28,631 people have applied for their test but are not eligible to take it. With a possibility of 4,881 tests per week, it should be possible to clear the backlog in 14 weeks, allowing for those 40 testers and the seven tests, per tester, per day.

The backlogs and waiting times will reduce further when those additional 40 testers are sanctioned but hopefully by December that 14-week delay will be dealt with.

I thank the Minister of State for her reply. One of the proposals that has been raised by driving instructors and others is that we would avail of the resource of driving instructors, either to assess people they deem ready for tests or possibly give them the responsibility of testing. Have any of those types of hybrid models been considered, or does the Minister of State not see them as necessary at this stage given the plans she has outlined? There is huge frustration for the 105,000 people who are waiting. Has the Minister of State given any consideration to using driving instructors to increase the efficiency of the testing process, whether that be in getting people test-ready sooner or assessing the tests themselves?

I add my voice to those of the driving instructors. There should be some interaction to see if we can use a hybrid model and create a system that will allow for people to be test-ready. It would basically be a streamlining of the situation. I had submitted a later question about the theory test. In fairness to the Minister of State, she has answered a fair number of questions or given information about that. We are talking about December for dealing with the driving test backlog. That is on the record and I appreciate that. Obviously all will be done to make up for any lags. The Minister of State does not see any major difficulties relating to theory tests into the future. If there is any element of backlog, what sort of timeline are we talking about for clearing it?

For the theory test, and I will make reference to the driving test as well, there are one in five no-shows. It is very important to say that. Almost 30% of those who sit their theory test fail it so they will be reapplying for that and there are free slots available for the theory test. There is a huge amount of work there. The target was to have 50,000 theory tests per month so that is well on target and the RSA is working well in relation to that.

Regarding the driving test backlog, there will be, and is, pent-up demand. There are people who did not apply for a driving test as they did not consider themselves essential workers. The driver testing failure rate is about 44%. The Deputy's point about getting drivers test-ready is valid. There are a number of people who have applied for the driving test who do not feel they are ready. We have all been there in the past. People apply for it hoping they will be ready and when it comes to it they are not. There will be pent-up demand. The truer figure for that backlog is about 46,500 people currently waiting. With the extra 40 testers, and seven tests per tester per day, we should see that backlog reducing by December.

Rail Network

Fergus O'Dowd

Ceist:

76. Deputy Fergus O'Dowd asked the Minister for Transport the status of plans to expand the DART to Drogheda and the electrification plans for the northern line; the expected timeline for the proposed diesel hybrid fleet to commence services to Drogheda ahead of the electrification; if any other relevant detail will be provided; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43907/21]

Drogheda is rapidly growing into a city. There is phenomenal growth in our town and over 40,000 people reside there now. In east Meath and south Louth there is huge growth in the population. Key and central to this growth is adequate and appropriate transport locally and nationally, and there are weekly applications - some very controversial - under strategic housing developments to An Bord Pleanála in that regard. What is the status of the plan to expand the DART to Drogheda, which was announced some years ago? I ask the Minister for an update.

The DART+ programme is critical for our transport future in Dublin and the eastern region. It comprises five complementary projects: DART+ West; DART+ South West; DART+ Coastal North; DART+ Coastal South; and DART+ Fleet. Naturally, there is a sequencing to the delivery of these different projects as each sits within the overall programme framework. It is also the case that the success of some of the projects depends on the early delivery of other projects. Key to the overall programme is the delivery first of DART+ West, which is the most advanced project. Its early delivery is particularly important due to the new depot to be constructed which will facilitate the huge expansion of the fleet. I understand the second round of public consultation is under way in relation to that project with a closing date at the end of the month. Next is DART+ South West and an initial public consultation has already taken place, with a second one planned before the end of the year.

Turning to the DART+ Coastal projects, I am informed that a design team was appointed earlier in the year. Work has begun on the preliminary design and the preparation of an emerging preferred option which will then be the subject of a public consultation and will inform the preparation of the necessary planning documentation. Finally, there is DART+ Fleet, which is of particular importance to the northern line as it will enable improved services on the line in advance of the later electrification. This will be achieved through the use of battery-electric units on the current northern line and will mean improved and expanded services for passengers. A preferred bidder has been identified but it is too early at this stage to give an indicative date as regards when one can expect to see the new fleet introduced into service. However, that should become a lot clearer in the next few months as contracts are signed and commitments made. The northern line will also benefit from the introduction in 2023 of new intercity railcars, ICRs, which are currently being built and will provide a welcome boost to capacity and services in the short term.

I welcome the commitment to extend the DART to Drogheda and I am meeting Jim Meade, the chief executive of Irish Rail, next week to discuss further plans they may have for that. It is absolutely critical that the Minister continues with the commitment that is there. I have no doubt he will be aware, as I am from listening to the radio this morning, of the backup of traffic in Julianstown coming from east Meath, Drogheda and south Louth trying to get to Dublin and indeed traffic coming from Dublin to get into that same area for people going to work. It is critical that we have both an alternative bypass of Julianstown and also a high-speed hybrid electric fleet in place as soon as possible. To be clear, I think what the Minister is saying is that the hybrid vehicles will be on the rail before the electrification comes and that should mean it will be in place much sooner than one would normally expect. Again, what timeline has the Minister been given for that?

The key initial development is those new ICR units which can fit within the existing train, adding an additional carriage. They are very imminent. Going on memory, they will be coming in 2023. It is not a long delay. The next iteration is the new battery-electric DART trains and they will be a significant improvement and improve capacity. They do not require the full electrification of the line as the battery will kick in where there are not overhead rails. The timeline for that is not certain yet but it will not be that long. We have a major problem in that there are so many public transport projects and roads projects. Regarding the timelines, a lot of the physical construction on some of the rail investments will happen over a period but that new fleet coming in will provide immediate capacity increases, under the 2023 plus timeline that I mentioned. That will be very significant for commuters on the northern DART lines but also elsewhere on the network.

That is very welcome. The key point is that Drogheda will become a major regional transport hub. Hopefully we will have a new station in north Drogheda, and Laytown itself will become a DART station. The frequency of commuter services between Dundalk and the whole north east will also be significantly improved by making Drogheda city a hub for rail transport.

Does the Minister have an updated or guaranteed timeline on the Enterprise service, which is meant to be going to an hourly service? Do we know over what period of time this will definitely be introduced? That service is vital for Dundalk and Drogheda.

We have just started a strategic rail review. Included in that is consideration of an upgrade on the Dublin-Belfast line, including new trains and so on. I do not have the specific details here but I will come back to the Deputy directly with information on that.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.