Covid-19 (Transport): Statements

I welcome the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to the Chamber for statements on Covid-19 and transport matters.

I am very glad to be here to speak to Senators today on the impacts of Covid-19 on the transport sector. The Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, will follow later this afternoon with statements to the Seanad on the impacts of Covid-19 on the aviation sector. I will speak to the detail of Covid-19 impacts on other sectors of transport and will also update Members on plans to introduce mandatory hotel quarantine for international travellers from 20 designated countries.

Early this week the Government published the Covid-19 Resilience & Recovery 2021: The Path Ahead plan. The plan outlines a cautious and measured approach for managing Covid-19 over the coming year. For the moment, despite the significant progress that we as a country have made since January, daily case numbers and the number of hospital admissions due to Covid remain high. It is not currently possible to introduce any easing of restrictions, except for the phased and safe return of children to in-school education.

I sincerely hope that as we progress through March, we will see the continued reduction of daily case numbers and that all children will be able to return to in-school education by mid-April. This, however, is not guaranteed and it relies on the continued effort of all our citizens. I know this is extremely hard and a lot of people are at breaking point. If we can stick with the plan as advised by our public health experts and continue to make progress and increase the pace of vaccine roll-out, we can in the late spring and summer look forward to some relaxation of measures and be able to meet with our loved ones outdoors once again.

As Members are aware, Covid-19 has had significant impacts on the transport sector, many of which will be long-lasting in their effects. I will briefly take the opportunity to outline these and the steps we have taken to address them.

I will now set out the testing and mandatory hotel quarantine measures in the context of international travel. As an island, Ireland is heavily reliant in high-quality international connectivity. This Government, and the preceding one, have kept borders open throughout the pandemic to maintain critical supply lines and for essential travel. Since the pandemic began, travel to Ireland by air and sea for most of the past year has been at 95% below 2019 levels. There has been a huge and sustained negative impact on the maritime and aviation sectors. The Government has acted to balance the safety of our nation with the need to maintain our connectivity and supply chains, all in the context of our position on a shared island and our membership of the EU.

More recently, experience of new and more infectious variants of the virus have necessitated intensified safeguards to prevent importation and the spread of these variants of concern. The Government has mandated that any person travelling to Ireland must have taken and have proof of a negative polymerase chain reaction, PCR, test in advance of travel. Within a day of news emerging of the new variant circulating in the UK we banned flights from Great Britain to Ireland. We have stopped visa-free travel from South America. We also have put the quarantine requirement for passengers without an exemption on a mandatory, legal footing.

This week, the Government has introduced a Bill to provide for mandatory quarantine in hotels for travellers arriving in Ireland from certain designated states. These will be designated based on the assessed level of risk by public health experts, and this assessment will take into account the presence of new Covid variants of concern.

All travellers arriving in Ireland who have been in designated states within the previous 14 days will be required to quarantine. This includes anyone who enters Ireland via Northern Ireland. Any such travellers will have to book their quarantine in advance and present themselves directly at their quarantine facility following their entry to the State. Travellers will not be allowed to go anywhere else first.

The Government is determined to enact this legislation as quickly as possible. It was passed by the Dáil this week and will come to this House next week.

Restrictions on international travel will be kept under constant review to ensure travel does not become a weak link in our response as domestic transmission is brought under control. The Government will continue to balance the imposition of such restrictions, and their impact on morbidity and mortality associated with the disease, with protecting civil liberties.

I will now turn to the maritime sector. Over the past year, shipping and ports operations have responded strongly and nimbly to maintain continuity of supply chains of essential goods while mitigating the risk of virus transmission, ensuring both workers and passengers are transported as safely as possible. I am deeply appreciative of those efforts. The maritime sector is essential to the continued supply of goods, accounting as it does for 90% of Ireland's international trade in volume terms and I know this sector is facing challenges, not least of which is the significant decline in passenger numbers.

The haulage and freight industry has also played a huge role in keeping flows of goods moving into and out of the country during the pandemic while also adapting to the huge changes to our supply chains arising from Brexit. Challenges to the sector have also been compounded by the imposition of testing by some EU member states for international hauliers. A new French law came into force on 28 January requiring truck drivers arriving in France on direct ferries from Ireland to show a negative Covid PCR test result. My Department quickly established and funded the operation and supply of Covid tests for commercial drivers travelling to France. As of 23 February, 4,294 tests have been carried out. The numbers testing positive are very low, with only ten positive cases, representing 0.23% of the total tested. My Department is in regular engagement with the French Government and will continue to keep this situation under close review.

With regard to public transport, just as there has been a very significant drop in international travel passenger numbers to Ireland, impacting our maritime and aviation sectors, so too have we seen a similar downward trend on public transport passenger numbers.

On public transport, passenger numbers are between 10% and 25% of 2019 levels for rail and bus services, respectively. Passenger volumes have remained stable during January 2021, with overall public transport demand at 22% of pre-Covid levels. However, there has been a slight increase in demand in recent weeks, with passenger numbers now close to 25% of pre-Covid levels. This drop in passenger numbers has inevitably had financial implications for the public transport sector as fare revenues have plummeted. As part of the 2021 Estimates process, my Department secured significantly higher than normal levels of funding of €670 million for public service obligation, PSO, and Local Link services. Most recently, Government approved an extension of the temporary supports for the commercial bus sector, which were first introduced last summer. These supports ensure that public transport services continue to be available to essential workers across the economy and for broader societal reasons.

Road safety services have also been impacted negatively and arrangements have been put in place to assist those affected. I do not have time in this opening statement to go through all of the measures in detail, but I am happy to come back to these in my closing remarks if Members would like more information. Suffice it to say, one of the areas I am most concerned about is the existing and growing backlog in driver testing services. This is necessitated by the reduction in non-essential activity across the economy, and at currently in level 5, driver tests are available only to those who are involved in essential services. Significant backlogs have resulted from this. I am in discussions with officials regarding how we can return to the normal target for the maximum waiting time, which is approximately ten weeks. It is important to recognise that there are no quick fixes and that the continuing build-up of applications mean that it will take some time to achieve this target.

On sustainable mobility, Professor Philip Nolan said last week that we should aim for an outdoor summer this year. My Department and the National Transport Authority, NTA, are taking steps to provide for additional space for walking and cycling. This includes a rethinking of our allocation of road space and ensuring we place the pedestrian and the cyclist at the centre of our thinking. This reallocation of space will contribute to delivery of the Government's roadmap for reopening society and business. It provides additional safe commuting capacity at a time public transport must run at low capacity for essential workers, who still need to travel to work. It improves our capacity to socially distance in urban centres and will support the gradual reopening of retail and commercial spaces.

While we can begin to look ahead to better days in the summer, I would like to state unequivocally that I am in no doubt about the scale and depth of the challenges ahead of us, which are like none faced in most of our lifetimes. They are felt in all sectors of our society, and not least in transport.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach Gníomhach. It is good to see her in the Chair and I welcome the Minister. It is probably no exaggeration to say it has been a frightening and scary time for all of us in the country. The Health (Amendment) Bill 2021 on quarantining was before the Dáil this week and it is due before this House on Monday. While that is a necessary step, it is important that it be balanced with human rights and that is what the Government is doing.

This is also a time for a reassessment of where we are as a country. At a meeting of the Joint Committee on Climate Action this week, chaired by Deputy Leddin of the Green Party, we examined emissions from transport, in particular, and different sectors. If we think about what has happened over the past year where there has been an overall reduction of only 6% in our emissions during a time most of us were at home, it shows the scale of the challenge before us. We have this opportunity, as the Minister said, if we are going to all be at home, to invest in the kind of transport infrastructure that will make our lives the best they can be while we are in our communities. We also have an opportunity to bring back economic activity to areas that have not experienced such activity previously.

We know that international travel will be reduced so what do we do instead? We must, therefore, reinvest in local tourism and transport. That is what was laid down in the programme for Government. We did not know at the time these measures were being put in the programme for Government, however, that they were going to be even more important now than ever before.

We have had many Green wins over the past couple of weeks but they are wins for the Government and society as a whole. There was €68 million for greenways, with quite a significant portion of that going to Galway, for instance. We are still seeing the July stimulus funding dripping into communities. We have seen €240 million for cycling and walking, with 248 new promised staff. We need to see action on all of that quickly in order to build up our economies. In my constituency of Galway, having a cycle bridge over the Corrib across the old Clifden railway line will be transformative.

Previously, we discussed roads projects. We need to address that elephant in the room as well. When we are looking at emissions, overall there has been a 136% increase in transport emissions in a ten-year period in Ireland and we are now looking at a reduction overall of 7% per annum. We will need to change the way we look at transport drastically and that means looking at what roads are necessary and what roads are not necessary. When we look at roads that can bypass towns and bring back public realm spaces in those towns and improve the quality of life in terms of air quality, those are opportunities where we could say that roads actually make people's lives better. In particular, I am thinking of such places as Moycullen and Tipperary town. Some of my party's Deputies, such as Deputies Ó Cathasigh and Leddin, would be behind those kinds of projects that would bring life back, particularly where arterial routes are damaging people's quality of life. A great deal of freight goes along some of these roads that need to be upgraded in order to make people's lives better.

The Minister mentioned freight. It is a good opportunity to talk about how we manage freight. Dr. Tadhg O'Mahony came before the Joint Committee on Climate Action of which I am a member earlier on this week and stated that a key plank of improving the sustainability of freight in the EU is achieving a modal shift to rail. Now that we really have this European funding and other funding, how are we to put that in place to make our lives better? Rail is long term. It is outside of what we are looking at but now is probably the time to look at investing in that Waterford-to-Limerick line and the western rail corridor as well. If we will be switching to electric, maybe it is freight that we should look at first because that is where a great deal of the emissions and the pollution are emanating from. It is certainly quite clear that even a switch to electric vehicles does not bring the quality-of-life part of the economy back to areas in which we will really need to invest heavily in the aftermath of this pandemic, and as we plan for the future in how we deal with tourism, how we get around and how we deal with a better quality of life for our children that we have seen glimpses of throughout this pandemic.

I welcome the Minister. Looking around me, we are surrounded by members of the Green Party, including the Acting Chairperson, Senator Garvey. It is a happy situation that the Acting Chairperson is here.

I want to express my agreement with Senator Pauline O'Reilly that we have to rethink many issues, but the rethinking is not all one way. It is not all rethinking on the part of people who are not environmentalists. Some environmentalists have to do a bit of rethinking too.

I will give the House one example. An Taisce and members of the green movement - I am not so sure of the position of members of the Green Party, in particular - were all against one-off housing in rural areas as a bad thing. With the roll-out of broadband technology and such developments we are going to have to rethink this notion that it is a good idea to concentrate people in villages and towns for environmental reasons. I wonder if that is sustainable and I do not think that it coincides with what most Irish people want. If one looks at an Ordnance Survey map of the 1800s or 1900s, for example, our population has always been scattered and it is naive in my view to think that the orthodoxy of ten years ago, which is that we should get everybody into villages and towns and wave a magic wand over society, is the way forward. I do not think that it is any more.

My second point is to ask environmentalists to consider the following matter: if we have all electric or hydrogen vehicles in ten or 15 years' time, there is still going to be the same requirement for people to move from A to B for various reasons and there is no reason to give up on roads. I agree with Senator Pauline O’Reilly in that roads are not inherently bad but there is no need to stop the road to Sligo or to stop connecting the north west by really usable roads to Dublin. It should still be a convenient journey for our hydrogen-powered lorries and electric-powered cars.

I agree with Senator O’Reilly that rail is a good thing. In ways I am a railway buff myself but I have to say that there has to be a sense of the realities here. When talking about rail for cargo transport in Ireland, this is a model that we had in the 19th century and up to halfway through the 20th century but it is really not that efficient to take stuff off and on to trains and to put it onto vans and lorries for distribution around the country. Anyone interested in railways would have looked at the Reshaping of British Railways Beeching report and at how lorries killed the railways, branch lines and much freight transport. We must be practical about these things. Lorry transport, whether it is hydrogen or electric or whatever, is going to be an important part of the country’s transport from now on.

Moving to Dublin city, I was involved professionally in a matter which had to do with planning for satellite towns outside of Dublin in Kildare. I noticed that Senator Martin referred in the House to people possibly commuting from Kildare to Dublin by bike. God bless them if they are going to do that in the winter in Ireland. However, we have to consider if it is a good idea for people to spend two or three hours of their lives commuting daily in and out of cities. The wider implication of that is that we have to rethink our cities. What is going on in Dublin at the moment is an absolute scandal. We are not rethinking Dublin at all. It is okay to say we will have more cycleways. I support and have always supported the idea of making Dublin a much more cycle-friendly city. I will not give out about that but I believe the idea of reimagining Dublin requires much more radical approaches to urban renewal and planning. The Minister will know from our own patch of the woods that the proposal to build a 14-storey apartment block on a suburban road in Donnybrook, a tower block, is an extraordinary departure from what would normally be considered decent planning. Density and high-rise are not necessarily the same thing. One only has to look at Portobello in the Minister’s own constituency, or Oxmantown, to see high-density occupation of land but no high-rise.

There is a need to bring the community along with things. In Dublin, in particular, the changes to the road use, the pedestrianisation and the de-vehicularisation of areas have to be planned very carefully because when “normality” returns, if ever it does, we are going to be faced with a rotten core at the city centre if we do not have access to it.

Not everyone can go by bus or by train. With regard to BusConnects in particular, one cannot do the weekend shopping, collect children from a crèche and bring other children to school by bus. People have to give up the idea that buses are the answer to everything. Individual mobility is all important.

This is not a time for people who wear their environmental credentials on their sleeve to say that this is the moment when we rethink everything. It is time for them to do a lot of rethinking. Where are the Luas lines to Lucan and Finglas? I want to see many practical changes from those instead of simply talking about environmentalism, and I mean that in the warmest possible sense. I welcome the Minister and thank him for his contribution.

I thank the Minister for being with us. At this juncture it would be right to recognise the front-line workers in the transport sector working in both public and private companies who have heroically continued with their duties over the past couple of months. It is often forgotten that they are a key part of the front-line effort and worked so diligently.

There is no doubt that Covid-19 has wreaked havoc across the economy, none more so than in the transport sector. Twelve or 13 months ago we thought problems would emanate from Brexit and that the inability to trade goods between North and South and east and west would be the biggest challenges of the aviation sector. Unfortunately, that has paled into insignificance. Covid-19 has devastated hundreds of businesses and tens of thousands of jobs and livelihoods across the aviation sector. Undoubtedly, aviation has been the worst affected sector in terms of size and scale of operations and the livelihoods that have been impacted as a result of the job losses and very significantly reduced incomes, which has caused enormous anxiety and stress in many homes across the country.

Passenger activity through our airports is running at a fraction of normal levels. Every business in the sector is haemorrhaging money, notwithstanding the very significant State supports available, which are welcome but are not enough or not necessary to save the businesses through this prolonged period. Sadly, the optimism of last autumn with the expectation that by early this year we would be into the opening up of foreign travel has faded. Unfortunately, the chance of foreign travel happening any time this year will be very limited. That has put further pressure on the businesses and the communities across the aviation sector.

There is no doubt that the biggest challenge for our country, as an island nation that depends on connectivity and supports a tourism business across the economy that employs between 150,000 and 250,000 people, is the protection of that connectivity. We need to retain key routes from all our airports to ensure we have a base on which to restart the activity. The best estimates suggest that we will not be getting back to 2019 passenger numbers until 2024.

In protecting key routes it is important that we do not look only to Dublin. We have got to protect routes into Shannon, Cork and other airports but Shannon, which is the airport I know best, supports the economic, tourism and business activity across the mid-west and the west. It is important that continued funding be provided not just for capital projects but also for the ongoing maintenance and operations of the airport. We have to keep these businesses effectively on life support until we get back to a level of normality, whatever that might be, but we will get to that point. We will get to the other side but the airport workers, airline workers and all those in the ancillary businesses who have dedicated their lives to the development of businesses and to supporting the tourism sector attached to the aviation business now need our support and the State should not be found wanting in that regard.

There is no doubt that our airlines are in very significant financial straits. Looking at some of the statistics, approximately 20 airlines across the EU got state support last year. Countries like Denmark, which is around the same size as Ireland, gave SAS €583 million. Finnair got €286 million from the Finnish Government. In terms of the bigger airlines, France provided Air France with €7 billion. Germany gave Lufthansa €9 billion. Belgian Airlines got €290 million and the Netherlands gave KLM €3.4 billion.

I believe the State will have to put its shoulder behind the airlines and take a strategic shareholding in Aer Lingus and Ryanair, if necessary, to ensure their continued commitment to this country. I am not, as some might suggest, talking about nationalising these airlines. It is about taking a strategic interest at the right time to protect connectivity and, over time, that shareholding can be factored back into the marketplace when we return to a more normalised environment. We did the same thing for the pillar banks when we had a financial crisis in that the State stepped in to protect our banking system and banking sector. I believe now is the time for the State to look very seriously at taking a strategic interest in airlines, if necessary, and other airline-associated businesses to ensure they are there to protect the economy that this sector supports when we start to build our way out of this.

Although it is not directly related to transport and relates instead to people who are impacted by the pandemic, I believe the Government is going to have to hold the feet of the banks to the fire again. They got support in the past and that was the right thing for the economy. However, I am certainly hearing from people who have lost their jobs and who are on very reduced incomes as a result of Covid, particularly in the aviation sector, that banks are not really engaging in terms of the moratorium. The reality for many people is that the rainy day fund is gone, savings are gone and moneys that were put aside to educate kids have been used just to sustain life over the past 12 months, yet the banks are still pressurising people, where there were moratoriums on loans and mortgages, to try to find some non-existent source of these moneys. These people are hard-working and have always shown a commitment to repaying their debts, and they will do so again. They just need a little time to get through this.

On the issue of e-scooters, I understand there are proposals to bring legislation to the House and the Minister might clarify when he hopes to do that. It is a method of decarbonising our transport systems in a micro-way, but it is also a personalised mode of transport during this pandemic crisis that gives a social distance to people who want to commute.

I call Senator John McGahon, who is sharing time with Senator John Cummins.

I want to raise two issues. The first is the practical changes that will arise in transport after Covid. For the last seven years, I commuted from Dundalk to Dublin and I used a tax saver ticket. A tax saver ticket is a yearly ticket and a person can use it seven days a week. If I was to get the Matthews bus from my home town to Dublin, it would cost roughly €2,744 a year, and I could use it at any stage over the seven days. For the last two years, I decided to get Irish Rail, and an annual ticket with Irish Rail cost roughly €3,620. Depending on their tax bracket, people could save between €1,000 and 1,300, so they are a great idea. The problem is that Covid has totally changed what is a normal working week for so many people. The concept of working from home is going to continue and, as a result, we need to respect and understand that, and tailor commuter tickets to meet that demand.

Last July, I wrote to the National Transport Authority, NTA, to ask what its plans were to introduce, say, a three-day tax saver ticket, or at least a multi-day ticket that allows hop on, hop off travel, so people are not wasting money by buying something that lasts them a year. The NTA came back to me to say it was trying to technically facilitate this on the Leap card system. I followed up in September and October and I got the same response, although, admittedly, I have not followed up since then. The point is we are now getting to the stage of Covid where people will start to migrate back into offices in the next couple of months and we need to plan for that. The way we do that is by facilitating multi-share tickets on the Leap card system.

While this is not a direct responsibility of the Minister, I would like that, at some stage in the future when he is dealing with the NTA, he would ask for an update on that matter. If we can get that ready to be rolled out the minute people start returning to office life in the summer or in September, it would be a good idea. The most important point is that it saves people money and gives them more money in their back pockets.

I want to raise the issue of the bike share schemes and e-scooter schemes with regard to transport levels.

Bike share schemes should not only be provided in Dublin, Cork, Galway and other highly populated cities but should also be provided in large and small provincial towns across the country. I am from the town of Dundalk, which has a population of approximately 40,000 people. It is an excellent area. A large number of people are employed in multinational companies and there are thousands of students in Dundalk Institute of Technology, DkIT. We have great amenities so a bike share scheme could really work in a town like Dundalk. I would appreciate it if bike share companies not only went Dublin, Galway or Belfast but went to our provincial towns and competed in them.

I welcome the Minister to the House. While there are many challenges across the transport sector, not least in aviation, which I know we will speak about soon, but in the coach tourism sector and across the tourism sector as a whole, there are also many opportunities. The upgrade of the N24, which Senator O'Reilly referenced in her contribution, is one of those opportunities I would like to speak about. The N24 is the main arterial route between Waterford and Limerick cities. It is an integral piece of infrastructure linking the western and mid-western regions with the south east. It is probably even more important now in the context of Brexit and the onward connection to Rosslare Europort with direct links to Europe.

I am sure the Minister has been on this road and that he would agree it is one of the worst national primary routes in the country. The consultation documents for the Cahir to Limerick route, which closed last week, stated that the average speed of cars on the route currently stood at a pathetic 60 km/h to 65 km/h. Data show collisions on the route are higher than average. As the Minister knows, the target in the national planning framework is that inter-urban travel speed should be at least 90 km/h. We have a long way to go to get this route is up to the required standards.

There have been many false dawns in relation to this project. When I was in the University of Limerick, I travelled from Waterford for four years on this road and at that time there was talk about route selections. However, here we are 15 years later having further consultations on it. I know the Minister's party was supportive of this route as an alternative to the M20 linking Cork and Limerick but now that that is progressing there is a fear among some in the counties along the route - Limerick, Tipperary, Kilkenny, Waterford and Wexford - that this will be lost as part of a review of the capital plan. I ask the Minister for reassurances in that regard. In order to future proof this route post-2040, and for future generations, it has to be at a minimum of dual carriageway standard. It will also need to reduce travel times between Waterford and Cork cities via Cahir. There has been a request by Members from across the counties to meet with the Minister. I would appreciate it if he would accede to that request.

I support the comments by Senator Dooley on the provisions regarding e-scooters, which I understand will be part of the miscellaneous transport Bill. Perhaps in his concluding comments, the Minister might elaborate on the timelines for that.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House today. I had one of those glorious trips in here on my bike that one has in the early spring sunshine. It made me realise why I enjoy cycling so much. I came in on the Liffey cycle route, a route which took a long time but which thanks to people like the Minister and people in his party has finally been completed. It creates a safe cycle route for people to come into the city. What the Minister has done to prioritise walking and cycling, in particular the €50 million for Dublin city, will hopefully be transformative over the next few years.

I want to speak about a local suggestion or idea. Perhaps the only positive of this pandemic has been that many of us have discovered or rediscovered some of the fantastic parks, greenways and amenities within our 5 km. In my area of the south inner city, the Phoenix Park has been a lifeline for so many. There is agitation to make the Phoenix Park less accessible to cars and more walking and cycling friendly.

Tens of thousands of people have discovered hidden gems in my area, such as the Irish National War Memorial Gardens in Islandbridge, which is home to Usher Celtic football club and the Civil Service GAA football club. In that spirit, I welcome the Minister's recent allocation of funding to develop a Liffey greenway from Heuston Station to Islandbridge but I ask that he go further. There is an opportunity to create a unique urban greenway which would serve hundreds of thousands of Dubliners, by upgrading the greenway on the south side of the River Liffey through Chapelizod as far as Waterstown Park and restoring the magnificent silver bridge across the Liffey to link up with Farmleigh. That is a former footbridge used by workers travelling to Farmleigh from places such as Palmerstown and Lucan, which is closed and falling into dereliction.

Astonishingly, there is no bridge other than the M50 across the Liffey between Chapelizod and Lucan. In other words, there is no way for somebody to cross the Liffey on foot, bike or public transport for approximately 9 km. This could be addressed by restoring the silver bridge and providing a pedestrian entrance to the Farmleigh estate. Combined with the planned upgrade of walking and cycling routes in the Phoenix park, this would create a unique urban greenway in the heart of the city, stretching from Heuston Station through Chapelizod to Palmerstown, across Farmleigh and back through the park to Cabra, Stoneybatter and Grangegorman.

Such an amenity could serve hundreds of thousands of locals, similar to the Howth cliff walk, and provide those visiting the city with an experience difficult to encounter in another capital city by accessing the gems we have such as the Phoenix Park. It is something the Minister's party colleague, Deputy O'Gorman, worked on on Fingal County Council along with my party councillor, Councillor Tuffy. However, I ask the Minister to take the opportunity of his time in government to explore the possibility of providing the city with this lasting legacy.

The Minister, Deputy Ryan, has shown himself to be dynamic over the last couple of months in his Department, in particular in prioritising these types of projects. These would have a transformative effect on the west side of the city and would be a lasting legacy.

I would like to associate myself with Senator Dooley's comments on transport workers. They have kept this country going and they are front-line workers in this pandemic. It was quite a shocking that a disproportionate number of London transport workers suffered and died due to Covid-19, keeping London going over the course of the pandemic. It is right we pay tribute to the public transport workers who get front-line workers in and out every day.

I apologise to the Minister as I have double booked and have another appointment. I will not be here for his concluding remarks. I ask the Minister and his Department to consider the above proposal. If he needs anymore information from me or colleagues in Dublin City Council or Fingal Council, I will be happy to talk to him about the proposal. It could be a dynamic greenway idea for Phoenix Park, connecting it to the west side of the city.

Ar mhaith leis an Teachta Ó Donnghaile labhairt le haghaidh cúig nóiméad agus nóiméad amháin a fhágáil tar éis?

Mar gheall gurb é an Aoine atá ann, b'fhéidir nach mbainfidh mé úsáid as an am ina iomláine. Tá fáilte romhat ag an Aire. I welcome the Minister.

I associate myself with what Senators Dooley and Moynihan have said about front-line transportation workers. As someone who has used public transport to access this institution during the course of this pandemic, I have seen first hand the effort they have put in during this period. It is important we reflect and acknowledge that here in terms of the statements.

We do not want to encourage people where it is unnecessary that they travel, not least beyond the 5 km restrictions in place at the moment.

For me, this period presents the Minister, his Department and those of us in these institutions with the opportunity to reflect on how we reimagine our public transport network and infrastructure across the entirety of this island. It also gives us an opportunity, as other colleagues have regularly said, not only to reimagine how we can improve services and infrastructure but also to take the time to think about what transportation is going to be like after this pandemic. The needs of people, workers and commuters will fundamentally change as a result of the experience of the past year and more.

That is part of the reason I was so disappointed and shocked at the news, put out under the radar somewhat in the midst of the pandemic, of the cut to a number of Bus Éireann Expressway services to destinations throughout the island. The Belfast to Dublin route had in excess of 1 million journeys in 2019 and that Expressway service has been cut. To me, that defies all known logic. I do not understand that decision nor why the Minister has not been more vocal in challenging it and, in the longer term, working to address the removal of that service which is much utilised by visitors, tourists, students and workers.

One of the key commitments of the Government in the New Decade, New Approach document has been the development of the high-speed rail connection between Belfast and Dublin and its connection to Cork and to Derry and the north west. Will the Minister take the opportunity to update us on how that fundamentally transformative project is progressing? I know there has been support for it from the Executive, councils along the eastern corridor, the Government in Dublin and partners in the European Union. I have extended an invitation to the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and the Minister in the North, Nichola Mallon, to come before the Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement to present on that project. I hope he will take us up on that invitation.

I caveat my final remarks by saying that I understand this issue does not fall within the Minister's departmental brief. However, the pausing of certain services within the Passport Office over the pandemic period is an important issue that will affect transportation into the future. I understand this had to happen to minimise unnecessary travel. I ask the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Passport Office, through the Minister, to take the time to plan how we will meet an inevitable backlog in that service. The Secretary General of the Department of Foreign Affairs has acknowledged that Passport Office staff are already under huge stress in trying to meet demand. As someone who engages with the Passport Office regularly, I can say that it does a fantastic, first-class job but it needs more support. It needs to ensure that once staff come back, when it is safe to do so, there is not a huge backlog to be waded through. People who are waiting for that service need to know that a backlog will not prolong waiting any undue period for a passport. I hope the Minister does not mind me asking him to do that and I hope it is something he will consider taking forward.

I echo the comments of Senators McDowell and Ó Donnghaile when they talk about reimagining our transport system. We have an opportunity to do this post Covid and particularly post Brexit. I ask the Minister to be even more imaginative. Senator McDowell referred to hydrogen fuel, but we need to look at how technology is going to shape our transport networks over the next ten years. For instance, we have seen the use of drone technology in Oranmore to deliver food. We will see drone technology used to a far greater extent. I have no doubt we will see automated vehicles in place by the end of this decade. That will require much regulation on the part of the Minister's Department.

The 6G technologies that are currently being developed will allow for the greater use of autonomous vehicles. The rise of 6G will also give the conspiracy theorists something else to complain about. It is important in terms of future-proofing the transport infrastructure in this country that we look at how technology will change what we are doing.

To come back to immediate matters, with the twin whammies of Covid and Brexit we have seen our ports come under a lot of pressure but Rosslare Europort has started to boom at last. I want to hear a commitment that we will move towards classifying Rosslare Europort as a tier 1 port and that it will get the necessary investment to allow it to continue to expand. Year on year, from January of last year to January of this year, the amount of freight passing through Rosslare increased by over 440%. Critical to that, and I ask the Minister this in the context of the review of the national development plan that is happening at the moment, is the completion of the M11 motorway from Oylegate to Rosslare. A previous Senator was right in saying that motorways make sense from an environmental point of view. We are now seeing trucks and lorries clogging up villages like Oylegate, Kilrane and Rosslare. It is adding time for our hauliers travelling to Rosslare and disturbing the quality of life in those villages. That as a priority within the national development plan is critical.

In terms of the development of the railways, I would also make the case for the much underutilised Rosslare to Dublin railway. Part of the problem is that once one gets to Bray, as the Minister knows, the main interurban trains have to sit behind the DART. That delays the trains and it remains a problem.

A big challenge to which the Minister made reference is around the delays in driving tests. Those who are waiting now for their driving tests have been waiting 30 weeks. I accept those with a job in emergency services are being given priority, but young people waiting for the test are prohibited in many cases from being able to avail of certain jobs and it increases their insurance costs. Insurance costs for young motorists are already prohibitive but they are waiting 30 weeks. There has been talk about getting additional testers and so on put it place but I am not satisfied with the response to date that, as we come out of this pandemic, we will be able to address that waiting list quickly enough.

On the tourism side, we need clarification around the issue of a vaccines passport. When we move beyond this pandemic and allow travel between countries to resume, we need clarity. It is my view that we should have an EU-wide vaccines passport. My concern is that different countries would try to adapt different measures or, in the absence of governments doing it, that private companies would decide to try to offer their own system of vaccines passports. I would not be surprised if Michael O'Leary, for instance, decided to try to introduce a Ryanair vaccine passport and I am certain he will find ways to charge for that. We need a clear Government position on this issue and it needs to be co-ordinated at a European level.

The Government's approach is right that it should be data, not dates, that determine when we get through this but we also need clarity on when we will be able to allow people to start travelling again. The pressure will arise once the elderly and vulnerable are vaccinated. People will start to ask why they cannot go and travel. This will be important to the tourism sector and to the public, who will be asking each of us in this House this question.

The issue around mandatory quarantining and so on is, to me, a logistics issue. I cannot figure out why it is something else that has been piled onto the Department of Health. Why, for instance, from a transport of view, can a tender not go out to tour operators? I refer to companies like Abbey Ireland and UK and others, who are professionals in terms of knowing how to deal with large groups of people coming into the country, getting off planes and getting to hotels. It is a very vulnerable sector. Why can companies like that not be engaged to manage this process? I am concerned that something as important as this is being shoved again onto the Department of Health when, in reality, it is a logistics issue.

The Minister is welcome. There are many exciting plans in Galway at the moment. I spoke about them earlier during the Commencement Matters debate. They cover both road transport projects and public transport projects, including cycling and pedestrian infrastructure. The Galway city ring road application is with An Bord Pleanála, and I hope there will be a decision on this in the coming months. I have been a strong advocate of this important project. The Moycullen bypass is due to commence soon. Improvements to the N59 are ongoing. I always say about roads that once they are built, that is it. One can use them and one does not have to build them every year. That they are built once is important.

There are many projects related to the urban regeneration and development fund. There are also many related to the rural regeneration and development fund, including a passing bay at the railway line at Oranmore, which the county council has been pushing. The passing bay is important in promoting commuter rail. The bus corridor on the old Dublin road is also important. There is a range of projects under the urban regeneration and development fund to promote cycling, including one to develop the old railway viaducts over the Corrib, as mentioned by Senator O'Reilly. I believe one can support and advocate for roads and public transport projects at the same time. I have done so and will continue to do so.

There is a great tradition, particularly in the countryside, of landowners giving land free of charge for small safety and improvement schemes, be it for a junction, to deal with a bad bend or for another purpose. I acknowledge that and thank landowners who provide land. I hope this tradition can be continued. As the Minister knows, however, there are barriers to connectivity. There are lands that are not available, be they in the country or the city. A footpath may end suddenly in a town because a property juts out onto the road. In my village, Moycullen, money is available but there is no land for a bus pull-in and a bus stop. In other areas, similar issues arise where footpaths could be built. That is a challenge for many of the projects. I hope we can work together to solve some of the problems.

I welcome the Minister to the Chamber and thank him for the work he is doing and the contribution he is making, particularly on cycleways and walkways. Tipperary has benefited on the back of his work. The work he is doing is extremely genuine. He, in particular, is very genuine.

The N24 is probably the worst road between two cities in the country. The average speed on it is well below the average speed between two urban cities, which is 90 km/h. The proposed new N24, connecting Limerick and Waterford, is vital to the future of the southern region. Connections between Shannon Airport and Rosslare are all the more important after Brexit. The proposed route will bypass four towns in County Tipperary, namely, Tipperary town, Cahir, Clonmel and Carrick-on-Suir. Senator Pauline O'Reilly noted earlier how a bypass can enhance the town centres of all such towns.

I assume the Minister is not aware that a letter was sent to his Department from Tipperary County Council to request a meeting. Is he aware of it? The request was refused by the Department. The council was very upset by this. The Minister has met other representatives, which is respected, but I am referring to the cathaoirleach, CEO and mayor. They, in particular, were very upset. I hope the Minister will be able to meet them. Fine Gael Oireachtas Members met local representatives to talk about the road and how much of a priority it is. We are all in agreement that it needs to be done for the region. Will the Minister meet the Oireachtas Members who were at the meeting last week as a matter of urgency in order that they can outline why they believe the road is so important to the region? Does the Minister agree with us and his Fine Gael colleagues in the region that the N24 needs to be upgraded to a suitable standard?

We have seen the dramatic effects of Covid on transport and mobility patterns. To what extent can long-term changes be made regarding those patterns? I am thinking, in particular, about the changes to transport in the Phoenix Park proposed by the Office of Public Works, OPW, which are currently subject to public consultation.

It is acknowledged in the report and research that the park plays a strategic transport function in Dublin 15 and beyond because of a lack of alternative road and public transport infrastructure, yet the plans only take into consideration what happens in the park and not what happens outside the walls of the park, which comes under the remit of the Minister. The communities of Castleknock, Chapelizod, the Navan Road and Blackhorse Avenue believe all of this is connected and the park is not an island.

One of the positives of the plan is that one can see that the future plans for cycling connect up with the park. The investment and resources that we are putting behind cycling, walking and active transport are fantastic but they do not seem to link up beyond cycling. Should there be an impact assessment done on what happens outside the park with regard to the plans? Should there be integrated plans in advance of those plans being agreed, taking into consideration the connectivity of the community? Would an integrated approach increase our overall collective goals of better walking, better cycling, more sustainable transport and fewer cars?

I thank the Minister for attending this debate. I also thank all of the front-line workers in the transport sector who have played a pivotal role. In particular, I thank the taxi drivers in our cities and towns, many of whom have delivered food to the most vulnerable. I thank the bus drivers who have maintained the operation of bus fleets and train drivers who have done the same with the train service.

I will raise with the Minister the issue of trains and rail transport. If Covid has shown us anything, it has been the lunacy of the commute by car into city centres by tens of thousands of workers. Day after day, workers got up as early as 5 a.m. to beat the traffic into city centres and battled the stress of trying to get to their places of work. Now, after nearly a full year of working from home, people have pressed the reset button and asked what in God's name we were doing. What were we doing to our mental health, the fabric of families and our children, who we were placing in childcare before the sun had even come up? Many of us have been making these points for many years and said these exact words. RTÉ, in its “Prime Time” programmes, has examined commuting and families having to put their kids into childcare at the crack of dawn. All we get in response is an accepting nod and everything just moves on. The reason was the rat race of which we are all part. People either got with the rat race or they were left behind and someone else took their place in the rat race. The pandemic has reset the button and we are collectively asking ourselves why the hell we were doing that to ourselves and taking apart the very fabric of society. It was madness.

I do not advocate that people simply withdraw from cities and places of commerce. People benefit from working with colleagues. I am a strong advocate of that as I come from a large urban centre. I am saying that moving people from their places of residence to their places of work should and must be done by the same means as it is done in all other major cities on the planet, namely, high-quality public rail. The reset of society offers many areas the opportunity to grasp that approach with both hands. I know the Minister is passionate about rail transport and a strong advocate of it. Hundreds of thousands of people commute to work in Dublin from counties Meath, Kildare, Louth and Wicklow. Most of them are Dublin people who, through planning and housing policies, have been forced to move out to commuter areas. The key difference between County Meath with its population of 200,000 people and the other commuting counties is that we are the only one of them whose county town has no rail connectivity.

Eleven years ago, during the last Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government, in which the Minister served, a significant piece of rail infrastructure was developed connecting a refurbished docklands station at the back of the convention centre to a station at Pace on the far side of Dunboyne in County Meath. The new station, which is located off the M3, was built with a car park with 1,000 parking spaces to allow people to commute into the city.

That line opened on 2 September 2010 and I was lucky to be one of the very first passengers from the Docklands to Dunboyne, along with the then Minister, Noel Dempsey, for the official opening. There was a great hope that the railway order for the second phase, a continuation of the line to Navan, would be lodged the following year. That was shelved, however, by the succeeding Government and it has remained on the shelf ever since. Worse was the fact the National Transport Authority took it off its list of projects five years ago.

Thankfully, there is a reappraisal of this project. The mood music from both the National Transport Authority and the Minister is far more positive. I have said in this Chamber before that there is a big difference between this Minister and his predecessor. The first is that this Minister has actually been to Navan. I invited the previous Minister to come to Navan to see the difficulties. He sat in the chair in which the Minister is sitting now and said he would be down but just not too early in the morning. Five years later, I am still waiting for him.

I am confident that because this Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is in the job, we might actually get somewhere. He has seen the need for a town of over 30,000 people to have this rail connectivity.

I acknowledge the work of the National Transport Authority. Only two weeks ago, it funded €9 million worth of transport initiatives in my town. I am very grateful to Anne Graham, Michael Aherne and others in the authority for that work. The Minister has previously praised the efforts of Meath County Council. I join him in acknowledging the work of the chief executive officer, Jackie Maguire, along with Des Foley and Nicholas Wyatt. The appetite of the people of Meath is evident. Meath County Council is doing an online survey with tens of thousands of people logging on every week.

Ultimately, however, the Minister and I know that the project will get the green light based on the scoring metric used by the National Transport Authority on whether it stacks up in terms of population. It is not even the population now but the projected population in 2070. If that metric does not stack up, the project will go nowhere. Before Christmas, the Minister described the case for the Athenry to Claremorris line as weak. It scored poorly on the National Transport Authority chart. It is possible, when the numbers are crunched and the authority presents the report to the Minister, that Navan will score highly, possibly in the region of 0.8 to 1 in the baseline.

This is where the Minister needs to back up that report and add that additional element, namely, human beings, the people who rise at 5 a.m. to get to work and have had many years of family life taken away from them. If the Minister does that, perhaps we can get that first train from Dunboyne to Navan central and we can celebrate together on the achievement of that project.

After that speech, there is no doubt that the Minister will be back in Navan.

I welcome the significant funding recently announced for transport and roads projects in County Longford. I also welcome the progress on the N4 project from Mullingar to Rooskey through Longford, which was taken off the capital plan in 2010 after a preferred route had been identified. It is a critical piece of infrastructure for not just Longford and the midlands but the entire north west. There is much concern, however, that the process has to go back to start again with 12 alternative routes put out for public consultation. These include routes on which people have built houses and agricultural sheds over the past several years. It is causing great concern to people in the local areas affected.

A major concern for me is the fact that we cannot have any public information sessions. As a public representative, we would have meetings on this in local halls and so forth. That cannot be done in the current climate and we cannot go to people's houses. Will an extension of at least a couple of months be considered?

I welcome the Minister's influence, as well as that of the Green Party, to provide more funding for walking and cycling infrastructure with routes to towns, businesses and especially to schools. Councillor Gerry Hagan is working for a link from the village of Ennybegs to the local national school with over 300 pupils. Longford County Council has put forward this proposal and I will be looking for support for it.

Next month sees the launch of the Royal Canal greenway, a project in which I was involved from the beginning.

It will be a fantastic asset, as the longest greenway in the country.

I also served on the board of Longford Westmeath Community Transport for six years and put forward a project for a bus link service in Longford town. It is needed to reduce the amount of traffic around the town. I would welcome the support of the Minister for those projects.

I am from Dún Laoghaire. I know the Minister is aware of the project I am going to mention, namely, the Sutton to Sandycove cycleway. I have discussed the matter with him in the Chamber previously. I had hoped to meet him to discuss it, and I hope that we will get a change to meet about it in the future.

The project is a transport gem along the coast of Dublin Bay. It is a cycleway and coastal promenade from Sutton all the way round to Sandycove in south Dublin, of which many people will be aware. It will go through places such as Booterstown, Blackrock and Dún Laoghaire town. It will pass Monkstown and go into Glasthule and Sandycove. It will link up a whole range of really lovely places to visit along the coast. On the one hand it will provide transport for the tourism sector while on the other it will also be a vital commuter link for cyclists to go in and out of town.

The frustrating thing is that for as long as I have been in politics since 2009, and for a long time before that, there has been almost unanimous support for this project in Dún Laoghaire. We have been pushing hard for it to be delivered, and yet nothing has happened. Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council has spent a vast amount of time, effort and money putting in place huge cycle schemes during Covid, which are very effective and welcome. However, there is an obvious off-road, segregated, safe cycling route available along the coast, on the outside of the DART line, and it can be built. There are definitely problems, but with the political will, it can be done. I am disappointed that it has not happened yet, with the Green Party in government for so long. The Minister's Department and that of the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media must make it happen. There is an opportunity coming in respect of the replacement of the DART wall along the coast, which is disintegrating and has been there since the Dublin to Kingstown railway was built. It must be replaced. It is an 8 m footprint. There is a real opportunity to put the Sutton to Sandycove route in place there. I really hope that we see it happen in the coming months and years.

I welcome the Minister. I want to pay tribute to the fantastic team from Transport Infrastructure Ireland and the three county councils of Westmeath, Galway and Roscommon, based in Ballinasloe, leading the project for the Galway to Athlone cycleway. I hosted two public meetings last week, focusing on the blue and green routes, going through east Galway. We are advocating for the most fantastic experience for users, coming across publicly owned lands, along by the Grand Canal and Bord na Móna land, into Ballinasloe. More than 100 people attended each of these meetings. There were representatives from the project team and the Irish Farmers Association, who spoke to people. There were many questions and answers, and much excitement among people about what this project could bring to the local areas.

I would like to highlight that the deadline for submissions is Monday, 1 March 2021, and I encourage people to make submissions. People can email: info@galwaytoathlonecycleway.com or can call to make their submissions. Given the current lockdown, it is difficult to engage with the community. The team has been most accommodating of people. People can call 091509267 to make a submission.

I ask the Minister to acknowledge and speak on the priority of this project as a national piece of infrastructure. It is going to complete 270 km of the Dublin to Galway cycleway route. It is urgent that it is delivered as soon as possible. We really look forward to the fact that the route selected will be the most scenic, sustainable and strategic option There will be wonderful things to see and do coming through Ballinasloe, and potentially there will be opportunities to go through Coillte owned areas. The key point is that landowners and farmers do not have to adhere to the submission deadline of 1 March. They can engage with the project team at any time. I encourage farmers and landowners to talk. They will find out and understand that the FAQs that have been developed and upgraded focus on how the project will avoid severance for lands, look at natural boundaries and will try to ensure that farmers' needs and concerns are heard.

I would like to welcome the Minister to the House and congratulate him on the great work he is doing on transport issues, and on greenways in particular. Some €63 million in funding has been allotted for greenways, and €240 million has been set aside for cycleways and walkways. This will help to change the attitudes of people and how they behave. They will appreciate their areas, and cycling and walking, more, as they go forward.

There are so many issues in transport that it is hard to do justice to any of them in the time I have, but I wish to speak on two matters. One is Ireland West Airport Knock. It is crucial for the west and north west of Ireland and connectivity to those areas, as well as for the airlines that operate from it. There is a major crisis for air transport in the country at present. I spoke to some pilots in the last couple of days. They said it took Aer Lingus ten years to go from 40 to 70 aeroplanes and that it will take the airline ten years to go from where it is at present to the position it had 12 months ago. That is significant. The Government will have to do whatever is necessary to maintain connectivity, keep aeroplanes flying and to ensure we have two carriers operating out of this country, from Ireland West Airport Knock, Shannon Airport, Cork Airport and Dublin Airport. This is crucial for our country. We are an island nation and need connectivity. Indeed, we see how the ferry transport sector is growing at present. A Senator spoke earlier about how Rosslare is growing. It is great to see that as well, because it helps our connectivity to Europe.

I welcome the Minister's thoughts on the western rail corridor. It is very important that this rail would be opened for connectivity between Sligo, Galway, Limerick and Waterford. I agree with the Minister that it should be a rail link. If Sligo is to grow to be a city, there must be intercity connectivity with Galway, Limerick, Waterford, Cork and so forth, not only for passengers but also for freight from those regions. They should be able to be connected by rail.

Like previous speakers, including Senator McDowell, I am a fan of hydrogen. This is something that will have to be examined. I cannot see every vehicle in the world being operated by battery only. Hydrogen will have to operate in some shape or form when it is introduced, particularly for heavy vehicles, heavy goods vehicles and machinery. There are problems associated with hydrogen. Hydrogen stored in cars is very dangerous but there is technology available whereby hydrogen can be produced as it is being used, which is much safer. It is an area that should be examined. While I am a fan of hydrogen, I am also a fan of the battery car. As other Senators said, we need to prepare for the autonomous car as well. I mentioned this a number of years ago. What is the Department of Transport doing in preparation for the autonomous car, particularly with regard to traffic lights and so forth? Are they being upgraded and examined so we will not be behind the curve when all this takes place?

I congratulate the Minister on the work he is doing. I believe an EU vaccine passport will be needed in the future. Many of us had to have vaccine passports to travel to various other countries. As one has to take certain vaccines before one can travel to China and other countries, I do not see why we cannot operate a vaccine passport for travelling in the EU over the next couple of years. It is something the Government should be progressing through our partners in Europe. It will affect us more than it will affect any other country in Europe because many of the other countries have good rail and bus services between them, whereas we require air transport. A vaccine passport would be the way forward, in my view.

As Senator Lombard is not present, I gave Senator Burke the extra time and did not interrupt him. Before calling the Minister, Senator Garvey has three minutes.

It is great to hear all of the positive stories from Members. It is a rare thing and it is great that we are all on the same hymn sheet in recognising the important work that is being done by the Department and the Minister and in overall agreement on looking again at how we share spaces and design for people and not just for cars. It is great to hear this unified voice in the House.

I thank the Minister for all of the funding that has been provided for rural transport. It is absolutely transformative for people in rural Ireland, including young people, people with disabilities and older people. It is hugely important for their social connectivity and their mental and physical health and well-being. I thank the Minister for doing this because we have wanted it for a long time and the previous Minister did not seem to be tuned into this fact at all.

Trucks are definitely necessary and nobody is talking about getting rid of trucks but we need to look at how we allow them to go straight through all of our villages and towns all of the time. In other countries this is not the case. Even within Dublin, DPD, An Post and a few other carriers have realised they do not always need to use trucks and they have switched to smaller electric tricycles. I am thinking about Ennistymon, Ennis, Kilrush and other places in Clare. What they do in other countries is that the trucks stop at the outskirts and the goods are moved to smaller vehicles. We really need to look at how we move goods. Trucks are very intimidating for people who are trying to cross the road and for small children. They pose a threat because they are the biggest, heaviest and most dangerous vehicles on the roads. We need to look at this. Trucks are necessary but do they have to be allowed to access all areas all of the time? This is not the case in other countries, where one feels safe in small towns and villages and where the trucks stop at the outskirts. We are seeing this in Dublin already.

I remind the Minister about the promise of a feasibility study on a rail line from Shannon Airport. I am looking forward to it. I also remind the Minister of the potential for stops in Crusheen and Cratloe on the train line from Galway to Limerick.

On cycling infrastructure, a new manual is coming out from the NTA and I would like to know when will it come out. If it does come out, it should not just be best practice but absolutely mandatory for the local authorities because the red paint will not cut the mustard anymore. It is not good enough. We need proper cycling infrastructure that is done well and we should stop wasting money on bad cycling infrastructure that does not increase the levels of cycling. If there is a new manual, it will have to be mandatory for all of the road engineers of Ireland.

We have regional airports and we will have to have regional rebalance when flights return. We have to look at the distribution of flights. They do not all need to go to Dublin. A total of 90% of flights are still coming into and out of Dublin. Whatever about increasing flights, we need to ensure incoming flights are distributed fairly. It is just as important for people to visit the west coast of Clare and Cork as it is for them to come into our capital city. We need to look at regional rebalance of the distribution of flights into our country.

The Minister is welcome to the Chamber. He has been brought on a tour of the country so he will not be short of holiday destinations at home this year with all the places he can go to. I will not get involved in the debate as Acting Chairman as it would not be appropriate, but I subscribe to the comments of Senator Dolan. I hope the greenway will come as close to Ballinasloe as it can.

I thank the Acting Chairperson and all of the Senators for their contributions. It was a tour of the country, which started in Ranelagh village, that exotic far-distant destination. Senator McDowell encouraged us all to rethink how we do things and he is right. It is a reset moment and one in which we should reconsider what we are doing and what we might do next. I would argue with Senator McDowell that what may come next is the village of Roosky or the town of Strokestown, which he would know-----

I know Roosky particularly well.

This is a chance for such places to be revived. Senator McDowell seemed to indicate that perhaps people do not want to live in villages or towns. I would ask the Senator to rethink this because there is huge benefit in being able to live within walking distance of one's local pub, school or church. The villages and towns we have throughout the country, including the 19th century market towns in particular, have incredible architecture and are underused. We have a lot of gaps and boarded-up high street premises.

There is a real question as we rethink this. Do we let them just fall down and let the villages and towns go or do we bring life back into them to create these really vibrant, thriving, rural-urban communities? I argue the latter would work best for a variety of reasons. There would be a great sense of community, better use of existing resources, lower carbon and one could go for a drink at night without having to worry about being breathalysed on the way home. I could go on. It is a fundamental question. Right across the country we are still not building in the centre.

I can put it another way. Cork County Council is an example of this being done very well and better than other counties. Sometimes I think it is because it has the scale, architects and planners and it really thought about it. Perhaps I am biased because of my roots in Cork but we can look at the likes of Clonakilty, Skibbereen, Bantry - I could go on - where there is a concentration on the quality of the town and village that is seeing a revival. It is bringing real success and it is where people want to go. I absolutely take the Senator's point about rethinking and I am always open to new thinking. There is a particular opportunity and the Government policy is to put town centre first. I stand up for that and I am happy to debate it at length.

There was a range of other contributions, including from Senators Cummins and Ahearn. I will meet the representatives from Tipperary. Again going back to my roots, I met a group from Tipperary town, which is close to my Ryan roots. That was not a matter of disrespect to others along the route. I said in the Dáil yesterday I am very happy to meet Oireachtas and council representatives about the N24.

Senator Dooley asked about the scooter legislation, which is due to be introduced as part of a miscellaneous provisions Bill. It will first be published and get to pre-legislative scrutiny. We know our committees are clogged but subject to that being done, it will come to the House and be a useful contribution. Senator McGahon indicated that innovative projects like bike-sharing schemes might not just apply to cities and this supports my comments about town centre first thinking being applied to towns like Dundalk or Drogheda. Senators Moynihan and Currie both raised the matter of the Phoenix Park, which is particularly sensitive and complex now as the park is both for those who go to it and use it and those who go through it. How do we get that balance right? It is a major challenge. As Senator Cassells said, we must move away from the rat race mentality where all of us are stuck in cars clogging up the streets. That is not working. Reducing the demand for that through traffic would be a beneficial outcome of this time. I will cede to their local knowledge in getting the balance right.

Senator Ó Donnghaile spoke about a high-speed rail project and it will be part of a much wider rail review for the country. It is not just about Dublin, Belfast and Cork. We agreed to extend it to Derry and look at its potential. A number of Senators have raised the question of the likes of the western rail corridor. It is not just the N24 we need to look at but we must look at what to do with the rail line from Wexford to Waterford and Carrick-on-Suir, Clonmel, Cahir, Tipperary town, Bansha and upwards. It is not just 19th century market towns that are our legacy. We have a legacy of being the best rail builders in the world and there are strands of rail line left that we are not using, in effect. Nobody really uses it because it is not designed to be used. It is still there and just giving up on those assets would make questionable sense. The Dublin to Belfast route will come under that wider rail review taking place this year.

Senator Byrne asked about Rosslare and to my mind that should be radically enhanced. I spoke about it in the Dáil yesterday again. We will have to invest in better road access to the port.

It can also be a significant part of developing our offshore wind industry. The recent revival and growth in Rosslare Europort is only the start.

Senator Kyne referred to Galway, where there are really significant projects in prospect. We will face very significant choices in what we prioritise and the timelines around delivering various projects. I hate to say this but I believe that we have the biggest problem in Galway because of our transport and planning system. Things go awry when we do not put our planning and transport together. There is a huge pattern of transport in Galway from one side of the city to the other. There are real difficulties in this really congested city. Key to this is not just the transport infrastructure, it is about putting the public transport infrastructure in first and the housing beside that. The 15-minute town or city concept whereby one has access to everything within 15 minutes would enable us to reduce the overall volume of traffic and reduce congestion. Planning and transport need to go together.

The Minister's time is nearly up.

I will conclude and I hope I do not disrespect any Member I may have left out. I will finish up with Senator Burke's comments. I was a family friend of the Ryan's. Jim Ryan was behind the building of Knock airport in the first place. He and Monsignor Horan were centrally involved. Jim Ryan, a returned immigrant from Australia, talked up the prospects of Knock airport and we all thought at the time that he was mad. He spoke of flights coming in and out every day, and everyone was nodding at him and saying "That's right Jim", but thank God he was right in the end. That was only 25 or 30 years ago. It shows that if one thinks big with a sense of vision and a sense of what is possible, think of what can change in 25 years. If we can forward think in a new way, we can see a revival of the west of Ireland particularly. It will be around sustainability and the west of Ireland being green. This is where we will have the real advantage. This is the way the world is going and we might lead it in that direction ourselves.

I thank the Minister. I apologise to have to bring the debate to an end but with Covid-19, we must stick to the rules.

That is no problem at all.

I appreciate the Minister coming to the Seanad and for all the comments. I assure the Minister that people, both urban and rural, are very happy about what is happening with greenways and their spaces to walk and cycle.

We have had a very constructive debate and I thank all Members and the Minister.

Sitting suspended at 3.02 p.m. and resumed at 3.17 p.m.