Thursday, 21 November 2019

Ceisteanna (2)

Jonathan O'Brien

Ceist:

2. Deputy Jonathan O'Brien asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport the status of the upgrading of the northern commuter line; the details of the purchase of additional trains and carriages; when these will be operational; the long-term plans for the DART expansion on the route; and when such an expansion will be completed [48277/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (9 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Transport)

I am very fortunate to represent the constituency of Fingal which has a very fast-growing population. The area is served by the northern commuter line which is full to bursting, not only at peak times but nearly all the time. I use the train service. The alternative for many people who cannot use it is to use the M1 motorway. As the Minister will be aware, the M1 is like a car park for much of the time every morning. We desperately need additional transport to service the needs of my constituency, which is absorbing much of the housing need for north County Dublin.

The Deputy is probably aware that there are three significant developments under way to expand capacity on the northern line. These are the expansion of the commuter rail fleet; the expansion of the DART fleet; and the electrification of the northern commuter line and its integration within the overall DART network.

In recent weeks, Government approved the purchase of 41 additional intercity railcars. These additional railcars will be added to the existing rail fleet and will benefit commuters across the greater Dublin area, including passengers on the northern line. I am informed that once these carriages have entered into service, capacity on the northern line will increase by approximately 20% as compared with today, which will be a very welcome boost to capacity on the line. It is expected that these railcars will begin entering service by late 2021.

The other two developments I referred to form part of the overall DART expansion programme, a programme which will roughly double the capacity of the greater Dublin area commuter rail network. The first of these developments is the proposed significant expansion of the fleet. In May this year, the National Transport Authority, NTA, and Iarnród Éireann commenced a procurement pre-qualifying competition. Its intention is to put in place a ten-year framework to purchase a minimum of 300 trains and possibly up to 600, if needed. This fleet will be a mixture of fully electric fleet and bi-mode, or battery electric, fleet. The inclusion of battery electric fleet will allow the trains to be deployed on the northern line in advance of the second aspect of the broader programme which is the subsequent electrification of the entire line up to Drogheda.

As to timelines, the process of having rail fleet built is a lengthy one and it will take between three and four years after the award of the contract before these new battery electric trains start to be delivered, probably at the end of 2023 or in 2024. It is not possible to confirm exact delivery dates until the fleet supplier is appointed. Timelines for the electrification of the line will be finalised as part of the development of the programme level business case which I expect to receive next year. As mentioned, additional capacity will be added to the line in advance of that aspect of the overall programme.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

I hope the Deputy can see that there are a number of very positive developments under way with regard to the northern line.

There is a pressing need for additional capacity now. Passenger numbers are increasing by a minimum of 5% each year and capacity is already lagging behind. This is, therefore, a serious issue. A by-election will be held in my constituency next week and people are considering which candidate they will choose. Councillor Ann Graves and I have been knocking on doors. The by-election gives people an opportunity to think about where they live and what they want. The issue of transport is raised constantly right across the constituency. We have very low level of worker participation in the constituency, meaning most people have to leave the area in which they live to go to work. They do not have a choice because there is not much employment locally. People have to travel and are doing so in greater numbers. They need to travel into Dublin but cannot get on to the trains. I am already receiving reports of people becoming unwell on the trains because of overcrowding. I ask the Minister to confine his answer to what he might be able to do to assist these people in the short term because the need is current?

I fully accept that there is overcrowding. That is absolutely undoubtedly true, not just in the Deputy's constituency but, as I have seen, at rush hour all around the greater Dublin area. The flipside of that is that public transport has become a great success. Publicly-owned transport, which would appeal to the Deputy, is working very well. It is correct that the numbers using it have mushroomed in recent years.

What I addressed in my reply were the short-term, medium-term and long-term ambitions. If we were running empty trains, the Deputy would be equally critical. What we are trying to do is to respond to the problems that are created by a successful and booming economy with near full employment and by the fact that public transport has become the vehicle of choice for so many commuters at this time. I am not saying that in a self-congratulatory sense. I am simply saying that these are the problems that will arise when one has a successful transport system. It will become overcrowded. What we are doing, which I have listed, is remedying the problem with a short-term, medium-term and longer-term plan. I have explained these plans to the Deputy but I will go into them in more detail when the Leas-Cheann Comhairle gives me a little more time.

The Minister will have another minute to expand.

With respect, the Minister did sound a little self-congratulatory, if he does not mind me saying so.

If the economy in Fingal was booming, people would not have to leave the area because there would be jobs available locally but that is not the case. The Minister is using a very odd measurement when he argues that the success of public transport is measured by the fact that it is overcrowded. That speaks to a lack of public transport capacity. The Taoiseach, who leads the Government, is fond of trying to out-green the Green Party, much as he protests that he is not. If we are to move away from cars, as people want to do because, God knows, nobody wants to be stuck on the M1 which is like a car park in the mornings, we need to start acting now. People need the option of public transport now. This problem is not just at peak times but all of the time. In the absence of a legal entitlement to family-friendly working hours, people are not in a position to vary their working hours and have to travel to Dublin on trains. People are becoming unwell because of overcrowding on the trains.

We are talking about rail. Improvements were made to peak-time services last year and to off peak-time services, to which the Deputy alluded, this year. There are two fundamental constraints. One is the need to physically expand the fleet through the purchase of additional carriages, while the second is the need to improve the overall management of the network. We are moving on both those issues very quickly. On the fleet, I brought a memorandum to Government on the business case for the purchase of 41 additional intercity railcars, which it approved a couple of weeks ago.

It is expected that the new fleet will be delivered by 2021.

Separately, in May, the NTA and Iarnród Éireann commenced a ten-year procurement framework for electric and battery electric units, which will massively expand the fleet. That expansion will include the northern line to which the Deputy refers. In the summer, the Government approved the development of a new national train control centre and contracts for this are expected to be awarded before the end of this year. In the medium and longer term, there is ongoing development of BusConnects, the DART expansion and MetroLink, each of which will increase capacity dramatically.