Irish Rail facing ‘capacity challenges’ as passenger number return to Celtic Tiger levels

By Joe Leogue

Irish Rail passenger numbers have returned to their Celtic Tiger-era peak, leaving management concerned about the company’s capacity to handle the increasing commuter levels.

The company carried a record 45.5m passenger journeys last year, according to its annual report for 2017 — a 6.3% increase on the previous 12 months.

Jim Meade, Irish Rail chief executive, said: “This growth is welcome, but it also comes with capacity challenges.“While the Government’s recently announced National Development Plan [NDP] will allow us to expand over the coming decade, we will face pressure on capacity in the shorter term,” he said.

Frank Allen, Irish Rail chairman, said the NDP “also recognises the need to recover from a period of deferred maintenance during the economic recession”.

“The consequence of continued under-investment in maintenance would be a loss in reliability and consistency of journey times, which, in turn, would make it difficult to keep people on public transport,” said Mr Allen.

The report reveals an overall financial deficit of €1.1m last year compared to €2.9m in 2016, which Irish Rail is attributing to strong passenger revenues of €204.9m. This is up on the previous record of €193.7m in 2016.

It said strike days and changes to travel zones and fares hit passenger revenue by some €2.4m.

It also warned that while it welcomed the funding it receives from the Department of Transport and the National Transport Agency, more is needed.

“Whilst the additional funding is welcome, it does not meet the annual funding gap identified in the 2016 Rail Review,” said Mr Meade. “This must be addressed to ensure safety and service standards are maintained.

Solvency remains a serious issue for the company and the balance sheet cannot sustain any unexpected financial shocks.

The new pay deal struck with unions last November added €2.1m to Irish Rail’s payroll in 2017.

The company has also indicated its intention to increase its engagement with mental health initiatives after a record year of deaths on the railway lines.

Earlier this year, the Commission for Railway Regulation reported that nine deaths were recorded on Irish railways in 2017, the highest level in more than a decade.

“We have an ongoing partnership with the Samaritans and it is our intention to grow this further in 2018 as sadly the instances of self-harm on the railway are on an upward trend,” said Mr Meade.

Meanwhile, in its annual report, Bus Éireann said payroll costs were down by €8.5m due to three weeks of industrial actions and the impact of the implementation of the Labour Court recommendations.

It said it recorded 78.6m total passenger journeys in 2017, but recorded an overall financial deficit of €23.7m for 2017 compared to €9.5m in 2016 and €6m in 2015.

“The deficit is very disappointing but was achieved in very challenging conditions where the Company suffered from a reduction in revenue due to a prolonged strike in 2017 and which also impacted negatively on costs,” said the directors’ report.

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