Continued under-investment in Irish rail services threatens to impact on the safety and quality of services, Irish Rail’s CEO has warned.
His comments came as a national review of rail services concluded that over €600m is needed to meet the funding gap and cover losses at Irish Rail over the next five years.
The Government will now consider the joint National Transport Authority/ Irish Rail review as a period of consultation begins, which will also address proposals to close down some rail routes.
It recommends ways to address the financial crisis faced by the company after years of accumulated losses. These include increasing state funding, closing routes or a combination of both.
Irish Rail is facing mounting losses of €103m a year. When historical losses are factored in, it will need over €600m by 2021.
NTA chief Anne Graham said no decisions had been made on cutting routes and the review would be open to consultation until January 18 next. However, she acknowledged the huge sums needed: “It is quite significant funding to keep the rail network operational.”
However, Irish Rail CEO David Franks warned what would happen if money was not made available: “Continued under-investment will ultimately impact on safety and on service quality and this is at complete odds with our ambition which is to improve both.”
Various ways are proposed to improve Irish Rail’s funding. These include increasing state grants, closing lines and limiting routes, or a combination of these plus increased subsidy for free travel.
A number of measures are also proposed to increase passenger use. These include improving the frequency of services, reducing fares, providing inter-operable tickets, spreading out operations later into the day, marketing services and improving speeds on routes.
However, the report makes some stark conclusions: “The under-funding of Iarnród Éireann cannot continue indefinitely.”
Sporadic equipment failures could result in an increase in journey times or a decreasing service reliability, it says. Irish Rail’s fleet is also approaching full capacity. Once the company signs a new public service contract in 2019, it will need to have “reasonable profits” under EU rules, the review also notes.
The report looks at the comparison between what funding Irish Rail gets and how this compares with other forms of travel. It notes the huge shift in travellers going by road in recent years, increasing again with the recovering economy.
The level of car fleet and commercial vehicle fleet usage has doubled in size compared to the 1990s, it notes. The review notes the state subsidy given to Irish Rail equals the combined amount given to Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann services, which carry four times as many passengers.
However, the review also notes the benefits of rail travel and why it should be kept. Rail travel can facilitate more sustainable land use developments, avoid congestion of roads and help meet climate-change targets, it says. Travelling by rail is also 3-10 times less carbon dioxide- intensive compared to road or air.
The rail network in Ireland includes 2,400km of track, 1,660km of which is used. There are 147 passenger stations. There were almost 40m passenger journeys last year, a rise of 5% on the year before.
Around 83% of journeys undertaken on the survey day for the report were in the Dublin area and immediate surrounding counties. There are huge differences in usage levels.
The busiest station at Connolly on the survey day had 29,755 boardings while Carrick on Suir had just one.
With the exception of Cork’s Kent Station, all the top 10 busiest stations on the day were in the Dublin area.
There are also disadvantages in cutting routes. Closures would reduce the attractiveness of Ireland’s larger city regions for foreign investors.
Rail travel also involves shorter commuter times and lower costs for users, it is noted. A cut in rail services would also hit tourists, some who rely on services.
Transport Minister Shane Ross is expected to face questions in the coming days and weeks on how the funding gap for Irish Rail will be addressed and what routes might be cut.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved