Following the publication of the Vistacon Report containing the passenger census and service strategy for the Western Rail Corridor, the railway campaign group West=on=Track invited me to give the keynote speech at the launch. This is what I said:
“Ministers, Deputies and Senators, Canon and Reverend Father, Ladies and Gentlemen,
12 months ago, West=on=Track asked me to count the number of people travelling the mid-section of the Western Rail Corridor from Ennis to Athenry.
What I found was not the ghost railway filmed by RTÉ Prime Time in 2011, but a living, breathing, occasionally heaving, service.
Yes, there were some quiet trains – early in the morning, and late at night – as you might expect.
Others, though, were really busy: north and south, on a Friday afternoon, it was like All-Ireland Sunday.
If you follow the news from Irish Rail, you know 2014 had been the best year since the line was reopened: 50,000 passengers; a good number of them as a result of cheaper tickets and online booking.
Would 2015 improve? That’s what I was to find out.
On 76 trains, in 8 days, in November and December 2015, 3,889 people travelled the mid-section from Ennis to Athenry. Annualised, that’s 140,334 people.
Irish Rail accepts the numbers we recorded are consistent with the figures they captured, on the days our survey was done. And when Irish Rail got all of their numbers in for the year, they supplied a seasonally-adjusted figure of 102,481.
Which seems fair enough, considering we counted 76 trains in 8 days – whereas they’re running 363 days, and have the systems and IT to follow the money.
And that’s a milestone. Because 2015 was the first year Irish Rail were able to report that over 100,000 people travelled the line linking Ennis and Athenry.
Which is 100% more than the 50,000 in 2014.
Irish Rail can take a bow for getting some things right, but they shouldn’t rest on their laurels.
First, the trains. With 85% of passengers starting from Galway, Ennis or Limerick, and 80% finishing in Galway, Ennis or Limerick, Irish Rail should offer the comfort and courtesy of Inter City trains – always. Too often, they run inferior Commuter stock.
Second, speeds and stops. Remember, this is a new line, with a top speed of 80 mph achievable.
Three things Irish Rail could do to speed up the trains and put journey times on a par with buses:
1. Run all trains at the current fastest time. That shaves 9 to 13 minutes off the journey.
2. Put the three quietest stations on a “request stop” off-peak. Another 6 minutes saved.
3. Invest to lift the last permanent speed restrictions. That saves 19 minutes.
Third, punctuality. Did you know a train can run up to 10 minutes late but go in the books “on time”?
We found over three-quarters “on time” but:
• Only 1 in 5 – dead on time;
• More than half – 2 to 10 minutes late;
• Another 1 in 5 – 2 to 36 minutes late.
That 10-minute target – they need to cut into it, hard!
All in all, better, faster, more timely trains, fewer stops off-peak, and an extra morning train up to Galway using the last one down the night before.
And LEAP cards covering both bus and rail in Limerick and Galway, something neither city has right now.
If you want people to use the public option, it has to be the joined-up, hassle-free option.
Although my report didn’t deal specifically with freight, it’s clear from the people and the places here today, that freight is vital. Around 1,100 goods trains to and from Mayo rely on a single, 130-mile track to Portarlington, which is also carrying all passenger traffic from Mayo, Galway and Roscommon.
If the Waterford trains – they’re 10 of the 22 or so running every week – if they had the Western Rail Corridor through Claremorris and Tuam, their journey would be 30 miles shorter.
But there’s more to this than the shortest route from Mayo to Waterford and on to mainland Europe.
With Britain preparing to leave the EU, and a “hard Brexit” a distinct possibility, there is a real risk that the flow of goods between Ireland and Europe via Britain could be disrupted. What’s the solution?
“Open the Western Rail Corridor all the way from Mayo to Waterford”, you might say. But a few state agencies are playing silly beggars with the Ballyglunin Bridge. Because it’s too low for high vehicles, it has to be demolished and raised, so trucks coming off the motorway don’t get stuck underneath it.
But some of these state agencies have taken a view that Ballyglunin Bridge should not be put back, unless and until Irish Rail are ready to reopen the line.
If Ballyglunin Bridge is taken, an artery will be severed. And the Western Rail Corridor will be finished – for freight, for passengers, forever.
I know everyone here knows rail is just one brushstroke in the big infrastructure picture.
To Deputies and Senators who wish to leave a legacy for future generations – and a future for the present ones – the next National Development Plan is your chance to get balance, equity and high impact.
We all accept, do we not, that civil servants are generally good people. Good, but cautious. So cautious, that in minimising the threat of risk, they miss the opportunities everyone else wants to grasp.
Where have all the T.K. Whitaker’s gone?!
You might say, he was one in a generation, one man with the right ideas, in the right place, at the right time. But Whitaker, the civil servant, could not, would not, have achieved, without politicians.
Which is where, Deputies and Senators, you come in.
The Government have pledged to develop an Atlantic Artery from Waterford to Cork and Limerick – and onwards to Galway, Sligo, Derry and Belfast.
The Atlantic Artery is about channelling investment in infrastructure, attracting home-grown and overseas business, and growing jobs and wealth in the west.
Achieving balanced national development; investing in transport, telecoms, energy and education.
A complement for the Eastern Artery linking Belfast, Dublin and Cork – which got €4.5 billion in transport investment alone from 1995 to 2010. While transport infrastructure in the west got just over half that sum.
Come back to Whitaker, just for a moment. We know that multinationals, especially in the same industry, tend to cluster together – birds of a feather …
What brings the first few in? And when they bed in, others spring up or come in? As the medical devices industry in Galway has proven, public policy and good government can plant a seed, which grows an entire industry, from ground up to global.
In other words, good government can create a hotbed of industry – and a bedrock of infrastructure that gives all regions an equal chance. Remember, in 2015, Dublin with 28% of the population, got 47% of IDA-backed jobs. While the rest of Ireland, with 72% of the population, got 53% of the jobs.
When government invests – really invests, heavily invests – in the public goods that companies and communities need, the whole country benefits.
Things are happening, just not enough or fast enough. Dublin is sprinting ahead in output per head:
• Leading the BMW by 44%
• Ahead of the West by 51%
• Leading the Mid-West by 55%
Investing in infrastructure is like giving an athlete EPO to boost their red blood cell count. The more they get, the faster they can go. But too much … they keel over. That’s the danger facing Dublin.
It doesn’t have to be that way. It won’t be – if our politicians transplant the Atlantic Artery from the Programme for Government into the National Development Plan. Get the blood flowing!
• Invest in this airport so it can handle six planes at a time instead of three – and drive the west and north-west like Shannon has the mid-west.
• Build the third leg of the M17-M18 Motorway. Arrow straight from Parson’s Garage to this room, it’s the same distance as Gort to Tuam. Money well spent; critical infrastructure joined up; two airports two hours’ driving time apart.
• Open the next phase of the Western Rail Corridor through Claremorris and Tuam, at a minimum for freight, and realise the four-fold increase in volume of goods carried, which the Western Development Commission projects.
And much besides – the four-leaf shamrock: transport, telecoms, energy and education.
The UK is getting fiscal – readying up for a massive programme of investment in public infrastructure.
The old argument against investment, “there are not enough of you, there is not enough congestion” – it doesn’t hold water, not there, not here.
In Europe, the Central Bank has run the printing presses white-hot, yet much of the continent remains mired in a high-debt, low-growth trap. Governments must step in to stop a Japanese-style lost decade.
Soon enough, we may need to remove the public debt brake from our Constitution. We did it for the Germans, except their balance-budget fetish means they’re not putting enough to infrastructure either.
But change is coming to Europe. Ireland must be ready. The Atlantic Artery could be funded 40% by the EU – and the Commission is still at a loss to know why the Irish Civil Service turned down millions of euro to develop transport arteries here in the west.
Still, there are always other financing opportunities, including a new fund of €120 million which the EU is readying for investment in rail and air links.
It’s time to think big and invest more.
Enough time and money is lost already.
It’s time to catch a train to a better future.