With little financial room to manoeuvre Varadkar looks to CIÉ as savings vehicle

Mon, Dec 17, 2012, 00:00

Interview:Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar has set it as one of his objectives for next year that the CIÉ group will “deliver financially” in 2013 and will not require another bailout from the Government. The group was to receive special assistance of €36 million this year, but this was later withdrawn.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Irish Times, Varadkar also said that €400 million for roads had been cut from his department’s capital budget for 2013 “and nobody noticed”. As a result, investment in public transport is likely to outpace the funding available for roads over the next two years.

Asked about the latest census figures showing that 69 per cent of commuters throughout the State travel to work by car, he blamed this on “policies pursued over a long period of time”, including “bad planning” that led to longer commutes. Passenger numbers on public transport had “fallen off a hell of a lot”.

Varadkar said he made a point of taking the train from his home near Clonsilla to Dublin city centre about once a week “just to be seen on it”. However, apart from the cross-city Luas link, he conceded that there would be very little money available to invest significantly in public transport “this side of 2016”.

His aim is to improve Dublin Bus services in a “low-cost way” by introducing the Leap card and free wifi on buses as well as keeping the bus fleet “fresh”, with no vehicles more than 12 or 13 years old, because “we don’t want to go back to the 1980s when buses were breaking down all the time”.

Rapid transit

Asked about bus rapid transit, he said preliminary designs had been done for a few routes, including Blanchardstown to UCD and Swords to the city centre via the Dublin Port Tunnel, but there was no money available. There might also have been “very big rows” over parking and taxi ranks on the routes.

The Minister said it was “a shame really” that there were so few public transport projects ready to go for the €2 billion stimulus package announced last summer, which is why it was so heavily tilted towards roads; these were also more amenable to funding by public-private partnership (PPP) projects.

Referring to the cross-city Luas between St Stephen’s Green and Broombridge, the first meeting of a ministerial forum overseeing the €375 million project was held last Thursday and went “very well”. A new traffic plan to facilitate it, including making Kildare Street two-way, would be implemented next year.

“A lot of bus priority is being put in, and if that’s at the expense of cars so be it,” he said. Asked whether it would make sense to integrate bus and light rail services, as has been done in Bordeaux where buses feed into the tramway, he said this was “something we will be forced to do in Dublin . . . we need to do that”.

Referring to the fact that passengers transferring between the Luas lines at O’Connell Street would have to walk up to 149m between stops, he said this was “largely for engineering reasons, and it’s not that unusual in metro or tube stations in other cities to have to walk quite a distance”.

The Minister said more than €200 million had been spent advancing Metro North, Metro West and Dart Underground – all of which he had shelved. “I don’t think that was money well-spent, but it’s not all lost because I do think that Dart Underground will happen some day.

“In the case of Metro North, even if I had €3 billion or €4 billion, would you spend it that way? You’d get a lot of roads and public transport for that. Like a lot of things at the time, it was based on projections that the economy would grow fast forever, and there were plans to have 120,000 people in Swords, etc.”

He said Dublin Airport Authority “has very significant debts” of more than €500 million as a result of building Terminal 2 “which may well be needed in the future, but isn’t really needed now”. However, Dublin Port Company would soon be debt-free “because the good people of Clontarf put an end to its infill plans”.

Cutting staff

Referring to CIÉ, Varadkar said part of its problem was due to “significant overmanning”. But staff numbers had been cut from 6,000 to 4,000, with another 600 to go under the latest voluntary redundancy scheme. Irish Rail will also be getting a new chief executive.

He conceded that railway revenues had fallen due to competition from the motorways, but there was no money to improve rail journey times, which are among the slowest in Europe.

Asked about the Western Rail Corridor, he said it was not even going to be extended to Tuam. But the relatively new Ennis-Athenry link was not losing as much as other rail services such as Limerick Junction-Waterford and Manulla Junction-Ballina and these were being looked at by “number-crunchers”.