There is no immediate solution for the provision of flexi tax-saver tickets, the head of Irish Rail has said, as many Irish workers prepare for a partial return to the office.
Work has been ongoing with the National Transport Authority (NTA) but they have encountered technical, taxation and security issues with altering the current commuter tickets, chief executive Jim Meade said.
"It is front and centre, it is getting a lot of debate and discussion to see can we come up with a product that is manageable," he told the Oireachtas Transport Committee on Thursday.
“I think there is [the possibility of an interim solution] but I’ll be honest with you there isn’t one on the table yet… it’s still a work in progress.”
He was responding to questions from Sinn Féin TD Ruairí Ó Murchú who said promises had been made with regard to the provision of the tickets “particularly with people remote working [who] might only be going up two or three days a week and possibly even less than that”.
He had asked whether there was even a “prehistoric” option in the short term such as old-fashioned punch card tickets.
In the Seanad earlier this month, Fine Gael Senator John McGahon said efforts to reformulate a three-day tax-saver ticket had been ongoing for the last 18 months but that the NTA had "pulled the plug at the eleventh hour".
The technical problems are likely to affect thousands of workers as they prepare to return to some form of office working and who rely on tax-saver travel options. Irish Rail said that from a low of 10 per cent during the pandemic, commuter numbers have now returned to 70 per cent and are expected to return to pre-Covid levels by 2024. Blended working is expected to increase demand.
The recent decision by Government to reduce public transport fares by 20 per cent will cost Irish Rail about €47 million in revenue but that will be met by the NTA.
In response to questions regarding on board security, Mr Meade said the company now spends €6 million per year and had appointed a former garda chief superintendent to bring expertise “in-house”, but he conceded there was much yet to be done.
With Garda “hubs” along train lines for fast response, undercover officers onboard and additional staff, the issue remains “an uphill struggle, I won’t deny it”.
Fianna Fáil TD Cathal Crowe said he recently had to call 999 due to an issue in which a passenger claimed to have a knife, and noted that a security text alert service currently available in the Dublin area should be rolled out more broadly on InterCity services.
The Irish Rail officials appeared before Thursday’s committee to discuss its ongoing all-island strategic rail review, a part of which is focused on reducing journey times between major cities to under two hours.
Although Fianna Fáil TD James O’Connor noted the State had invested tens of billions in the road network in recent years, Mr Meade said the company’s strategy was around upgraded “higher speed lines” of about 200km/h, more than 50km/h slower than “high speed” services such as France’s TGV. That nature of service would require entirely new train lines on green field sites.
Even still, journey times stand to be significantly reduced – the committee heard as fast as an hour and 40 minutes from Dublin to Limerick and an hour and 55 minutes to Cork. Enterprise trains to Belfast, meanwhile, should become an hourly service by 2027.
A five-fold increase in rail freight capacity is also being targeted, with trains currently moving about 1 per cent of all freight in the country.