The Government is prepared to close railways if the current policy of maintaining services and seeking greater efficiency fails, Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar has warned.
Speaking in advance of a Labour Court hearing between railway workers and Iarnród Éireann next Monday, Mr Varadkar said if the current policy fails – either through industrial unrest or declining passenger numbers – “we will have to accept that some or indeed many of our rail services are no longer sustainable”. In such a scenario he said the Government was prepared to transfer funding away from railways to more efficient buses “which offer better value money for the taxpayer”.
Rail workers who are members of the National Bus and Rail Union voted overwhelmingly in February against a cost-cutting plan which included pay cuts ranging from 2 to 6 per cent for up to three years.
Addressing delegates at a transport conference in Dublin yesterday Mr Varadkar cited former CIÉ chairman Todd Andrews as having had the courage to close 12 uneconomic railway lines – only one of which– the Harcourt Street to Bray line, was "probably"a mistake, he said. Mr Varadkar said the railways currently absorbed 50 per cent of the State's public service obligation subsidy but carried less than 15 per cent of public transport passengers. He said there was to be no additional money for Iarnród Éireann from the exchequer, and very little scope for fare increases.
“If our current rail services are to survive, they must be competitive with alternative modes and that is clearly a big challenge,” he warned.
He believed the reasons for the decline in inter-city railways were manifold, but involved people seeking transport that was "cheaper or faster, or both". He cited the express bus journey between Cork and Dublin as being just 25 minutes longer than the train, but added that the train "only takes you as far as Heuston Station" and was usually considerably more expensive.
Faster by bus
"The journey from Galway to Dublin is much faster by bus than it is by train," he said. While Mr Varadkar did not identify lines under threat, the national rail census published by the National Transport Authority last December found 31 of the State's 147 stations generate fewer than 100 journeys each a day. It is understood Iarnród Éireann is particularly concerned about passenger numbers on the Ballybrophy to Limerick line, the Western Rail Corridor from Limerick to Galway and the Limerick Junction to Waterford line, among others.
Mr Varadkar said he was genuinely worried that the employees of Iarnród Éireann and maybe even the company itself did not appreciate what was at stake.
However, general secretary of the National Bus and Rail Workers’ Union Dermot O’Leary said the Government had tasked Iarnród Éireann with “running a 2014 service on a 1988 provision”.
He said “railways by their nature are not profit-making entities”.