Had a good meeting with Dick Fearn, the CEO of Iarnród Éireann yesterday. Many thanks to all who replied to my tweet requesting agenda items.
I was pleased with some of what I learnt at the meeting: smart cards for rail users are almost here, and there's some light at the end of the tunnel for rail freight, and the good news is that yes, it is an oncoming train. That pic is from Alexandra Road in Dublin Port by the way.
Mr. Fearn's office is in the Irish Rail HQ on Amiens Street in the city centre. It's an architectural delight inside with impressive Victorian arches, and tiles and stairs that remind you of the golden days of Great Northern Railways. We discussed Irish Rail's plans for 2010. Last year was difficult - the subvention from Government was reduced by 10%, and there's been a 10% drop in revenue. There will be another 10% decrease in subvention this year as part of the Government's plan to get Ireland's current spending under control. The good news is that there won't be fare increases this year, and that the plans for capital spending under Transport 21 will continue. Irish Rail fared well during the cold spell. There were some delays on early trains, mostly due to overnight 'waxing' of diesel when the temperature went into double digits below freezing, an unusual occurrence for Ireland. Given that I was delayed on a Eurostar from Brussels on the way back from the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen just before Christmas due to snow, I think Irish Rail fared well.
A new timetable was introduced on 29 November last. There have been some service reductions, but also some improvements such as an early morning express from Waterford at 7.10 that stops in Carlow and gets into Heuston at 9.10 and is proving popular. The newer trains facilitate more splitting and joining which adds flexibility to services. The Western Rail Corridor is scheduled for opening by the end of March. Recent flooding on the Limerick Ennis section of the line will require co-operation from the OPW to address underlying drainage issues, and I intend discussing this with Martin Mansergh who has responsibility in this area. A great opportunity presents itself when the Galway-Limerick Section opens. It should be possible to travel between most of the gateway cities identified in the National Spatial Strategy without having to travel through Dublin. Falling passenger numbers on the Waterford to Rosslare line are a cause for concern, as that line had previously been well supported by freight traffic of sugar beet at Wellington Bridge. I suggested that better promotion of little used services might help. There's also a case for local authorities to work with Irish Rail to provide better signage and promotion of rail services. A few years ago I found myself completely lost walking in circles on the back streets of Ennis trying to find the Station, and a simple sign or two might have put me out of my misery.
We discussed the DART underground, a project that has the potential to make a dramatic improvement in public transport in Dublin. Concerns have been raised about the proposed location of a portal entrance to the tunnel in Inchicore. Mr. Fearn pointed out that this will bypass the pinch-point at Kilmainham that's known as the 'Bridge of Signals'. It is a massive project, and if handled correctly has the potential link up the city east and west.
On the existing DART network a new timetable has also been introduced. It provides for trains every 15 minutes off-peak, which has practically eliminated sightings of 'next train 23 minutes' on departure boards. It has reduced the amount of peak trains though, and this is a problem for many commuters between Shankill and Booterstown. More morning peak departures from Greystones have also contributed to over-crowding on some trains. Mr. Fearn gave an undertaking to review the timetable if problems persist on the morning 8am to 8.30 departures.
There's some good news on smart cards. They're under testing at the moment and will be available within the next month or so. Eliminating cash will save on queing at stations. I see this as an interim measure though, and we're still waiting on the integrated ticketing that was promised in the Dublin Transportation Initiative Report back in 1994. I've met Tim Gaston who heads up teh project from the RPA on a couple of occasions, and the project is moving slowly because not all transport bodies are in agreement on what is needed. If done correctly, integrated ticketing should simplify fares and allow for savings if you transfer from one mode to another (such as a DART bus combination). I fear this will only happen when the heads of all public transport companies are locked in a room and given only stale bread and water for a few weeks until they sort this out. The Oyster card in London is a good example of integrated ticketing that works reasonably well.
There's been a good take up of the Cycle to Work scheme by Irish Rail employees. 230 applications have been made from the 4,500 staff who work for Irish Rail. That's a 5% take-up rate, which is pretty impressive, given that so many of their staff live a short walk from rail stations. I went on to discuss the bikes on trains issue. I've been in endless correspondence with the company on this one. With the elimination of "guard's vans" it's been difficult in recent years to get your bike onto trains. Mr. Fearn says however that all inter-city trains are once again taking bikes. There's space for three on three carriage sets, and six on six-car trains. I raised the cost of travelling with a bike which can be as much as €8 on a single journey. Mr. Fearn pointed out that the three bike places involved the elimination of four seats, and that the spaces have to pay for themselves. One bit of good news is that from June it will be possible to pre-book space for bikes on the Irish Rail web-site, which is welcome news. Hopefully the website will provide better information on this topic, and API so that people can build better timetable or realtime info apps as @Ciaran_Lee suggested to me on Twitte . I still believe more needs to be done for cyclists. In Holland, 40% of train journeys involve a cycle to or from the station. A simple improvement would be to provide better cycle parking at stations. There are improvements underway at Connolly, but almost all other stations could benefit from improved cycle parking. Cllr. Mark Deary asked me to mention the need for secure bike-parking at Dundalk Station, and Mr. Fearn said he would investigate this. The Government's Smarter Travel document recommends that bikes should be taken off-peak on suburban rail, and Mr. Fearn said he will introduce a pilot scheme on the Maynooth and Drogheda services shortly. I urged him to implement this recommendation on the DART as soon as possible.
I've received a few specific queries that I'll respond to below:
-I was asked to mention poor early morning and Sunday service on the Kildare Line. Mr. Fearn said the Kildare town service was good from 6am, but that the stations further in to Dublin only have a service which start at 7am from Hazelhatch and Celbridge and on the issues closer to Dublin. He undertook to examine this.
-I also had a query about a gap in the Connolly evening departures to Balbriggan. Mr. Fearn said the evening departures to Balbriggin were good, but that there is a gap due to DART departures that will be looked at in the next review.
-I had a question about the opening of Clongriffin Station. I am told that it is only a matter of weeks away. Interestingly the private sector picked up the tab on this one.
-One commuter asked me about the re-opening of Dunboyne Station. This will include re-opening the old Dunboyne Station, and a new station at a large park and ride site. Apparently construction is 75% finished and hopefully it will open up for traffic in late 2010.
We went on to discuss rail freight. Rail freight use has fallen dramatically in the last ten years, but there's some recent good news. There's a lot of traffic involving the transport of zinc ore from Tara Mines to Dublin. There's up to four trains a day, and each of these takes the equivalent of forty lorrys off the road. There was also a significant amount of shale carried by rail out of Silvermines in Tipperary, but with the construction boom over this has tailed off. The Platin Cement also had a lot of rail traffic but this has diminished. Coillte however is sending a lot of timber by rail. Most of this traffic goes from the north-west to Waterford, and with an increase in felling in recent years this traffic is set to continue to grow.
The more interesting development is an increase in container trains in recent years. Norfolk Line sends pharmaceutical raw materials in containers by train up to Ballina, and Coke sends their syrup back out through Waterford every week. In addition, since last August International Warehousing and Transport has chartered two trains a week between Ballina and Dublin. There's also some interest now in running a container train on a route between the south-west and Dublin. Hopefully this trend will continue.
One final concern that was raised with me was drunkenness on trains. Mr. Fearn said that alcohol has been taken off the food trollies on the Dublin Kilkenny service, and acknowledged that stag partys had been drinking to excess. No suprises there.
All in all it was a productive meeting. I'm conscious that I was getting the positive side to the story, and if you have any particular concerns please comment on this posting or get in touch and I'll try and address them through direct correspondence with Irish Rail or the Minister for Transport, or by way of Dáil question. I intend to scour www.railusers.ie , www.iot.ie and www.inchicoreDARTstation.com for more commuters' and residents' concerns.