23 February, 2010

George, Deirdre, Willie and Trevor

What a fortnight! 

There's been quite a few losers in all of this and some winners as well. Dan had a good week last week, as did Vincent P Martin and Gary Fitzgerald. The rest of us? No, we didn't cover ourselves in glory, but that's the benefit of hindsight.

George Lee's departure from politics a fortnight ago took most of us by suprise. He strikes me as decent guy who found life in Leinster House a lot more difficult than it appears from afar. Change can takes a long time to happen, and involves compromise and lenghty discussions. I got some flack over describing a meeting of the sub-Committee on Dáil Reform of the Committee on Procedures and Privileges as being similar to watching paint dry, but change happens slowly when all sides seek consensus on an issue. The end result of that particular process will probably result in a legislature that sits longer and spends more time both legislating and dealing with topical issues, but the road to that destination is long and winding.

George wanted to move quickly, and in the media results have to happen for a 6 or a 9 o'clock deadline, and I'm sure he found that frustrating. You've also got to have a good working relationship with your colleagues, and that's always a challenge. There's a mad mix of ego and idealism in politics, and collegiality is often crucial in getting the right result. I had a few brief chats with George over the last few months. We discussed kids and the challenge of a work-life balance, and he struck me as a decent individual. I can only imagine that it was difficulty to come into a party where most members of the front bench have three or four Dáil terms behind them, and where the existing TDs already have clearly delineated roles.

Deirdre de Burca's departure has been a real loss. She's been a great campaigner for the Green Party and did great work in exposing planning and waste management peculiarities in County Wicklow. She grew up just down the road from me in Cabinteely, and I suspect that the campaigns against the rezoning of Cherrywood led by her neighbour Michael Smith in the early 1990's informed her own politicisation. Michael has gone on to edit the Village Magazine, and is providing a lively and informed commentary on contemporary Ireland. She attended some of the World Social Forums and was enthused by the discussion of alternative economic systems. I feel that she found Government challenging, and particularly the tough decisions over the bank guarantees and the setting up of the National Assets Management Agency. She loves the stimulation of European policy and decision-making and gave much of her time to the Forum on Europe, campaigning for a yes vote in the Lisbon Referenda, and catching up with the latest developments in Brussels. As a result of this she wasn't the most frequent attendee at our weekly parliamentary party meetings, and she missed out on a lot of the discussions last autumn around the renegotiation of the Programme for Government. I was surprised that she lobbied for a position in Brussels, but that's water under the bridge now. 

I'm also taken aback by the thrust of her most recent email regarding the Dublin Docklands Development Authority (DDDA). We all receive tens of thousands of emails every year, and in my experience I would either raise an issue of concern at our weekly parliamentary party meetings, or by writing directly to John or his senior staff. I tend not to cc John in emails that I've sent to someone else as he's even more swamped with information than the rest of us. In any case by the time that she wrote to him last August the concerns about the Docklands had already been well aired by Kathleen Barrington in the Sunday Business Post. I suspect that the DDDA won't come out of all of this as a paragon of corporate governance, but I am reassured that John Gormley has appointed Niamh Brennan as chair of the Authority.

 The irony in all of this is that the green critique of the Celtic Tiger years has been well and truly vindicated at this stage. We were critical of decisions made by previous governments, and the over-reliance on tax incentives, especially in the area of property development. That's why I'm heartened that Brian Cowen has Peter Clinch as his economic advisor. Peter co-authored 'After the Celtic Tiger' along with Frank Convery and Brendan Walsh, and it is heartening that he has the ear of our Taoiseach during these tough times. I suspect that there's not too many unexploded bombs in the DDDA, but if there is, I'm sure that John Gormley will take the right course of action. 

The Willy O'Dea resignation was messy. The Greens; Fianna Fáil; Willy O'Dea himself, no-one in government comes out of this well. Given that Pat Carey seems to have made the decision to run with the Motion of Confidence in the shower on Wednesday morning, we need to have much clearer lines of communication, and decision-making, and I'm glad to say that he's agreed to that. You might think that in a small Party we'd be in close contact with each other all the time, but the reality is that we're all stretched, trying to cover several portfolios at the same time. Sitting days are often a blur with opportunities to catch up with colleagues being limited to chance meetings in the corridors, text messages, or a hurried lunch in the Dáil canteen. One of the difficulties was that the text from Pat Carey's office regarding the Motion of Confidence only went to Dáil deputies and did not go to Senators, so Dan didn't realise that realise that matters would move as quickly as they did. It may come across as nit-picking, but voting against a Motion of No Confidence a week later would have been quite different from voting for a motion of Confidence on the day. Vincent P Martin's article on the Wednesday was excellent, but the Limerick Leader failed to exonerate Willy O'Dea, and both the tape, his interview and the Dáil debate failed to do the Minister any favours.

Meanwhile life goes on in Leinster House. I'm meeting some rail freight users at 11, a trip out to see Eirgrid's control room at 12, and the Dáil week kicks off at 2.30. 

The pic? That's the unfinished Anglo-Irish Bank headquarters in Dublin Docklands, and someone fishing in the foreground. Maybe we should keep it just the way it is, as a monument to the excesses of the Tiger years.

UPDATE 8.45pm
Turned out not to be a normal day after all. I'm still in shock at the news of Trevor's resignation as a Junior Minister. He is one of the most selfless decent people that I have met in public life. It seemed like half of Leinster House where saying to themselves "there but for the grace of God go I" when they heard the news.

As John Gormley noted earlier this evening Trevor "acted promptly and without any self interest. That is totally in keeping with his approach to politics and the contribution he has made across the past four decades."

I couldn't agree more.

03 February, 2010

Some good news from Irish Rail

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.

01 February, 2010

30kph and all that

Quite a polarised issue, speed limits.

George's Street in Dún Laoghaire was pedestrianised a few years ago. After a year a majority of the councillors (bar the Greens who were on the Council at the time) decided to  allow cars back in. A month ago the Council brought in new speed limits across the County. On some roads the speed limits went up, but on others it came down, particularly in town centres such as on Georges Street. Mind you, the new 30kph speed limit didn't generate as much heat as Dublin City's new lower speed limit that came into place today.

I was surprised and disappointed that both the AA and the Dublin City Business Association are critical of the new lower speed limits. Both bodies state that they're concerned about the environment. I'd have thought that any measure to reduce noise pollution and accidents would be welcome. Plus, if a pedestrian is hit at 30 kph 95% of the time they survive. At 50 kph they have a 45% chance of losing their life.Speed kills.

Some are saying that this will add to journey times in a car, but if you do the math the most it can add is ninety seconds, and that's keeping to the limit all the way through town.

I had a look at the map on the Dublin City Council website, and cross-referenced this to CSO data.  It seems to me that over 15,000 people live in the area that will be affected, and that includes at least 1,500 children. There's also at least six schools, and several third level institutions within the cordon. Anything that makes them safer makes sense to me.

Others are saying that there's not too many accidents happening in the city centre. Well, in figures that I've seen, nine people lost their lives within the 30 kph area in traffic accidents since 2003, over thirty-six were seriously injured, and over four hundred suffered minor injuries.

I'd imagine that both tourists and residents alike will feel the better for being able to have a conversation on a footpath in the middle of town again, rather than shouting over the noise of traffic.  It would be nice to think that the Quays will be less like a race-track. I'm sure that users of the DublinBikes scheme will feel safer. All in all I believe it's a good decision that will make the city a more, well, civilised place. 

Now let's take a leaf from the Dutch book and put in 15kph speed limits on residential streets. Then, maybe our children  can feel safe playing outside, rather then spending to much time on their Nintendos, instead of exploring their neighbourhood.