By Hassard Stacpoole firstname.lastname@example.org @tippstar
At the end of August, the railways between Limerick Junction and Waterford and Limerick and Ballybrophy were in the news again as a result of the latest Irish Rail (IR) negotiations with the unions in the Labour Court over pay claims.
Documents deposited by IR highlighted that both routes could close unless the company is adequately funded.
Media, led by the Irish Independent and RTE, focused on the alleged €761 per passenger subsidy for the Nenagh line, instead of investigating the root causes behind the under-performance of these lines.
These lines serve eight large towns and despite the millions of euro in infrastructural investment in the last decade, little attempt has been made to run a service which is more than marginally relevant to the requirements of the communities they serve. It’s akin to opening a supermarket without stocking the shelves.
There has been a mixed political response in Tipperary on what should happen next.
Some led by former Public Transport Minister Labour TD Alan Kelly point out that closure should not be an option as both have a poor level of service and need to be made useable.
Others led by Independent TD Mattie McGrath questioned the viability of the Nenagh line.
Deputy McGrath's stance is perhaps not unsurprising as the Nenagh line does not serve his political heartland.
The lack of strategic direction reflects extremely poorly on Government, National Transport Authority (NTA) and IR. It is worrying that the NTA, which has no statutory authority in respect of strategic transport planning outside the Greater Dublin Area is leading the review of submission to the consultation on the rail review.
These lines need to be managed like all other intercity routes, with a range of services that operate from early morning to late evening, seven days a week, at speeds equivalent to other intercity routes.
This would require modest additional resources sufficient to run a timetable relevant to commuters, shoppers and students.
This could be a time-limited exercise to demonstrate their potential and the benefit of retention and development.
Let’s be clear, closure of both lines won’t solve IR’s funding gap. It will be a short term measure, savings will be marginal. The heart of IR’s problems has been the failure of successive governments to properly fund the railway.
IR received €14m for 4.8m passenger journeys that were made under the Free Travel scheme in 2016 or €0.29 per passenger journey. The average income per paying passenger journey is €4.60
On that basis, IR appear to be subsidising the scheme at the rate of €4.31 per passenger journey or €21m per annum. Industry sources estimate that 50 per cent of 42.8m passenger journeys was the real number carried in 2016 with Free Travel.
IR’s August submission to the Labour Court quantifies the underfunding of rail operations and highlights a gap of between €90m and €116m each year up to 2021, plus an overhang from previous underfunding of €41.7m each year up to 2019.
The real problem with the lines in question is the failure of the NTA to require IR to operate services that are useful. This has been articulated by Deputy Kelly and Cllr Dennis Leahy in Tipperary.
The cost of improving services is marginal, particularly as rolling stock is available. Both routes are approximately 90km long, operating costs for a three-car train (190 seats) is €335 or €200 for a two-car train (82 seats) per journey, with train crew costs an additional €350 per day.
It has been proven that running more services at times that suit potential users attract more passengers.
The cost of adding services is marginal compared to the annual maintenance cost of the line.
Until 2010, the South Tipperary line had three trains a day. One was withdrawn despite the operational cost of the line remaining the same. While it saved the cost of running the service, revenue and passenger numbers dropped and the subsidy cost went up.
Ultimately, for these lines to survive they need to be operated and managed differently.
The solution is to create a new dedicated business unit with a focused management team to operate both Tipperary lines, along with Limerick-Galway line, so creating a regional railway.
The south Tipperary line requires a more frequent, seven days a week service, with a direct service to Dublin. There’s potential on the Nenagh line to start one of the Portlaoise commuter services at Roscrea early in the morning to test the market potential of services. Another option is to run a shuttle service between Nenagh and Ballybrophy as recommended in the AECOM report of 2011. Rail Freight from Foynes also has the potential to use the route particularly if biomass traffic materialises to the midlands power stations.
Unfortunately, the current Government is agnostic towards rail particularly when Junior Minister Ciaran Cannon suggested on RTE’s Drivetime that turning loss making in lines into greenways is a better option for the local community. He doesn't understand that a well-run railway is worth more to the local economy than a greenway, has the potential to bring real quality of life benefits including beginning addressing some of Ireland’s huge exposure to transport-related greenhouse gas emission.
But the reality is that Fine Gael policy towards rail has not progressed since the 1980s when the late Jim Mitchell described CIE as the albatross around the State's neck. That short-sighted policy appears to have survived to this day.
Railways when operated properly bring jobs, euro and tourists to the towns and villages they serve. Yes, they are expensive but they are all year round and weather proof. Yes, greenways have their place, but to suggest closing existing lines and converting them to greenways is fantasy.
Ultimately, the future of both lines is dependent on a useable timetable and support by the local community and business to put pressure on Minister Ross, the NTA and IR for a different approach.
A first step would be for Minister Ross to actually get around to publishing the consultation so it can inform a sustainable long term policy on rail, with no closures and proper funding that all stakeholders and political parties will buy into.
n Hassard Stacpoole is a professional communications and stakeholder manager who has over 15 years’ experience working in the rail and bus industry in the UK. Originally from near Askeaton, County Limerick, he has worked for the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC), the Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT), Stagecoach Group PLC and currently works for Network Rail on the High Speed 2 rail programme. Previously to working in the rail industry, he was a journalist on one of the UK’s leading railway industry trade magazines RAIL.