Varadkar's plan to close railways
Published 03/04/2014 | 02:30
TRAIN services face being axed unless Irish Rail cuts costs and gets more people travelling.
Dozens of rural lines are at risk of closure because they're so under-used, Transport Minister Leo Varadkar has warned.
In a stark message to the semi-state company and the public, the minister said that unless there was a turnaround, people would have to accept that lines would be closed because many services would "no longer be sustainable".
"I have a real concern that there is a perception in some quarters that ultimately the Government will protect and fund existing rail services at any cost. That may be the romantic answer, but it is not realistic," Mr Varadkar said.
He has challenged rail chiefs to cut costs and increase passenger numbers by luring people away from the motorways which have enjoyed huge investment.
Almost one-fifth of railway stations cater for fewer than 100 passengers a day.
Rural groups warned that cuts in transport services, already considered inadequate, will lead to further isolation.
Irish Rail has been fighting for its survival in recent years amid falling passenger numbers, cuts in government subsidies and plummeting revenues, which fell to €186m in 2012, down €35m on 2008.
Management and unions have been locked in negotiations over cost-cutting plans aimed at saving €25m between now and 2017, and will meet in the Labour Court next Monday in an attempt to hammer out an agreement.
The threat to rural train services was sharply criticised by Irish Rural Link last night.
“We’re losing other transport services because of economic reasons, and decision-makers are not considering the social aspects,” spokesman James Claffey said.
Irish Rail said it acknowledged the “very serious nature” of its position.
While costs had been reduced by almost €67m between 2009 and 2012, government funding had dropped in the same period by €55.4m – 29pc.
Despite this, it ran more services last year than in 2012, reduced costs by €25m last year, cut staffing numbers by 261 and saw revenues increase by 4.4pc.
Speaking at the Transport Ireland conference in Dublin, Mr Varadkar made it very clear that there was little scope for further fare increases or additional funding from Government to shore up the company's finances.
It received more than half of the subvention paid by Government to the semi-state transport companies, but only carried 15pc of all passengers, he said.
“If our current rail services are to survive, they must be competitive with alternative modes. If the current policy fails because of industrial unrest or continuing decline in passenger numbers, we will have to accept that some, or indeed many, of our rail services are no longer sustainable,” he said.
Iarnrod Eireann received 56pc, or €117m, of the €209m Public Service Obligation (PSO) payment this year. This is paid by Government to Irish Rail, Dublin Bus and Bus Eireann, and used to cover costs on non-profit-making services.
Dublin Bus received just €60m, despite carrying more than double the number of passengers as the railway company. Bus Eireann received €32m.
Mr Varadkar expressed concern over the ongoing disagreement at Irish Rail over pay cuts after a proposal was rejected by unions, and that he was “genuinely worried” employees and perhaps the company did not understand the gravity of the situation.
The National Bus and Rail Union sharply criticised the comments, saying that railways by their nature were “not profit-making entities”.
General Secretary Dermot O’Leary said: “The travelling public would be better served if the minister would commit to having an open and transparent debate with all stakeholders with regard to both the funding and provision of public transport.