Extra trains costing €20,000 per day put on minister's loss-making route
STATE rail company Iarnrod Eireann has added four extra services a day -- at a cost of almost €20,000 per day -- to a loss-making route serving the constituency of the Public Transport Minister.
Alan Kelly's constituency office is in Nenagh in Co Tipperary and the town will benefit from new services to and from Dublin from next Monday, even though the line has long been recommended for closure.
Just 73 people a day currently use the Ballybrophy to Limerick line, which serves the town, generating a paltry €753 a day in fares.
The development was announced last week by Iarnrod Eireann, which said it emerged after consultation with local groups.
But it comes after the junior minister in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, who was elected to the Dail for the first time in March last year, was sharply criticised in September for "encouraging" Iarnrod Eireann to lay on an extra train to bring Tipperary fans to the All-Ireland final.
Repeated efforts since last Wednesday to contact Mr Kelly for comment on the new services were unsuccessful.
However, last night, the Department of Transport confirmed that Mr Kelly had passed on "local concerns" about service levels on the line, "as he does when contacted by any local transport group".
Mr Kelly did speak out after the Irish Independent revealed last year that he had "encouraged" the state rail company to put an extra train on the same line for the All-Ireland final.
"The people along the line from Birdhill, Nenagh, Roscrea and at Ballybrophy are as entitled to proper public transport as anybody else," he told a local newspaper at the time.
He also insisted: "It was good to see people getting on from areas that should have been provided with a proper service down the years and which I hope to provide with better services."
There are currently five trains a day departing Nenagh to Dublin, with three coming from the capital. But from next Monday, the services from Nenagh will increase to seven per day, while five will leave Dublin.
The move flies in the face of recommendations contained in a high-level report published last week, which earmarked the line for closure.
It said that demand for services along the Limerick-Ballybrophy line was "especially poor" relative to other services.
The AECOM/Goodbody report, launched by Transport Minister Leo Varadkar last Wednesday, also noted that of the 73 daily passengers, less than 50 used the service for commuting -- many of whom would travel into Limerick, which is not served by the new early-morning service to begin next week. Mr Varadkar admitted that government payments to Iarnrod Eireann, known as the subvention, would be cut by up to 12pc over the next three years -- assuming the economy improves, meaning further cuts are possible.
Iarnrod Eireann currently receives €135m a year.
He also said that fares would continue to increase. The AECOM report said the line enjoyed the benefit of a dual carriageway on its full route -- meaning it was quicker to drive to Dublin, or travel to Ballybrophy to connect with another service. The Limerick-Ballybrophy route was a line "that could potentially be considered for closure", it added.
An Bord Snip Nua made the same recommendation, saying that "lightly used" train lines should be closed and bus services provided instead.
The Irish Independent has learnt that providing the extra services was first raised with the National Transport Authority on February 9.
It must approve all changes to timetabled services. A formal application for permission was submitted to the NTA on February 17, and was approved the same day.
The application came despite a major reform of timetabled services into Heuston Station being completed just eight months ago, in June 2011.
The decision to lay on extra services will cost the company hundreds of thousands of euro. The line is 84km long, and Iarnrod Eireann says it costs €56 to run a train per km travelled -- or €4,704 per service.
It is expected that the new service will run for at least six months, when passenger numbers will be assessed and a decision taken on whether or not it will remain in place.
The extra spend comes despite the company being subjected to massive cuts in government funding, resulting in rail passengers being forced to pay higher fares in an effort to stem losses.
Local lobby group the Nenagh Rail Partnership, chaired by Labour Councillor Virginia O'Dowd, has lobbied for extra services on the line for years.
But despite the pressure, a major reform of timetabled services into Heuston Station last year did not result in extra services for Nenagh.
The town is just 36km (22 miles) from Thurles, which links with the Cork and Limerick services, and benefits from more than 16 trains a day to the capital in each direction.