Leo should sell off Irish Rail, not strangle it with lack of funding
Published 03/04/2014 | 02:30
LEO Varadkar is a valuable cabinet minister, an innovative tourism minister, but a lousy transport minister.
Yesterday's threat to pull funding for trains unless more people use the service is just another reminder that his many interests don't extend as far as transportation.
His lack of interest is bad luck, because our state-owned transport system is in desperate need of the sort of right-wing remedies that Mr Varadkar often prescribes for other parts of the economy.
Irish Rail is woefully overmanned. It's not hard to see why as the company often acts like it is a make-work scheme, unlike Dublin's privately run Luas network.
On a 90-minute train journey from Kilkenny to Dublin, for instance, passengers must buy a ticket in Kilkenny's small station from one rail official, show it to another official a few yards away, before walking on to the station's only platform.
Once on the train, the ticket is checked again before alighting, where it is checked at the manned gates at Heuston Station. The whole process could be replaced by a ticket machine and the odd random check, like the Luas.
Let's be clear. Our rail service is excellent; trains are punctual, clean and reasonably fast.
The only problem is that they are also very expensive – which deters many customers.
Trains have to be cheaper than cars to make sense. In Ireland, where most people have big families, this is rarely the case and helps to explain why one rarely sees children on our trains.
The over-manning evident in most stations and subsequent high fares, for which Mr Varadkar is ultimately responsible, must be tackled before he talks about slashing funding to the rail service.
That won't be easy. Mr Varadkar got a taste of how difficult it will be when he looked, but then baulked, at reforming the rules governing private coach operators, who do so much to keep rural Ireland alive.
It is understandable that an ambitious young cabinet minister, with legitimate expectations of running the country one day, might avoid the inevitable strike action that would follow real reform of Irish Rail. But it is not acceptable that he plans to slowly strangle Irish Rail to death by withdrawing funding.
A far better solution would be to simply sell the entire service off now when it is still working well and has value.
A slow death is the worst solution of all for the Exchequer, rail passengers and even for car drivers, who will face bigger traffic jams if the rail system is closed.