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Wednesday 20 February 2019

Ambitious boss sets sights on growing passenger numbers to 75 million

High hopes: Jim Meade, Irish Rail CEO, at Connolly Station, Dublin. Photo: Kyran O'Brien
High hopes: Jim Meade, Irish Rail CEO, at Connolly Station, Dublin. Photo: Kyran O'Brien
Paul Melia

Paul Melia

Jim Meade has worked in railways all his life. In 1983, he joined Irish Rail, working in mechanical engineering before moving to operations from 2003. Last May, he was appointed CEO.

His ambition is for the company to carry 75 million passengers a year by 2025, up from the 48 million a year at present - itself a record high.

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"We acknowledge that 75 by '25 is a stretched target, but we need something to focus on, we need to tell people we have a raison d'etre," he says.

"We want to be positive about the future. We have been in recovery mode since around 2015, we could see the growth and the question was how to build on that?

"I wasn't coming into a company I didn't know (when appointed). For me, there were a couple of key priorities including the 10-minute Dart and we needed to deliver enhancements on the general commuter network.

"Around the time I took over, the Government announced a €2bn investment in rail under the National Development Plan and Ireland 2040. It's about electrification and new fleet.

"What are we going to deliver? In one way, public transport is very simple. It's about providing a service and moving goods and people. It's about a frequent and reliable service and being punctual and for a lot of people it's a requirement. They need to get to work and home again in the evening. It's not leisure travel."

Acknowledging that crowded trains will remain a reality until additional capacity arrives from 2021, the semi-State has ambitious plans.

It proposes moving the Docklands Station in Dublin to a new site at Spencer Dock, where rail services would link with Luas. An additional platform, Platform 8, is also planned at Connolly which would increase capacity.

There is also a requirement to double track capacity between Heuston Station and Clondalkin to four tracks, allowing more trains to use Heuston and the Phoenix Park tunnel, which connects with Connolly.

Electrification of the lines to Hazelhatch, Maynooth and Drogheda/Dundalk is also planned under the Government's Ireland 2040 plan, and new trains will be capable of running with electricity or battery, helping to further reduce transport emissions.

"It's to get the connectivity and extra capacity and ability to run more services than we do today," he said. "The ultimate goal is more capacity and more services, and delivering more options for the customer. We want to continue growing.

"The strive for 75 million by 2025 is a tall order. It will require modal shift and we will only see that if we put in place capacity."

The ambition isn't confined to Dublin. In Galway, a commuter service up to every 15 minutes between Athenry and Galway is planned, which will require a second platform to be built at Oranmore Station.

In Cork, proposals include new stations to grow the commuter business, with options including Kilbarry, Blarney, Dunkettle and Carrigtwohill.

Waterford's Plunkett Station is also expected to be relocated, while there has been major investment in a transport hub for Limerick.

That said, there are challenges. Routine maintenance needed to keep the network in good working order, called 'steady state', is fully funded, but there is a backlog of works. There is also a need to improve line speeds.

"We had a plan to reach steady-state funding by 2021 and the department (of transport) has reached that two years ahead of schedule. It doesn't deal with the backlog of works.

"We need line speed improvements to get speeds up to 100mph (160kmh). We'd like to remove level crossings on the Dublin to Cork line, which allows us to run trains faster and that creates capacity. The next step is then to add services. This all needs to be incremental."

But what about anti-social behaviour on trains? Is there a need for a dedicated transport police? "It's a real issue. We have developed a very good relationship with An Garda Síochána...

"That said, it's something I don't believe will go away. We've put a lot of effort into security at our stations but I don't think a transport police is required. I don't believe we're big enough for that."

The expansion plans will mean more staff are required. Customer service officers will be deployed on most inter-city services, which will help curb anti-social behaviour, while up to 40 drivers will be recruited this year and another 100 over the next two or three years.

He wants to discuss planning future pay deals with unions well in advance of the expiry of the current deal in late 2020.

"We want to be positive about the future," he says. "We survived the downturn quite well in terms of controlling our costs. There were a lot of things we would have liked to have done but as a company we couldn't afford it. It's going to take us a couple of years to recover from that."

Irish Independent

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