'If we don't want a deteriorating quality of railway, we need that money'
Irish Rail chief David Franks faces a huge challenge to maintain and improve the network while encouraging passengers, writes Paul Melia
David Franks is under no illusions about the main challenge facing Irish Rail. It needs a lot of money to maintain the current network, and to add services.
He is keen to highlight the role that railways can play in meeting climate change targets and reducing congestion. But to do that, more trains are needed.
And he says houses must be built along existing lines, particularly in Dublin and other major cities, to provide a viable alternative to the car.
"Railways are very good at moving large volumes of people in built-up areas, "he says. "We had this conversation at our board meeting, about ensuring we contribute sufficiently to the debate [on housing], and on the potential improvements necessary from public transport to service any future development.
"We have been in a space where there hasn't been any money. There hasn't been opportunity to demonstrate visionary thinking. Now we see things picking back up, we see opportunity to consider these things carefully.
"People need to think a little bit bigger than 'we have to build more houses'. There's certainly scope on the Kildare route to handle more numbers. Our only constraint is rolling stock, and that should not be the biggest issue in the world. It's not that expensive in the context of a 30-year investment, and the benefits can be significant."
Although the company has received additional State funding in recent years, it's way below what is needed. Notwithstanding the current pay claim, he acknowledges the role that staff have played, particularly in driving energy efficiency and other cost-saving measures.
Irish Rail has hit its Government target to be 33pc more energy efficient, way in advance of the 2020 deadline. "We've been achieving a huge amount of things in terms of general efficiency across the company over the period since the recession kicked in," he says. "When you have no money, you become incredibly creative. Energy efficiency has been one of our best achievements, one of the things I hold up as a serious gold star.
"It started with 'When a train's not in use, why don't you just shut it down'? We've made colossal savings."
Despite the financial problems, passenger numbers are rising. This is due to the improving economy, with more people back at work, use of the Leap card - although he believes fares are too low and it is "weird" to offer cheap prices at times of high demand - and ticketing initiatives.
Some 50pc of all intercity journeys are now booked online, and an airline-style booking system has been in place since May. Over time, passengers with a "bit of flexibility" on travel arrangements will be able to book cheaper tickets on lesser-used services.
The system will analyse booking patterns, and offer cheaper fares on quieter trains. Customers will also be able to print tickets at home, or scan a barcode on their mobile phones in stations.
"If you're prepared to be flexible, you can pay less. It's all about spreading the loads and getting better value."
Part of encouraging people to travel by rail is ensuring they have confidence in its safety record. Last December, safety watchdog the Commission for Railway Regulation warned the Government of "strategic safety" issues over time, unless senior management changed the way it dealt with regulations.
"We have a robust but professional relationship with them generally," he says. "Some requirements have been onerous and expensive, and you would expect us to challenge some of those, which we do. That's all I'll say.
"The network is incredibly safe. We're the safest railway in Europe at the minute as set out by the European Railway Agency
"The way a safe railway operates is you have systems to prevent things going wrong. When systems aren't functioning, you rely on humans to do the job for them. The risk is human error creeping in. We do not operate a railway when it's unsafe."
Irish Rail was forced to cut services to and from Limerick for three weeks earlier this year due to signalling issues, and there were problems in Cherryville in 2016. The lack of money meant routine upgrades could not be completed. Other problems are looming,
"We need €100m every year just to invest in the asset base. We've made it very clear there will be a deterioration in the quality of service, we will end up doing things with people instead of systems.
"With track, we just put speed restrictions on the first instance. There's a period of time before we get into serious problems. But signalling works or doesn't. It's electronic. One day it can be working and the next it will be broken. We have signalling systems coming to the end of their asset life. Our maintenance base is being enhanced to try to deal with deterioration as best we can.
"In my time we had Cherryville which broke, Limerick broke, we know we have issues at Kilkenny which have to be dealt with and issues around the corner in Cork, and there are other parts of the network where we're close to critical in terms of needing to spend money.
"If we are not to find ourselves having a deteriorating quality of railway, we do need that money."