AS FEW as four people a day are using a new train service in Public Transport Minister Alan Kelly's constituency -- at a cost of €250,000 a year.
The extra services were introduced in March despite a high-level review that found there was a strong case to close the line because of low passenger numbers.
But three months after the new service was put in place, official figures show just 10 passengers per day are using the early-morning service.
And on Tuesday, just four people used the train along this stretch of track.
The new service caters for commuters living in five towns along a previously unused 78km stretch of track between Limerick Junction and Ballybrophy each morning and each evening.
An Irish Independent investigation can reveal that the extra services were agreed following a series of phone conversations between Iarnrod Eireann and the National Transport Authority (NTA), which must approve all changes to timetabled services. No written records of the decision-making process exist.
The minister has consistently denied having had any direct role in the introduction of the new services, which meant adding two additional trains for his north Tipperary base.
Timetable changes were also made to another four services along the Limerick to Ballybrophy line in an effort to encourage more people to use the train.
But documents obtained by the Irish Independent raise serious questions about how the new route got the go-ahead at a time when the state rail company was facing a funding crisis.
Earlier this month, it said it was seeking 450 redundancies.
The documents show how little information was provided, in written format, to justify spending €1,000 a day on new services.
They reveal how:
• The NTA, which has the ultimate say on approving new rail routes, sought no details of how much the extra services would cost.
• Permission to run the extra trains was granted just 90 minutes after the NTA was formally approached by Iarnrod Eireann about the matter on February 17.
• Background discussions leading up to the decision were carried out on the phone, with no written record kept.
• Two high-level reports previously recommended that the Ballybrophy line, which serves north Tipperary, be closed as too few people used it, it was beside a motorway and journey times were too slow.
Official figures provided by the rail company show an average of just 10 people a day use the new 5.05am Limerick to Dublin service, which serves Castleconnell, Birdhill, Nenagh, Cloughjordan and Roscrea. The train has 190 seats.
An average of 153 people board the train between Ballybrophy and Dublin's Heuston station. There are no figures available for the numbers using the second new service, which leaves Ballybrophy at 7.15pm for Limerick.
Records released by the NTA under the Freedom of Information Act show there was no written record of discussions held about the extra services prior to a formal application being submitted. It was approved just 90 minutes after it was received on February 17 by chief executive Gerry Murphy in an email to Iarnrod Eireann chief executive Dick Fearn.
"This application is approved," he said. "We approve on the basis that the cost impacts are negligible, thereby not affecting the 2012 subsidy and that the end-to-end Cork/Tralee to Dublin journey times will not be affected."
There is no mention of the costs of running the extra services, which Iarnrod Eireann confirmed yesterday were €1,000 per day, or €250,000 a year. Mr Kelly previously insisted the cost was €600 a day.
The NTA last night defended the lack of documentation, saying a lot of the discussions took place on the phone before a formal application was made.
"There were phone conversations; we're on the phone to the companies all the time. There are formal records kept where there are substantial changes," a spokeswoman said, adding that the changes did not affect other services and would not require any state funding.
Last September, Mr Kelly was criticised for "encouraging" the railway company to lay on an extra train to bring Tipperary fans to the All-Ireland final.
Attempts to contact him yesterday were unsuccessful. The Department of Transport said he had no role in "operational matters" in Iarnrod Eireann.
"As a public representative, he did pass on concerns about local rail matters to Irish Rail as he is entitled to do and is elected to do," a statement said.