Dáil Diary no 53 – 28th September 2015
Will we ever have a Government that’s interested in Public Transport…
Last week I got speaking time on the issue of Public Transport in Ireland or should I say, the lack of it. Successive Governments have failed to adequately invest in public transport, which leaves the citizens with a poor service, and an environmental headache as well. We still don’t have a Government who are seriously interested in addressing this problem, as outlined in my speech -.
“I realise that what is before us is technical legislation, but I welcome the occasion to address the issue it raises of public transport. There has been a serious lack of discussion of the Government's transport strategy. In response to one of my written questions last April, the Minister stated that the framework, Investing In Our Transport Future; A Strategic Framework for Investment in Land Transport, would address the need for a new rail policy and that a public consultation process would take place in the coming weeks on the current and future role of rail in Ireland. That was April. Now, the final version of the framework has been published and the only mention of the much-needed rail policy is simply repeated references throughout the 36 page document to the fact that we need a new rail policy, that we have historically low levels of spending on public transport infrastructure, that just to maintain the existing infrastructure we will need to spend a lot more and that if we are to meet our 2020 obligations on carbon emissions and renewable energy targets in the transport sector, we must spend more again. However, because we are living under the dictates of a neoliberal Government that is still shoving austerity down our necks, this much-needed funding is unlikely to materialise. Instead, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport is letting our transport infrastructure go to rot while making plans for the privatisation of our public transport system.
This is just another case of the Fine Gael-Labour Government putting the interests of business above all else, including the principle of democracy itself. To quote UCD's Julian Mercile:
'Privatisation decreases democratic input into economic decisions and planning as ownership of key economic sectors and provision of significant services is taken away from the public. In short, privatisation is a neoliberal policy par excellence as it contributes to the increasing business power over the economy.'
That this much-needed rail policy is unlikely to materialise during the life of this Government is a strong illustration of the Government's poor performance on the issue of climate change mitigation. Such a policy should have as its guiding light the following principle - high-speed rail powered only by renewables and affordable public transit which can unite every community in the country. Instead of anything as progressive and forward-thinking as this, the Government has overseen a whole series of cuts to Irish Rail staff and services and only responds to rising demand in the public rail system in a piecemeal fashion when crisis levels of overcrowding are reached.
The only remarkable expansion has been on the Luas network which happens to be privately owned by the French company Veolia. While the Government plans to privatise the public transport sector, municipalities in Europe are bringing public transport back into the public sector. The French town of Saumur remunicipalised its public transport which had been outsourced to Veolia and a number of departments are planning to do the same. As a result of eliminating Veolia's profit margin, Saumur, which has a population of only 30,000, is expected to achieve significant annual savings of between €400,000 and €800,000. In this country, the cost of public transport has risen by over 60% in the past five years at the same time as services have been drastically cut. Clearly, the Government has no plans to make public transport affordable, especially in light of the move towards the idea of bringing in the for-profit private sector.
Transport is not to the forefront of the renewable energy discussion to anything like the extent it should be. As Gavin Daly pointed out recently on the "Ireland After NAMA" blog, transport accounts for one third of Ireland's energy demands and is growing rapidly, yet it barely ever registers in the energy debate. In fact, instead of transport demand growth being seen as an area of concern, the Government encourages it and trumpets it as evidence of a recovering economy. It happened again this morning when the Minister boasted that the increase in the number of cars on the road was a tribute to the Government's achievements in the economic sector and not, in fact, a testament to its failure to provide adequate public transport, protect the environment or tackle climate change. It is shocking that since the Government came to power, not once has a Minister of his or her own volition linked rail to climate change mitigation. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport was forced to acknowledge the connection three times in response to written questions from Deputy Broughan and me. The Minister can check the record. Transport energy demand, which was responsible for a third of total energy use in Ireland, grew by 2.9% in 2013.
Renewable energy in transport reached 2.8% in the same year. This is an abysmal situation. Advancements in renewable energy in the transport sector are being outrun by the increase in overall transport energy consumption. We are not even running to stand still - we are going backwards.
The Minister's transport blueprint repeatedly laments the lack of funding that his Department gets. This morning, he asked Deputy Catherine Murphy where we would get the funds from to create a joined-up rail transport system. I have an idea for raising some money for investing in renewable public rail while helping to slash global carbon emissions by 20%. According to recent IMF figures, Ireland will subsidise fossil fuel companies to the tune of $1.22 billion this year, $262 per head, increased from $1.09 billion in 2013. The Government has managed to increase corporate welfare to the fossil fuel industry by $130 million in just two years.
The vast fossil fuel subsidies estimated by the IMF for this year include payments, tax breaks and cut-price fuel. The largest part of such subsidies is the cost left unpaid by polluters and picked up by governments, including the heavy impact of the local air pollution, floods, droughts and storms being driven by climate change. We can stop this corporate welfare by endorsing the polluter pays principle and invest the saved money by removing carbon from the public transport sector.
We are on course for serious fines for failing to meet our climate change mitigation targets. According to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, the cost to the Exchequer of purchasing compliance will be billions of euro by 2030 in a "business as usual" scenario, that is, if we continue with a neoliberal government committed to enforcing austerity no matter what the cost to people or the environment.
In reply to a written parliamentary question in March, the Minister was clear that public transport had a crucial role to play in alleviating the consequences of climate change. Rail is among the most efficient and climate-friendly forms of transport. In the draft "Investing in our Transport Future" document, however, rail was talked about as being dead weight. The discussion was framed around the question of what extent of the rail network it was appropriate to retain. The document went on to make the mad suggestion that, unlike car ownership and use, public transport usage was generally adversely impacted by increasing incomes. The report contains no footnotes or references about from where this claim comes. Irrespective of whether it is true, the Minister should fight for the betterment of Ireland's public transport sector and not act as a lobbyist for the National Roads Authority, NRA.
In his address to the UN Secretary General's climate change summit last year, the Taoiseach stated: "Leaders must show conviction, clarity, courage and consistency in their actions." I am sure that he said that with a straight face, maybe with a fake expression of concern, but it beggared belief that he could say such, given the policies that the Government has been prepared to implement. The climate change Bill is disappointing. It will be before the House again next week, but it leaves much to be desired. That our Governments are reluctant to tackle climate change because it is never an election issue is a major problem. We work from election to election in five-year cycles, but climate change requires a long-term strategy. We are not taking that point on board. Someone will have to do it some time. The longer it is left, the more work someone will have to do.
The Minister has the gist of my points. I would love to be able to get on a train to or from Wexford at weekends instead of driving in traffic that can be soul destroying. Rail is a beautiful way to travel. We must upgrade the system. It requires a great deal of investment. I have often stated how wrong it is that the EU does not have an arrangement under which governments can borrow money on the books at less than 2% to invest in infrastructure instead of being driven into public-private partnerships, PPPs, under which money can cost up to 15%. It does not stack up. It is another form of corporate welfare. The Government should be fighting tooth and nail for such an EU arrangement. This country needs major infrastructural investment not just in public transport, but also in social housing, as everyone knows. Money does not grow on trees, but the EU should play a more positive role in allowing the Government to borrow money at proper rates for investing in infrastructure, that is, 1.7% instead of 15%."