As 2009 starts, even the most optimistic of commentators are predicting a tough year ahead. With the government deficit ballooning, the henchmen in An board Snip Nua are out to cut any perceived waste in the system. With the private car being the favoured mode of transport for those in power, what hope that Irish Rail manage to avoid making travel by rail even less appealing in 2009?
The challenges facing Irish Rail are enormous. The country’s inter-urban motorway network is nearing completion with huge chunks of time savings made to Belfast, Galway and especially on the premium Irish Rail route to Cork. With oil prices falling, even the tolls on the routes are not enough to make motorists consider making the journey by train, notwithstanding the fact that the train has the potential to be faster at key times during the day. To compound the issue, there is no incentive for Irish Rail management to even maintain passenger numbers, let alone grow the numbers. The chief executive of CIE, Dr. John Lynch, earns in excess of €300,000 each year and has two company cars (one for Dublin and Cork). He won’t be adding himself to the passenger numbers anytime soon, not will he be held responsible ultimately for any fallbacks in passengers. A cushy number indeed!
Another galling aspect of the coming cutbacks is that Irish Rail was in receipt of record investment from the government. Over €1.5Bn of taxpayers monies has been invested in track and trains in the past decade to bring the physical infrastructure up to the latest standards. The result of this has been a decrease in journey times when compared to the 1970’s! Compounding this problem, the overall number of seats on the new trains represents a reduction in seat numbers overall. Like all aspects of the Irish public service, no one will have to answer for this nor will any Irish Rail manager be feeling the heat to ensure journey times meet those outlined when the taxpayer monies were first invested.
On the commuter front; which represents the bulk of the (30m of 46m) passenger journeys on Irish Rail, things are much the same. Road improvements on the M50, particularly the junctions and a massive fall off in traffic in general, mean that the competitive advantage previously offered by commuter services is being diminished. If exorbitant car parking charges and inflation busting fare rises are taken into account, then it will be no surprise to learn that numbers are falling irrespective of the fall in numbers of those in employment.
So what does this mean for Irish Rail and its services for 2009 and beyond? With huge pressure on to cut services in an effort to cut costs, this will have a knock on effect of reducing the attractiveness of train travel thus causing passenger numbers to fall further in a long downward spiral. As Irish Rail management are under no pressure to justify their salaries via passenger numbers, it is unlikely that any innovative solutions to stem the tide will be offered. It will be slash and burn all the way.
We at RUI don’t intend to let this come to pass without a fight and we certainly don’t intend to stand idly by pointing out the obvious mistakes that Irish Rail management make in their closeted little world. In the coming weeks we’ll be publishing a series of policy proposals that we hope if implemented, will seek to at least retain the customer base by putting the rail customer at the heart of the decision making and allowing rail users feel part of the railway instead of being people who happen to get in the way of ticket inspectors, station attendants and train drivers performing their daily routine. Furthermore we’ll also be publishing timetables and strategies to enable Irish Rail maximise the services and keep the attractiveness of rail travel. Watch this space!