Chairman Pip's Railway Thoughts

Just how lucrative can it be?

Posted in Business, Customer service, High Speed, Ireland by Chairman Pip on 14 January 2011

I’ve been thinking to myself how it might be possible for any prospective open-access operator might get around the overly specific aspects of Irish statute law in regard to the operation of passenger trains. While I thought that the law in regards to domestic operators was draconian, it was a shock to then find out the incredibly specific description of what constitutes an “international passenger service” in my recent researches, which to remind you is thus:

“international passenger service” means a passenger service where the train crosses at least one border of a Member State and where the principal purpose of the service is to carry passengers between stations located in different Member States; the train may be joined or split or both, and the different sections may have different origins and destinations, provided that all carriages cross at least one border;
European Communities (Railway Infrastructure) Regulations 2010, Section 2

Given this, it would likely take an exceptional legal mind, not to mention someone that can find the argument in the evidence, almost a la Rumpole, to find an argument to allow, assuming of course that it is enforceable on any rail operator in Ireland, whether their licence is constituted in Ireland or not (and which I’m not sure of), an international passenger service, given that Ireland is (in case you hadn’t heard) an island with a single land border. But, you know very well that there is already an international passenger rail service on the island of Ireland – Enterprise, the flagship rail service between Belfast and Dublin, jointly operated by both NI Railways and Iarnród Éireann. Yet Enterprise has been for some time a source of embarrassment, due to its slow speeds (which is uncompetitive compared with driving) and equipment failures. While things may improve following the addition of the Mark 3 Generator Vans to the dedicated trains, thus ending the reliance on Head End Power from the 201 Class locomotive (a major cause of train failures due to the strain on the locomotive operating in this mode), the fact is that Enterprise continues to operate at a loss, requiring subsidy from the owner/operators, both of which are state owned (indeed, East Coast aside, NI Railways is the United Kingdom’s only remaining state owned rail operator). As a consequence, the two operators ambitions to run an hourly service, instead of the current two hourly, will not be realised for the foreseeable future:

The hourly timetable was to be achieved through the refurbishment of 3 Iarnród Éireann trains (with 8 coaches). The capital cost of the proposal was estimated at £7.5m. The proposal projected a breakeven point after 10 years. As a direct result and for a number of years NIR and IÉ would require additional direct financial assistance from their respective departments. This is a difficult issue for both governments.

At this point in time NIR are not in a position to finance the revenue shortfall associated with the introduction of an hourly Enterprise service from Belfast to Dublin. This has been discussed at the North South Ministerial Council in Transport Sectoral format. Specifically in April 2009 it was agreed by both governments that in view of the financing issues that both rail companies should concentrate on measures to reconfigure the Enterprise trains to improve their reliability. It was also agreed at that time that identification of the capital and revenue funding to allow an hourly service to be implemented should be an objective both North and South. I am committed to ensuring that NIR continues to review alternative opportunities with IÉ to improve services on the Enterprise.
Conor Murphy MP MLA, Minister for Regional Development, 25/06/10

With the state of public finances in the Republic of Ireland, not to mention the cuts in the grant from the British Government that the Northern Ireland Executive has had to shoulder (estimated to result in around £4bn being cut from public spending in Northern Ireland), the likelihood of any money becoming available anytime soon to enhance the Enterprise service is small, especially considering that the revenue generated by the service over the last five years has hovered around the £5m-£7m mark. So, given that Belfast-Dublin is an important route in the economic prosperity and development of the whole island, is it not better that the operation of the rail route between the two is given the level of investment needed to bring it up to at least the minimum standard of an intercity rail service in the UK? And we don’t even have to think of the major routes from London (at least to begin with), but more the cross-country ones. If it is not possible for NI Railways and Iarnród Éireann to find the money for this, then the time has come for a private operator to do so. With the narrow scope of an international passenger service laid out in the European Communities (Railway Infrastructure) Regulations 2010, the Irish government and Iarnród Éireann could have little complaint as the train would (in its entirity) cross a border. While I have said in the past that such an operator could be allowed to fill the gaps in the hourly timetable that Enterprise can’t accomodate as yet due to cost, now I’m now leaning towards the opinion that Enterprise should be privatised completely, so that a private operator can invest the money that is needed in the service. Otherwise it will stagnate further and further through the lack of any investment, combined with the poor service level it operates under at the moment.

Enterprise could provide an exceptional service connecting the two largest cities on the island of Ireland, but it needs investment. If the current state owned operators can't provide it, then a private operator should be allowed to come in and do the job


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  1. Chairman Pip « Iron Road Aaron said, on 20 January 2011 at 7:42 pm

    […] odd time he comments on Irish Railways (i.e., railways on the island of Ireland), he is spot on and this posting is no exception. I assume an operator could run services from Newry to anywhere in the […]

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