Sunday, 20 January 2008

Top rail boss moves after criticism of Navan link

One of Irish Rail's most senior executives, who was publicly critical of the economic viability of the politically sensitive Navan-Dublin rail project, has moved from his position as project manager of Transport 21, the Government's capital investment framework for transport.

Tom Finn's move within Irish Rail came less than a month after he made a presentation to Meath councillors in which he revealed his scepticism about the reopening of the rail link.

Mr Finn told councillors earlier this month that "financially you would not touch it with a barge pole because of the costs".

It led to a sharp rebuke from Minister for Transport Noel Dempsey, whose constituency would benefit from the rail project.

Mr Dempsey's response also indicated considerable friction between his Department and Iarnrod Eireann over the project.

Mr Finn told councillors that 85 per cent of the current projected population growth was needed to justify the development of the line and even the slightest dip in population could have a significant effect on its viability.

Mr Finn, a civil engineer, expressed the view that 25 per cent of the capital costs could be provided through development levies, with the remainder being sought from the Exchequer.

The civil engineer, who has a Masters degree in transport planning and engineering, said that while the project did meet the guidelines in terms of economic appraisal, there were a lot of other projects competing for similar Exchequer funds.

His negative appraisal led to an angry response from Minister Dempsey, who immediately declared that he was "100 per cent" behind the project. "It will happen," Mr Dempsey insisted.

Mr Dempsey publicly accused Irish Rail of being "extremely conservative", and referred to a "scoping study", which had concluded that the project was a valuable one that would justify the use of public funds.

In a sideswipe at Irish Rail, Mr Demsey said: "Not only did Iarnrod Eireann use 2002 census figures, but they did not take into account the projected population growth in Trim, which is expected to go from 7,000 to 17,000 in 10 to 15 years, and similar growth in Kells."

He said that the rate of economic return from the restored rail line is marked in at 4 per cent, according to Department of Finance guidelines. Mr Dempsey said that the rate of return on the Navan-Dublin project would be 4.6 per cent, "so I have no doubt at all about the viability of it".

The reopening of the line is planned as part of the Government's Transport 21 infrastructure programme. The first phase, from Clonsilla to an interchange with the M3 at Pace, is scheduled to open within two years.

When pressed about Mr Finn's move within the organisation, a company spokesman said they would not comment on individual staff members. Mr Finn's job involved overseeing Irish Rail's role in the €34bn National Transport Strategy.

The company issued a statement to the Sunday Independent which reaffirmed the company's support for the project, stating: "Iarnrod Eireann's scoping study, and our presentation to Meath County Council, both stated that the Navan to Dunboyne line is economically viable -- this is the only criteria that matters when evaluating transport projects, be they rail, road or other public transport.

"Iarnrod Eireann's study therefore supports the development of the Navan line."

The statement continued: "The key issue for all such projects is that the economic benefits -- in terms of time savings for citizens, reduced congestion, environmental benefits and reduced road accidents amongst others -- justify the investment.

"Our consultants' report clearly states that the Navan rail line development meets and exceeds the Department of Finance's criteria in this regard, and that it is an economically viable project, as advised to Meath County Council last week.

"As stated to Meath County Council at last week's meeting, Iarnrod Eireann intends to progress this Transport 21 project with the Department of Transport, and to develop the full preliminary design and business case in accordance with the processes for new capital projects."

Mr Finn was unavailable for comment and was said to be on annual leave.

Sunday Tribune

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