In the ten years from 1996 to 2006, the population of County Meath increased by more than 50,000. In the last census, our county"s total population exceeded 162,000, with major centres, like Navan, showing a big increase in the number of people living and working there.
Of course, this expansion went hand-in-hand with Ireland"s economic development. Over the last 15 years we have become a country of inward migration, and strong multinational investment has helped to build jobs and sustain families and communities across Ireland.
However, this growth also highlighted a problem - Ireland"s transport infrastructure, constructed at a time when the pace of change in our country moved at a slower speed, was under real pressure. We needed a long term plan to reform our transport network. This new plan was created in Transport 21.
Transport 21 is the largest ever capital investment in Ireland"s infrastructure. From 2006 to 2015, €34 billion is being invested in transforming national road, rail, and bus networks. When fully completed, Transport 21 will have radically improved our transport infrastructure, delivering a better quality of life for all of us living, working and commuting in Meath.
One of the most important developments for Meath is the Navan rail link. Last February, an Bord Pleanála approved the Railway Order to allow for the construction of a 7.5 kilometre rail line from Clonsilla to Dunboyne. The new line, due to open in 2010, represents the first phase of the reopening of the Navan Rail line under the Transport 21 investment programme.
The project includes a station at Dunboyne, accessible to mobility-impaired customers, with car parking for up to 300 vehicles. The inclusion of a major Park and Ride station at the M3 Interchange at Pace, north of Dunboyne, with car parking for up to 1,200 vehicles will make it the largest dedicated public transport park and ride facility in the country.
When completed, the Dunboyne to City Centre service will have a journey time of 30 minutes, with trains travelling from Dunboyne to Clonsilla and continuing along the existing commuter line to the city centre. An initial service frequency of two trains per hour at peak times is planned. This will grow to six trains per hour as demand grows. The trains will initially consist of a four car set but with the potential to increase these to eight cars as demand increases. The carrying capacity of a four car train is 600 passengers and the capacity of an eight car train set is 1,200.
Phase 2, the rail link from Dunboyne to Navan, has a target completion date of 2015. I am endeavouring to shorten this timescale so that the service can begin earlier than that but currently it is anticipated that this service will commence in 2015. A study of nine possible routes for this line was carried out last year. The original line, with some deviations, emerged as the preferred route. I believe that this rail development is crucial for Meath. The value of this investment, especially to commuters, is more than we can put a euro figure on. This link will improve the quality of life for those travelling into Dublin each day, especially during the morning and evening 'rush hour".
Meath has also suffered from severe road congestion, both in large towns like Navan and on access roads to Dublin. Transport 21 is investing heavily to substantially improve road networks in the county.
There are 61 kilometres of the M3 Clonee to North of Kells road project under construction, as is the N3 Kells to Carnaross road development and the N52 Kells Bypass that forms part of the M3. The M3 is a vital road link for our county, and when delivered it will make a real difference to us all. The full M3 route is due for completion in 2010, bringing benefits to commuters, businesses, and communities across Meath by providing a safer, modern road and cutting travel times and traffic jams.
The N51 Navan Inner Relief Road, which will be a real improvement to Navan town and environs, is also being developed. Statutory approval has been received for the N52 Ardee Bypass. Both the major roads and the new bypasses that form part of Transport 21 are giving towns back to their local communities, removing excess traffic and making them safer and cleaner for pedestrians and cyclists.
Transport 21 is also funding the upgrading the Bus Éireann fleet, allowing for new services to be introduced and existing services to be improved. For example, last January a new 109A service - serving Navan, Dunshaughlin, Dublin Airport and DCU - was officially launched by Bus Éireann. Nationally, Transport 21 funding has allowed Bus Éireann to order 235 new vehicles, including 69 additional vehicles. These comprise single deck city buses, single deck commuter coaches and double deck commuter coaches, all of which are wheelchair accessible.
In all these developments one point is clear. Transport investment is vital for Meath, and is one of the best ways we can support development for our county. We may be in a more uncertain economic period than we have experienced over the past decade but this means that transport development is more - not less - important.
Governments are often criticised for taking a short-term view of the issues that we face. I"m proud that, with Transport 21, we are looking at the longer-term. Transport 21 has already invested €4.7 billion, and almost €3 billion will be spent on roads, rail, buses and airports in 2008.
In Meath, the work is ongoing. The benefits are already being delivered. Much more is on the way.
* Noel Dempsey is the Minister for Transport.