Dáil Éireann - Volume 445 - 11 October, 1994
Adjournment Debate. - Safety Standards on Ro-Ro Ferries.
Mr. Bradford Mr. Bradford
Mr. Bradford: As the House will be aware, one of the most serious maritime disasters in recent years occurred a fortnight ago with the sinking of the car ferry Estonia when, sadly, many hundreds of lives were lost. Such a tragedy must give rise to serious concerns about the safety levels in the construction and operation of car ferries, including those which carry thousands of Irish people in and out of this country daily. Sadly, the Estonia disaster constitutes but another sad chapter in ferry disasters. Indeed.  one might well predict that another such tragedy could be expected in six or seven years' time based on their record to date.
We must decide that we cannot await another such tragedy, that as a country requiring ferry services, we must lead the way in pressing for an investigation of the cause or causes of these accidents and, more important, how they can be avoided in the future. We must ask why, with all the modern technology available, today's car ferries can sink much faster than, say, the huge vessel the Titanic which sank in the early part of this century. I am told that that ship took approximately two-and-a-half hours to sink whereas today's ro-ro ferries can sink within minutes. Therefore, it has to be acknowledged that many of today's passenger ships have become less rather than more safe.
At European Union level the Minister for the Marine must demand that the infrastructure/construction of these car ferries be altered. For example, longitudinal bulkheads, which I am told are standard in vessels other than car ferries, must be installed on car ferries. That would be costly but not as expensive as a loss of life. A case must be made for sufficient European Union funding for the relevant ferry companies to ensure that such infrastructural change can be effected. In the aftermath of the Estonia disaster we will have to seek and obtain clarification on the bow door closing arrangements and options. We were told by the Minister for the Marine last week that all the ferries operating in and out of Ireland use a system different from that on the Estonia. I should like confirmation from the Minister on that point because I am told that some ferries coming into and leaving our ports operate the same system as was used on the Estonia. We must ascertain which system is best and ensure that it is implemented, not on some, but on all such ferries.
We must also investigate the system of emergency evacuation from ferries in  distress. For example, we must question the usage of life rafts in addition to life boats. I am informed that in recent times there has been greater usage of life rafts than life boats, which would appear to be a matter of economics rather than one of safety. If life rafts are held not to be as useful or safe as life boats, a change in that regard will have to be implemented. There must be an urgent review of all safety warnings and drills and any outdated rescue equipment replaced by a more modern type.
Equally important, much clearer guidelines must be issued on the feasibility of ferry travel in extreme weather conditions. Many Members will know of passengers who travelled in such weather conditions which they found to be very upsetting and difficult. Clear guidelines must be issued as to the types of weather conditions considered to be unsafe for travel and we must insist on the law being respected in that regard.
I should like those points clarified as a matter of urgency because many lives have been put and remain at risk.
Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Energy and Communications (Mr. N. Treacy) Noel Treacy
Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Energy and Communications (Mr. N. Treacy): I know that all of us in this House share a great sense of shock and sadness at the tragic accident in the Baltic Sea two weeks ago. A message of condolence to the Prime Ministers of Estonia, Finland and Sweden has been sent by the Taoiseach on behalf of the Government.
I would like to emphasise to Deputies, that while strict safety standards are observed and enforced on Irish ferries, there can never be room for complacency. Standards will continue to be backed up by a constant process of review and reappraisal by the Department of the Marine, shipping companies and crew. In addition, we will continue to press for and fully support, further international initiatives to enhance ferry safety. In the immediate aftermath of the Estonia tragedy the  Minister for the Marine ordered safety checks on all ferries operating into Irish ports. I can advise Deputies that the outcome of these operational and structural checks has been positive.
The Marine Survey Office of the Department of the Marine, which is responsible for carrying out safety inspections on ferries, operates a strict year-round inspection programme for all passenger ferries using Irish ports. The inspection programme is designed to ensure compliance with the national and international safety standards and to encourage and enforce a culture of safety, reliability and best practice.
I can also advise the House that the Minister signed new regulations to give effect to a recent agreement between North West European States which applies passenger ship stability standards in excess of the current International Maritime Organisation requirements. Ireland and the UK took the lead in this initiative and its implementation will be an important contribution to ferry safety.
The national ferry safety committee, which is chaired by the chief surveyor of the Department of the Marine, reviews safety standards for passenger ferries operating into Ireland on an ongoing basis and takes full account of international developments. At the Minister's urgent request, the committee will be meeting in special session next week to asses the implications of the Estonia tragedy, to review all aspects of ro-ro safety and to report to him on the matter.
Other recent incidents have highlighted the importance of having cargo and vehicles on board ro-ro ferries properly secured, particularly in bad weather. The Department of the Marine reviews and issues guidelines on securing freight at regular intervals. These guidelines were reissued to shipping companies following the tragic occurrence in the Baltic.  The International Maritime Organisation announced a priority review of ro-ro safety in the aftermath of the Estonia tragedy. The review will be carried out by an international panel of experts and will draw on the advice and information available from member states. The Minister for the Marine, Deputy Andrews, welcomed this initiative by the IMO and Ireland will play a very active part in the work of the panel. We expect that the review will produce a number of concrete recommendations on key aspects of ferry safety.
This appalling tragedy has underlined, yet again, the importance of being constantly alert to the need to prevent, predict and pre-empt all risks as far as we humanly can. We are committed to ensuring a positive outcome to the national and international initiatives on ferry safety which are now underway.
Dáil Éireann 445 Adjournment Debate. Safety Standards on Ro-Ro Ferries.