Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 11 March 2015
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications
Expressway Services: Bus Eireann and NTA
The purpose of this morning's meeting is to engage with the National Transport Authority and Bus Éireann about recently announced cuts to Expressway bus services. On behalf of the committee, I welcome Ms Anne Graham and Mr. Hugh Creegan from the National Transport Authority; and Mr. Martin Nolan, Mr. Aidan Murphy and Mr. David Lane from Bus Éireann.
I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that, by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I wish to advise witnesses that any submission or opening statements they make to the committee will be published on the committee website after the meeting.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. As this week is Seachtain na Gaeilge, any questions or answers will be translated into Irish. If translation into English is required, I ask those present to use the headphones. If those present are using headphones, they should turn up the volume and put them back when not in use because they will interfere with the sound system. I call on Ms Anne Graham to make her opening statement.
Ms Anne Graham:
I welcome this opportunity to address the committee on some recent developments in the provision of public bus passenger services. I am accompanied by Mr. Hugh Creegan, director of transport investment and taxi regulation at the National Transport Authority, NTA.
One the primary functions of the authority is to secure the provision of public bus passenger transport services across the State. Public bus passenger services are provided in three forms. The first relates to commercial public bus passenger services which are licensed by the authority under the Public Transport Regulation Act 2009. These services are not in receipt of a State subsidy but are available to the public. Examples include Bus Éireann Expressway services, Aircoach, Citilink, etc. It is important to note that commercial bus service variations are entirely at the discretion of the service provider. There is no legislative provision to enable the authority to refuse an amendment to services unless we consider the change will impact on other services locally. Second, public bus passenger services which have a public service obligation, PSO, are provided throughout Ireland under contract to the authority, primarily by Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann. These services are in receipt of a State subsidy. Third, public bus passenger services in rural areas are provided under the rural transport programme. Many of these services are demand-responsive services, that is, the route can be varied to pick up customers. These services are in receipt of a State subsidy.
In 2009, the authority entered into public service contracts which incorporate public service obligations with Bus Éireann. A further direct award contract was granted to Bus Éireann in 2014 for five years. The new contracts contain higher performance standards for the services supplied by each operator with regard to the reliability, punctuality and quality of services provided. The Act and the contracts allow for changes to be made to the contracts - unilaterally by the authority if necessary - to amend the specifics of the public service obligation network of services provided, the performance obligations specified and the reporting and monitoring arrangements. Any proposed changes by the operators to the services are subject to approval by the authority before they can be implemented.
The authority is now managing the rural transport programme on behalf of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and is in contract with a large number of operators across the State providing transport services in remote rural areas. These services are managed by the transport co-ordination units across the country as the authority's agents. This allows the authority to examine all public bus passenger services together to ensure that the greatest coverage and efficiency is achieved across the country for the subsidies that are being paid for those services.
The authority has undertaken service reviews in a number of regions throughout the country and has implemented many changes in partnership with Bus Éireann. In the regional cities, these changes have resulted in growth in passenger numbers and revenue in Cork and Galway in particular. Further amendments have been made in Sligo and in the Dublin commuter belt with changes to PSO services in Kerry and Mayo being planned for implementation shortly
The licensing of commercial public bus passenger services is controlled by the Public Transport Regulation Act 2009 Act. These bus services are those that are available to members of the public on a commercial basis, that is, they do not receive any compensation from the State. The statutory guidelines for the licensing of public bus passenger services explain how bus licence applications and amendments will be handled and the criteria under which they will be assessed in order to serve the transport customer and enable competition within a structured framework. The guidelines are available on the authority’s website at www.nationaltransport.ie. Examples of commercially licensed bus services include those provided by Aircoach, Bus Éireann’s Expressway services, Citilink, Matthews and Swords Express among others.
The economic climate over the past number of years has been challenging for passenger transport companies generally as they have been experiencing falling passenger demand resulting in reduced revenues while simultaneously experiencing increases in costs. These conditions have begun to change with a better economic outlook, improved passenger journeys and a significant reduction in the price of oil now on the horizon. The improvement in road infrastructure between major towns and cities has had a variety of impacts. Car journey times between town and cities have fallen substantially and this has posed a challenge for the public transport alternatives. A number of operators have reacted by taking greater advantage of the improved road infrastructure to reduce their journey times and offer more direct services. This has resulted in a more attractive offer for end-to-end travellers. However, it has also meant that some operators have sought to withdraw from locations along the route so as to keep journey times short or because the level of demand at these locations is low.
The licensing system manages the commercial responses of operators to ensure that a more comprehensive and better public transport service is created for citizens through the issuing of licences alongside the contracted and subsidised services. This is achieved by examining services in an integrated timetable to maximise service coverage. There is nothing to prevent any licensed operator from applying to the authority to amend the times and-or routings of commercial services. Such amendments are considered in accordance with essentially the same criteria used for issuing licences. Bus Éireann’s branded Expressway services fall into this category. There is also nothing to prevent an operator from terminating a licensed service at any time for their own business reasons. However, where an amendment proposal relating to a commercial service would have no impact on any other commercial or subsidised service, the current legislative provisions require the authority to grant that service amendment even if it considers that it would adversely impact the area served. This reflects the fact that these licences are for commercial services where the operator is taking all the financial risk.
We are acutely aware of significant concerns at the loss of certain commercial services in rural towns and villages. In particular, the largest commercial operator, Bus Éireann, has sought and been granted amendments to its Expressway licences throughout the country and in particular on the route 5, Wexford-Dublin, and route 7, Cork-Clonmel-Dublin services. JJ Kavanagh through its Avalen and Kenneally companies has also sought and been granted amendments to its licences on the Waterford to Dublin corridor, which has resulted in a significant reduction in services in some towns along that route and some towns with no services.
The authority is now faced with finding some way to fill gaps in public transport at a time when the available subsidies may not be sufficient to meet the public need despite having stabilised this year after many years of reduction. We are actively examining the re-configuration of nearby PSO services and also the services provided under the rural transport programme as an in-fill option but these possibilities all have to be within the budgets that are available.
We will procure services if the gaps cannot be filled by reconfiguring existing subsidised services, subject to the funding being made available. Tender documents are being prepared in parallel to reduce the delivery time for any new services. A working group of representatives of all the communities affected along route 7 has been set up. The authority will actively engage with that group on any proposed replacement services. The replacement services for route 5 have been finalised and the local representatives will be briefed in the next week on those proposals.
The authority is obliged to complete a review of Part 2 of the Public Transport Regulation Act 2009 on the licensing of public bus passenger services and related guidelines this year. We will be seeking both the public and key stakeholders’ views prior to reporting to the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport.
The provision of public bus passenger services in a dynamic environment is challenging. The authority is best placed to review all existing services and to provide an integrated bus and rail services more effectively throughout the State. We remain committed to ensuring that State subsidies are deployed to optimal effect across the country to maintain as many services as possible and to plan for growth in those services.
Mr. Martin Nolan:
I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for the invitation to discuss the company’s recent changes to certain interregional Expressway routes. I am accompanied by the chairman of Bus Éireann, Mr. Aidan Murphy, and one of our regional managers, Mr. David Lane.
As the company’s business structure may appear complex due to the integrated network it provides, I would like to clarify the position of Expressway vis-à-visthe other services we provide. While our integrated network provides great benefit to rural communities, the company must account financially for each product on an individual basis. Funds generated by the PSO remain within the PSO network. Any surplus arising on school transport is ring-fenced for reinvestment in the school transport scheme and Expressway can only access funds it has generated itself. While the company will report a surplus for 2014, Expressway itself earned less than €500,000 for the year. While this result represents a significant improvement on previous years, it still leaves much work to be done to make the product financially viable.
Bus Éireann’s overall strategy is focused on providing safe, value-for-money and customer centred transport services to urban and rural communities in an effective and efficient manner across three main product areas. First, we continue to work in partnership with the National Transport Authority to negotiate and deliver the best possible public transport offering for PSO services provided under direct award contract outside the Dublin metropolitan area. Work programmes are focused on passenger and capacity growth on the core network as the economy recovers, supported by fleet replacement, facilities and infrastructure investment. Second, we are delivering further cost savings and efficiencies in the provision of school transport services on behalf of the Department of Education and Skills. Third, we continue to develop the commercial interregional Expressway brand along with network improvements for faster journey times and more competitive fares. Despite the recent changes, Expressway continues to play a vital role in connecting local transport networks to urban centres across the country without receipt of PSO subvention.
In his presentation to this committee last July, our chairman, Mr. Aidan Murphy, pointed out that Bus Éireann has been in survival mode in recent years. The company worked its way out of the recession but we are conscious that there will be a restricted Exchequer purse for the foreseeable future. Bus Éireann remains committed to working with its stakeholders to deliver the best transport system possible in an efficient and effective manner given the funds available. Bus Éireann has unfortunately been required to make hard decisions to ensure financial sustainability. We have delivered on all of our commitments to the NTA, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Department of Education and Skills. The ingredients for a sustainable public transport system are being delivered.
In respect of PSO services provided under contract to the NTA, we are focused on identifying the range and level of public transport services required outside the Dublin metropolitan area over the period of the five year contract to 2019. It should be noted that as the PSO subvention has been significantly cut in recent years, the scope for maintaining local public transport services out of the existing PSO payment has been eliminated. For the avoidance of doubt, members will appreciate that the contract with the NTA does not in any way include Expressway services. We do not receive any PSO payment from the NTA for the delivery of our Expressway services. These services comprise 23 interregional routes that operate across the country, linking cities and population hubs and now served by our distinctive large red and silver coaches. Expressway must generate its own funds for investment in new coaches to survive in the long term.
I will now outline the changes that we have implemented on our commercial Expressway services over the last few years, the latest of which relate to routes 5 and 7. The changes that we have made on Expressway services in recent years are due to competitive pressures brought about by the increased availability of commercial licences, locations being bypassed by motorways and the changing needs of our customers. The vast majority of our Expressway customers want faster interregional journeys between the main population concentrations, where possible using the motorway. I previously shared our concerns about the impact of the motorways on smaller towns and villages with Oireachtas committees in 2008, 2009 and 2012. I also advised that changes to a number of our commercial Expressway intercity routes were required to ensure their survival and to protect local jobs given the increasing liberalisation of the market and what I would call cherry-picking of routes by private operators. Nothing has changed in this regard. Competition on Expressway routes has increased since 2012 and, unfortunately, most of what we predicted has come to pass. As a company, if we do not make changes required by customers, Expressway will go out of business and jobs will be lost both within Bus Éireann and among the wide range of suppliers that depend on Bus Éireann across the country. We cannot trade recklessly. Expressway has to make a commercial return on its routes to enable fleet replacement because it does not receive any funding for buses or coaches on these routes.
In the past, and as part of the social dividend we returned to the State, we provided Expressway connections to many of the secondary locations that have now been bypassed as a result of the expanding motorway network. With the increased level of licensing for direct services to and from the main population concentrations, our ability to service many of these secondary locations in a sustainable manner has been eliminated. Since the legal changes to our roles introduced in 2009, the NTA is ultimately responsible for the transport solution for the towns affected by our recent decisions on routes 7 and 5. The NTA's role is to determine the most efficient public transport alternative. Funding is obviously integral to any decision it makes. We will continue to work with the NTA to inform its decisions and we will bring our own proposals to the table.
As part of the Expressway turnaround programme in recent years, our Expressway services have had to come out of about 17% of secondary locations. However, in most cases an alternative public transport connection exists or was made available. Overall, there has been no widespread loss of services to rural locations as a result of the decisions we have to make, despite what some commentators have tried to suggest. In this regard, I underline our steadfast commitment to serving rural Ireland. As the biggest provider of rural transport in the country, almost 10,000 people help to deliver our services every day. These people work and live throughout the towns and villages of Ireland, with their wage packets contributing to the sustenance of local economies. We are proud and dedicated in our commitment to rural Ireland and to the provision of jobs and services in these communities. I would like to emphasise this point given our heritage of transport service which dates back now to the 1930s.
I thank both witnesses for presenting a clear picture of the role of the NTA and Expressway as a commercial service. When the changes to routes 5 and 7 were announced, there appeared to be panic locally. Public meetings were arranged and the NTA was called in to prepare a plan. Is there not a better way of managing these matters? What kind of consultation takes place between Bus Éireann and the NTA where changes to Expressway services are being considered?
Smaller towns and villages must be accommodated and cannot be left isolated. Automatically, if changes are to be made, an accommodation must be made in respect of services to some of these smaller towns and villages. When these changes are being made, why is there no consultation or knocking of heads together in advance to put an overall package to the people living in the affected areas? When they were talking about routes 5 and 7, the delegates put a question mark over the Athlone to Westport service. Is this a case of use it or lose it? What is the threat to the service?
Ms Anne Graham:
In relation to consultation, we always look to see what we can do in terms of replacement services. First, we look at our PSO services to see if we can make changes to fill the gaps. These discussions happen with Bus Éireann when it is making decisions on licensing applications. Even if a grant or an amendment is made, it is still a matter for Bus Éireann to decide whether to withdraw a service. We can look better at how we can plan and make an announcement at the same time, but when that announcement is made is not within our control. That is all I can say on the matter.
We have both parties here. This is from the point of view of serving the public. While everyone agrees with what the services are and the need to prevent communities from being isolated, it seems there have to be panic and public meetings first, whereas there could be a better presentation of solutions with changes to be made.
Mr. Martin Nolan:
Once there is a competitive market, whether it be Ryanair, Aer Lingus or someone else, a company cannot share its plans with anybody else. It has to take its own slice of it. It is very different on the PSO side where there is a great deal of consultation. Before we announce changes, we engage with our own staff to tell them what is happening. They all live in the communities they are dealing with and it is in their DNA to serve the community. When we are talking about bypassing locations, it sometimes comes out in the public domain at that stage. When one goes to implement the licence, one looks at the alternatives, together with the NTA, and at that stage there is public consultation. Unfortunately, that is the way a commercial market works.
Mr. Martin Nolan:
To take the Chairman's other point about route 21, we have clearly said this is a route that is in difficulty. There has been a very significant campaign by the company to get passengers in the area to use the route. To quote the Chairman, it has been a case of "use it or lose it". This is in order to generate additional volume. Unfortunately, there has been no additional volume; in fact, it has actually been the reverse. There is a need for services to be supported by passengers if they are to continue.
On the point about competition, Expressway operates in a competitive environment and it is not possible to share our plans. Having said that, we are certainly open to discussion on the rest of our PSO network in terms of how we can fill any gap as a result of the decisions we make on the commercial network.
Has any of the delegates heard of places such as Clogh, Muckalee, Moneenroe and Conahy? They are real communities and not that far from Castlecomer, County Kilkenny. Castlecomer would have been the central point for communities living in these areas to access services. They are real communities. I find it extraordinary that Bus Éireann states it is not prepared to reveal plans to withdraw services from rural areas such as these because of commercial sensitivities. The main problem is that most people see Bus Éireann and CIE as public service vehicles. Its representatives may try to explain that they have a commercial non-subsidised service, but people simply see a bus that has been providing a service since the 1930s. They find it impossible to comprehend a decision can be made without local consultation. I pay tribute to a colleague, Councillor Pat Fitzpatrick from outside Castlecomer, who was the first person to find this out. The chances are, as Mr. Nolan says, that he found out through some of the staff. The rumours were then picked up by the Kilkenny Peopleand local media and the campaign to seek clarification and retain the services started. The same happened with the route through Bunclody and Wicklow where Councillor Barbara-Anne Murphy repeatedly tried to make contact with Mr. Nolan's office and Bus Éireann. Eventually, some response was received.
The role of the NTA is crucial. If, as we are hearing, Bus Éireann must wash its face with the Expressway routes and will progressively withdraw services from rural towns and villages, there must be a social role the NTA should fill. It is rather interesting that in both presentations today there were regular references to matters being subject to finance or a lack of finance. Therefore, the question is what is the role of the Government and the Department. Do the delegaes agree that there is a need for increased resources to ensure that when there is a withdrawal of services from rural Ireland, alternatives are put in place? I would like them to clarify the position on route 7 out of Bunclody. My understanding is that it does not currently operate on any motorway. Bus Éireann made the point that, as part of its social dividend, it provided Expressway connections to many of the secondary locations which have now been bypassed on foot of the expanding motorway network. That might be clarified as I understand route 7 does not run along a motorway. It provides a service for students and people attending hospital appointments and doing various other things. What are they going to do now that the service has been withdrawn?
Perhaps this is a question I should direct to Ms Graham and the NTA. What are the NTA's plans in this matter? It states, in relation to route 7, that a working group of representatives has been established. That is a positive development, but it should not result in hundreds of people turning up at public meetings once the news starts to break in a local community. More than 200 people came out in Bunclody, more than 300 in Castlecomer and more than 200 in Athy. These are people who will be adversely affected by the withdrawal of services. What is the role of the NTA in this context? What services is it going to provide to meet the needs of rural communities? It states it will shortly engage actively with the group, that a replacement service has been finalised and that local representatives will be briefed in the next week on the proposals to be made.
Does it see a role for the extension of licences to private operators under the PSO to provide feeder services to larger communities? Even if they were to use minibuses or small buses, that might prove viable.
What is the funding mechanism for access for those with travel passes? I understand the Department of Social Protection withdrew funding for services on PSO routes and that if it does negotiate with the NTA for a licence to operate such a service, the operator cannot pick up passengers with travel passes. Will the delegates clarify this because I have not been able to obtain a clear answer from the Department? How is the subsidy spent and is it true that a private operator granted a licence will not be allowed to pick up passengers with travel passes? When one considers the demographics in rural Ireland, where there is a large number of elderly people, that seems to be counter-productive.
What will Mr. Nolan do about the withdrawal of services? Does Bus Éireann see itself as having any obligation whatsoever to provide alternative services, or is it just the case that it will operate end to end between large centres and effectively cut out the rest of rural Ireland of any transport service alternative? Is it its role to address this, or is it the role of the NTA and, ultimately, the Government? Is it a question of resources? If Bus Éireann and the NTA had enough money from the Exchequer, would they be able to provide alternative services in those rural areas where services are being withdrawn?
Ms Anne Graham:
To start with the question about resources, we have a current budget assigned for PSO services that has been fully allocated to our existing contracts. Similarly under the rural transport programme, even following the restructuring, the funding associated with rural transport is allocated to services being provided. We would need further funding in order to be able to provide additional services, which is what we want to do. We will put our proposals to the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport to assist us. If we had more funding, we could provide more services. That is the position we want to be in, to grow rural transport services and respond quickly to the challenges posed by the withdrawal of commercial services, not just Bus Éireann services but also those provided by other commercial operators.
We support the setting up of a local working group because it gives us an opportunity to meet a group of representatives and work with them on solutions. We have solutions we can put forward, but they know their areas and the demand for services better than we do. That is why it is a working group and we will work together on the proposals to make sure as many links as possible with current services to the main urban centres such as Dublin can be retained to ensure also that students can access their colleges.
The Department of Social Protection manages the free travel pass scheme and the budget associated with it has been capped for several years. Any new service, whether commercial or subsidised and provided by us under contract, cannot avail of further funding from the Department. Some new commercial services cannot seek any compensation for carrying free travel pass holders. They decide whether to charge or accept the free travel pass.
Ms Anne Graham:
It is not our decision, but our experience is that they make the decision whether to charge a free travel pass holder the normal fare or carry the passenger free. That is their decision. In respect of the subsidised service we provide, for example, from Cashel to Portlaoise, we had to charge a concessionary fare, half the adult fare, because we could not avail of extra funding from the Department of Social Protection. It was due to the cap on funding for the free travel scheme.
Mr. Martin Nolan:
We do consider we have an obligation to rural Ireland. Ms Graham and I were at public meetings in Athy and Castlecomer. There was some communication with Bunclody and we have committed to visiting other places too. We are not hiding anywhere. There is a solution for the PSO aspect in Bunclody, but it will take a little longer in Castlecomer. We have delayed the changes to our services until the middle of June.
Mr. Martin Nolan:
We cannot act differently from other bus companies in the market. Ours is normally the last bus company to leave towns and villages. We have depots around the country. The more products we run out of them, the cheaper PSO services are for the State. If Expressway services do not survive, the cost to the State goes up. We are no different from An Post in that respect.
Mr. Aidan Murphy:
With the establishment of the NTA the role of Bus Éireann changed. I know that it is perceived differently in rural Ireland, but with the establishment of the NTA, we are a bus service operator. We provide three sets of service: the school service for the Department of Education and Skills; the public service obligation network for the NTA under contract and our own Expressway commercial fleet. They are three distinct services. We have been mandated to operate as a bus company and relinquish our previous role, which was to consider the total network in rural Ireland. That is a significant change. I understand communities regard us as still having our previous remit, but the reality is different and we must operate within that changed reality. We continue to accept free passes on our Expressway network.
Mr. Aidan Murphy:
That puts us at a serious commercial disadvantage versus other commercial operators, but we will not change that policy. We also have requirements such as all of our vehicles must be fully accessible and we must provide dual language information on all of our equipment. These are significant costs that other commercial operators do not have, which puts us at a commercial disadvantage versus those against which we are trying to compete.
I am grateful to Ms Graham and Mr. Murphy for clarifying the changes in the transport system. Has Bus Éireann ever considered applying to the NTA for licences for feeder services using smaller buses such as minibuses to provide a service where it is withdrawing from the Expressway network?
Mr. Aidan Murphy:
We would be quite happy to do so. We have built considerable expertise over many years and would be more than happy to work with the NTA to provide feeder services into the network. The passengers at the end points also dictate how commercial services are run because they want to get to their destinations faster, as Mr. Nolan said. They do not want to go into a large number of towns along the route. We have to understand that is where the passenger demand is and satisfy it. There is an opportunity to have greater connectivity with the main routes. We would be more than happy to work with the NTA to provide this facility because we have the internal expertise required.
How many people per day used the two routes being discussed? What did the services cost to provide? Mr. Murphy has said Bus Éireann operates under impediments other operators do not face. Presumably they are operating under licence.
Are different licences allocated to different companies on the same routes? In other words, are there different criteria for different companies and, if so, who sets them? Who sets the PSO routes on the motorway network, particularly on the N7, N8, N9, M6 and M1? As the motorway network was being developed, did the agency responsible for the establishment of PSO routes not think it important to revise them to make sure the towns that would be bypassed would continue to have a service?
In his presentation Mr. Nolan mentioned that the school transport service was making a profit. To what does it amount? To follow on from Senator Paschal Mooney's question, children in the Dublin metropolitan area can travel to school on Dublin Bus, DART and mainline rail services. Why is it the case in rural Ireland that there can be four, if not five, public service buses on the same roads, on the same days and practically at the same times? Why can children living in rural areas not travel to school on a bus bringing a pensioner to the local town? The HSE operates a transport service, while the rural transport service is also in operation. In some instances, two buses pull in to the side of the road at the same time to collect two people. We were promised that this issue would be examined. Has anything happened in that regard?
Mr. Murphy has said Bus Éireann is open to change and willing to work with the NTA. That comment suggests there is not a lot of communication between Bus Éireann and the NTA. Does Mr. Murphy agree that the way this decision was announced was a public relations fiasco? It was a botched announcement and it seems from what we have heard this morning that there is very little, if any, communication between the NTA and Bus Éireann on the management of services.
Ms Anne Graham:
No. In terms of motorway routes and the planning of services, the Deputy must remember that the NTA was set up in late 2009. At that stage, the subsidy available for public transport services was falling, as were passenger numbers. We were in a situation where, unfortunately, we had to reduce services to meet the subsidy. We were not in a position to look towards building subsidised services to replace commercial services. That is the position we want to be in and we want to plan more effectively for situations where commercial services might be withdrawn in order that we might provide subsidised services at the same time.
Ms Anne Graham:
The motorway network has been developed for many years. As I said, the authority only came into being in 2009. At the time we were not in a position to increase public transport services. In fact, we had to reduce the number of subsidised services because of a lack of funding. We were not in a position to plan ahead. Unfortunately, we were in the position where we had to plan for a reduction in services.
Ms Anne Graham:
Yes. We have provided replacement services in some cases, for example, the Cashel to Portlaoise service. We have done this, but we are limited in what we can do by the level of funding available to us.
The Deputy asked about the integration of transport services. We have spoken at this committee before about how, as an authority, we are trying to integrate rural transport services with HSE services. The restructuring of the rural transport programme which now has 17 transport co-ordination units is providing the framework for the integration of the HSE and rural transport programme services to have more effective service provision. We are working to eliminate scenarios such as the one described by the Deputy, where two buses pull in at the same location. That is not an effective use of public transport. In many places around the country integration plans are in place. In County Donegal, for example, a much more integrated service is being provided and we want to make sure this happens throughout the country.
Ms Anne Graham:
Unfortunately, we are not in a position to integrate the school transport service to the same extent. However, we undertook some pilot studies where we used the return leg of a school transport service journey to provide a rural transport service. This happened in a number of locations. In some cases, it was successful, while in others, it did not work at all. We can look at combining the return leg of a school transport service with a rural transport service, but we must procure that service separately. We are precluded from procuring school transport services under our governing legislation.
On the level of communication between the NTA and Bus Éireann, we are in constant communication with the company. We meet regularly to review the services being provided under the PSO contract. In fact, it is something that we do constantly.
Mr. Martin Nolan:
I wish to make one further point about the routes we are changing. There are very small passenger numbers in the places from which we are pulling out. For example, in Athy we have three passengers on each service. It is more about revenue and the slice of the market we can have in the future. We look at our costs constantly and are an efficient operator. We were as efficient as our European peers, according to independent studies conducted in the late 2000s. Our efficiency ratios have since gone well off the scale. We are well up on that side of the house.
On school transport, there can be a small surplus. We held a meeting devoted to this topic last year and have added transparency to the system since. Ours was the first semi-State company to allow the Comptroller and Auditor General to examine its books. There will be more developments in that regard, but all of the money ring-fenced for school transport goes back into the service. For example, we will be buying additional vehicles this year, IT systems and so forth.
Mr. Martin Nolan:
What the company does in cutting back is give itself an opportunity to make sure the whole service will survive. It is not a question of providing a service to Athy and Castlecomer but the whole service. We have to take a slice of the market, but the market has gone for services to the bigger population centres. Therefore, we had the choice of withdrawing services to some of these places or shutting down the service altogether. There was no in-between.
Mr. Martin Nolan:
As I jsaid, we are losing thousands on a weekly basis. This is a commercial service. We report on the commercial product, but we have competitors with which we are competing. We are well able to compete with them and brought the product back into a small profit last year, but we need to go further in order that we will be able to reinvest in vehicles. If we had a market in which everybody set his or her own costs, revenue figures and so on, there would be a level playing field, but-----
Mr. Aidan Murphy:
The operating margin on the Expressway network is 1%. That is not a sustainable level for the total Expressway network. We have to compete and the margin must improve significantly in the coming years.
I wish to revert back to the point about our licence and obligations. It is a basic licence, but we have an obligation as a company in the three areas I mentioned.
We will not remove ourselves from that obligation. It puts us at a competitive disadvantage by comparison with other operators which are not required to do these things. We are not going to refuse Department of Social Protection passengers or charge them on our services.
Mr. Martin Nolan:
I have answered it in the sense that I have explained that we report on the overall product, but we do not give figures for individual routes. We say how many passengers we pick up in individual towns. In this case, we have to make sure the overall service gets backs to profitability. As I said, it has lost a few thousand euro on a weekly basis.
The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport is the shareholder in Bus Éireann which is a semi-State company and operating public service obligation routes outside its Expressway services. It is fair to ask, on behalf of the people who are losing their service, how much it is costing.
Bus Éireann is taking away the service. It has shown its hand. This is like a poker game. I do not think it is too much to ask how much its decision to take away this service will save. What is it costing? Are the delegates refusing to answer?
That is regrettable, as Bus Éireann is a semi-State company. The National Transport Authority has made it clear that it would like to have additional resources available to Bus Éireann. The representatives of Bus Éireann who have come to this meeting are trying to defend the decision to remove this service, but they are not willing to tell Members of the Oireachtas how much it is costing.
Mr. Martin Nolan:
The legislation was set up in 2009 to allow Bus Éireann to compete. We have competed in a very responsible manner. Ours is the last company to leave these towns and villages. We are very aware of our heritage, but we have to be able to compete with JJ Kavanagh, etc. If we were to give our competitors details of our cost base, we might as well shut the door at that stage.
Gabhaim buíochas leis na hoifigigh as ucht an cur i láthair a thug siad dúinn. De réir bainisteoir meáin agus caidrimh poiblí Bus Éireann, tá impleachtaí dáiríre fá choinne pobail tuaithe mar gheall ar na pleananna atá á dtógáil isteach ag Bus Éireann. Dúirt sé freisin nach bhfuil an t-éileamh ann na seirbhísí seo a choinneáil. An gceapann na hoifigigh go bhfuil sé seo riachtanach? An bhfuil siad ag éisteacht leis an bhfoláireamh seo?
Tá sé i gceist ag Bus Éireann thrú iomlán a dhéanamh ar 100 seirbhís agus ar dhá bhealach tábhachtach: uimhir a 5 agus uimhir a 7. Tá roinnt seirbhísí eile faoi bhagairt. Níl aon oibleagáid seirbhíse poiblí fá choinne expressway. Cén fáth nach bhfuil Bus Éireann ag lorg níos mó airgid le haghaidh na bealaí seo a choimeád oscailte? Tá an tÚdarás Náisiúnta Iompair ag lorg oibleagáid seirbhíse poiblí le haghaidh na bealaí seo.
Bhí brábús agus níos mó paisinéirí ag Bus Éireann an bhliain seo caite. Cé mhéad postanna atá i dtroiblóid? Nuair a bhí an Teachta Ó Donnabháin ag lorg an t-eolas sin freisin, dúirt na hoifigigh nach raibh siad ábalta é a sholáthar. Cé mhéad airgead atá Bus Éireann ag sábháil? Dúirt na hoifigigh nach raibh siad in ann freagra a thabhairt ar an gceist sin ach oiread. I mo thuairim, tá sé an-tábhachtach ar fad. An fiú iad na himpleachtaí ó bun go barr le haghaidh an gnáthdhuine a bhainfeadh le dúnadh na mbealaí seo? Tá sé de dhualgas ar an Stát tacaíocht a chur ar fáil do sheirbhísí nach mbaineann brábús leo.
Tá sé soiléir go bhfuil Bus Éireann ag gearradh bealaí mar gheall ar an iarracht atá ar bun ag an Rialtas seo bealaí a phríobháidiú. Tá sé mar phlean ag Bus Éireann agus Bus Átha Cliath 10% de na bealaí a chur amach sa chaoi seo. Ta sé i gceist freisin go ndéanfar é seo i gcás 100% de na bealaí i bPort Láirge faoin mbliain 2017. Cén fáth an bhfuil tacaíocht á tabhairt do pholasaí an phríobháidithe? Thugamar foláirimh i rith na blianta go raibh an rud seo ag tarlú. Tá scanradh ar dhaoine timpeall na tuaithe atá ina gcónaí in aice leis na bealaí seo. Tá an polasaí seo ag cur isteach ar bhailte beaga agus áiteanna mar sin. Tá bagairt ar mhuintir na tuaithe. Tá na pobail sin faoi bhrú.
Cad é an t-amchlár le haghaidh na pleananna seo? An féidir an t-eolas sin a chur amach? An bhfuil Bus Éireann ag leanúint leis na cainteanna leis na gnáthdhaoine i measc an phobail ar an talamh?
Ms Anne Graham:
The National Transport Authority is looking to put in place extra public service obligation services, as well as replacement services. When we know how much these services will cost, we will seek extra funding for them.
The Deputy asked about the privatisation of Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann routes. The proposal is to open to competition 10% of the existing direct-award public service obligation services currently operated by Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann. That is not necessarily privatisation because both companies can complete for these services. The contracts will be with the authority. They will be very similar to the direct-award contracts, with similar terms and conditions, including contract conditions. Therefore, there should not be any change to the services provided for members of the public. They will run to the same timetable and the same general conditions of carriage will apply. We have commenced that proposal. We have commenced the competition for these services. We hope the new contracts will be in place in 2016.
We have met the communities through the public meetings that have taken place. We will work with the working groups and representatives at county council level to see what is the level of demand for replacement services. We will also work with rural transport groups, including the Local Link transport co-ordination units that have been set up. Those involved with this local community resource try to assess individual needs with regard to our services. They can plan local services that feed into core or replacement services, the remaining services provided by Bus Éireann and Irish Rail or other commercial services.
Mr. Martin Nolan:
There are 500 people involved in the Expressway product. They are the ones whose jobs are at risk. We fully understand the serious implications for communities, but all we can do is work to the mandate and role we have been given by the shareholder. We are not running anywhere. We want to be part of any solution from the National Transport Authority also. We will do everything in our power to help on that side. We will be tendering for the 10% of the business mentioned by Ms Graham.
I welcome the delegation. The bottom line here is that there is a public responsibility to give equal transport access to everybody in this country. I wonder if we have a lack of communication and co-ordination at the moment between the National Transport Authority, Bus Éireann, the private operators and rural community transport. We need to maximise the benefits on a cost-benefit basis for provision of services to everybody. There may be a need for a national review and an evaluation of where we are going. It appears to be a bit haphazard at the moment. We have to fair to everybody. An excellent service is being provided by the community transport companies, which they have developed over a number of years. They have targeted remote areas that would normally be deprived of services. Is there a plan for co-ordinating with and feeding into the higher levels of transport, like the expressways, from the smaller communities on to Córas Iompair Éireann?
What marketing and public relations work is being done for all the services? We cannot forget our tourism product. The tourism industry in peripheral areas such as the west and south west, where we probably have the most tourists outside Dublin, should be given a quality service. Tourism is expected to be up 10% in 2014 and may go up again in 2015. We need to move forward in a well-devised fashion to ensure there is good connectivity and communication with our peripheral areas. We have a lot to work on. The witnesses may need to be sitting around a table more often and planning their strategy properly because, as I said, there is an obligation to give everyone an equal service.
There are a number of local issues, for example, a bus going from Tralee to Ballydavid, west of Dingle, one of the greatest visitor areas in the country. It is scheduled to go into Ballydavid village but is not doing so. I ask that this be rectified immediately as it is depriving the local consumers as well as visitors coming into the area. There are rumours that the Killarney to Rathmore service may be abandoned. That is a very important route in the area which goes on into Millstreet and Macroom and also provides connectivity with Mallow and the city of Cork. I ask for Bus Éireann's full commitment to services in these peripheral tourist areas, and any other parts of the country.
Ms Anne Graham:
The Deputy is right that we should be providing transport on an equal basis and that would be our ambition. We are probably the only authority that can now look at all public transport services together, whether they are provided commercially or by way of a subsidy from the State. We now also have the demand-responsive rural transport services, which are directly managed by ourselves. That gives us the opportunity to look across all service provision and plan the resources to ensure the links are better made between the services. We continually review services on an area-by-area basis and just did a public consultation on services in County Mayo in respect of how we might better use the existing services there to try and meet local demand. We hope to continue that on a county-by-county basis using the resources of the transport co-ordination units. We are very well placed to do the type of review the Deputy has indicated. We have undertaken such reviews and will continue to do so.
Mr. Martin Nolan:
On the co-ordination front, ourselves and the NTA work very well on the public service obligation, PSO, side. When we get into the commercial market where there are other private operators, the NTA cannot share anything it is doing with us and we cannot share anything we are doing with it. We are into a different sort of ball game.
The community transport companies are doing very well. I note that there are a few former and current Bus Éireann people working with the community transport companies, so there is another area of communication there down the line. County Kerry is doing well all the way along the Wild Atlantic Way and is doing a bit better than middle Ireland. We have put new services into County Clare and various other places to support that and we are very conscious of it.
Can Mr. Nolan clarify what is happening with the Westport-Athlone route? My second question is for Ms Graham. From 2010 to 2014, what sort of cuts have been made to the NTA's budget? What are the figures?
Mr. Nolan said that Bus Éireann made a profit on the Expressway, and I would like to know what profit was made. Anybody will know that in business you win some and lose some and you have to sort of take the good with the bad. It is not just down to a simple matter. Mr. Nolan spoke about different parts of rural Ireland, how Bus Éireann is trying to help as much as it can, but he must also realise we have come through a fairly rough time, although going by the indications, there is all hope that the improvement is spreading out now. What I get from Mr. Nolan is that Bus Éireann is about to kill the goose that is going to lay the golden egg. Things are starting to move on out towards different parts of rural Ireland, which had not seen an improvement up to now, and the sooner we see it the better. Bus Éireann may be making a decision too early. In business as in any walk of life we have to take good and bad. Mr. Nolan cannot give us a figure for exactly what Bus Éireann was losing. Overall, from what I understand, it is making a profit. It is also making a profit on the school bus routes even though ten or 12 years ago some schools decided to amalgamate together - the goalposts have been changed in the last few years in some of that.
If we decide that a service will not go up a road where there is one house to deliver a letter, something is taken away. An Post was mentioned. Bus Éireann seems to be taking the same attitude. Basically, if the service is doing well, that is great, but if the service is not doing as well, it is time to say "Goodbye". We welcome motorways and faster travel times but should everybody not play on a level field? When the National Transport Authority, NTA, is giving out licences, should it not stipulate the towns to be serviced? Anybody in a business will go for the most lucrative and shortest routes. Should we not examine such issues?
Deputies Naughten and Feighan are also here. I have spoken to people in Leitrim. We have talked about rural transport and people trying to get to hospitals but such transport does not exist. I welcome the comments that the witnesses will sit down with councillors and public representatives in each affected county. There is a craving for services out there. Meetings may help resolve the issues we have talked about today and a proper service would help to revive different towns. We cannot just look at the short term or drop the hatchet. The sun may be coming over the horizon but it seems people want to pull the shield down on it. Some of these actions must be reconsidered. People pay tax in all parts of the country and it is our taxes that subsidise what these companies are doing. We have spoken about the routes and school runs, and taxes subsidise those services. I am not talking about a single part of Ireland but all the country, and we deserve services in different parts of Ireland.
I welcome the delegation from Bus Éireann and the NTA before us this morning. We are having a timely discussion. The Dublin metropolitan area has been mentioned, so is every route there paying for itself or turning a profit? Services throughout rural communities, such as broadband, have people "tut-tutting" at the notion of a dispersed population, and that attitude is being demonstrated here this morning. People live in these communities, and as Deputies and Senators have said, they need a proper service. There must be a change of attitude from Bus Éireann and the National Transport Authority. These services must be upgraded, maintained and advertised. When was the last time we saw meaningful advertisements from Bus Éireann or the National Transport Authority for the services that have cuts proposed?
The rural transport initiative was run by many of the local development companies and there was a sense of tidying up rural bus services over the past year or 18 months. In my county of Cork, there was an office set up in Bantry for the entire county. The distance from Bantry to north Cork is probably twice the length of some counties. The rural transport initiative has been pulled away from communities, despite many of the local development companies doing excellent work in knitting together the kind of information or understanding of the communities that would almost be impossible to collect on a national basis, including hospital appointments and when various clinics are on in different hospitals, etc.
I could go on all day as there must be a major discussion as to whether we will maintain services in rural communities or just throw a line around the Dublin metropolitan area, for want of a better term, and concentrate on that. With the school transport initiative, it was mentioned that there was no power to make that service available throughout the community, so what legislative change would have to take place to make it available and provide the possibility of a service to communities that deserve and need it?
Ms Anne Graham:
The Deputy asked about licences and whether we could insist that a licence applicant should serve certain towns. We cannot insist on that as that is not how the legislation works. The decisions on towns operated by a licenceholder are made by the company as it is a commercial operation. We cannot put upon a commercial operator the obligation to go off a route it chooses to operate to serve a small town.
Ms Anne Graham:
There is a risk associated with that. Behind that, the authority would consider if there is a public service obligation to provide a service that is not being provided on a commercial basis. That is the work we do. We would consider whether we can provide a public transport service for those small towns and communities. That is what we are doing with regard to Bus Éireann routes 5 and 7. We do it in other locations around the country as well. The Deputy indicated that rural transport services do not exist in Leitrim.
Ms Anne Graham:
They are limited and we would like to grow the rural transport service. There is probably a lack of information about services as well. We need to a do a bit more to ensure the information is out there, not just with rural transport services but other services in the community that people may not be aware. We have put together the services in one national journey planner, which allows people to try to plan their journeys. That includes rural transport services as well. At least there is one location where one can get all the information associated with all services.
Will the authority do as I ask for all public representatives around the country? I mentioned Deputies Feighan and Naughten but this also applies to Deputies from Mayo and other counties. Will the process be rolled out rapidly so we can sort out the issues?
Ms Anne Graham:
We can do that in as much as we can within our resources. We rely on local offices and transport co-ordination units to do that role. It is about gathering local information, which is what Deputy Moynihan alluded to. The rural transport companies know their local communities.
They can put together information on the demand therein. We have not replaced that system. We want to build on local knowledge. Those companies feed that information to us, on which basis we table proposals on increased services or changes to services to meet local demand. This is how we plan for new services.
Regarding Cork rural transport, we propose to have a second office in Cork, specifically Fermoy, to serve the east of the county. We recognise that it is a large county. The main office will operate out of Bantry and the transport co-ordination unit will be in Fermoy.
Does Ms Graham not believe that the detailed knowledge possessed by local development companies led to an excellent service? Fermoy is 65 miles from me in Duhallow and Bantry is in the range of 100 plus miles away. Locally, co-ordinators have knowledge about those who need a service, for example, people with disabilities and the elderly. The system was working. I am yet to be satisfied that removing this efficient service from local development companies is anything but a retrograde step. It is "countyising" or nationalising a service that was meant to be operated at ground level.
Ms Anne Graham:
Following a value for money report, we were asked to examine how to make the service more efficient. It was suffering a reduced budget, but we have to consider how to reduce the level of administrative costs associated with providing it. Without reducing services, we have achieved a compromise between having an efficient service and meeting the needs of the community. There has been a budget reduction and we have maintained as much as possible the level of service provision. If we had done the opposite and kept the service at a very local basis with a higher administrative cost, the service rather than the administrative costs would have had to face cuts. This is the decision we faced. We believe that we can replicate local knowledge in the transport co-ordination units by continuing the links with local development companies.
Mr. Martin Nolan:
It is 1%, less than €500,000. Our problem is that many of our coaches have 1.5 million to 2 million km on them. If they are not replaced, they will fall off the road. Paying for them means that we will need to aim for a slightly higher profit margin. Neither can we ignore what our competitors are offering. I heard what the Deputy said about Ireland.
As Ms Graham stated, from a low base in the 2000s we have seen a 30% reduction in our PSO subvention. More than two thirds of our vehicles are in rural Ireland on the PSO and Expressway side of the house. We have 4,700 vehicles on the school side of the house as well. We have someone in every parish who organises the supply side of bus services, that is, how to put rubber on the road. We have a great deal of such knowledge.
If Bus Éireann is the only operator on the route, does that not prove that someone needs to provide the service? There needs to be some joined-up thinking and help given. It might not be the most attractive route in the world, but it is necessary for rural Ireland.
If Bus Éireann attempted to cut any bus service in the Dublin metropolitan area, the width of the protests would see us at the Red Cow roundabout trying to get to Leinster House on a Tuesday or a Wednesday, yet Bus Éireann believes the same argument is good enough to cut services for rural communities. Routes are not profitable in Dublin, but it is okay to cut unprofitable routes in rural Ireland.
Ms Anne Graham:
There is a difference between those services. We have indicated that the services being proposed to be cut are commercial services. The Dublin metropolitan routes are primarily PSO services. We would have been reconfiguring those services in recent years on the basis of a reduction in the PSO. In some cases, we had to reduce services on PSO routes.
I note that, last August, Bus Éireann stopped serving Daly's Cross near Castleconnell and Birdhill on the Expressway service from Limerick to Dublin because it was served by other operators. Customers who wish to obtain an Expressway service need to go to Nenagh. I have never had to avail of the service, for which I am glad, given my limited observations. I recall being in Nenagh two years ago. As the bus was about to leave, a woman honked her horn and flashed her lights to indicate that she had a passenger for it, but the bus pulled off. I was going home via Birdhill, so I went that far and asked the bus driver why he had pulled off when there was obviously a passenger to be picked up. I appreciate that it is Seachtain na Gaeilge, but the answer I received would not be readily translatable into Irish.
As a common citizen, I wrote to Bus Éireann about this matter and received no reply. Then I wrote as an elected representative and was assured that the matter would be investigated in the normal course of events and I would be informed of what happened. I did not hear anything.
The next encounter I had with Bus Éireann in Nenagh was to bring a passenger to the bus. I arrived approximately two minutes before time. I appreciate that perhaps I should have arrived an hour beforehand, seeing as how Mr. Nolan compared Expressway with Aer Lingus and Ryanair. However, I arrived ahead of time, as did a group of other people. We were told by someone else that the bus had left five minutes before time. I was not alone in this. I am not the only one who has had these misfortunate episodes in Nenagh while seeking to avail of an Expressway service. I wrote to the company outlining that the bus had left at least five minutes before its scheduled time and that there was a group of people present. I gave the company the contact details of the other people because I bothered to take them. I am still waiting for a reply.
If Mr. Nolan wants to compare Bus Éireann with Aer Lingus and Ryanair, he is free to do so, even though it might be a little bit ambitious, but Ryanair is learning that customer service is important. It at least replies, albeit not very well, to some customer service queries. I do not expect the witnesses to reply to the specifics I have raised, but is there someone among them to whom I can send all of this correspondence and expect a reply?
I appreciate sometimes buses can be delayed and that it is no fault of the bus driver. Accidents happen on roads, there is extra traffic, etc. At the very least, can we have an assurance buses will not leave earlier than they are scheduled, leaving groups of people standing in Nenagh wondering what to do for an hour while they wait for the next bus?
What are the actual figures for the amount of the PSO levy spent on the greater Dublin area and outside it?
The problem is there is a lack of joined-up thinking right across the board. No effort is being made to make bus routes viable. I accept the point made by Ms Graham that the PSO budget has been cut and more funding needs to put into this. For example, Bus Éireann announced it was a case of "use it or lose it" for route 21, the Westport-Athlone service. That same week, the Department of Social Protection, which has its own budget, announced it was closing its community welfare clinic in Ballinlough, County Roscommon, and people have to access that service in Castlerea, County Roscommon. Now people who badly need to get to the community welfare clinic in Castlerea will have to pay for a taxi to get there which will have to be funded by the Exchequer although there was a public transport service in place before. It is the same problem for Rooskie where the Rooskie-Dromod bus service was removed last year and at the end of this month the community welfare clinic will be closed in Rooskie. There is a lack of joined-up thinking between all of the State agencies involved.
Ms Graham needs to start banging heads together to trash out some of these issues. I accept Bus Éireann needs to look at the commercial test of its routes. I know there have been huge changes because of the development of the motorways which has had an impact on services. Ireland West Airport Knock has dramatically increased its passenger numbers with 1.1 million people going through it last year. Bus Éireann, however, is looking at reducing services to the airport, not expanding them. While Bus Éireann expands services into Dublin Airport, it is withdrawing services from Knock rather than enhancing them.
The county hospital in Roscommon closed in 2011. What discussions have taken place to date with the Health Service Executive, HSE, on this? People in Roscommon now have to go for hospital appointments to Castlebar, Portiuncula and Galway. A patient from Roscommon can get to Galway for an afternoon appointment but will not be able to get a bus home. It is the same for Castlebar while one would have to wait until 4.30 p.m. for the return service from Portiuncula.
What discussions has the National Transport Authority, NTA, had with the HSE on facilitating transport to and from clinics and the timing of appointments? For example, have the staff making appointments in each of those hospitals been given a copy of that timetable booklet produced by the NTA? This would allow appointments to be scheduled to ensure patients, particularly older people, can get to them by accessing public transport rather than having to pay €150 to €200 for a taxi. Does it not make more sense for such an integrated public transport approach rather than paying €200 per taxi, some of it paid for by the State? Providing such a transport service would also ensure people get to appointments in the first place, reduce do-not-shows, speed up access to treatment, reduce pressure on accident and emergency departments and the ambulance service and the chaos that causes, as well as reducing the financial impact these have across the operation of the health service.
It is frustrating for me that for the past 20 years we have all been talking about the need for joined-up thinking between all State and community agencies to link and maximise the use of services. For the past 15 years, I have heard there will be co-ordination between the transport agencies and the HSE regarding hospital appointments but nothing seems to be happening. All I see are more services reduced and, unless one is going to Dublin, one can forget about it. There is the odd service to the likes of Galway and Sligo but forget about anywhere else. It will not happen because it is not commercially viable even though the majority of services in the greater Dublin area are not commercially viable either. They will continue but rural Ireland can forget about its services.
Ms Anne Graham:
I cannot comment on that.
I do not agree that no effort is made to make the routes more viable. On the PSO side, we are working to make services more efficient and effective. Over the past five years, we have been working in partnership with Bus Éireann to make more out of the subsidy we get and more out of the resources they have to hand. That has been very successful in the regional cities where the revenue and passenger numbers have grown as a result of the changes we have made. I agree we must do more in rural areas at making the services more efficient and to improve the integration of services to local hospitals. The work has to happen on the ground locally to meet those demands for services. The transport co-ordination units, formerly the rural transport groups, did try to make contacts with the HSE and local HSE services. They have been successful in some places, not so successful in others. We will continue to push that the services provided in rural areas also meet the demands for HSE services.
The Deputy is correct there has not been a good level of integration. It will take a while to get it but we are working towards it.
Ms Anne Graham:
I met with the HSE to procure services together about six months or a year ago.
Ms Anne Graham:
We have not met the HSE directly on this.
This will be continued on a piecemeal basis with units for Roscommon, Galway, Mayo, Clare and Westmeath all separately trying to have meetings with management of Galway University Hospital rather than the NTA assisting and spearheading the process. It is the same for other hospitals across the country. It will not be viable to run a boss from County Roscommon to appointments in Galway. It would be viable, however, to run a service from some parts of east Mayo through Roscommon into Westmeath, County Galway and finally into Galway city for these appointments. That type of co-ordination can only happen at a national level. It cannot happen on a piecemeal approach at county level.
Ms Anne Graham:
The HSE is also organised on a regional level.
No, not for acute hospital services or outpatient appointments. It is for community appointments. However, the big issue is not community appointments or getting to see the public health nurse. People can manage that. The problem is when they must go to Galway and fork out €150 or €200 to get to that appointment when the appointment is for 9 a.m. instead of giving them an appointment for 11.30 a.m. or 12 noon, when they could possibly get to it through the transport service. That is my point.
Ms Anne Graham:
I understand the Deputy's point. When we are looking at services we try to meet the demands, and that includes the demands in terms of going to hospitals. If we can meet those demands with the general services - the stage carriage services that are provided under contract by Bus Éireann - that is the service we must examine. We will look at it and we would generally know the places where people want to go for hospital appointments. If we can provide that service and it means changing our services to meet that demand, we will look at that. However, we need the information from the individual customers. We have tended to use the transport co-ordination units to assess that demand, but if we can get that more effectively from the HSE, we will see if we can do that.
The witness is putting the cart before the horse here. At the press of a button the HSE can tell her how many patients from County Roscommon attend clinics on a particular week in Galway. The local co-ordinator cannot gather that information as easily as the NTA can do it as a national authority approaching each of the hospital groups. There is only a handful of such groups around the country. This is the fundamental problem. Everything is being pushed down to be dealt with at local level. Let the communities come up with something and the NTA will assist them with it. The National Transport Authority needs to grab the bull by the horns on this issue. It has been talked about for long enough. I am sick of coming to these committee meetings and hearing that it will be looked at and that it will be dealt with from the ground up. This is something that can be done from the top down. I am asking Ms Graham, following this meeting, to arrange a meeting with each of the hospital groups and to start that co-ordination from the top down. She can get the data on the number of appointments for the geographical locations within their catchment and see how services and appointments can be tweaked to facilitate the maximisation of the use of public transport.
Ms Anne Graham:
If the HSE can make that information available to us to help us to plan those services, of course we will seek that information. Certainly, I can give a commitment that we will seek that information if it is available. However, I do not know whether it is available.
Mr. Martin Nolan:
I will respond to Deputy Naughten first. Regarding Knock airport, that is one of the areas we are targeting for this season to see if we can make a move on it. We have had the "Use it - don't lose it" campaign since last September. Also, this year we ran a national seat sale on the Expressway network and sold 22,000 seats. Unfortunately, only eight seats were sold on route 21. It is incumbent on all of us to ensure that people use the products that are available before they disappear.
On the Knock airport issue, and perhaps with regard to what has been said about the HSE as well, what type of co-ordination is there with the flight schedules and so forth? I have seen 20 or 30 people getting onto buses at Knock airport at particular times. In other words, is co-ordination maximised in respect of flight times?
Mr. Martin Nolan:
The regional manager, Rory Leahy, meets with the people in Knock airport regularly. I am sure the Deputy knows Rory Leahy. We have had increased bus services, but the demand has not been there. We will look at it again over the season and we will talk to the people in Knock airport.
We have increased Expressway revenue by 67%. I know it is no good to rural Ireland, but we have been very successful in the marketing of what we do around Ireland. That growth rate would be a good size anywhere in Europe.
With regard to customer service, I can only apologise for the couple of instances mentioned by Deputy McNamara. Anything to do with a driver and internal employee would be dealt with internally. If it is an isolated incident it would be one answer, but if it is a regular occurrence, it would certainly be a different answer. However, it is dealt with internally, and it is dealt with.
On the contacts, I apologise for not getting back to the Deputy. If he sends it to me directly, I will get him an answer.
We monitor using the automatic vehicle location, AVL, system on the buses. I assure the Deputy that buses leaving early is an irregular occurrence. At times between two locations, unfortunately on secondary roads one might get there too fast and a driver uses judgment that perhaps somebody is not coming. However, it is not right.
The secondary stops at Birdhill and Daly's Cross serve all of east Clare. They are very small villages but they serve all of east Clare, which is probably the most densely populated part of Clare other than Ennis. They have been scrapped, so Mr. Martin is handing all of those customers to other operators. However, that is a commercial decision he is making. The people must go to a larger stop, which is Nenagh. It is not a secondary stop but is probably the biggest town in north Tipperary.
Mr. Aidan Murphy:
We are investing significantly in our customer service in terms of systems and so forth. We are in the middle of a very significant investment to improve that. Obviously, we are disappointed if that has been the Deputy's experience. We are also disappointed the Deputy might feel that Bus Éireann would not be his operator of choice. We hope that in time we can convince him that it might be different.
Mr. Aidan Murphy:
I agree. It is not just the end-to-end piece we must be conscious of, but also the intermediate stops and making time. Drivers will say that if they do not leave a little early they might get caught further down the road and so forth, and I understand that from a personal perspective, but from a customer perspective we would wish to meet stop times at the individual stops as much as we can. We are working very hard to do that.
I thank the witnesses for attending the meeting and taking questions. I said this morning on Radio Kerry that the fact that the witnesses are coming to this meeting makes this one of the most important meetings ever held by the committee due to the importance of what we are discussing.
Deputy Moynihan hit the nail on the head earlier by asking what services are being cut in Dublin and whether all of the routes in Dublin are making money. The answer, clearly, was that Bus Éireann is cutting nothing in Dublin. It has loss-making routes in Dublin but it will not dare touch them. However, the rest of the country, particularly rural Ireland, is fair game to be attacked. It has lost its social welfare offices, Garda stations, post offices, shops and small pubs. The next thing it is faced with is losing its bus service. Over the last number of weeks I have been contacted by elderly people in particular, and users of the bus service in north, south, east and mid-Kerry to ask me if they will lose their bus service. It is incumbent on the witnesses to tell us.
Our job as public representatives is to help and assist people in our communities. We should know if services are going to be threatened, cut or reconfigured, to use the word used by the witness. It is a word I would love to see the back of. The HSE use it all of the time, saying it is reconfiguring its service. Can people not just speak plain English and say they are cutting the service? We are talking about a very important service and the people who have been in contact with me, and indeed other representatives, are deeply worried.
I want to know, for instance, if Bus Éireann is looking at cutting services to Waterville, mid-Kerry and east Kerry. I want to know in advance - as will my colleagues in Kerry, be they county councillors, Senators or TDs - what Bus Éireann is thinking of doing and what it is proposing, because we want an opportunity to react beforehand, not afterwards. I do not want to pick up a newspaper and read that such and such a service is cut or hear on Radio Kerry that such and such a service has been cut and the public will be let down. We cannot have that. It is not fair on Bus Éireann's customers, who have relied on its service and who have been grateful for it.
Everybody has their own take on it. I am not all negative. I compliment Bus Éireann on the service it runs. Its representatives heard a negative story a while ago. In my experience of Bus Éireann's employees who drive the buses and those in Tralee who run the services, they are extremely professional, very courteous and good at their job. I really mean that, because it is wrong to paint such a picture, although the Deputy was not doing that. I would not want an impression to go out from here that Bus Éireann gives a substandard service or that its drivers are not excellent, because my experience is the exact opposite, and I want to acknowledge that.
We have a chance to create awareness in these areas. If this involves parts of Kerry, about which I am speaking specifically, I want to know Bus Éireann's proposals and its representatives' thinking, because we want to save services if possible.
We have lost so much in rural areas over the years. In the past there were politicians who decided it was a good idea to break up the rural rail network. When we look back on that, it was a crazy decision. For instance, if the railway line that went down into Cahirciveen was open today, it would change the county completely from both a tourism and a business point of view. That happened all over Ireland at that time and it was a shame. It should not have happened. I do not want history to repeat itself.
I do not want us to lose services now because if we lose a service we will not get it back. It is the same as the post office that closes or the pub that shuts down. We will not get it back. It does not work that way. Whatever falls off the radar is gone and gone forever. That is why we cherish and appreciate the service Bus Éireann gives.
I appreciate and acknowledge the importance of commercial viability, but at the end of the day Bus Éireann provides a public service, and we want that to continue. The buses might not be full but the passengers who use them want that service. They need and require it, and they rely on it. I cannot stress enough how upsetting it would be for the passengers, not all of whom are elderly.
I thank the officials. I apologise for having to step out at one stage. As a result, I missed one or two of the answers.
As Ms Graham and Mr. Nolan will be aware from our previous meetings, there are two main areas that impact on my constituents in Kildare South. The first is Athy and the region to the north - route 7. The other is the route along the old N7, now the R448, on which Bus Éireann has not operated for a number of years. J. J. Kavanagh used to operate a bus service on that route, but as of January it has withdrawn from it and now stays on the motorway. This is a serious issue for the people of Castledermot, Moone, Timolin and Crookstown. Those are two significant issues that need addressing.
The myth perpetrated by some commentators nationally that urban areas such as Dublin subsidise rural areas can be put to bed here, because we mentioned already how many of the routes in Dublin are public service obligations, PSO, and have their own challenges. That argument, from commentators outside of this room, is not helpful.
My constituents are affected, particularly in the Castledermot area. It has an impact on the young, from the point of view of students who need to get to college by travelling either south to Carlow or Waterford, or north to Dublin. At the other end of the spectrum, older people have health appointments that need to be fulfilled. This is also a significant issue in Athy, on route 7.
There is a sense that decisions the NTA makes do have consequences. When the decision was made to grant Dublin Coach a licence to operate a direct route from Waterford to Dublin and then J. J. Kavanagh sought to change his licence to pull out of the Castledermot element of that route and stay on the motorway, those decisions had a knock-on effect. I was struck by the presentation from Mr. Nolan from Bus Éireann. There are a couple of phases that he repeats. He talks about "cherry-picking" of routes and "increased availability of commercial licences," and says, "We cannot trade recklessly." Decisions that are made about the liberalisation of routes have a consequence that could cost the taxpayer a fortune in increasing PSOs, because the alternative, which is not an option for anybody, is that we end up abandoning these areas. It leaves the taxpayer with a fairly difficult decision and a growing bill for PSO, from the €209 million mentioned earlier. Will the NTA accept that decisions it makes have the knock-on effect of making certain areas not viable? How can we avoid that in the future?
What analysis has the NTA done of options for the Castledermot route - the old N9 - and how long will it be before we have potential solutions? This is even more time-critical than the Athy issue in that, since January last, we have lost seven or eight routes out of the Castledermot area. Are there solutions for Athy on route 7 and how quickly will those be in place? Perhaps the witnesses outlined that earlier, but I did not see it in the presentation. If a PSO is the answer to route 7, will free travel pass holders be able to use them on future PSOs?
I missed the answer to Deputy Moynihan's question about the legislation stopping school transport procurement. I concur with Deputy Denis Naughten. I have worked closely with local rural transport in south Kildare, both in my time as a councillor and more recently, and am aware of the level of frustration experienced by some providers of rural transport in engaging with the HSE on simple matters such as co-ordinating times for a route to link in with the warfarin clinic in Naas. Patients will be aware weeks in advance that they have an appointment at the warfarin clinic, and it is a matter of getting the times co-ordinated so that the bus can run at the same time. Those who want to do their shopping can use that rural transport instead of incurring taxi costs, while significant costs for the taxpayer, through the HSE, for taxi bills can be avoided. That particular matter was addressed to an extent, but not before a lot of heartache. Leaving it to the local areas will not work.
We have been told there are difficulties with the legislation pertaining to school transport, and we need to know what those are. As far as I know, everyone in this House would wish to maximise the use of school buses, which always do half their run empty. Everyone in this House would wish to see maximum engagement, with Departments talking to each other in order to ensure that HSE does not spend millions of euro on needless taxi bills when there is a rural transport network that needs bums on seats to survive and that is quite flexible, in as far as it can be, in adapting. If the NTA will not lead the charge on that, then I do not know who will. The NTA should come back and tell us if the HSE is not giving it the information or if other State bodies are not doing so. We are depending on the NTA to take the lead on this because we need to see improvements on that.
The solution here is not PSOs that will cost hundreds of thousands of euro. We could cover the country in PSOs and have buses travelling half-empty much of the time. We need to think bigger than that. The impact on tourism and other sectors is key. Those are my main points.
I apologise for being late, as I had other business to attend to.
My concern centres on Laois and south Kildare.
Laois and south Kildare have been abandoned by Bus Éireann. The old N8 route through Abbeyleix, Durrow, Cullahill and south of Abbeyleix is now not served, and that applies all the way down into County Kilkenny. The old N7 route of Mountrath, Castletown and Borris-in-Ossory, which was then the Pike of Rushall and Borris-in-Ossory route is now gone. The N78 route comprises Athy, Ballylinan, Pedigree Corner, Doonane, Crettyard and Castlecomer. That service was due to go this month. We held some meetings in Athy, including one that Ms Graham and Mr. Nolan attended the other night, where agreement was reached that Bus Éireann would stay on the route until 31 June. After that, the buses use the motorways and almost all the geographical area of the county and a huge tract of south Kildare will be left without any bus service. That is unacceptable. The towns and villages in the region have been abandoned. The remaining few on the N78 route of Athy, Ballylinan, Pedigree Corner, Doonane, Crettyard and Castlecomer are about to be abandoned.
We must organise a public transport system that works. I recognise one cannot run a bus up every boreen and that one cannot have the same level of service in a rural area as one does for a busy urban route. That said, it should not be beyond us to provide a basic bus service to run along the main arteries and to connect people from local villages with urban locations for their hospital appointments, work, college and whatever else. We must have an integrated approach and link up services while taking account of HSE hospitals appointments, working hours, etc. We also need an integrated approach to building a bus service. If we stick a plaster on the problem, all we will do is limp from one crisis to another. A service will be provided for a while but when it is discovered that it does not work, the service will stop. Therefore, we need to plan strategic routes and use them strategically in terms of times and so on.
Promotional work must also be done. I am sure Mr. Martin Nolan of Bus Éireann will tell me differently and that it has spent a certain amount on advertising. Local advertising of a bus service has not been done. I have not seen it done but perhaps it has passed me by. I suggest that bus timetables and routes be published in parish newsletters.
We need bus stops because there is often only three bus stops every 15 to 20 miles of road. We need secondary bus stops at places like Pedigree Corner and along such routes, and the same applies for Pike of Rushall and all of those areas.
We need bus shelters. It rained very heavily as I travelled here this morning. I have noticed that the bus shelters in Dublin are state of the art. I argue that rural Ireland should get small areas where a bus can pull into and bus shelters can be located. I visited the North last weekend and little perspex shelters have been erected all along the roadway of rural routes. We must provide the same in the South or people will not use the bus service. We need to have a planned integrated service.
The immediate issue in County Laois is that it is not served by public transport. The immediate threat is to the bus service on the N78 route and, therefore, we need a plan. I understand, from what the National Transport Authority said that its main remit is licensing. Somebody must solve this problem. The Department will not do it or cannot do it and civil servants do not see it as a job for them. We need to plan strategic routes which I see as a key job for the NTA. If the NTA does not have the resources to do so, then it is up to us, in these Houses, to give resources to the authority. That is the most important task. We must also knock heads together to get a co-ordinated approach.
I have questions for each organisation. What subvention does Bus Éireann receive? It gets subvention for social welfare passes, and rightly so. How much direct subvention does the organisation receive from the Government?
My next questions are for the National Transport Authority. Its role is licensing, but what else does it do? What has it planned for County Laois and south Kildare? The issue of the N78 route must be addressed urgently. We must retain the service and the witnesses know that from their attendance at the public meeting in Athy.
I apologise for being late but I was in the Chamber participating in the marriage equality debate. The use of Facebook, Twitter and similar outlets present a huge advertising opportunity for Bus Éireann. I suggest such advertisements should be county specific. A lot of people are unaware of services and such advertising would highlight routes and existing services. The bus stops outside my office in Castlemaine and people often come into my office seeking information on bus timetables and services, which we provide. There is a great opportunity to advertise for free, which we should avail of, and also to provide information on a county basis. I suggest that before routes are axed, Bus Éireann should make an effort to maximise the number of people using those routes.
There is technology available now to conserve fuel. I know of a company in south Kerry that manufactures a device that reduces fuel consumption, a matter which I have raised at committee level. Has Bus Éireann, in an effort to reduce costs, explored reducing fuel costs? Will it do so? The price of fuel has reduced recently. I have raised this issue by tabling a parliamentary question and I have received an answer from Bus Éireann. Unfortunately, the price of fuel has increased again. The device I have mentioned can save up to 20% in fuel costs for some vehicles. Will Bus Éireann explore the option?
Ms Anne Graham:
I will first respond to Deputy Healy-Rae who asked a question about services in Kerry. We have carried out a review of services in Kerry. We are working closely with Bus Éireann to deliver what we would hope would be an improved service in Kerry. Prior to us implementing the initiative, Members will have the details beforehand.
In regard to the decisions that we make and the knock-on consequences of licensing decisions that Deputy Heydon mentioned, and in terms of looking at licences and licence applications, we want to provide an increased and better service for public transport customers. We also want to grow public transport numbers. By looking at the services in that way, we have had to refuse licences in some cases where we felt it could undermine the provision of services between those licensed services. We feel it is not a consequence of the number of licences, more a consequence of the roads structure and infrastructure and also the demand by customers for quicker end-to-end journeys. That is what has influenced the types of licence applications we have received and the types of decisions we have had to make. As a result, Bus Éireann has had to review the provision of its licensed services to respond to those changes. It is our responsibility to see what is needed if there are places left without a public transport service. While we have a responsibility in regulating licences, we also have a responsibility to see if there is a public service obligation in an area that requires to be met by a public transport service.
As we have indicated before, we have been limited by our level of funding in delivering more services.
We are grateful that the level of funding has stabilised in terms of the subsidy going into services. We would like to see this increasing in order that we might start to fill the gaps and grow public transport services throughout the country. It is this for which we need to plan.
In the context of what Deputy Stanley stated, our role involves bringing forward a plan for the putting in place of strategic routes throughout the country. We have commenced work in this regard and we would like to put forward a general plan in respect of how Ireland is served by its main public transport services.
Deputy Heydon referred to HSE services. As he is aware, it has been difficult, even locally, to integrate HSE and rural transport services. However, we will continue to try to do this locally. In addition, we will do whatever we can nationally in order to try to ensure that public transport services meet the needs of those of our customers with health issues.
When we draw up plans in respect of a replacement service for route 7, we will implement them as soon as possible. A meeting of the working group is due to take place in the next week and we will be attending that. A date for that meeting has not yet been decided upon but I am sure this will be done in the next couple of days. We will bring forward our proposals at the meeting in question. We must also be aware that there may be changes to the commercial services - even beyond those already planned - which we will also be obliged to consider in the context of what we will put in place. However, we are actively drawing up plans and we will be ready to meet the working group in the coming days. We hope that we will be in a position to put in place whatever solutions are agreed. Again, this will be subject to the necessary funding being made available. We will try to put the solutions to which I refer in place as quickly as possible.
On the question of what happens if free travel pass holders avail of what might be replacement services, the answer is that it would depend on the nature of those services. As I indicated earlier, a cap has been put in place in respect of the free travel scheme and any new services cannot avail of a subsidy from the scheme in order to allow holders of the pass to travel for free. Unfortunately, in certain instances where we have put in place some replacement PSO services, we have been obliged to charge concessionary fares. Whether we will be obliged to do that in this case, we are not yet sure but it might be part of the consideration in terms of replacement PSO services along route 7.
Deputy Stanley referred to having an integrated approach. We want to bring such an approach to bear in the context of planning for services. We are of the view that we are the only authority which can do so. We want to continue to work on trying to integrate existing services and on using our resources more effectively. In addition, we also want to plan for areas where we may need to deliver additional services.
In the context of infrastructure, we are aware that we need to put in place further bus stops and shelters. However, we are limited in this regard in terms of the level of funding available and we must prioritise in the context of where we can deliver these infrastructure items. We will be undertaking a process of putting in place new bus stops - at which integrated information will be available - throughout the country. We are also working towards trying to integrate the stops as well in order that all providers will use the same stops. This will, however, take a number of years to roll out. In the context of bus shelters, we are similarly constrained by the level of resources available. Again, we have been obliged to prioritise where we use those resources in order to put new shelter infrastructure in place.
Ms Anne Graham:
I do not know what other word to use. We are considering how we might put the resources we have available to better use. There are no proposed cuts to services. There will instead be changes to what exists in order that we might provide better services to our customers. That is our view, in any event.
Ms Anne Graham:
That is part of what we will bring to the working group in the next few days. The same timeline will apply in the context of whatever is needed in terms of those towns to which reference has been made. Castledermot still has some services and there are no proposals to withdraw these.
Will Ms Graham clarify what she said with regard to the free travel scheme and the fact that where new services are established, people will not be able to use their passes? What is the position regarding replacement services in circumstances where Bus Éireann provides a subsidised service?
I accept that the company is constrained in the context of resources - Ms Graham and I have discussed this issue on many occasions - but some of the shelters erected at bus stops are huge and could easily accommodate 20 people. However, the most one would ever see at such stops is one, two or three individuals. What are needed at bus stops in rural areas are simple structures that would perhaps be one quarter the size of those currently being erected. These shelters should face away from the road in order that people would be protected from the spray caused by trucks, etc. I saw one such structure when passing through Strabane in recent days and all it involves is a few upright sheets of Perspex with a small, slanted roof on top. In addition, the shelter in question faces away from the road. The entire structure was not much more than 1 m in length by 0.5 m in depth and I am sure the cost relating to it was extremely low. I stopped to inspect it and discovered that information relating to all bus services on the route was provided on the sign attached to it. The shelter is small and was obviously cheap to construct.
Some of the shelters built by Adshel in this jurisdiction are extremely big. I accept that these are required in places such as Monasterevin because there could be 20 or 30 people queuing for a bus at any given time. In some rural areas, however, one might only see one, two or three people queuing at bus stops. All that would be needed at such stops is simple structure that would prevent the spray from lorries from hitting people in the queue. If a shelter faces out into the road, people can often be splashed by spray from passing vehicles. If the back of the shelter faces outward, however, protection is provided. I reiterate my point that all that is required at bus stops in many rural areas is a simple structure with a small, tilted roof on top.
Ms Anne Graham:
On the Deputy's first point, the free travel scheme has been capped for the past number of years. If a new commercial operator comes in to operate a service, it cannot currently avail of a payment under the scheme. The operator would be obliged to make a decision as to whether it will allow pass holders to travel for free or whether it will be obliged to charge them the full fare. That is a commercial decision which it must make. In the context of replacement services in circumstances where we are providing a subsidised, PSO-contracted service, as the Deputy is aware, we were not able to avail of any subsidy under the free travel scheme in respect of the service we provided between Cashel and Portlaoise. In order to make the service as viable as possible, we were obliged to charge a concessionary fare - half the normal adult fare - in respect of free travel pass holders. It would depend on what services are being proposed in the context of replacement services. We may be faced with the same kind of decision if we cannot access a subsidy under the free travel scheme.
Mr. Aidan Murphy:
On any services we provide or are contracted to provide, we will accept DSP passes. As stated earlier, we do this on our Expressway services, despite the fact that it places us at a commercial disadvantage. However, that is the decision we have taken and we will continue to honour it.
I inquired with regard to fuel economy and the use of social media. Bus Éireann has a fleet of really impressive vehicles. However, I am of the view that much smaller vehicles would suffice on certain rural routes. Would it not be possible to procure smaller, less expensive vehicles for use on those routes?
Mr. Martin Nolan:
We have looked at that before and there is not a huge difference in running costs between a small and a big bus. We must look at the work we have for the bus for a week. If it is going to get a couple of big loads in the week, that is what is carrying it through the week. As Ms Graham said, Bus Éireann hires thousands of buses every day and we use the appropriate bus.
The major issue with regard to fuel economy is the driver. One driver can be 20% more expensive than other. We have telematics, engine cut-off at lights if the engine is idling, and defensive driving programmes. We are looking at systems all the time. The new Euro 6 engines are related more to emissions as they use as much fuel as the old buses. They are not fuel economic. We also have spill-free systems going into depots so we are conscious of that end of things. Any systems members mention, we examine.
The real-time passenger information is not on the bus stop outside a business but on the app. It was not perfect but is improving all the time. With regard to marketing, Facebook and Twitter, the chairman said that customer service is the big aim this year. We grew revenue by 6% or 7% last year and we need to go further on the customer service end.
This brings us back to Deputy Michael Healy-Rae's question about staff. Some 80% of our staff are customer facing and they are the biggest marketing tool we have. They have had not had as rough a time as others have had but they have not had an easy time. We are very conscious of that and we are grateful. They have been magnificent over the past number of years.
Mr. Martin Nolan:
Our customer satisfaction ratings show that and people recommend us to friends. They are an advantage to us.
In response to Deputies Stanley and Heyden, in reverse order, there are over 6,000 bus stops around the country. Some 94% of roads in the country are rural roads, which is nearly the highest in Europe. It is a large investment programme but I take the point about it being smaller and spreading it more. The Laois and south Kildare area always had private bus companies and we ran expressway buses through the area. It has been the hardest hit area since commercialisation happened. It brings us back to the point made by Deputy Martin Heyden that, with competitors, we are in a totally different place to where we were ten years ago from the revenue and cost base points of view. We must keep ourselves alive.
Having said that, we have the skill set of knowing what happens with buses and who are the drivers of small buses in every parish of the country. We want to work with the NTA on providing solutions. We do not want to be written out of that aspect.
It is an important service for those using it. I thank the witnesses for attending. The information the witnesses provided to us was important. I hope the suggestions made by committee members to the NTA and Bus Éireann will be useful. Resources are a major factor but perhaps the model could be improved when changes are made. I realise that, as a commercial operation, the company may not be able to share some information. In other circles, we hear about Chinese walls and I wonder whether that could be used. Can the PR be done better to avoid the large public meetings and concern among communities? I hope the suggestions can be taken on board to hold some discussion about what an alternative plan looks like if changes must be made. It is in the interests of the NTA, Bus Éireann, public representatives and, most importantly, the public to know what services they will end up with if changes are made. We will have ongoing communication on the matter.