Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 7 February 2018
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport
Accessibility of Public Transport for People with Disabilities: Discussion (Resumed)
The purpose of the meeting is to discuss the accessibility of public transport for people with disabilities. This is the fourth of a series of meetings the joint committee has convened on the issue. We have previously heard from transport users and, more recently, transport operators. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport will attend later.
I welcome Ms Alannah Murray and Mr. Padraic Moran who asked to attend the meeting to relate their personal experiences as public transport users. Mr. Moran is joined by his mother and guide dog to whom I was introduced before the meeting. It is great that they have joined us.
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 joint committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to 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 asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. 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 Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I invite Ms Murray to make her opening statement.
Ms Alannah Murray:
I thank members for allowing me the opportunity to speak at this meeting. Before I talk about my experiences on transport, I will speak a little about myself to put a face to the statistics. First and foremost, I am an award-winning filmmaker. My documentary on disability in the screen media industry toured the festival circuit and finished its festival run with an award. Another one of my films recently premiered in Portugal and was also nominated for an award. I am a TEDx speaker and I am fluent in Irish. I am about to graduate with a BA honours degree in film and television production and I have my eyes set on a master's programme. I and many others like me are the future of this country. Despite these impressive attributes, I cannot board a bus of my own free will. I am forced give details about where I will be, what time I will be there and what time I intend returning.
Maybe I would not mind if the system worked but it does not work. Time and again, I and others like me are let down by this deeply flawed and unrealistic system.
I am 21 years old. At that age I should be allowed to be spontaneous. I should be free to hop on a bus and explore our country, a country whose Constitution was built on the idea of freedom and equality. When did we stray so far from the visions of our forefathers? I would not be seated here today in front of the committee if this was a country of freedom and equality.
Even when jumping through all these transportation hoops, the system continues to let me down. Last year alone, I would say I was let down by our transport system over 20 times. I have missed out on business meetings that could have secured a job for me. I have had to miss appointments because I have showed up for my pre-booked bus only to be told that there has been a mis-communication and I will be unable to travel as the bus has not been properly adapted to allow me onto it. The bus has to be adapted to let me onto it. It is not completely accessible. I have missed out on valuable opportunities to spend time with my friends, leaving me isolated from them and ultimately cutting me off from the wider world. I cannot begin to describe the emotions that go through one's body when one is seated at a crowded bus stop and a driver has to step out to say that one cannot travel simply because one has a disability. This has happened time and again. One is seated there and sees the crowds of people whispering to each other. Sympathetic looks are exchanged. Then the bus pulls away and one is left there alone, feeling like one is nothing.
Then there is the email one has to send to let one's prospective business partner, employer, friend or whoever know that one will be unable to attend the pre-arranged meeting. Who is going to salvage my reputation when I am labelled "unreliable", when I am unable to get a job and am forced to feed into the stereotype that people with disabilities do not work or when I am cut off from the rest of society because the thought of getting a bus is too much for me and I decide I am better off staying home? I am too young to feel this jaded by a system that can be fixed. We are fighting, but we cannot do it alone.
There are people who try their best to help. I have had bus drivers put themselves at risk to lift me onto buses because they refuse to accept the broken system and they are committed to ensuring I reach the destination of the journey I pre-booked 24 hours in advance. There are people like Kieran Delaney and Senator John Dolan who will stop at nothing until people with disabilities are given the rights they deserve. Kieran has had to make telephone calls to ensure I do not get stranded in Dublin because of a grievous error that has never been my fault. One night I sat in Busáras and I was told I would not be travelling but that the company would try to accommodate me on the next bus. The next bus came and it could not accommodate me and the same happened with the next one that came. It was getting dark and I was genuinely concerned I would not make it home. I wondered what I would do. I checked hotels but everywhere was fully booked. I was terrified that I would end up stranded or abandoned with no way home. That is the reality of the system.
Then there are the times when I have got onto the bus and there have been no clamps. The drivers offer to put my chair in the cargo hold when I transfer into a seat. That is well and good because I am able to do that, but I should not have to. I should not have to risk my chair being put in the cargo hold where it could be broken. If my chair gets broken I automatically become helpless and dependent, and I assure the committee I am neither helpless nor dependent. Do the members think this is acceptable in Ireland in 2018?
My life is complicated enough without having to chew anxiously on my fingernails, wondering whether I will be able to make my pre-booked journey. It is a journey I am forced to book in advance because people with disabilities are an afterthought in the system. I admire the introduction of the four-hour plan, but it is not enough. The 24-hours notice for a bus journey is not enough. Public transport should not be a human rights issue, but in its current form it is. What is it going to take for the system to take account of the plight of people with disabilities when using the service and to implement change properly? How many more people are going to give up and be forced to become isolated, wards of a system that is exclusionary and ultimately dangerous? I reject the idea that I should have to book my journey. I reject being in any way different from the committee members or their colleagues. They do not have to book transport in advance so why should I?
There must be no more being left on the side of the road, no more having to call in favours just to get home, no more missed opportunities, no more feeling like a burden for wanting to live independently in society and no more discrimination against people with disabilities. Fixing this system is a lot easier than having me to contend with. Enough is enough.
Thank you for your clear and moving witness. The heart of what you are saying is that our system is unequal and unfair and that you are being placed at a significant disadvantage as a result of what has happened to you and having to go through that process. Is Bus Éireann or Dublin Bus your main transport carrier?
Ms Alannah Murray:
It is Bus Éireann. It has been a thorn in my side when it comes to living independently. I live in Virginia in County Cavan. I normally book my transport 48 hours in advance because I have to ask to be called back to confirm that it will definitely be there. Even though there is the 24-hour rule, I am still facing 48 hours because 24 hours is not enough.
Notwithstanding the rule that exists at present, if there was an obligation on the carrier whereby if the bus was unable to facilitate your access it would be obliged to pay for a taxi to bring you to your destination, would that make a difference? I agree with you about the delay in having to book in advance, but what if you were guaranteed to get to your journey's end at the carrier's expense if it did not provide the transport?
Ms Alannah Murray:
There would still have to be an overhaul in the taxi system. Taxis are just as bad. I can never get an accessible taxi. I go to college in Dundalk and there is one accessible taxi for the entire town. One cannot get it after 6 p.m. If I wish to go out and socialise with my friends or to be a regular 21 year old student who goes out and makes horrendous life decisions, I cannot be equal with my peers because that provision is not in place for me.
I welcome the witnesses and I thank Ms Murray for her presentation. To be honest, there is little need for any questions after what Ms Murray said. In retrospect, the committee probably should have invited people such as the witnesses as the starting point before we met the other representatives, but we are learning too from that point of view. The bottom line is that there are a huge amount of issues. Is anything getting better? Is it better than it was five years ago? Are there days when Ms Murray has good experiences?
Ms Alannah Murray:
Yes, definitely. I have come across some really great people. There was an incident years ago that will never leave me, which was having to crawl on my hands and knees onto a coach because I did not know at the time that one had to pre-book. I just assumed I was an equal citizen, and I have learned from that. I have learned that is a mistake and that I am not an equal citizen.
At the time I had to crawl on my hands and knees onto a bus full of people. I have not had to do that since, but I have had to be carried onto coaches. I have had great experiences and things are improving but not enough.
The point I am trying to make is that in this day and age the system is totally unacceptable. What would be Ms Murray's ideal system? Would it be that she could arrive at a bus stop or a train station where all of the support services would be available to allow her the same degree of accessibility as everyone else?
On pre-booking, Ms Murray has mentioned that is not acceptable to have to pre-book but that it can be helpful to be able to pre-book. I welcome the focus she has put on the issue today, but what in her view could be done in the short term to make the system better such that she would have fewer of the terrible experiences outlined?
Ms Alannah Murray:
It would be beneficial to look at other systems. I have been really fortunate in my film career to have travelled the world. I have been to Berlin, the United Kingdom and many other countries. In the United Kingdom all buses have ramps which are lowered with the push of a button by the driver. In Berlin it is the same. All taxis in London are also accessible. The provision of automatic ramps could save so much time, hardship and embarrassment. At a basic level, it is horrific to be dependent on others to get from A to B. I acquired my disability. I started life as a happy, active child. As my condition worsened, I realised the playing field was uneven. My parents had to learn the hard way what I would be faced with in life. I have fought so many battles, but the battle with the transport system is the one that has worn me down the most.
I thank Ms Murray for sharing her experiences with us. I pay tribute to Senator John Dolan and Mr. Kieran Delaney, a staff member in the Houses of the Oireachtas, for highlighting the things we, as politicians, take for granted or are not aware of but should be.
I thank Ms Murray and Mr. Moran for being here. I enjoy using public transport wherever I go, which sometimes is a challenge, but that challenge is nowhere near what it would be if I had a disability. I live in Boyle, County Roscommon which is serviced by buses and trains which I am sure present challenges for people with a disability.
Ms Murray has mentioned that the introduction of the four-hour plan for train usage is not enough and that 24-hour notice of a bus journey is also not enough. As I am not familiar with these issues, perhaps Ms Murray might elaborate. She has also mentioned that if she misses a pre-arranged meeting, she is labelled as unreliable, which is unacceptable. It never occurred to me that a person who turned up late for a meeting owing to a public transport issue would be deemed to be unreliable. I am disappointed that commuters had to help Ms Murray off trains because staff were too busy. That is what they are paid to do; it is their job. If she pre-books a journey and a properly adapted bus is not provided, that is not human error but negligence. I agree with the Chairman that if a person pre-books a journey and a property adapted bus is not provided, there must be recourse to the provision of a taxi. This hurts staff and the companies. I accept that the companies are doing a lot and that they need to do more, but in situations where a staff member shows no interest in helping disabled persons, it is not good enough. I understand Senator John Dolan and Mr. Kieran Delaney have highlighted these issues and will continue to do so.
Ms Alannah Murray:
As only certain routes are accessible, I am already limited in where I can go. The 109X from Cavan to Dublin is the bus I use to catch to attend meetings and so on. The college meets my transport needs by providing a taxi. Thankfully, I do not have to rely on buses to get to college because if I did, my attendance would be very poor.
Ms Alannah Murray:
I agree with the point made about human error, but what would be ideal is a system which would allow me to get from A to B on my own. People are irrelevant when the system is broken. Most of the time, it has been staff who have come to my rescue on buses. On one occasion when it was raining and I was so fed up with the system that I was driven to tears, the driver of the bus, with a passenger, lifted my chair into the cargo hold. I rang the company to complain and told it that if there was not a wheelchair accessible bus available for my return journey, there would be trouble and there was because the bus was not wheelchair accessible. I spoke about my experiences in Busarás when bus after bus was not wheelchair accessible. Mr. Kieran Delaney had to ring Mr. Ray Hernon to organise a single decker bus to take me home. I am reliant on others. I rely on the kindness of strangers and people like Mr. Hernon and Mr. Delaney, rather than on a system that is wholly unacceptable.
Ms Murray is entitled to the same service as everybody else. I remind members that as she will have to leave soon, we are taking questions only to her at this point. We will soon come to Mr. Moran whose main issue is transport on the DART.
I apologise for being late, but I had an appointment in my constituency and traffic was heavy on the journey to Leinster House.
I missed Ms Murray's presentation. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, will come before the committee after the presentations. If she was in my position, what one or two questions would she ask him?
Ms Alannah Murray:
First, how, as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, is he allowing this to happen? Why, when an accessibility initiative was launched in respect of the DART, was he not present? What was more important than doing his job and his duty towards people with disabilities who use the service for which he is responsible? They have come to him many times and told him that it is a problem, so why was he not there when it counted? It is admirable to sit at this committee but unless one follows through, to be admirable will not cut it.
I wonder what the Minister will do to ensure that I, Mr. Moran or anyone like us will not have to sit before the committee again. I should not have to sit here and make my plea to be able to get on a bus. Revolutions have started on buses before and they will do so again unless the system is fixed. I want to know what will be done to prevent that revolution from happening.
I agree with everything that Ms Murray says. She is right. If people watching have questions that they want to have answered or to make submissions the committee is happy to take them on board. We appreciate both of the witnesses being here and if they have any further points that they wish to furnish the committee, we will be happy to have them answered and followed through. We are determined that we have change for Ms Murray.
I welcome Ms Murray and Mr. Moran and his mother, Ms Catherine Moran. I commend the committee on taking on this important issue, which, fundamentally, relates to equal rights. Ms Murray is correct, I believe she was referring to Rosa Parks when she spoke about revolutions starting on buses. Rosa Parks lived in an apartheid state in America and was told where she could and could not sit on the bus. We have a totally unequal system whereby Ms Murray is not even allowed on the bus in the first instance or she is told which bus she can or cannot get on, and is obliged to give 24 hours' notice of her intention to travel. That is wrong and I oppose it completely.
I know Padraic and have worked with him on this issue. We met the Minister only last week, a matter on which I will comment after Padraic makes his statement. We presented the Minister with a petition of over 3,000 signatures demanding equal access to our public transport system. The Government, Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus are all paying lip-service in respect of this matter; they are just engaged in a box-ticking exercise. Someone who was good friend of mine, and who has passed away, was John Doyle. He was a wheelchair user who worked for the Disability Federation of Ireland. In the early 1990s, John and a small group of individuals led a campaign that focused on Dublin Bus, whose vehicles were wholly inaccessible to anyone in a wheelchair at the time. They chained themselves to the railings at Busáras, put it up to the company and forced it to change its perspective. Ultimately, it led to Dublin Bus updating and changing its fleet and introducing low-floor buses. That is where it ended. It was the company wanting to get these people off their backs and deciding to invest in it.
We have able-bodied people making decisions who do not look through the eyes of someone with a disability and who put in place what they think is needed without living the experience. It is something that Mr. Moran will speak about and it is clear from listening to Ms Murray that this is where the problems lie. In my own constituency of Wicklow, Bus Éireann operates the 133 route. Bus Éireann has invested in updating some of its fleet and that is welcome. In Wicklow, however, it is only possible to access buses at certain stops because the other critical pieces of infrastructure, such as higher footpaths to allow people to board, are lacking. It is only a box-ticking exercise.
I have some specific questions for Ms Murray. There should be free, unrestricted access to all public transport. It should not require 24 hours notice nor should it need four hours. That gives people with disabilities the message that they must live their lives in such a way that nothing unexpected may happen and that everything must be planned in advance. It is not acceptable for anyone to get sick or be spontaneous. That fundamentally treats them as unequal citizens. Having spoken to the Minister last week, I think he is slowly starting to appreciate the issue. I would like him to be more proactive in using public transport rather than tweeting when he gets on a bus for the first time. He might accompany the witnesses and see the difficulties that people experience. There have been minor improvements but what other restrictions are there? I gave the example of Rathnew in Wicklow where people with disabilities cannot access the stop for the 133 route in their home town and have to go elsewhere in order to get on the bus. What other restrictions are there, apart from those relating to the 24-hour notice?
Ms Alannah Murray:
I live in Virginia, which is about half an hour from Cavan town and half an hour from Navan. I come from Navan originally. When I started taking the bus and first tried booking it, I was told that I would have to get on at Cavan. I asked if I was expected to go to Cavan rather than go two minutes down the road to get the bus and I was told that was what I would have to do and that was the company policy. I did it for a while but then I decided I was having no more of it and I told the company that I would get on at Virginia. It told me that I could not do so and I responded that I could. I went out with a measuring tape and measured the kerb. I was well able to get on at the stop in Virginia, it was just that Bus Éireann did not want to stop mid-route and go through the rigmarole of clamping me in.
The clamping of the chair is another issue. Most of the time, I tell people how to clamp the chair. I think that some of the drivers have started to realise that I am asking them for a reason. I have stopped ringing to complain because it makes no difference - and the system remains broken - but when I used to call, I would explain that the drivers did not know how to use the clamps and that they had not been trained how to do it. It is a fundamental health and safety issue. If a driver does not know how to clamp a wheelchair down and a customer goes flying, it is not the customer's fault. It seems as though some of the drivers have read the same thing because they give an automatic response whereby they say they are trained and have been given refresher training. Whenever I have complained, the response seems automatic and I am told that they are sorry I have had the experience and where I can log the complaint, which they will then do nothing about. That is the system. I once alighted from a bus in Navan, it was not my usual stop, where there was a drop of 3 ft to get to the kerb. I sat at the bus stop looking at the kerb and wondering whether I would manage to land if I fired myself off it, because that was the only way that I was going to get from A to B. So there are problems with bus stops and with ramps not working. I have also had an experience whereby a bus had been adapted but when the driver checked the ramp, he discovered it was not working.
One then wonders what one is supposed to do.
As regards Dublin Bus, it was snowing and raining last week and I was waiting for a bus. The bus drivers did their best and asked people to fold up their buggies but people refused to do so. I sat with blue hands, shivering, because I could not get on the bus because people would not fold up their buggies as not all buses have a designated spot for buggies. I was left in the freezing cold and do not know how I did not get pneumonia. I sat at the bus stop and decided I would go for a coffee, cry and try again. That is the system. One sits, cries, gathers oneself and tries again.
Ms Alannah Murray:
Yes, it must be enforced. There are muddy waters in this country regarding human rights in that context. I am not an equal citizen in many ways but this is the first issue on which I must fight for those who cannot do so. I am very lucky that I have a very big mouth and loud voice but others do not. It is my duty to sit here and fight for such people because if we do not fight for each other, no one will. Some people do so but it takes a village to get on a bus at this stage and that is unacceptable.
If a person gives notice that he or she wishes to board a bus at a particular point but that facility is not provided, should the requirement be on the transport provider to bring the person in an appropriate taxi to a place at which he or she can board? When Ms Murray could not board the bus in Virginia, how did she get to Cavan?
Ms Alannah Murray:
-----and the only way to raise money is through taxation and fines. Those with disabilities face cut after cut and money is not being put into the provision of facilities and we are suffering as a result. Transport providers have a duty to the people of this country, and regardless of whether-----
I thank Ms Murray for her evidence and assure her that her views are very clearly understood by all present. I appreciate that she may shortly have to leave, although there is no rush to do so as far as the committee is concerned. If she wishes to forward to us any further ideas or views she thinks we ought to consider, we would be very happy to accept them.
I ask Mr. Moran to address the committee and thank him for waiting. His patience is appreciated and he is very welcome.
Mr. Padraic Moran:
I have cerebral palsy, which impairs my motor function and I, therefore, require a power wheelchair to get around. I work for Sky Ireland as a service specialist and for East Coast FM as a production assistant, sports reporter and broadcast co-ordinator. Sky Ireland are based on Burlington Road and I have commuted from Bray to Ballsbridge daily for the past three and a half years. I have observed the progressive worsening of the service provided by Irish Rail on the DART line, from stations being manned in the past to the current situation. Most people do not realise that people with disabilities or impairments do not like to ask for help and that it is very humbling to have to ask for assistance but it has to be done at certain times.
In terms of transport, we should be fully independent and autonomous to get on a bus or train without having to give four or 24 hours' notice. The current requirements are unfair. If any of the able-bodied population had to do that, people would not stand for it because it is against human rights. In Ireland, we seem to do things and then retrospectively acknowledge they do not work. I will highlight a few incidents that came into the public domain because I work in media and know how the system works and how to get a reaction. Other people cannot do that.
Last August, I left work and communicated with Pearse station. I am lucky because I have such a good relationship with the staff in the Irish Rail stations that I have the personal mobile numbers of some. Those good relations with the majority of staff is the reason for events such as these not happening to me more often. Last August, I was going home at approximately 8.30 p.m. or 9 p.m. after work in Sky and it was communicated to Bray that I was on the DART. I got to Bray but there was nobody there to assist me to disembark. I realised I was stuck. One might ask why I did not use the emergency button. Emergency buttons at wheelchair level on the DART are never armed and are mere decoration. I had to wedge my chair against the wall and try to stand up and break a little piece of plastic in order to push the button that is high up on the wall. The alarm went off. When I ended up in Greystones, the driver advised me that the alarm had gone off but he thought it was an error and never checked. I could have been attacked or having an asthma attack. Anything could have been happening. The driver did not bother checking what had happened. I lodged a complaint with the Railway Safety Authority about that incident but it did not follow it up. There is no reason to lodge a complaint because nobody will follow up on it. One is told that the company is very sorry and so on but nobody does anything.
On 17 December last, I was on my way home on a Sunday evening. At that time, DART trains are only every half an hour, so one must plan which DART one will take. I telephoned Pearse station and a staff member from Sandymount was sent up to put me on the train. He communicated to Bray. I got to Bray and nobody was there to assist me. I could not press the higher emergency button because I could not break the piece of plastic, so off I went to Greystones. I broadcast that experience on Facebook Live and for the second time called on the CEO of Irish Rail to be courageous and come out and speak to me. It is very easy to make cuts but it is harder to stand face to face with a person directly affected by the cuts. I went to Greystones. The DART had to get out of the way because the Rosslare train was approaching, so the doors began to close. I had to stick my legs out the doors to keep them open. It took the driver five minutes to come down to check why the doors were not closing, as a result of which I ended up with a swollen ankle. If I had not stuck my legs out the doors, I would have ended up on a siding because the DART had to be moved out of the way to allow the Rosslare train past. Having got off the DART, I then had to hope and pray that the Rosslare train driver would get out and put me on his train as not all Irish Rail drivers are insured to put down ramps and are not insured to leave their cabs because if there is an incident, they are in trouble. That is another big issue, in that there are no safety protocols in place and all one gets from Irish Rail is lip-service. It keeps happening. If something keeps happening, one fixes it rather than keep papering over the cracks, which Irish Rail is very good at doing and getting away with because nothing is happening and no one in Irish Rail seems to be answerable or trying to fix it. That is a fundamental issue.
I had an interview with Barry Kenny on East Coast FM in December where he talked about automated ramps for the DART. Automated ramps were piloted about ten years ago. They had to be abandoned for the simple reason that the infrastructure in some DART stations is so old. In certain station such as Seapoint, if it involves an eight-carriage DART, a person has to be on carriage three because there is no space anywhere else on the platform to go. When I argued this point with Barry Kenny, he totally dismissed it and told me the platforms are all the same length. Yes, they are all the same length. I was not arguing that. What I was arguing was that there is an infrastructural problem and that is part of the reason the company had to abandon it because it could not fit the ramps around the infrastructure because it is too old. When this was piloted before, the company was told it would have to redesign the system and that, fundamentally, this would cost too much money.
Another part of its argument is that people are not talking at windows or it is not making money because we have Leap cards. Irish Rail is still getting the money from the Leap card so that is another issue. Taking staff out of stations is the biggest issue. Due to the fact that I am in full-time employment, I am no longer entitled to the travel pass because, according to the system, I was cured when I got a job. I inadvertently probably set a trap for Irish Rail a couple of months ago when I made this public knowledge. Last Thursday evening, when I was leaving work, I got three separate phone calls from three members of staff in three different stations on the DART station telling me Irish Rail's revenue protection unit was out to catch me without a ticket. What they do not know is that I obviously buy my ticket because I have to and I do not mind that. However, this is a ploy on their part to set me up to get me to go away and stop giving out and fighting for people. My fundamental argument is that I am lucky with my cerebral palsy. I can talk, communicate, articulate and say "This is wrong." Some people with disabilities and impairments cannot do that. According to the last census, just over 600,000 people are registered with disabilities. It is a lot easier to make cuts because we are not a big voting group. We cannot get out in mass protests. Last year, the entire country was discommoded by a bus strike and it got sorted out. Why? It was because the entire population was discommoded. People with disabilities are discommoded every day but it is acceptable because we cannot take protest en masse. We cannot get out and say "This is wrong" because there so few of us are actually able to do. Ms Murray and I are sitting here for the ones who do not have a voice. We have to fight for the ones who cannot fight.
I have said that I am really lucky in that I am a two-time Paralympic athlete. I have travelled around the world to places like Beijing, Portugal, Brazil and Canada. I have seen many different transport systems. When I was in Porto in 2016, I could get on its tram system and get into the city centre by myself without assistance. I could do it in Paris. I visited Wales for the Ireland match last November and I got on a train. If Europe can do it, why can Ireland not do it? It is very simple. We have a knack in Ireland of building things and then not following up on systems. We build it and then realise we have made a mistake instead of actually doing it from the outside. Last week, Irish Rail launched its accessibility app. I am on the committee for that app. That app has not been fully tested. I am going in next Wednesday to test that app with Irish Rail. Irish Rail launched that in Connolly Station. Irish Rail left two people on the platform. Connolly Station has the most staff of any DART station. If Irish Rail cannot get it right for a launch, what hope do the rest of us have for the rest of the time? I am really lucky that I am here today because of Ciarán Delaney and Senator John Dolan. Without them, I would not have known that this was even possible. As a result of the fact that I was so distressed last Thursday, they were so good in trying to help me in terms of the revenue protection unit. Deputy Brady can attest to the state I was in, as can Aisling Dunne because she also rang me to make sure I was okay. I have to get help from a system that should be there.
We are now on the cusp of something great whereby we are about to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This committee has the chance to actually make the system work and not accept this. The problem is that it is accepted because we cannot protest en masse, which is part of the problem. Like Ms Murray, I should not have to ring Ciarán Delaney in a panic or ring Deputy Brady and tell him that I am in trouble because the system is broken and a company wants me to go away. That the outgoing CEO of Irish Rail does not want to meet me and will not respond to me demonstrates a lot of contempt on his part. I am contacted by Barry Kenny, Jane Cregan and some other people. I do not want them. I want him. I want him to sit down and tell me why this is happening because I can guarantee that if Irish Rail said tomorrow or RTÉ "Six One News" announced that every citizen in this country had to give four hours notice to use transport, it would not happen because it would be sorted out because it would involve the entire country. A minority group is being discommoded and it is almost like we are not respected as humans, which is a fundamental issue that needs to be addressed. Were it not for the likes of Ciarán Donnelly, I would not be here today. He is doing his best to try to highlight issues but, again, as Ms Murray said, we should not have to do that. We should not be here. The system should be there to protect us. This is fundamentally what I want. It is not about me. It is not about me getting the DART. Fundamentally, it is about protecting people who cannot communicate. I know people who have a speech impediment. If they have to pick up a phone and use a touch talker, the person at the other end of the phone does not know that so it will take them 30 or 40 seconds to type something out. That person will not wait. Fundamentally, we need to protect people with disabilities and give them equal rights. We should not be saying "This is what we need to do because of cutbacks." Put staff in stations. We have €13 billion coming back from Apple. That is money that could put staff back in stations. That is something that could be used build a better infrastructure and give people equal rights, not lip service and saying "Well, we are going to try". I am tired of getting apologies. It has got to the point where Irish Rail does not even apologise to me because it happens so often.
Before the outgoing CEO came in, passengers were informed when lifts were out of order. That is not there anymore because he simply did not want negative publicity. I do not know about the members but I would much rather than have that on a board than an article in the Irish Independentsaying how I could not get out of a station because the lift was broken. I am really lucky in that I have travelled and seen different systems. I spoke to the Minister last week and I know he is trying to deal with it but he is only dealing with it now because people like Ms Murray and I are bringing it to the forefront. We should not have to do that. As Deputies and Senators, the members are supposed to look after those who are deemed to be vulnerable. Some people with disabilities are really vulnerable. They are not being looked after and protected. I thank the committee for listening.
I thank Mr. Moran for his contribution and the clarity of the points he made. It should not have been the case that Mr. Moran asked to meet the CEO of Irish Rail but the CEO refused to meet with him. If it is in order, the committee will write to the CEO and ask him to meet with Mr. Moran as a matter of urgency to listen to the points Mr. Moran wishes to make to him. It is disrespectful of him not to meet with Mr. Moran, particularly when Mr. Moran has experiences and analysis that will help his organisation become more efficient and has acknowledged that there is a significant number of employees in Irish Rail who are very helpful and who want things to improve.
I thank Mr. Moran for his address. Once again, it highlights the difficulties he faces. I am a bit perplexed that Irish Rail has carried out so much work on all the railway stations and platforms and now finds that Mr. Moran has obviously seen a glitch in its planning of the detail of the platforms such that it cannot seem to fit his requirements. Mr. Moran can elaborate on that in a few minutes. It seems Irish Rail has spent millions over the past ten, 15 or 20 years on platforms but Mr. Moran is saying there is an issue regarding his requirements as a user.
Regarding Mr. Moran arriving in Bray with no staff member waiting to assist him, this is happening far too often.
Mr. Moran said that the staff sometimes forget he is on board. A system must be put in place that imposes a penalty if that happens. People can apologise in a letter and so on but there has to be some penalty imposed. I understand staff members are extremely good and go beyond the call of duty but in some cases, management and staff are not delivering on the requirements the witnesses need. That is not good enough.
Mr. Moran referred to isolated incidents. He seems to have been involved in many isolated incidents, which I find humorous but worrying also. I note that on three occasions since last August he has requested a meeting with the chief executive officer, CEO, of Irish Rail. I know Barry Kenny but Mr. Moran wishes to meet the CEO of Irish Rail and I believe the committee should request that such a meeting take place.
I thank the witnesses for their submission. I will not thank them for their patience because they have run out of patience and this issue is enduring. They say they are a voice for other people, which is a laudable quality. I hope we can get this matter sorted out.
I will call Senator O'Mahony next but on the Irish Rail issue, we asked all the transport providers' chief executives to come before this committee and all of them attended, with the exception of the gentleman Mr. Moran mentioned. He did not turn up that day, and I raised the point that he should have been here with the company's representative. I repeat that he has to meet the witnesses because as chief executive, this issue is a test of the credibility of his organisation.
First, I apologise again for being obliged to leave during Mr. Moran's presentation but I had read it early as I was on duty in the Seanad. I thank the witnesses for their presentations. Their evidence is very valuable for us. More than anything else, individual cases can bring about change. That is important.
Second, I congratulate Mr. Moran on all his sporting success. It is a signal honour to be a world champion and to represent Ireland at the Olympics. I congratulate him also on his sports reporting. He is demonstrating by his experiences in life how he has overcome many difficulties to get opportunities. That is all the more praiseworthy in his case because he has had to overcome extra difficulties. Well done on that.
I will make an observation the witnesses can either confirm or otherwise. The problem of unmanned stations has come up in previous meetings, in other words, humans being replaced, which results in no one being available in stations to react to situations such as those described by Mr. Moran. Is that a major issue?
Mr. Padraic Moran:
Yes. What I did not touch on when initially presenting was that the hub system Irish Rail launched two weeks ago is already in place whereby every fourth DART station is manned, namely, Bray, Dalkey - it is supposed to be manned - Blackrock and Pearse stations; I cannot remember the ones after Pearse station. That system is already in place and it is not working. As the company got it wrong on its launch, what do the rest of us have to do?
Regarding platforms being narrower at certain stations, at Killiney, Dalkey, Sandycove, Glenageary and Lansdowne Road stations, as well as certain parts of Blackrock and Sydney Parade stations, one has to be at a certain point on the train for a ramp to be able to go down because the platforms are too narrow when the train passes a certain point and there is no room to put down a ramp safely and alight from it. I was perplexed that Barry Kenny did not know that. Irish Rail is sending out public relations, PR, representatives to talk to people when it does not know its own infrastructure. I questioned him about that in an interview on East Coast FM and he was dismissive of it. He just said that the platforms are the same length. They are the same length but because of the location of the fixed buildings on the platforms, there are issues with them. Irish Rail will need to fix those before it even considers the introduction of automated ramps because to introduce automated ramps, an automated ramp will be needed in each carriage and it will say it cannot afford to do that.
Mr. Padraic Moran:
Irish Rail operates three types of DART train. There is the old German trains which they replaced with the new Japanese fleet. I do not know the exact numbers but in the wheelchair bay on the DART, there is an emergency button located down low where I would go with my wheelchair. That is if I can get into it because if someone puts a bike in the wheelchair bay and does not move it, I end up having to sit in the middle of the aisle blocking the entire DART. The ones in the wheelchair bays are never armed. I have spoken to Irish Rail about that and the reason it will not arm them is because a child might hit them. I understand that argument but I do not understand why a driver cannot get out, arm it and then disarm it with his carriage key. I am lucky in that I have acquired a carriage key but sometimes I cannot get to it in time to arm my own switch. I acquired that because I have friends in Irish Rail. If one does not have a carriage key one has to try to do what I did, namely, stand up, break the glass and hit the one that located very high up.
Mr. Padraic Moran:
Yes. There is one in the wheelchair area, which would be level with the arm rest of my chair, that is not covered by plexiglass. It just has a big round button with a picture of a wheelchair on it. When they are armed they light up green and when there is no light it means they are disarmed. They are a mere decoration. There is no point in having them there because I cannot hit it. It does not work. It will not communicate with anyone unless I physically manage to stand up and hit it or ask a passenger to keep the door open until the driver remembers that I am sitting there.
I do not have any further questions to ask because Mr. Moran has outlined in detail his experiences of using public transport. As the Chairman alluded to, we have had the various advocacy groups in already so it is good to meet actual service users and hear their experiences. As they are aware, the Minister will be before the committee directly after this session. I asked Ms Murray a similar question but Mr. Moran said he spoke to the Minister, Deputy Ross, last week. If he was in our position today, what would he like to see him commit to in a public manner? What would he like to see him, as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, commit to achieving in, say, 12 months, two to three years and over a longer period? Mr. Moran will acknowledge he will not change the current structure overnight but we should be setting down clear goals, pathways to achieving those goals and, importantly, a timeframe for implementation. He might share with us what he believes are the three priorities in the short, medium and long term.
I will be brief. I welcome Mr. Moran. His experiences of being abroad are invaluable in terms of how we can get our system in place. What comes out in front of us is the loss of staff at the stations and the junctions. I see it raised locally at home and in Cobh. As Mr. Moran said, once the station becomes automated the man leaves the job but the man, or the woman, is still needed on-site because machines can break down. He makes a valid point in that regard. As the Chairman said, we had all the providers and the groups in but it would be no harm to have a case study done as well.
Mr. Padraic Moran:
Thee Government provides subvention to Irish Rail in terms of funding. I am aware that because of austerity, many services were cut but having staff in stations will be a great help. When I go to another country I do not have to check if I need to give someone notice.
Irish Rail states one should check the website. If I were a tourist, I would not check a website if I must give notice. One thing is if there were some way in which Irish Rail could be given more help in terms of subvention. There is no accountability from Irish Rail, however, because if there was, this would not keep happening. Irish Rail says mine are isolated incidents. I have an awful lot of isolated incidents. Irish Rail sends its PR gurus out to say it does 100 things every day and nothing goes wrong. The only reason mine are known about is they are reported publically.
How many cases are happening that we do not know about? That is my other point. Where is the accountability? Irish Rail is not being held accountable for anything. It just gives an apology. An apology means nothing. We want equal rights and equal access. We want the same human rights. We do not want to beg, plead and be a pauper to ask for help to get on a train. That is a fundamental right. I am unable to drive because I have a startle reflex. I depend on the DART.
Last Sunday night, I watched the Superbowl. I decided at 8 p.m. that I wanted to do that. I did not know I was going to do it until 7.30 p.m. However, because Bray has a person in the station I was able to go from there. The problem was whether Pearse Station had more than one staff member so that someone could be sent to Lansdowne Road to take me off. Fundamentally, it is about putting staff into stations and putting funding that was taken out back into the system. Perhaps the Minister, Deputy Ross, could look at that.
The ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities will help because there is going to be some accountability to the effect that people with disabilities will be given respect and be treated like equal citizens of our nation as we have equal rights to a service.
I refer to Mr. Moran's point on Irish Rail not providing a service when it has been requested. If there was a requirement on the transport provider to publish those figures on such incidents monthly or bimonthly, at least it would be obliged to account for them. I refer not just to the primary issue of not having the service. If transport providers were obliged to put figures into the public domain, the publicity might put a bit of pressure on the organisation.
I apologise for being late. I had hoped to speak to Ms Murray as well. I welcome Mr. Moran, who spoke of inequality. People who require wheelchair access are denied it on a daily basis because prior notice is required. When Bus Éireann's chief executive officer appeared before the committee, I asked how many times people requiring disability access were let down in 2017. Bearing in mind that he knew the type of meeting he would be attending and the issues being addressed, he did not have that information with him. I thought that was telling in itself. We were to be furnished it immediately after the meeting. It was almost a fortnight after the meeting before we got the response.
The response itself is equally telling. It is just one line. It says there were ten official complaints received in 2017 related to issues with wheelchair accessibility. I know of more than ten myself in one small corner of the State. One may wonder what credence, focus or attention the providers are giving to the official complaints being made and what mechanism they have for recording them. The response that there were ten complaints throughout 2017 speaks volumes when each member knows people who have complained multiple times of being denied access to a service.
Bus Éireann said it had a disability access and information officer. That was the first I heard of it. I spoke to other people in Louth and they were not aware of it either. I asked whether the phone number of that person be displayed in public areas, for example, at bus stops. People could then ring directly if they were left at the side of the road if a driver pulled up and said he or she was not qualified to operate the lift and the bus did not have a low floor. The answer was no but that it might be looked at again. It was more or less an internal number. Nobody in the public domain knew there was an officer there who could be contacted directly.
That shows the focus. Bus Éireann also said that its last audit was in 2013, five years ago, and that it is almost completed. What does that tell us? I acknowledge that it is public transport and we all know it has been starved of funding. The subvention was cut year on year and it is not much improved. What pressure is the Minister applying on the public transport network to make sure that people requiring disability access have it. I understand from a report in the press that at the launch of disability access on the DART, two wheelchair users were left on the platform. The Minister was not there either. This all speaks volumes.
I raised another issue at one of the other meetings. Private transport companies awarded public contracts by the State have no legal obligation to provide wheelchair accessibility despite providing a public contract on a public route. That is something we must ensure changes as well. I am sorry I missed Ms Murray. I have read Mr. Moran's report and thank him for coming.
I welcome Mr. Moran, along with his mother. It is good to listen to Mr. Moran. He, like Ms Murray, is giving a voice at a high level to many other people who are unable to articulate their experience. Deputy Munster touched on some of the figures. From speaking to Mr. Moran and other people with disabilities, I know there are many people who feel they have nowhere to go when they are denied the basic right to equal access to the public transport system.
Mr. Moran is out there living his life and has represented Ireland in boccia as a Paralympian in Beijing and London. It is fantastic and the biggest impediment to Mr. Moran is the system itself. That says something about this State and how it treats its citizens in terms of equality. I have spoken to Mr. Moran many times about this. Today he touched graphically on the fact that he feels he is now being targeted. It is not by individuals within Irish Rail. It is the system itself because he is articulating the difficulties he is having accessing our public transport system. He is fearful of using the public transport system.
Last week, he came in here the morning after the incident on the DART when checks were put in place to make sure he had a ticket. He had to pay to get a taxi to and from a meeting with the Minister because he was fearful to use the DART. He fears an effort is being made to silence him and the voice that he gives to people. That needs to be addressed. That is wrong. The Minister has taken all that information. Unfortunately, I will not be here to listen to the Minister's contribution. However, I hope he will be able to provide some answers because that is wrong.
I want to touch on a few areas Mr. Moran mentioned. In my previous contribution, when Ms Murray was speaking, I referred to box-ticking. What Mr. Moran said about the emergency buttons being unarmed typifies that. A button is put in, it looks good but does not work. That is totally crazy.
That needs to be addressed immediately. Mr. Padraic Moran explained his experiences graphically. When he tried to press the button to alight from the train it did not work and he ended up in Greystones. We would not go near the consequences that could have come from that.
Mr. Moran mentioned that prior to the new chief executive taking office, it was publicised when the lifts were out of service. It might be useful if Mr. Moran would explain how this was done. He said that it is not being done now because the chief executive or some other faceless senior people in Irish Rail believe it would portray a negative image of the company. How was notice given to the public when a lift in the train station was out of operation?
It is worth teasing out this issue a little bit more. The Minister has plans for the roll-out of new carriages in 2020, 2021 or thereabouts and he will be looking at the automated ramps at that stage. Even with ramps, some of the DART stations are not accessible. Mr. Moran touched on how the implementation of unmanned DART stations is having a great impact. What are his views on a combination of the two? Leaving aside the massive infrastructural works that would be needed in the mid-term, does Mr. Moran think the rail and DART stations would work if the automatic ramps were in place, as well as the manning all stations? It is critical that all stations are manned for a multitude of reasons, including disability access, public safety and other considerations.
With the way the manual ramps are used now, a staff member is the only person who can use the ramp. Would it be possible to introduce a system where a member of the public - possibly a personal assistant - could be trained to work a ramp in the short term, if insurance was provided? Obviously, the current arrangements are simply not working. An app on the designation of certain stations as hubs was supposed to be piloted and it is telling that Mr. Moran was a member of the group that was to be part of the pilot study. The app was launched last week, however, without the pilot study and as a consequence, two people with disabilities were left on the platform.
As Deputy Barry is under time pressure, with the permission of the committee I propose to call Deputies Barry and Catherine Murphy before I invite the witnesses to reply. Our members are coming and going because of the business in the House.
I thank Ms Murray and Mr. Moran for their presentations. I apologise in advance that I must leave the committee to attend in the Chamber and will not be present for their answer. However, I will read the transcript of their response to my questions later.
I wish to put the following questions to Mr. Moran. In his statement he states that he requested a meeting with the chief executive of Irish Rail three times since August 2017, and that all of the requests seemed to have fallen on deaf ears. Did he make the request in writing? Did he receive a reply of any sort in writing?
He stated also that he received three phone calls from three different staff in Irish Rail, advising me that the revenue protection unit were trying to catch me without a ticket as I no longer have an entitlement to a travel pass because I have a job. Will he explain in a little more detail how that panned out and how things stand now?
I see in his presentation that he mentioned his experiences in Porto, Paris and Cardiff. What strikes me is that he was able to roll on with no problem. Will he give us a little more information and flavour of the things he experienced in those cities, particularly where it contrasts with his experience in this country?
I apologise for not being here earlier but I have the opening statement and I will read the transcript.
We need a universally accessible transport system, whether a person is in a wheelchair, pushing a buggy or mobility or visually impaired. That should be the object of the exercise as a right.
Part of the reason we are doing this exercise is the European directive that requires us to change our habits. Many of the progressive and positive changes that have happened especially from a social perspective - leaving aside the banking issue - have come from the European Union. It has forced us to do things that we should do as a matter of course. I was a member of the Dublin Transportation Initiative back in the early 1990s. Essentially, it focused on Dublin and the surrounding counties but we were looking at developing transport policy and the issue of disabilities was very much part of the policy being talked about at that time. I refer to the visual and audio information on trains and buses, the wheelchair accessible low floor buses and we have bought a lot of stock since then. I am concerned about the rail service. Trains last a long time and even if we buy in new trains, some of the carriages from the older trains will not have been designed with low floors and other adaptions for the disabled. It is a case of moving quickly to a point where one does not have to give notice that one will travel and one can act as an independent person and get on a bus or train.
As I see it, the witnesses must tell us what they want us to do. They have set out in their statement what is wrong and what needs to be put right. Some of it will come down to members of the committee making recommendations in the report to be written by the committee. We should really be putting timelines on it in order that we see the changes happening as quickly as they possibly can. If there are points that are not covered already in respect of things that can be done in the short or medium term, it would be useful to hear them.
There is no doubt that there have been changes since the issue started to be considered. I do not think that really happened in any serious way until the 1990s but we have not embedded it into the thinking of people, when we are buying rolling stock or are designing stations, to automatically consider what is needed. I think the new stations are different but retrofitting the older stations is a bigger issue. I understand the directive mainly deals with rail transport but obviously taxis and buses are critical to many as well.
If the witnesses have any requests, in addition to the points raised in the opening statement, as well as timelines or changes that would be practical, it would be useful to hear them. It is the practical changes that will make a difference, as well as the change in culture.
Mr. Padraic Moran:
Regarding the lifts not working, members would be familiar with the boards one sees when one goes into a station that show the time of the next train to Howth or wherever else. They used to state, "The lift at such and such a station is out of order". It was Mr. Kenny's considered opinion that this was negative publicity, so such information was removed from the boards. I would much rather know I can get off at a certain station than have an article in the Irish Independentbecause the former would be much better than being splashed all over the Irish Independent. That is how that information was portrayed and that is why it has been taken down.
Regarding the mobile ramps, in theory it would be helpful if someone who is trained could be present at stations. The other issue Irish Rail now faces with the de-manning of stations is that it must lock the ramps into position because in certain stations there is antisocial behaviour and the ramps were being thrown down onto the tracks. Therefore, one needs a carriage key to open the ramp. In theory, the presence of trained people at stations is a good idea, but in practice I do not know whether it would work because the ramps need to be locked for safety concerns. If a ramp falls on the track, it stops the DART moving. It is a question of whether Irish Rail can do this and provide insurance for someone else to do it. However, why should an ordinary member of the public have to do a job that people in Irish Rail are paid to do? That is what they are there for. What I find interesting is that in Irish Rail's annual report in 2016, in one of the first lines on page 1, it was stated the company was looking to improve services for all its passengers. I would ask for which section of passengers it is looking to improve services. It is not improving services for people with disabilities.
In relation to-----
May I stop Mr. Moran there and ask him something about the ramps? In his experience, are there ramps that, like the steps on a Ryanair plane, are embedded in the trains and automatically deploy? Is that a scenario?
Mr. Padraic Moran:
Again, this is where it goes back to infrastructure. If I go to Seapoint on an eight-carriage DART, I must be in the third carriage. If I go to Dalkey on a six-carriage DART, I must be in the fourth carriage. It literally depends which station one is going to, and the automated ramps must be on the carriage behind the driver because he or she will have to see the ramp going down and going up. Tara Street and Connolly stations are on bends, so the driver cannot see past the fourth carriage. Therefore, infrastructure-wise, automated ramps will not work in every station. Irish Rail piloted this before about ten years ago, wasted an awful lot of money and then realised, if it wanted automated ramps, it would have to rebuild some of the infrastructure, which would be too expensive.
Mr. Padraic Moran:
That is fine.
Regarding the incident last week, my travel pass was taken back by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Welfare because it is means-tested and linked to the disability allowance and, because I am now over the means test, the system effectively says I have been cured because I got a job, which is ironic. They did not tell me I still have a wheelchair under my backside. It is one of the points I have raised, that perhaps the system needs to be looked at in general because, while I know we are at full employment for most of the population, there is a gap in respect of people with disabilities. Things may be rescinded if they get a job. Fundamentally, how we improve the system to help people gain employment is something else that needs to be looked at. I look at it this way: If I were claiming social welfare and had a medical card, I would cost the State a lot more money. In the grand scheme of things, my travel pass is a minimal expense compared with what it would be if I were in receipt in social welfare. I know the Minister, Deputy Ross, was to write to Irish Rail to seek clarity on the incident. I have not communicated fully with Irish Rail because the Minister was dealing with the matter last week so I am not 100% sure of the outcome or whether he has got a response from Irish Rail. Perhaps the committee will be able to find out that from him later today.
Yes, we can ask the Minister to respond to that. I have one question about the point Mr. Moran made that because he found employment, he automatically lost his entitlement to an allowance or travel subsidy or free travel. Some social welfare entitlements, notwithstanding the fact that someone goes back to work, continue for a period of time thereafter. In other words, as part of the transition of going back to work, one keeps that entitlement for a year or two years so that one has opportunities. Mr. Moran now has more income but also more expenses. He is travelling more, is doing more things and is more mobile. He also has extra costs associated with his work, given his disability. He might have to take more taxis, for example. Perhaps it would be helpful if he did not lose the basic right to transport.
Mr. Padraic Moran:
When I looked into this, the one thing I found is that I got a long-term illness book because of a primary physical disability. The travel subsidy is linked to the disability allowance. There is no provision to link it to the long-term illness scheme. I get the argument that a bad back is a long-term illness. However, a proviso or provision could be introduced to the effect that if it is a primary physical disability, or if one looks at it on a case-by-case basis, it can be put into that system. However, because form A says this, it cannot change. In certain circumstances, when one is trying to access services with a disability, the system does not allow itself to be bent. It is either box A or box B, and if it is neither of them, then good look to the person.
Sometimes when people who may have an entitlement to, for example, a medical card return to work, notwithstanding the fact that they are then in excess of the means test, they can continue to hold it for a period. With something like that, Mr. Moran would not be placed in the invidious position of being afraid to use transport because these people are waiting to grab him. It is entirely inappropriate, improper and unacceptable that he had that experience.
Mr. Padraic Moran:
I can give the committee one example from my own engagement with the system. I have asthma and require a brown and a blue inhaler. Since I am now in the long-term illness book, I do not have a medical card and because asthma is not considered a cerebral palsy-related condition, my inhalers cannot be covered by the book. The book says "No". This does not necessarily mean I do not have asthma. That is just to the give the committee an example of a system that, because the book says this, it cannot bend to incorporate something.
We should put it to her if the committee agrees. We should ask her to examine this as a matter of importance and urgency because it is entirely wrong that this would happen to Mr. Moran and that those people would be waiting for him.
I thank our witnesses for appearing before the committee and for their most informative presentations. I hope they are staying for the second part of the meeting. If they have any further ideas or views, or if anyone listening to these proceedings wants to send us in ideas, opinions or recommendations, we would be happy to take them on board. The witnesses' contributions form an important part of this committee and its deliberations. We will now suspend until 11.30 a.m., when we will hear from the Minister of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross.
The purpose of this part of the meeting is to continue our discussion on accessibility of public transport for people with disabilities. This is the fifth in a series of hearings. We have previously heard from transport users and, more recently, transport operators. We will now hear from the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross. He and his officials are very welcome.
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 joint committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to 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 or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
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 Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I invite the Minister to make his opening statement.
Perhaps the Minister will allow me, before I begin, to mention the accident in Limerick this morning. A Bus Éireann Bus had an accident and there were 46 students on board. There are no full reports on the extent of the casualties at this stage. Our thoughts are with the affected families. I am sure the members of the committee have the same feelings. It is a sad and worrying time for the families.
I thank the committee for the invitation today. I am very grateful for this timely opportunity to address the committee on the issue of accessibility of public transport for people with disabilities. As the members may know, fighting for improved accessibility of public transport has been a key priority of mine since becoming Minister. In recent years, progress on this issue has been made but it has been unacceptably slow.
I will start by listing the steps that have been taken in recent times to improve the lives of people with disabilities who use public transport. Accessibility features, such as wheelchair access and audio-visual aids, are built into all new public transport infrastructure projects and vehicles from the design stage. Newer systems, such as Luas, are fully accessible. Of the 143 rail stations on the Iarnród Éireann network, 84 are now accessible. Since 2007, some 17 rail stations have been built to accessibility standards. Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann city fleets are 100% wheelchair-accessible, as is approximately 80% of the Bus Éireann coach fleet. This will increase as the coach fleet is replaced. Under the rural transport programme, 69% of service trips are defined as either fully or partially accessible.
On board audio and visual next-stop announcements are available on all of the Dublin Bus fleet. All of the Bus Éireann fleet has the capability to annunciate automatic audible next-stop announcements, and all additions to the fleet since 2015 have been fitted with multimedia screens that show route progress and stop information. All Dublin Bus stops and Bus Éireann stops in regional cities are wheelchair accessible. The upgrading of regional and rural bus and coach stops to make them accessible is being rolled out on a route-by-route basis, beginning in Donegal. The taxi wheelchair accessible vehicle, WAV, grant scheme, in operation since 2014, helped to increase the number of WAVs in the fleet from 3% to 7.6% at end 2017. A target of 10% has been set for 2020. Other measures in place to assist people with disabilities using public transport include the travel assistance scheme, demand-responsive transport under the rural transport programme, the provision of real-time passenger information on the Internet, by app and electronic displays at bus stops, and improved functionality and availability of the Leap card.
The list may sound impressive but it is not enough. Funding in itself is not the full answer. Making the journeys of passengers with disabilities more comfortable and stress free is a completely different matter. Understanding the difficulties and challenges that face people with disabilities who need to use public transport seems beyond the imagination of the able-bodied. This is not good enough.
Since becoming a Minister, I have been particularly struck by the personal experiences related to me in my meetings with people with disabilities who use public transport. They make the case that the current improvements are inadequate. There is a convincing consistency to their stories. The improvements made may look impressive on paper but when put into practice, they fall short of providing full access for people with disabilities. Examples of this are where there are accessible buses but bus stops are not accessible, and the interface between accessible rail infrastructure and accessible trains where a ramp is required between the platform and the carriage.
I wish to respond to Ms Alannah Murray, Mr. Padraic Moran and others who made submissions today and in this past to this committee. I, too, have observed and been frustrated by the slow progress of Government strategies and action plans. The most appropriate expert voice for the views and difficulties of the disabled is not that of able-bodied politicians or semi-State company directors; it is their own. The most appropriate place for them to express these views is not only in the media or at meetings of these committees, but in the boardroom. Disabled people need a place at the table, the place where the decisions that affect them are made.
As a result of wide consultation with members of the disability community and with disability bodies striving to make an impact, I have decided that no public transport company in my Department shall in future function without a minimum of one board member who has personal knowledge and experience of the needs and difficulties of people with disabilities using public transport. Well-meaning board members offering sympathy to those with disabilities are self-evidently less able to make practical and informed decisions than those who overcome the physical obstacles daily. It is easy for financial experts to calculate the figures and allocate funds for more accessible buses and trains, but ensuring those funds make a difference where it matters is much more challenging.
The process to include those with raw personal experience of disability on public transport on the boards will begin today. First to be advertised will be the National Transport Authority, whose role and responsibility for public transport is immense. I look forward to appointing a new director to this board in the coming months.
These will be swiftly followed by CIÉ, Iarnród Éireann, Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann.
Meanwhile our work goes on. While it is now clear we need those with practical experience at the decision-making table, we also need an increase in funding if we are going to deliver further results. I am pleased to report that I secured a trebling of the funding provided for the accessibility retrofit programme as part of the four year capital envelope for public transport announced in budget 2018. An amount of almost €28 million is being made available for accessibility upgrades for existing older infrastructure in the period 2018 to 2021. I intend to improve upon that in our national development plan, NDP, over the next ten years and beyond. Investment in public transport will be accelerated under the NDP to support the development of an integrated and sustainable national public transport system. A number of key new major public transport programmes are being considered under the NDP over the period to 2027. As with all new and recently developed public transport projects, these programmes will be fully accessible as part of the normal design. Under the NDP, there will also be a continued investment programme to fund retrofitting of older existing public transport facilities to enhance accessibility. It goes without saying that public transport operators as the providers of the services will continue to be central to how services are delivered and accessed by people with disabilities.
The Department’s sectoral plan under the Disability Act 2005 is called “Transport Access for All”.This concept is predicated on the principle of universal access to public transport which does not distinguish between people with disabilities and other passengers. At the whole of Government level, the National Disability Inclusion Strategy 2017 to 2021, NDIS, launched in July 2017 by my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, is aimed at improving the lives of people with disabilities. Implementation of the NDIS is being overseen by the NDIS steering group on which my Department is represented. The comprehensive employment strategy, CES, for people with disabilities sets out a ten-year approach to ensuring that people with disabilities, who are able to and want to work are supported and enabled to do so. Both my Department and the National Transport Authority, NTA, are represented on the CES implementation group. Between the two strategies, there are 19 publictransport related actions for which my Department, the NTA and-or public transport operators have lead responsibility for implementing and to which we are wholly committed.
There are also a number of other Government strategies and plans which include accessible public transport actions and commitments. My Department is in the process of consolidating all of the actions and commitments into one document, which will form the basis of the work programme for my Department’s accessibility consultative committee. Its role is to monitor and review progress on the implementation of their respective actions under the NDIS. Membership of my Department’s consultative committee is drawn from organisations representing people with disabilities, members of the disability stakeholders group, key agencies under the aegis of the Department, as well as other relevant State agencies. At Department level, the consultative committee will not only monitor the NDIS actions, but will use the consolidated actions document to monitor all the accessible public transport actions in the other Government strategies and plans for which my Department, the NTA and-or public transport operators have the lead role.
While progress has been made on improving the accessibility of our public transport system, I am keenly aware that people with disabilities continue to face difficulties when they want and need to use public transport to carry out their normal daily duties and activities. Last week, Irish Rail announced a reduction in the notice period required for all DART users requiring assistance from 24 hours to four hours. While I absolutely acknowledge that this falls short of my Department’s commitment to access for all, it is a further step in the right direction.
Such difficulties were well articulated by those with lived experience of disabilities and those representing them, at the committee’s hearing on 13 December last. I have also held a number of meetings since taking office with a range of groups representing people with disabilities and also with individuals who have outlined to me, in stark terms, the obstacles they experience in every day life in accessing public transport. People such as Padraic Moran, who is in the Visitors Gallery and who appeared before the committee this morning, Sean O’Kelly, representatives of the Irish Wheelchair Association, IWA, the Central Remedial Clinic, CRC, the Disability Federation of Ireland, DFI, Members of both Houses and, in particular, the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, who I see every day, and Senator John Dolan, who I have met many times on this issue, have all helped to inform my view that we must do more. That is why more has to be done to address the issues raised by them.
Not all of the challenges which people with disabilities face when using public transport are about infrastructure or facilities. Some are about changing attitudes and improving the understanding of the needs of people with disabilities. For example, last October I was pleased to launch the “Please don’t buggy in the wheelchair zone” which highlighted the importance of the dedicated wheelchair space on all Dublin buses.
The transport operators and the NTA outlined at the earlier hearings plans for further measures to improve accessibility. They will soon be joined on their boards by disability activists, as a result of a decision which I announced today. I will be watching closely these developments to see if they are delivering for people with disabilities, as I trust the members will be too. I am sure this development will improve the position for people with disabilities using public transport but they will also be representative of all users and will bring great talents to the boards and they will also bring an insight which no one else shares with them. I look forward to further engagement with the committee on this important issue in the months and years ahead.
I thank the Minister for his address and for the clear commitments he has made in his Department to provide additional funding and so on. Before I call the members in the rotation which we normally agree, one important issue was raised today by Padraic Moran, who met the Minister last week. A key point he made was that he has requested on at least three separate occasions to meet the chief executive of Irish Rail to make a significant contribution outlining his experiences and how he has been dealt with. He further elaborated here today that there are many issues about which he has serious concerns. Will the Minister use his good offices - we will also be using ours and we will write separately on this - to ask the chief executive to meet with Mr. Moran urgently to discuss these issues.
Our two witnesses today starkly and clearly outlined their concerns and the members might also like to comment on this. A lady who has a disability has been let down by a State provider 20 times. It is an appalling, disgraceful and a shameful situation and no fine words will paper over the lack of commitment to provide a place for a person who has notified a transport provider they intend to use its transport. This lady gave not 24 hours notice but 48 hours notice, but there was not a place for her. There should be a requirement on a transport provider when it is notified, notwithstanding the fact that people should not have to do this at all, to provide wheelchair accessible transport for that person to travel to where they wish to go if the provider fails to provide a space on public transport for them. That is very important and the Minister might comment on that.
Where a transport user who has a disability wishes to board a bus at a particular location - as we were told, this lady could not board a bus in Virginia and had to get her father to drive her to Cavan - there should be an obligation on the transport provider that if a transport user designates the nearest point to them and it is not accessible, the transport provider would provide proper and appropriate transport to the first available location nearest to where the transport user lives where it can be provided. This is a denial of fundamental human rights. I accept and acknowledge the Minister's commitment in that area, but it angers me that we have all this fine talk but we do not have the fine action that is needed. We have transport companies which are treating people with contempt. I call Senator O'Mahony to be followed by Senator Feighan.
I met Padraic Moran last week. He raised similar issues, some of which were identical to the ones he raised this morning. I have absolutely no reason whatsoever to doubt what he said. He is a person of great courage and good faith. I have asked my officials to meet Iarnród Éireann on all those issues immediately.
I believe the meeting will be tomorrow. The matters will be addressed as quickly as possible, as they are genuine and meaningful. It is absolutely wrong that there should be any lack of contact between people with disability and boards of management. If that is the only link we have, we will have to ask them to improve it. There should not be a brick wall between those people with disability and the management of the company. They have really good reason for complaint.
I listened to what was said this morning, including Ms Murray's comments, and that is precisely why I am ensuring people with disability experiences are put on these boards. I am not saying he necessarily would come through a process but if Mr. Moran or people like him applied and came through the process, they could bang the board table and say what is happening. It would be absolutely direct access between those who on a daily basis are using the public transport and the chief executive who makes the decisions. That is my broad response. We will put in people with this experience and they will bang the table. The comments are correct and I worry about the disconnect between those people referred to by members and the people at the top. It is still there, and that is what we are trying to remedy.
We asked all the chief executives of the transport companies to come here and they did, except for the chief executive of Irish Rail, who did not turn up. I raised this with the company's representative and said it was not acceptable. If the company's representatives are to have any credibility, they must be personally accountable. The role of this committee is to hold such people accountable.
I will be quite brief. I thank the Minister for his presentation, being frank and acknowledging the need for more funding. He also acknowledged the frustration he feels as a result of the slow progress being made. The committee is frustrated as well but how small is that in comparison with the people trying to access the system? That is key. We need solutions. I acknowledge and applaud the Minister's announcement of his desire to put people with disabilities on boards. As he said, that is where the decisions are made and it is a solution.
A matter was raised earlier, and it is the individual cases that nail home this issue. Ms Murray described crawling onto a bus in Virginia, so the rural and urban divide was covered in this respect. Would the Minister be prepared at some stage to make an unannounced journey along with either Ms Murray or Mr. Moran? They kept articulating an issue with the system so would the Minister experience it for himself along with them? There were helpful individuals along the way. When the Minister responsible for transport is making the trip, perhaps some extra effort would be made. I do not know. It would be a real signal on the part of the Minister and the Government to state this will stop and that the Minister wished to experience these issues personally. We heard the words this morning but the Minister could go on the journey to experience the frustrations and difficulties these people have. While the Minister has a busy schedule, if he could do that at some stage, it would mean a huge amount to the people experiencing difficulty.
Today we heard of some particularly harrowing personal experiences, as Senator O'Mahony outlined. I understand these are being taken seriously but it is embarrassing to find those personal stories have be relayed on so many occasions. Reading the report indicates much has been done but there are remaining issues. I welcome that there will be no public transport company department without a minimum of one board member with personal knowledge and experience of the needs and difficulties of disabled people. I very much welcome that and this process should be enhanced. We have been here since 9 a.m. talking about this but these matters are very important. It has been an experience for us to listen to those testimonies. Sometimes, as politicians, we do not hear enough people complaining.
In yesterday's edition of the local newspaper, I read that unless €460 million is allocated, the bulk of the rail network faces closure. This would affect the rail lines to the west and north west, including those in counties Roscommon, Mayo, Sligo, Leitrim and Donegal. Does the Minister have any views or will he comment on the story?
I do not wish to interrupt the Senator but the clerk contacted the Department on that issue yesterday. The Department agreed to release information in this respect. I appreciate it is a very important question but I ask that we deal with it later and we deal with it separately from disability matters. That is not to take from the Senator's question at all. Perhaps the Minister will address it when we have dealt with disability matters. I want to try to keep this meeting structured towards disability issues, if that is okay. We can have an answer to the question but we will stick to disability issues first. Some members wanted me to facilitate the debate on disability matters first before moving on if there are other issues. That is not a problem but I want to keep a structure.
I welcome the Minister and his officials. He has undoubtedly seen the proceedings over the past number of weeks after the committee took the decision to invite various advocacy groups, representatives and some service users to share their experience in using public transport. The committee did this after being contacted by a lady alarmed by the celebratory tone she noted in the news that the service was going from requiring 24 hours' notice to four hours' notice on the DART. We took a collective decision to tackle this as a committee. It is important that we have done this work.
I asked Ms Murray what she would say if she could ask the Minister a question. She said she would ask why he failed to turn up at the initiation of the DART service requiring four hours' notice. Was he consulted about the launch and if so, did he ever indicate he was in a position to attend it? I welcome the Minister's announcement that he will appoint people of varying abilities to the State boards. It is a positive development but one would wonder why the announcement was not made in November 2016, when the Minister started a review on who was to be appointed to State boards. Perhaps I am wrong.
In November 2016, the Minister indicated a change in appointments to State boards. Has anybody been appointed since the procedure changed? Has anybody with disability issues been appointed to the board of a public transport company? We heard from Mr. Padraic Moran today about a case of a cart going before a horse. He was part of the consultation committee for the creation and establishment of the app. It was launched two weeks ago and he is being brought in next week to test whether it works. It seems farcical to launch an app without having conducted a test on it.
The Minister says there has been unacceptably slow progress in recent years. Has he, since becoming Minister, ring-fenced a certain percentage of his annual budget to accelerate that progress and make more public transport vehicles more accessible? Has he increased and ring-fenced the budget and, if so, what is the percentage? He says that Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann city fleets are 100% wheelchair-accessible. That is very positive and welcome. What percentage of bus stops are wheelchair-accessible to enable people to get on and off the bus? It is good if the bus can accommodate a wheelchair but it is problematic if one cannot get the wheelchair on. We learned from a witness about where a person had to be carried out of his or her wheelchair, held by shoulders and legs, out of the wheelchair, onto the bus, and back into the wheelchair. What percentage of bus stops are wheelchair-accessible? A large chunk of our routes are tendered out and even more recently, with the change in timetables and rostering in Bus Éireann, a large percentage of private operators are contracted to provide the service. Is there any requirement for private contractors to have wheelchair-accessible buses to qualify for a State contract? Some 3% of all public bodies should have people with a disability employed. Will the Minister confirm that the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, as well as the various agencies under his remit meet that 3% target?
Mr. Padraic Moran raised a matter today which was raised by another person previously and I have experienced it in my own constituency. While the travel pass is administered through the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, it is something in which the Minister might get involved. The travel pass is available to somebody who has a disability pension from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Somebody might be doing part-time work or be retired on sick grounds with a small occupational pension. I know a person in Mullingar who has an occupational pension, which is the same as what he would receive as a disability pension but, because it is an occupational pension, he is disqualified from availing of a free travel pass. He cannot drive. There should be consideration to introducing medical need where the free travel pass is concerned and I would welcome the Minister's opinion on that.
The Minister spoke about a whole-of-Government approach to dealing with people with disabilities. While we are speaking specifically about public transport today, what about the parts of the country where there is no public transport, no buses, no trains, no DART and no Luas? The motorised transport grant was abolished for new entrants in February 2013. It is now February 2018, five years later, and that has been closed to new applicants. I would appreciate if the Minister could update us today about when he envisages that the Government will launch that scheme again.
He spoke last year about launching a campaign for people who park in parking bays for people with disabilities. It is a welcome initiative. A witness who came before the committee spoke about the number of people who placed their shopping, buggies and luggage in the disabled space on Dublin Bus. Are there any penalties in place? If not, would he consider introducing penalties for people who park in a disabled car space or who use the disabled space on Dublin Bus services for holding something that should not be there?
I have two final points and thank the Chairman for his indulgence. The Minister confirmed today that the National Disability Inclusion Strategy, 2017-2021 contains 19 targets for his Department. Has any one of those 19 targets been fully implemented? Of those 19 targets, is there a clear timeframe as to when they will be implemented so that we can actually adjudicate that progress has been made over the four years of the plan? It would appear, from the witnesses at the committee over the last weeks, that there is a particular problem with Irish Rail in helping and assisting people with reduced mobility or varying levels of ability. I do not want to tar everybody working in Irish Rail with the one brush and Mr. Padraic Moran stated he has telephone numbers for certain staff members who are more than helpful and accommodating, which should be acknowledged. What are the consequences when somebody turns up and is not accommodated? They may not have reached the 24-hour target and in some cases we heard of someone giving 48 hours' notice and the target not being reached. Now that the four hour target is in place, what is the consequence if that is not achieved? Will somebody be held responsible for not carrying out his or her job? When do we expect to be in a position where one does not have to give any notice to travel on public transport? We are talking about the implementation and ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Surely we should be working towards a system where no notice is required for someone availing of public transport?
I will be brief. My colleague has covered most of the topics. I welcome the report and the Minister's deliberations. All one can say is that actions speak louder than words. Improving public transport accessibility is covered under the forthcoming ten-year national development plan, NDP. Ten years is a long time. Transport accessibility is covered in the NDP. Will it be front-loaded? Otherwise, will there be deficiencies in accessibility in some parts of the country for at least another ten years? How do we address the overall issue of the implementation of the accessibility plan? Otherwise, it gives the impression that, under the NDP, there will be ten years where areas of deficiency may not be resolved.
I thank my Social Democrats colleague for that comment, which was fully accurate. I will be brief. I have three points or questions. I will have to leave shortly after I make the point to be in the Chamber. The first is on the issue of staffing of stations. I put it to the Minister that one cannot have full accessibility for all without staffing in all stations. I do not see how it can be done.
I do not see how one can have genuine equality of access without staffing in all stations. Rather than moving forward, the experience has been one of moving backwards. Earlier, an example was given in the form of the DART line where, a number of years ago, there were staff in all stations while now they are at just one in four. The cuts need to be reversed as doing so will benefit all passengers, not only those with disabilities.
When we discussed the future of Bus Éireann and bus services at the last meeting, the Minister and his officials made the point that there may be situations in the future where Bus Éireann does not provide a service but the State intervenes to ensure private companies step in. I said I was not happy with such a state of affairs and I am opposed to privatisation. In such a scenario, are the same obligations going to be placed on the private companies to respect people's civil rights, and to take action to make their services fully accessible? What steps will the Minister take to ensure they do this?
A report appeared yesterday about what the National Transport Authority was saying about the viability of routes.
This is a disability issue. Who will be affected the most if rail lines are axed? People with disabilities will be disproportionately affected. I want to ask this question now because I may not be here for the later part of the discussion.
This is a disability issue as people with disabilities will be disproportionately affected if rail routes are axed. The Taoiseach gave a commitment yesterday that, as long as he is sitting at the top table, lines will not close.
It is important to have this exchange of views as we will be writing a report on the matter. There are positives and negatives which we need to consider. There is an EU directive on accessibility and the main focus of attention is on rail. Can the Minister tell us what the response from his Department will be to that? When does it have to respond to the directive? Is there a timeline for compliance and how is it intended to comply with it? The EU has been very useful in changing attitudes in Ireland and this is also a useful intervention.
I tabled a parliamentary question which the Minister diverted to Irish Rail and the NTA, both of which replied to me. In one I was told a strategy would be worked out relating to the future needs for rail, and I am sure the Minister is engaged in the process because it will require capital investment. Irish Rail told me there would not be any new trains in 2018, 2019 or 2020 because there is a lead-in time from order to delivery. I assume the specification of the new trains will include disability features - can the Minister confirm that? Is retrofitting of existing stock included in the €28 million mentioned by the Minister, or is the money for a different use? How does he see the money being used? If there has been an audit of retrofitting existing rail stock the Minister might give us some insights into it. I understand that suburban rail is very different from intercity rail. We want to be realistic about what may happen.
The National Transport Authority, NTA, was before us and its representatives told us they need to deal with individual local authorities to carry out work to make bus stops accessible. They focus on particular corridors and routes. Is there a timeline for this? Have additional demands been made by the NTA to the Department relating to that particular proposal, and can it be accelerated? Is any of the €28 million being used for this purpose?
I received a reply from the NTA on foot of a parliamentary question to the Minister relating to the spread of taxis. People across the country have disabilities and a need for universal access. The objective is to get from 7.5% to 10% and the concentration is very important. I understand the Minister cannot target a grand scheme at any particular location but there are parts of the country that are very bad, such as Tipperary where there is one taxi for every 12,000 people while a comparable county, Donegal, has one for every 4,800. It is not about a urban-rural divide, though Dublin has the highest ratio of accessible taxis. A more targeted approach is needed in other parts of the country where the take-up is not sufficient. Is the Department thinking of how this may be achieved? It might need local engagement with taxi groups or their organisations but there is a problem.
On the Bus Éireann fleet which has been put out to tender, the NTA told us if a commercial operator won a contract it would have two years to upgrade to an accessible fleet on a particular route.
I am talking about when Bus Éireann does not win the contract and it is a private contractor on Expressway. In that case, they have two years to upgrade. It is something that should be insisted on from day one otherwise there is the very real prospect of going backwards where there is an accessible fleet and it is not a like-with-like situation. I may have misunderstood. That is my understanding from the discussion and we can certainly dig out the-----
It was definitely the NTA. It is not a like-with-like situation. I am happy to go back and look at the notes I have. If I am wrong, I am fine with that. The one thing we do not want to do is go backwards. That is the point I want to make.
The response to one of the questions I asked was that there was a pilot study done on retrofitting, which was done up to ten years ago. Could the Minister dig out that report for us? If it was costed, what information is there on it? I presume the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport had sight of it.
On the rolling stock, we heard that the ramps have to be locked away because of potential anti-social behaviour and the risk of people throwing them onto rail lines. How is that done without having staffing in stations? It is difficult to marry the two.
The Minister told us in his opening statement that the Department is doing a report which is amalgamating a lot of reports. I think that is useful. It is better that we are working to one document so we can measure outcomes. When is the Department likely to complete that report? Will he make it public?
One of the questions we have been asking on the public information campaign on the buggy and wheelchair space, is whether it is a question of empowering bus drivers or of changing the culture of the public? I would like to hear the Minister's views on that.
I am just trying to sort them out. I will do that now. I will start with Senator O'Mahony's questions. The Senator was absolutely right when he said that what has happened up to now is inadequate. I agree with the Senator that it is inadequate. The stories he is hearing prove it is inadequate. The stories are not just anecdotes from malcontents; they are from genuine people who are coming forward with difficulties and drawing attention to the frequency of the issues. The intelligence of those concerned and the fact they are articulating so well is absolutely compelling evidence that this is going on. What is coming from the top down is not adequate. That is what we are trying to address. We are unanimous on that. The Senator asked if I would be prepared to go on a journey with Padraic or Alannah or someone who is having constant difficulties and the answer is of course I would. I would be absolutely delighted. I might have to put on a beard and a hairpiece to do it.
The committee has done a lot about it already. Bringing all these people in is very convincing. I will do it in the next eight months. I might do it tomorrow but there is no point in saying I will do it then.
I will get in touch with somebody to do it. People who are identifiable to the staff and management are probably not the right people to choose in that situation. It has to be done in an anonymous way.
I would be delighted to do that. I will come to Deputy Troy's questions. I apologise if anybody seemed to be celebrating too much about the 24-4 pilot. That was not the intention. There is a distinction between celebrating and announcing something to the public. It was a breakthrough but it was not enough. There was no suggestion at that stage that it was in any way a final outcome. It was to let the public and everybody who is suffering a disability know there was going to be a change from 24 hours notice to four hours notice but also that it was a pilot scheme. The important thing is it is a pilot scheme on the DART. People should know it is being addressed. There should be information that is being addressed and that they can use it. The important thing about the 24-4 is that there is feedback during and afterwards about how it is working. This is not the final outcome. As somebody else said, it is not enough. It was certainly announced and it was given a huge amount of publicity, which was positive, but the important thing is that people knew about it so the pilot worked. As a result of conversations I had with at least three disability groups recently, we will ask Iarnród Éireann to report on how that pilot is going so we can get the information and release it so people know what is actually happening. It should not be stored up and kept secret in the vaults of Iarnród Éireann. It has to be taken in so that people can see it including those who have contributed to it. We should go ahead on that basis.
The State boards-----
My diary was just too full. What happened was I had an 8.30 a.m. appointment in south Dublin, which is a longstanding appointment, that goes on until after 9.30 a.m. I had an appointment at 11 o'clock in Dublin in my Department which could not be moved. I was very sorry to miss the event. That particular event was starting at 10 a.m. and involved a trip out to Howth and returning later. I just could not keep all three of those appointments.
I am very happy to do that. I am very sorry if they took offence. It meant cancelling two appointments or one. That was what happened. I have been more than willing to meet anybody on this issue at any time and do anything to promote the interests of people with disabilities. It would not be fair to take offence. I have gone outside to meet people whenever any Member of the Oireachtas has asked me. I was delighted to do so.
I do not believe there is any question of bona fides there.
On the issue of State boards, Deputy Troy asked if I could have done it a year ago. Yes I could have, absolutely, but it is part of a policy generally which I am introducing into my Department to change the whole way that appointments are made to State boards and the type of people who sit on State boards. The Deputy will be aware that I put two people on to the Road Safety Authority who had gone through all the processes; it is not about me appointing them at all, I just make the final appointment. These two people were involved with road victims groups and had suffered tragically, but they have something unique to offer which was not there before. I want to do similar actions with other State boards, but it is a gradual process. This is part of the process. I want to make sure the users of the product, in this case the vehicles, are banging the table at the boards and in particular people who are vulnerable. This is a really appropriate type of procedure. It may mean that some people on State boards do not feel very comfortable. Good. I am delighted to hear that.
There will be vacancies on them all very shortly, there are vacancies on some of them at the moment. There are gaps and this is the reason we are advertising for the National Transport Authority, NTA, now. This vacancy and those on other boards will be filled in this way and by these types of people very shortly. Do not hold me to this, but by the end of the year they should probably all be filled. The Deputy is quite right. It is just part of a gradual change. Everybody who goes through this process goes through the Public Appointments Service procedures and will then be interviewed. It is much stricter than any other Department. A name will then come up to me for appointment. I believe this will be a very worthy experiment, which I suspect and hope will be permanent.
The Deputy referred to the application and I will ask my officials to address this tomorrow. I do not have the answer now.
I believe those issues are on my next page. God, I thought I was getting off easy there but the Deputy is quite right. I have the list here. On the ring-fencing of the €28 million we have enormously expanded and increased the amount of money being allotted to people with disabilities in recent years. The €28 million is actually trebling the amount. I have seen a lot of cases where ring-fencing suddenly becomes a minimum rather than the maximum. We could do it but currently we are increasing the spending, especially on retrofitting, at an extraordinary rate, which is unprecedented. A sum of €28 million over four years is a lot of money. This is going mostly to infrastructure and retrofitting. On top of this is an ongoing programme. This means that all those funds will be spent on retrofitting, going back on things that went wrong in the past.
It would help in the transparency of the debate that the committee would have such a list - if and when it is available - of what is intended to do so we can benchmark it against what needs to be done. I believe that is the key point, and obviously the increase-----
If it is helpful to the Minister, the committee will produce a report; we can identify what the Department and the Minister is doing with the funds and we can measure what needs to be done. If we know what is being done we know what is not being done and we can see how the issues can be sorted, especially around the bus stops, which is a hugely important matter in rural Ireland. There is also the matter of DART accessibility. I am just saying this for information purposes; the committee intends to produce a hard-hitting report on this subject.
That is fair enough. We need to know what is going to be done and what is not. What needs to be done? That is fine and I welcome the trebling of funding. Funding of €28 million sounds fantastic but we do not know what it is going to do or what needs to be done after that.
If we can we get a rough idea it would be helpful. Can the committee also get a rough idea of how the case that was made? If the Minister argued for the money he must have had a case and the Department must have audited the needs. I welcome that fact that the money will be there. We are not having a row about it but we do need to know what we require to get up to a point where we have universal accessibility. Why would we reinvent the wheel in duplicating the work that has already been done? It would be very useful to know what the Minister looked for, what he got, what still has to be done and roughly how much is to be spent in each category.
We can provide the committee with something like that but it will not be absolutely accurate. For example, the NTA is doing an audit of bus stops and we do not know how much will be spent in that area. It is a very big job.
Yes, my own Department is 4.5%. Its target is 6% under the comprehensive employment strategy for people with disabilities. I do not have the figures for the other Departments but my Department is meeting its targets very adequately.
I would not have that information here but I will get it for the Deputy.
The issue about the travel pass is a matter for the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and not one for me. I am willing to answer-----
I do not disagree, but I do believe it is a matter for the Minister in that he had to negotiate with them earlier this year around the amount of funding the Department was paying. The Minister can articulate with his Cabinet colleague that there needs to be a review and that account needs to be taken of a person's ability. If a person is unable to drive, has reduced mobility and public transport is his or her only way to travel then we should support them with a free travel pass, especially when in some cases the person is of limited means. Eligibility for this free pass as currently established is that a person must be over a certain age - even if he or she has no issue with travel or has a car and never uses it - or a person must be of limited means and maybe, in some instances, not able to use the travel pass. This is an opportunity where the State could provide and make a real difference to persons who are of limited mobility if they could qualify for a travel pass, and this may form part of our report.
That is all I am saying. I ask the Minister to take it up with his colleague.
At the end of those public transport journeys, they usually have to get a taxi anyway. They would have additional transport costs anyway by virtue of their disability, notwithstanding their use of public transport.
The final arbiter there would be the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection but I will convey those views to it. The motorised transport grant is a matter for the Minister of State with responsibility for disabilities but I understand there is legislation planned for that.
On parking in disabled places, I cannot remember what I promised the Deputy but I think there will be progress on that shortly.
That is why we need reports and targets. It is so that we can check the implementation with the Minister. When the Minister cannot remember what he promised, we need to ensure it is in writing so that we can check with him.
I can tell the Deputy that is progressing. I hope to be able to report something to the Deputy about it soon. One should not think it has been neglected. It has not. Sometimes such minor matters can run into difficulties with lawyers and others, but it is progressing. It will be finalised soon.
The Deputy asked about the UN. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is tremendously good news. It certainly requires complete disability access in transport on an equal basis with others. We probably also should point out that there is a broad approach that if there is practical progress on public transport accessibility we are within the requirements of that particular convention. We are not there yet but we are making progress. My guess is that we certainly meet the second requirement, which is Article 4.2, that we are making progress towards that and there is a genuine effort being made.
I do not want to deal with Deputy Barry's questions if he is not here.
Has the Minister a timeframe? It is a four-year plan but, obviously, some actions can be taken in the short term and some in the medium term. I accept the Minister will not be able to answer today but will revert to me.
Okay. That is fine.
Deputy Barry was next. On the staffing of stations, the Deputy stated all stations have to be staffed. I understand the point. I am not sure that the Deputy is correct. That is why we have this pilot on the DART. The pilot will hopefully come up with the answer to the Deputy's question on whether hubs are effective. At present, there are only two stations, maybe three, which are completely unmanned. There are 13 which are manned permanently and 15 which are partially manned. The purpose of that pilot is to answer its question. That is why we want to be really transparent about it. If the answer comes up that this is not working, we will have to face it. Let us give the pilot a chance. It should throw up the difficulties, if there are some. If there are three unmanned and 15 partially manned, it should reveal whether that is adequate. That is why we are doing it. I would ask Deputy Barry for a little patience on this. We will be straight about it. We will see if it is working or if it is not. The objective is that eventually those with a disability should be able to travel in exactly equal circumstances and with equal ease as anybody else. That is it. If we can do it by having stations which are unstaffed that is fine but if we cannot, we will have to find a better solution.
On the InterCity trains, there will be customer service officers. Those are coming in now. They will not need a pilot as such. There will be customer service officers on those permanently this year; they will be on every train and they will be able to help passengers on and off the trains. I hope it will not be necessary to have a pilot there and that they will be adequately catered for.
On the issue Deputy Barry raised about private companies stepping in, if they are operating PSO services they must operate accessible buses. That is simple. The role of private companies in the transport sector is not a noble one in terms of accessibility. It is not satisfactory and it is one we have to address. There is no point in beating about the bush and saying that they are stepping up to the plate; they are not. It is not acceptable that private companies should not conform. I am aware there are market reasons and people are worried that they might not be interested in the routes but we will have to devise a means whereby they do so and that they have buses which are-----
The taxpayer provides the buses for Bus Éireann. Maybe the additional cost of meeting disability needs could be looked at by the Minister. I am not saying that is the way to do it but that might be one way where there is support for a company, as there is support for the State companies. I would not discriminate against any passenger by not having the same support if we can but it is a matter for assessment. In that regard, what happens in other jurisdictions would be important. Otherwise they cannot compete.
I understand the coach is a different type of bus. It is what they call a high-floor bus. The problem is it is difficult for those with a disability to get in and out of such buses. There are also mismatches - some referred to it - between the pavements and the bus stops. The NTA is addressing this problem by looking at smaller short-distance buses for 50 km journeys. They should be able to address part of that problem. They may in the future be able to require that private companies as well as public companies use those buses. There must be uniformity here.
My note states the NTA proposes to move to regulate the accessibility of the public transport services operated by commercial operators. The NTA has stated that it will publish its proposals in this area later this year which will set out minimal accepted accessibility standards for fleets operating public transport services for new licences and on renewal of existing licences. We will not continue the kind of regime whereby they do not have to conform in a way which is acceptable.
Deputy Catherine Murphy raised the EU directive on accessibility. I am sorry, I just did not understand that question.
This is part of the reason we are having this hearing. There was a requirement on us from the European Union on accessibility. How is the Department responding to that? It will not only be this committee, but the Department, engaging with the European Union.
What is the Minister telling them and what timelines is he working to?
I do not know specifically what the Deputy is referring to, but I think the Department is responding pretty aggressively and responsively. Is Deputy Catherine Murphy referring to the European Accessibility Act?
I have a note here. I will get more detail on this issue for the Deputy. However, I am told that the Department of Justice and Equality is the lead Department and we are feeding into its work. That applies to both the strategies we are talking about, namely, the CES and the NDIS. The Department of Justice and Equality is leading on the proposed European Accessibility Act. I will provide more details on what is actually happening there. It is somewhat subterranean, as far as I am concerned, but I will certainly get that.
The Deputy asked about the accessibility of new trains. All new services, including Bus Connects and Luas trams, will be accessible. Everything will be accessible. It is absolutely clear. In regard to retrofitting, the €28 million I have mentioned will all go towards retrofitting. It is ring-fenced for this purpose.
Can the Minister provide some detail about what is required? There must be some sort of audit about what is required on rail. This morning we were told about a pilot project that was carried out approximately ten years ago, during which a retrofitting aspect was deemed to be too expensive. Perhaps the Minister could find provide information on this for the committee.
I know. There is just one point I wish to raise. Does the Minister have a disability adviser within the Department? In light of all of the points raised by the members, the Minister and others at this meeting, perhaps providing the Minister with advice in this regard is a function of the Department. Maybe it should be, if there is not already someone who is concentrating on this issue on a full-time basis across all of the service providers. I ask the Minister to answer Deputy Catherine Murphy's queries as well.
There are three officials who spend a lot of time on it. I do not think there is someone who is dedicated full-time to disability issues, but we have three people who are extremely engaged in respect of them. Moreover, an accessibility consultative committee in my Department has been assigned to the NDIS and the CES.
Membership of that committee is drawn from a lot of different organisations representing people with disabilities. I do not want to infringe their privacy in any way. They are entitled to some sort of protection.
In response to Deputy Catherine Murphy, they are drawing everything into one body and one report, and it will be published as soon as possible. I need persuasion in respect of regional balance.
The Deputy also referred to taxis. There is a commercial element to that issue. I tend to think that taxis will come if there is an appetite for them. That is not happening in Tipperary and Donegal.
It is actually happening in Donegal, but Tipperary is the worst served county. Dublin is the best served. One can see that urban centres have a different profile, and I understand that. However, people with disabilities are spread throughout the country and there are very big differences in availability. I am not saying that there is an easy solution to this, but I wish to draw attention to areas which the Department may not even consider to need taxis. If something is not supplied then people will not use it, because it is not available to use.
I will address this question. I do not know how the Government could target money towards counties, constituencies or similarly defined areas. There is a case for saying that the taxis will go there if there is an appetite for them. There is a commercial imperative.
I believe representatives of the National Transport Authority, NTA, appeared before this committee and said they could not see a way of doing this. Did they say this to the committee? I think they did.
The point is that there are 160,000 people living in Tipperary and there are 30 accessible taxis. A comparable county, also of rural make-up, is Donegal. It has a population of 158,000 and 33 such taxis. There is a sizeable difference in people's experience depending on where they live. This is not a comparison between an urban and a rural environment. It is comparing like with like. If the Department looks at the list of what is available and tries to create a decent spread across the country. There may be a small number of counties that need to be cajoled into considering the need for this. It is all very well to have a 10% target, but if that 10% all goes to urban areas and there is not a decent spread, the people who do not have other modes of transport will probably be worse off. That is the point I am trying to make. I understand that a grand scheme is something that people must decide to take up, but it strikes me that there is an imbalance which is worth considering.
It is a problem and I cannot see a solution at the moment. However, the NTA stated, I believe when presenting to this committee, that it would address it and devise a viable solution if one could be found. It is on the agenda. Any suggested solutions are welcome, because it is a difficult problem, and provision of taxis will be quite economically artificial.
Some of the questions were answered as the Minister replied to other people. The NTA addressed the issue of the local authorities but we have to look at that, particularly as some councils are better than others.
I asked about the statement on the front of the newspaper yesterday stating that €460 million will be required and that, in the worst-case scenario, railway lines could close. Does the Minister have any comment on that?
We have been discussing disability. The greatest assault on disability is to reduce or end a service. The possible closure of rail lines affects all passengers. This is a major issue of concern. The Taoiseach indicated yesterday that there would be no closures on his watch, and that is welcome, as far as it goes. However, the NTA made it clear that there is a need for an investment of in the region of €466 million in order to make these rail lines genuinely sustainable. There is no point in keeping ghost or skeleton services going. They have to be genuine, proper services and that requires a significant investment and a reversal of the cuts we have seen in recent years. I hope the Minister is in a position to follow up on the comments of the Taoiseach by committing on the money front.
There was a story in one of the newspapers yesterday which quoted very large figures and referred to closing down many specific lines. I have said before - and the Taoiseach said it yesterday - that I have absolutely no intention and no plans to close railway lines or routes anywhere and that I have not heard the prospect being discussed. That is not the objective at all. If there is an ambition, it is to make routes more efficient and profitable and to add value for the taxpayer and the consumer. What was being carried in that paper yesterday was a reference to a worst-case scenario in the rail review. I am guessing that was the source of the story. That was published in 2016. Much has changed since then. Many of the cuts which Deputy Barry referred to have been reversed. The public service obligation, PSO, has been increased, and the commitment to rail is absolute.
There are obviously large problems in the whole public transport sector. These are the problems we come across on a daily basis. They are not going to be met with a slash-and-burn response but, rather, the opposite. Our ambition is to see the railways flourish. That report reflected the rail review, and then some other documents from after the consultation process which expressed the views of virtually everybody who contributed to that consultation process. It was not a reflection of any decisions or, to my knowledge, as Minister, any discussions that have taken place among members of the Government. We do not intend to close any rail lines.
I thank the Minister for his reply. I suggest we talk about this issue at our next meeting and perhaps have a further debate on the matter.
I thank the Minister and his officials for attending. I also thank Padraic Moran and Alannah Murray from earlier. This has been a very important meeting. We might ask that Mr. Moran keeps in touch with the committee as it will be advertising for submissions on its report on its web page. We will consider submissions and hope to have the report finished some time before Easter if we can. I want to remind the Minister to not forget Mr. Moran's query regarding Iarnród Éireann.