Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 27 February 2019
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport
Local Link and Rural Transport Programme: National Transport Authority
The second session of today's meeting will consider Local Link and the rural transport programme. In that regard, I very much welcome from the National Transport Authority, NTA, Ms Anne Graham, CEO; Mr. Hugh Creegan, deputy CEO; and Ms Margaret Malone, rural transport manager.
Before we commence, I am obliged to read the following notice. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against either a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I apologise to our witnesses. Our earlier meeting was very useful but went on a little longer than we expected. I invite Ms Anne Graham to make her opening statement.
Ms Anne Graham:
I thank the Chairman for the invitation to attend. I understand that the committee wishes me address the topic of rural taxis. To assist me in dealing with members' subsequent questions I am joined by Mr. Hugh Creegan, deputy CEO, and Ms Margaret Malone, rural transport manager with the authority.
Before dealing with the specific areas of focus, I would like to give the committee an overview of developments in the Local Link rural transport programme. The objective of the rural transport programme is to provide a good quality nationwide community based public transport system in rural Ireland which responds to local needs.
Key features of the rural transport programme include: completing 2 million passenger journeys in 2018, with 1 million of those journeys provided for free travel passengers; over 400 private operators providing the services using the services of almost 900 drivers; the programme funding the provision of once-off trips for individuals and community-voluntary groups to help address the lack of transport as a factor in social exclusion; and Local Link services being a mixture of regular rural bus services and demand responsive, door-to-door services operating in very remote rural areas. These services are broken down as follows: 63 rural regular services and 1,350 demand responsive services operating nationally; 80% of all rural transport services are accessible broken down as follows: regular services - 85% of fleet in use is accessible. This is a combination of low floor entry vehicles and vehicles with wheelchair lifts; the demand responsive services - 65% of the fleet in use is accessible, comprised mainly of vehicles with wheelchair lifts; and the NTA has improved the information on the Local Link website, www.locallink.ie, which has seen traffic to the website more than tripling in 2018.
Over the past three years, the authority has supported the expansion of rural transport services to include regular commuter bus services. Operating at least five times per day over a five, six and seven days per week schedule, these services are specifically designed to ensure connectivity with other public transport services. This connectivity facilitates passengers to make onward journeys typically to access education, employment, health, recreational and other opportunities.
With regard to recent initiatives in rural transport, the authority recently produced its Strategic Plan for Rural Transport 2018-2022, which sets out nine key objectives for delivery upon over the life time of the plan. The key priorities of the programme continue to include addressing rural social exclusion and the integration of rural transport services with other public transport services.
The authority is currently implementing one of the listed actions in the strategy under Objective Area 8 - Encouraging Innovation in Rural Transport Service Provision, that is, the provision of evening and night services to address unmet transport needs in rural areas.
Following a funding call in February 2018, a total of 65 new evening-night time services were subsequently approved for funding and the majority commenced operating in July 2018. Key characteristics of these new services include: 23 of these services are extensions to existing regular public transport services; 42 of these services are demand responsive services; services will be provided nationally across 26 counties; and the services will run on average from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m., typically on Friday and Saturday evenings.
The initial six-month pilot was extended by a further three months as it was felt that they needed sufficient time to be established and for the community to trust that the service was reliable. While take-up levels were slow initially across all the new services, patronage began to increase in the lead-up to Christmas and in many cases has been retained in the past few months. A small number of non-performing services were withdrawn at the end of December 2018. The initial review of the services at the end of December is published on the Local Link website. It was felt that most of the services end too early in the evening and an extension of time should be considered should these services continue.
On the co-ordination of services, in exercising its functions the authority seeks to achieve the provision of an integrated public transport system of services and networks for all users. Wherever appropriate, we seek to integrate and co-ordinate services to provide for seamless travel options where change of bus and-or mode is required. This includes the operation of rural transport services, Local Link, which can facilitate connecting to mainline inter-urban services, irrespective of the provider of those services. In fact, the NTA is the only body that can bring modes and operators together in an integrated service pattern that provides the best service for rural communities.
However, the NTA recognises that public bus transport cannot meet the demands for travel for many people in rural Ireland, either because it is not available at all or it is not available at the time needed. Taxis and hackneys play an important role in meeting the travel demand when public transport is not available. However, it is recognised that there are gaps in the provision of taxis and hackneys in many rural communities.
The taxi regulation review report, published by the Government in January 2012, recommended the introduction of a local area hackney licence to address transport deficits that would not otherwise be addressed in certain rural areas. Regulations permitting the issue of such licences were introduced with effect from December 2013 to enable a part-time hackney service to be provided in generally rural areas which are likely to be too small to support a full-time taxi or hackney operation, and which are too far from adjacent centres to be serviced by taxis or hackneys from those adjacent centres.
However, there is a very low take up of local area hackneys due primarily to the cost of insurance. To carry passengers, the standard insurance has to be changed to allow carriage of passengers for hire or reward. This can increase the cost of the insurance up to €8,000 per year, making it uneconomic to provide such a service. Accordingly, it is clear that the current local area hackney model needs to change in order to address this significant cost barrier to the provision of needed services.
In response to this the NTA proposes the following: simplify the administration involved in the local area hackney application process; pilot a small number of hackney services that will receive grant aid in areas that have no hackney or taxi service operating currently; and pilot a small number of community transport services that will receive grant aid in areas that have no hackney or taxi service currently operating.
No new legislation is required. The current Taxi Regulation Act 2013 would not require to be amended. The pilots will enable the NTA to test this operational model before making it available county-wide and it would also allow us to better estimate the cost of delivering this type of grant aid. It also has to be carefully managed so that it does not undermine existing licensed taxi and hackney operators in rural areas.
The work the NTA is doing in expanding rural public transport services and this new proposal to expand local area hackney and community transport services will go a long way in meeting the travel demand in isolated rural communities.
I very much welcome the work the NTA is doing nationally. While I see significant successes, there are also weaknesses. I am concerned that of the 1.9 million passengers, almost 1 million were those using free travel, that is, older people or people with a different entitlement to free travel, including people with disabilities. The figure for those requiring assistance is 200,000. It seems as though the NTA is meeting a great need, which I acknowledge. It is of great importance to people who would not otherwise have the capacity to meet their own transport needs. I also welcome the recognition of gaps in service. In principle, the NTA is looking for a private sector and community solution.
One community solution which has been mentioned to me is in Louth, Meath and Fingal where a local service operates. A driver is registered, has Garda clearance and provides his or her own vehicle. He or she would not actually be paid but would be known to the people in the area. One will know the person, can telephone him or her and organise transport. If there is payment it is in lieu of something. That is one issue on which we will invite them before the committee to discuss. The problem our earlier witnesses raised was that the cost of insurance, even for a driver with 30 years of accident-free driving, could be €6,000 or €8,000. I presume that the grant aid to which Ms Graham referred would be at that level of commitment, where there is no service at all. Could she expand on what the NTA would do? Would it basically pay the insurance where there is no service?
Ms Anne Graham:
The idea is to cover that set-up cost, which is really the insurance, and probably pay it on a monthly basis, subject to certain conditions on what the provider would have to do. It recognises that insurance is the barrier to many of these services operating, whether that be on a community basis or local area hackney system. That is the purpose of the grant aid.
That sounds very useful. Transparency is the point. What would happen if the scheme covers my car insurance and I am not around when I ought to be? What am I required to do? Is it out of hours or late at night?
Mr. Hugh Creegan:
Before we pay the grant, we want to ensure the service is provided. As Ms Graham said, we would look for a record of the bookings people took and see that they are genuinely providing the services in that area. Otherwise it makes no sense to pay the grant. If they are providing the service, the grant is paid to them.
Mr. Hugh Creegan:
We envisage a monthly payment which is made on receipt of evidence that the individual has provided the service for the previous month. We will not make it very onerous which goes against the idea of what we are trying to do but there must be a balance between some evidence that the service has been provided and the granting of the payment.
That is very helpful. I will summarise the proposal for Deputy Troy who asked the question and has just joined us. Where there is a gap, and there is no existing service, it is proposed that there be a community and private initiative where it would pay the insurance costs on a monthly basis to the service provider, so long as they met certain requirements, and that it will be done in the 17 Local Link areas.
I thank the Chairman and apologise to the guests as I was caught elsewhere. I welcome the presence of the NTA representatives today. I acknowledge that they have come proposing solutions which is not always the case when groups come before the committee.
The critical matter here is the timeframe for implementation and whether the scheme will be backed up with adequate resources. Last August-September, in reaction to the drink driving legislation, the night time Local Link services were established. They were to be established for six months as a pilot, which has been extended for three months. Has there been an analysis of how the operations have worked? Anecdotally, having spoken to colleagues and some of the transport co-ordinating units themselves, they have worked well in some areas and in others there has been very low demand. I hope that the proposal here will not replace those services as they were not simply about bringing people out socially but they also helped bring those who work in towns late at night back to their villages and provided links to other transport services. They are not merely to bring people to and from the pub. We need to acknowledge that Local Link has worked in some areas.
I understand that all the transport co-ordination units have been put out to tender and they await information as to whether they have been successful. The current contract under which they operate expires on 31 March. The new operations would have to be in for 1 April. It is almost 1 March but people are still not aware whether they have been successful. In the context of continuing the Local Link service, is the NTA confident that the tenders will be awarded and there will be no disruption in service? If some providers lose their bid, it would be very onerous to establish a new service will have to be established before 1 April.
I now turn to the proposals before us today. A situation where there are only 13 hackney licences available nationally is not fit for purpose.
It is not working. The NTA is talking about simplifying the administration involved in the application process. Can the witnesses specify how it will simplify the process? Can they confirm the timeframe in respect of when the pilot will be up and running and how many resources have been allocated to the pilot system?
We heard a number of contributions this morning from taxi representatives, who are in the Public Gallery. Two major issues are the average age of taxis and recruitment of taxis drivers. Is the NTA confident that this will not prove to be challenge and that it will be able to get somebody to provide and run this pilot service?
It is obvious that some parts of rural areas are not served by the rural transport programme. Can the witnesses from the NTA tell us the areas that have a functioning rural transport programme and the areas that do not? I submitted a question about it some time ago and was told that the NTA was unable to collate that information. I am quite sure that was an error. I am sure that as the governing body, the NTA would have all that information and would be able to furnish us with it. If the witnesses from the NTA do not have it with them today, would they agree to furnish us with it?
In the strategic plan, the NTA mentioned increasing services yet it has reduced the number of Local Link offices from 35 to 17. How could that be a good idea given that the NTA said the services should be locally managed and that it would be a demand-responsive service? How could that be a good idea when many areas do not have any public transport at all? The strategic plan always stated that it was about demand-responsive services. It seems that since the NTA has taken over, it is moving more towards scheduled services so that would conflict with demand-responsive services. I am worried that the rural transport programme is plugging gaps that should be filled by Bus Éireann services. Could the witnesses from the NTA give us figures about how many new Bus Éireann services have been launched in the past year and whether or not they were new routes or involved increased frequency on existing routes?
Among the key findings of the NTA's first review was that some services ended too early in the evening so some of them were deemed to be non-performing. Given that this was the NTA's first review, has it extended those services to see whether there was an uptake or the number of people using them increased or did it put them down as non-performing services and leave it at that?
I asked for some figures in a parliamentary question last November. Wait for it - I got the response from the NTA yesterday. We are talking about November, December, January and February - four months. One could not make it up. The figures were quite shocking. I had requested information about the additional funding allocated in budget 2019 for each of the CIÉ companies and Go-Ahead. It transpired that current expenditure is down at a time when rural transport is on its knees. The NTA's capital expenditure took a massive cut. In 2018, it was €9.2 million but it is down to €2.9 million. That is very serious. At a time when we should be focusing on increasing our public transport services, it turns out that budgets are being reduced. As we all know, Bus Éireann is the main provider so I cannot see how the NTA could explain that.
I asked also about funding allocated to Go-Ahead, which was awarded contracts to operate the subsidised bus services. The NTA spoke about reasons of commercial sensitivity but Go-Ahead's only competition is Bus Éireann and it is public money. There are serious questions to be answered in this regard. This is taxpayers' money that the NTA is using to subsidise a private company whose only competitor is our national bus service, Bus Éireann. We know how much money Bus Éireann receives. In fact, we know the NTA is reducing Bus Éireann's budget but the NTA will not tell us what it is giving to subsidise Go-Ahead. This is very serious stuff. It is unbelievable.
We are resuming in public session. We will deal with all the questions germane to the agenda for today and will then address all other questions. I will take Deputy O'Keeffe, who is Vice Chairman of the committee, and then Deputies Michael Collins, Éamon Ó Cuív and Danny Healy-Rae and Senator Humphreys.
I am wary of asking questions that have already been asked. I welcome the witnesses from the NTA. More importantly, I acknowledge that there is a crisis in rural Ireland regarding access for people living there.
I would like to ask Ms Anne Graham why the National Transport Authority, NTA, only hears alarm bells ringing now. When we were going through the amendments to the Road Traffic (Amendment) Act 2018, these issues were highlighted by many of my colleagues. We got no reaction from the authorities. Now, when the horse has bolted and the damage is done, we seem to be seeking a resolution. Some initiatives have been put in place, which I welcome. However, I have to ask why it is only now that the alarm bells are ringing in the NTA offices. The pilot scheme for a night-time rural bus link is nearing its completion at the end of March. It links up a few areas. Many areas are being considered for it. As the witnesses know, buses run on a timeframe. Rural Ireland can run on an ad hoc basis. Not everyone lives on the main artery roads or regional roads. People live on byroads or on the sides of hills. That is why I would welcome any proposal, such as a hackney service. Uber was suggested by one of our Ministers in the last few weeks. Anything that helps to get people from A to B at unsocial hours, for want of a better word, would help.
We also have an issue in the mornings after people have been socialising. Could this service be utilised in the morning too, by people who have short journeys to work, perhaps in the nearest town, but are afraid to drive?
I thank the National Transport Authority for the presentations to us. The Local Link service is second to none as a daytime service. It is absolutely meticulous, and it is a model that should be looked at in rolling out any future transport service. I am not just talking about west Cork or County Cork, but Local Link throughout the country. The people on the board represent a geographic spread, so they understand what is needed in each area and thankfully they ensure that everyone is catered for. There are very few people throughout the country who have any issues with Local Link as a daytime service. The only worries we have are the contracts that are being awarded at the moment. That decision is very important, as Deputy Troy said. It is awaited by these groups so they can continue the roll-out of the good work they do.
I do not have much faith in the new service. If I am proven wrong I will be quite happy to accept that. I said earlier today that the horse has bolted. We should have been sitting here two years ago, before the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, introduced the Road Traffic (Amendment) Act 2018. That would have been very helpful. We would at least have been able to try to counteract the very significant damage that has been done to rural Ireland. In my own area, several pubs and businesses have closed in the last few months thanks to this Act. The witnesses have said it could take months for this to get off the ground. The reason I cannot see it working is that a whole load of regulations are to be attached to this service. The NTA will give operators some grant aid. We are talking about a seven-seat or eight-seat vehicle. It will have to be wheelchair accessible. The providers will obviously have to be Garda vetted. There will have to be insurance. That is a significant issue for any operator trying to run a business. The NTA will pay the operator monthly payments. First he or she has to buy the vehicle, then he or she has to insure it. The operator will by then have spent a lot of money.
We need to tease all these aspects out. It is very hard to see a person getting a vehicle for €10,000 and insurance for €6,000, €7,000 or €8,000. We are talking about costs close to €20,000 before the operator turns the key in the ignition. Then he or she will have to roll out the service for €5 per person. In a rural community he or she might do one run in a night, or three runs on some nights.
The point I am trying to make is that we have a system in place already. There are problems with it. There is no point in saying that there are not. The best way forward is for the NTA to sit down with the Local Link managers and the heads of taxi and hackney services and try to come up with a solution. They will certainly do that, because the Local Link providers have worked side-by-side with hackney operators and never displaced them. They have worked with them successfully. We are now going to throw another service, which will not be as regular, into the fray. Will operators have to have their vehicles tested in the same way as the hackney taxis? I presume they will if they are to carry passengers.
A lot of questions need to be addressed. We are not looking at the bigger issue here. Many hackney and taxi service operators tell me they would be quite happy to have their cars running by night but they cannot get employees because of what is involved in getting a licence. Let us say the operator is based in Skibbereen. One of the first questions a candidate will be asked is where the Garda station in Mitchelstown is. In the name of God, that is irrelevant. It is total madness to bring up a question like that. A driver's satnav will take him or her there if needed. If the firm is based in Skibbereen, the driver will not be going to Mitchelstown Garda station very often in his or her career, maybe once every 20 or 25 years. He or she may feel differently because of that kind of questioning.
There are also situations where operators are trying to get their vehicles on the road, but they feel the powers that be are against them doing that. Obviously there must be serious regulation in place because these vehicles are carrying people for payment. However, the authorities seem to want to find a problem, instead of working with operators to find solutions. People complain that hackney and taxi drivers charge too much. They are excessively regulated.
With all this grant aid, perhaps the NTA can sit around the table with the Local Link operators and create a solution. Local voluntary community groups want to help with a solution. This is a major crisis in every town and village. Adding another service just complicates matters. I mean no disrespect, but one service out of 17 was introduced in Cork. That is a drop in the ocean. At least 30 or 40 services are needed to somewhat counteract the crisis caused by Ross's Act.
I will refer to the Act that he introduced. I will not use the name. I do not want to be negative. The witnesses have run Local Link and they know it must be rolled out meticulously. Nothing can be taken away from that. The NTA has gone down another route now. I am convinced that Local Link should be very much involved in this. The existing taxi and hackney operators, who are struggling to survive in rural communities, are willing to work with this. They should be around the table. Perhaps some of this grant aid should be going towards them.
To clarify, the NTA's proposal is for areas where there is no service at all. Is that correct? Its representatives are not talking about existing issues separate from what the NTA is proposing. This proposal is for areas where there are no services, no taxis, no hackneys, nothing. That is what we are talking about.
I welcome the NTA's representatives. As they know, I am concerned about a whole lot of rural issues. I have sent some emails and I hope I will get an answer to them soon. I will focus on the issues for discussion today. I will start with the first point. As I have pointed out time and again, when it comes to vehicle subsidies rural Ireland is totally discriminated against, counting per head of population.
The amount of money spent on urban and public buses and vehicles is much higher than in rural areas. I am not begrudging of that and it is very handy when one is in the city. One can get buses, trains and there are all sorts of ways of getting around. It is about levelling up the playing pitch, and it is up it must come. Nothing should be taken from the cities but we need to spend money. Why should everything in rural Ireland be done for free? I do not agree with the notion of it being a free or voluntary community effort. As with everyone else who provides a service, the providers should be able to earn a living from it. If we looked at the addresses of hackney and taxi owners around the country, we might be quite surprised at how many of them are in rural areas with no service. The reason is they tend to migrate to the cities on busy nights. This is not just a problem in isolated rural areas with no service. This is a problem of people not being sure on any given night or day that the service will be available when they want it. Currently, the hackney operators are free to go wherever they get fares.
We need a comprehensive solution of contracted services to ensure every part of island has contracted services available by public service vehicle at all reasonable hours. It is not a big ask where a population is not sparse. I look at this proposal and there is one service in County Galway, so thanks for that.
I apologise as we are getting a community service as well. I have views about that and I would love to see it operate up here. With the private service, that is two services serving from Ballinasloe to Ballyconneely. I do not know what world in which we are living. If I know anything about the NTA and the delays that exist, we will be lucky to see this by the end of the year.
We were to get a late-night bus service on the Carraroe route in September and it will soon be March and we have still not had an announcement on it. I have fair justification in that respect. That is just one scheduling of a bus after 6 p.m. and we have not got it after all that time. It is a fair summation. We can come back in the autumn to see who is right but I do not foresee this new service being up and running before September. When it is up and running, it will go for six months and then there will be a review. I have seen the way everything works in this country. For a year or two, we will be as badly off as we are now except for the lucky dip of 34 small communities around the country.
It is a pervasive fact that one cannot be guaranteed a public service vehicle in rural Ireland when it is required. As close as six or seven miles away from Galway there could be plenty of hackney and taxi drivers but they all go to the city to work, so people cannot be sure of a service. This is the usual thing in rural Ireland, sop in áit na scuaibe; it means a straw instead of a brush, and we know how much a sop would do to sweep the floor.
I am very disappointed and this is the usual stuff. It comes back to one issue, which is an unwillingness to commit fair funds to rural Ireland. We are not looking for special treatment but rather equity in expenditure.
I thank the witnesses for coming in. We all know the value of Local Link and the services it has provided for many years. We appreciate it very much where it has done much for elderly people in rural places. We are talking about a separate matter altogether, though, which is what has transpired since the enactment of this very draconian Bill put in place late last year, particularly its effect on rural Ireland. The Government promised some time early last year that it would introduce services to counteract these effects. A kind of pilot scheme was proposed in Kerry. There was much ado and a big hullabaloo about eight services to be provided in Kerry, with one of those services taking people from Cloghane to Brandon once per month. It was a publicity exercise to deal with a massive problem. The people out there cannot be fooled any longer.
I again recognise there are many services and Local Link operated many of them prior to 2018. At the request of the Minister and his junior Minister, who were under pressure, as well as Deputy Heydon and others, there was a big story that a pilot scheme would be provided. The truth will always come out about what we got in Kerry. We got eight extra services, and one of them is once per month. Nobody can deny that here, there or anywhere.
It is hard to follow everything but it has been mentioned that insurance will be subsidised for some of those who will provide a service. There will be uproar among the hackneys and taxis already paying massive insurance. If we are to be realistic, we must talk to those people and subsidise those who are already trying to provide a service. The witnesses argue this is for an area with no service but there is a hackney service in towns and parishes all over Ireland. Somebody or perhaps many people would have a hackney service. It would not be financially viable to operate during the week and at the weekend they might go to a busy town to get a bit of work. Rural Ireland would still be left behind.
One of our witnesses this morning spoke about a relationship between Irish Rural Link and the private sector contractor. Perhaps the NTA witnesses could elaborate on that.
The impression I got this morning was that the Local Link and the private service contractors would work together and the bus services and the hackney and taxi services could be linked up. It would be a paid or subsidised service.
There is a lot of talk about operating these services at night. Rural Ireland is different from Dublin and many other places, including Cork city. In the mornings we do not have Luas, DART or bus services to transport us to work. There are many people who are isolated at the moment. They cannot even go to pubs anymore because many have closed already. People cannot have a social drink at home tonight in rural Ireland, because if they are going to work tomorrow morning, they will be held up at various places. The living daylights are frightened out of people. What service are we going to provide for them? Has anyone spoken about providing a service to help people to get to work? People will manage to go to the pub sometimes, with great difficulty, but the morning after, after they have done everything right the night before, they are still being held up at the crossroads. Who gave the order that morning checks were to be carried out? It is a fact that people in rural Ireland are frightened. They are like rabbits in a hole, afraid to come out in case the fox or the dog might catch them. They are terrorised in their homes. They cannot have a social drink, as they could before. I knew this would happen before it happened, because I meet people on a 24 hour basis seven days a week. This has manifested itself in the constituencies of Deputies from other parties, including the main Government party. It is clear that this is a big issue in rural Ireland. How are we going to deal with the people who are affected by these morning checks? Is there any proposal to provide a transport service for them? Has any direction been given in that regard? Perhaps it is not part of the discussion we are having today, but what is going to happen to provisional drivers who cannot get to work or college and whose parents cannot be with them? They are waiting between 20 and 25 weeks for a test. Is there any mention of a transport service for those people?
Only the penalties have changed. One cannot drink and drive, full stop. There were seven or eight people killed in both Louth and Kerry two years ago. That is the number of lives that are saved by the new legislation.
I thank the witnesses for being here today. Is there any possibility of enlarging the pilot areas? If the scheme is as successful, how quickly could it be scaled up? Is there a possibility that hackney drivers will get a subsidy? Is there a mechanism whereby hackneys can be made to operate in specific areas? If a subsidy is given, how can an area-specific hackney service be managed?
Ms Anne Graham:
Deputy Troy asked about the timeframe for implementation. We would like to have the scheme up and running this summer if possible. We have just completed a tender process, and the transport co-ordination units, TCUs, will be informed whether they have been successful this week. The decision on these tenders was taken at our board meeting last week, so the successful bidders should know by the end of this week. The idea is that we will keep the services. There should be no interruption to any services if any changes are made to the delivery of Local Link office services. It should not impact on public transport services.
In terms of resources, no additional human resources are being allocated. We will ensure that there are enough financial resources to carry out the pilot this year. We do not know exactly what that will entail, but we will set aside sufficient funding from our budgets to carry out the pilot. There will be one pilot project of each type of service in every county.
The analysis of the pilot evening service is up on our website, which covers the period to the end of December. We will have to do that work again.
Ms Margaret Malone:
The next analysis will happen in March, with a view towards having a new report by the end of March. Anecdotally, we are hearing the same things that have been expressed here today. The evening services are working extremely well in some cases but in other cases patronage is low. To be fair to the process, getting any public transport service off the ground, building trust in it and finding passenger confidence in it can take a period of time. We are expecting to see an increase in usage on many of those pilot routes between December and March of this year. As soon as those results are in we will make them available to everyone, which will dictate where we go with the evening services, subject to funding.
Mr. Hugh Creegan:
When the local area hackneys were introduced back in 2013 there was a concern around ensuring that we did not displace the business of existing taxi and hackney drivers. In conjunction with the taxi advisory committee, which is a consultative group for the taxi industry and includes consumer groups and various other parties, we devised a system whereby we required local authorities to endorse the application and confirm there was not a significant number of other taxis or hackneys operating in the area. We also required sign-off from local groups, be they local business groups or registered charities. Those steps were in place previously. We believe we should simplify those and remove most of those burdens in order to make the process simpler. We will dial back those two steps as far as possible to make the application process as simple as possible.
Ms Anne Graham:
A question was asked about what we will do if we do not receive any contributions. We can only test this programme; that is the reason for the pilot. We will be very disappointed if we were unable to get someone to run a pilot in each of the Local Link offices. We will test it.
Deputy Munster asked about a functioning rural transport taxi service. I am not sure what that question was about. Was the Deputy asking where taxis and hackneys are operating from?
I was referring not just to hackneys and taxis, but rural transport provision generally across the State. It is clear that some areas are without any public transport. I presume Ms Graham or her colleagues have a list of those areas that have no public transport or where there is minimal provision.
Ms Anne Graham:
We have not mapped that, but we are doing a significant amount of work on a county-by-county basis in trying to establish where there are gaps in our public transport services, in particular on the day-to-day transport services. We also rely on the Local Link offices to identify gaps beyond that in terms of where public transport is and what the gaps should be filled in local areas. We do not have a map but we can provide a list of every service, if that would help.
Ms Anne Graham:
We have not done that work on a national basis.
We are currently operating on a county-by-county basis but we have been focusing on towns of a certain size and above. I am not sure whether we have done any work on towns of a certain size and below but we will check that for the Deputy.
Ms Anne Graham:
There was a question about reducing the number of Local Link offices. That work was done more than four years ago. It was part of re-examining the delivery of rural transport services. A decision was taken at the time to reduce the number of offices. The delivery of services locally has not been diminished by that. In fact, the service is certainly improving in many of the areas. We obviously tried to support our Local Link services as much as we can.
Ms Anne Graham:
We have not reduced the demand-responsive services. Those services have stayed in place and, in fact, been increased. Some 80% of the public transport services through the rural transport programme are demand-responsive services. It is still a very significant part of delivery by the Local Link offices. Reducing the number of offices did not reduce the transport services. We only reduced the number of administrative offices managing those services. This did not have an impact on public transport service delivery.
On the question on the number of new Bus Éireann services launched in rural areas, I would have to come back to the Deputy.
Ms Anne Graham:
I will move on to the other ones. Deputy O'Keeffe referred to the pilot areas to be considered. I believe he was talking about short journeys to work. We are not going to limit the time of operation of the local hackney services or community transport services. If there is a demand for a service in a particular area in the pilot, we will try to meet it no matter what time of the day it is requested.
Mr. Hugh Creegan:
I will answer one other question Deputy O'Keeffe raised. He asked why we see the alarm bells only now. In fairness to us, we have recognised for a long time that the local area hackney service system is not working. This is largely down to insurance and a small bit down to the administration side. Nine months ago, we brought a proposal to our taxi advisory committee, about which I spoke, and it has been under discussion since then. It is not that we are just waking up now; we are conscious that this needed correcting and we are trying to achieve broad agreement as to what to propose.
Mr. Hugh Creegan:
I cannot speak about what the Minister was aware of. We were dealing directly with the taxi advisory committee. We brought a proposal to it and it has been under discussion for a considerable number of months. We have now got it to the stage at which we are proposing what we have here.
Deputy Collins mentioned a number of matters. Let me explain how the local area hackney service is intended to work. It is intended to be regulation-light. A large seven or eight-seater vehicle is not required, nor is a wheelchair-accessible vehicle. One is not required to pass the standard driver test that all other taxi and hackney drivers must pass. It is intended to fill a gap where it is uncommercial to provide a normal service. The key rule is that the vehicle must be under ten years of age and have an NCT certificate. Everything else is relatively light around that.
With regard to discussing how the service should operate with taxis and hackneys, a taxi advisory committee has been put in place under legislation. It includes representatives from the taxi groups and hackney groups across Ireland. Members will have heard from some of them this morning. We tease out with the groups the appropriate measure to put in place. The Deputy is correct that one local area hackney in Cork is a bit of a drop in the ocean for Cork, but it is only a pilot scheme. The intention is that if it functions properly and we sort out any kinks that arise — inevitably, there will be kinks — it can be put in place in the other areas that genuinely need the service. I believe I have addressed the Deputy's key points.
Ms Anne Graham:
The Deputy asked that the Local Link offices be involved. They will be crucial to the delivery of the service. They would be very much involved, particularly in identifying the areas we pilot first. We would not be in a position to proceed unless they were involved.
Deputy Ó Cuív said rural Ireland is totally discriminated against. We have had this argument at this committee before. We obviously do not agree. We try to provide services, both urban and rural, to the extent that we can, with the budgets we have available. We try not to discriminate between one area and another. We just try to provide a service that meets local demand, knowing that there are gaps and that there are limits to what we can provide based on our budgets.
We are committed to trying the service out, piloting it and determining the pitfalls, if any. It is also a question of being able to identify the cost of delivering the service nationwide. Currently, we do not have the funding to deliver it on that level. I believe that answers Deputy Ó Cuív's questions.
On Deputy Danny Healy-Rae's questions, Local Link offices are going to be very much involved. We rely on their local knowledge to assist us in putting the pilot in place.
Mr. Creegan shall respond to Senator Humphreys's questions.
Mr. Hugh Creegan:
The areas for local area hackneys are defined. We genuinely want the hackneys to be for the local area. In granting the licence, there will be an area of pick-up operation, with a radius of X number of kilometres, agreed and defined.
With regard to growing the number of pilot programmes, we will act as soon as we get some feedback. We are not in the business of waiting for ages to know how a pilot functions. We will know very quickly whether we have issues to resolve. If we do not, we see ourselves moving to rolling this out across the State in a planned way in a very short period, subject to funding being available.
I welcome the clarification we have received. I am concerned, however, that the delegates have not yet identified a specific budget for the pilot. They have only said they are going to set aside the necessary resources. They do not know specifically how much grant aid they are going to give to the community operator and how much will go towards the insurance of the particular operators. If there are 34 operators - 17 community and 17 commercial - are 34 insurance premiums going to be paid? Are 34 different types of subvention going to be paid? Based on this, the pilot scheme could cost €400,000 or €500,000. These are quick figures based on some of the figures that have been bandied about. Will the resources have to come from the 2019 allocation and thus be diverted from somewhere else? That would be a worry because, to be fair, the delegates are operating quite efficiently on a tight budget already. The delegates expressed a desire, which I will not question, to get the service up and running in a timely fashion. They also have many other projects that they are trying to get off the ground or with which they are involved, including BusConnects and metro north. Do they have the capacity? Has the authority received additional human resources in recent years to implement all the schemes it is trying to implement?
Before I make my final point, I wish to raise an issue we have experienced many times. Deputy Ó Cuív gave an example of it. It took 12 months for an additional Bus Éireann route on the 115 service to be approved in Mullingar from the time the initial application was made by Bus Éireann. There is therefore a legitimate concern about the ability to roll this out in a timely and efficient manner. There are concerns that the NTA has not quantified the budget per seand that the funding will have to be taken from what is already allocated. As previous speakers have said, it has the capacity to work. I acknowledge that, and there is flexibility there. However, my transport co-ordination unit spans Longford and Westmeath, two large counties in which there are many rural settlements and villages. What the NTA is saying today is that only two of those areas will be piloted, and at best-----
Yes, initially. That is what a pilot means. At best, if it is up and running by September and if the NTA decides to run the same pilot it ran on the Local Link night-time service for nine months, that will bring it into the following April or May, after which the NTA will perhaps seek additional resources to roll it out further. There are communities in rural Ireland that will not see anything for the best part of two years. I just want to be honest about this. This would be a big worry. I do not wish to rubbish what Ms Graham is suggesting as she is making comprehensive suggestions, but in terms of supporting rural Ireland, the lead-in time of between 20 and 24 months will result in much greater damage than has already been done.
I will be very brief because most of my questions have already been raised. Perhaps I was not listening properly. There are 17 Local Link companies. In this new service Ms Graham is talking about, is she saying there will be one or two companies?
Tell me it is an apparition and I have not just seen the Minister, Deputy Ross, in the Chamber responding to a Topical Issue matter. We have a crisis in rural transport, which is on its knees, and the Minister could not be bothered attending this meeting. He is handing over his responsibility to others when he should be here for scrutiny, as requested. There he is in the Chamber responding to a Topical Issue matter. If that is not the two fingers to people in rural Ireland, I do not know what is. The Chairman needs to raise this with the Minister.
The Deputy will be delighted to hear that I was talking to the clerk during the break. We have been sitting since 9.30 a.m. and I have no problem with staying here for as long as it takes. The Estimates meeting is fixed for 6 March. I propose that, with the committee's consent, we request that the Minister deal with this issue on that date.
Yes, but I am just saying, as Chairman of the committee, Deputy O'Dowd needs to have the Minister here.
The NTA had said in response to one Deputy that the Local Link offices are crucial in identifying local areas not covered and that the NTA could not identify those areas without the Local Link offices, that their knowledge is their local area involvement and that the NTA relies on them for their local knowledge. However, this contradicts the response Ms Graham gave me when I asked her why the NTA closed down more than half of the Local Link offices.
Ms Anne Graham:
Yes, we are at about that. We feel we have the capacity and will have the capacity to deal with the whole range of our issues. That is what I am here to do and what I try to manage. Obviously, we have additional demands for which we will seek additional human resources as we roll out further projects to deliver better services and infrastructure across Ireland. We acknowledge that trying to get changes and approving changes for Bus Éireann services takes too long and we do not want to stand over this. We prefer and want to improve the turnaround in getting a service up and running once it is approved because 12 months, as Deputy Troy said, is not good enough. We will work with Bus Éireann to improve that turnaround in order that it is as quick as possible because it is impacting on service delivery to the public.
I will not put a figure on the budget. All I will say is that the Deputy did his quantification there. We will have to see what the insurance costs will be and whether they will differ across different parts of the country. They will probably not differ but we will be resourcing this from our existing budget. There is no additional allocation and while we will obviously seek an additional allocation for this, there are obviously demands on the Government's budget.
We will raise rural transport with the Minister when he appears before the committee to discuss the Estimates. It will be a good opportunity to put a case to him that the NTA needs additional funding. Is it fair to say it would like additional funding to roll out this pilot?
Ms Anne Graham:
We always seek additional funding if possible but we recognise that there can be constraints on that. We are, therefore, willing to bring this pilot forward within our existing resources.
Even with the reduced number of Local Link offices, we still believe they have a significant amount of local knowledge. Their boards are based right across their regions in the different counties they manage. We believe they have the local knowledge that will assist us in identifying where the-----
Following on from the comments of my colleague, Deputy Munster, and for the record as well as the people watching these proceedings, the Minister, Deputy Ross, only got two hours' notification on the Topical Issue matter to which he is responding and he was able to turn up.
On today's overall topic, I came in hoping for a damage limitation exercise. I welcome the proposal but, from what I see, we seem to be coming up against another Government propaganda exercise. As with the housing crisis, we all know what the problem is but all we are seeing are complicated solutions. The nails are fast being driven into the coffin of rural Ireland. We do not have time to wait for more pilot schemes. We need to put in place national proposals.
Before I adjourn the meeting, I wish to raise one issue that concerns me, and the witnesses will appreciate my saying it.
In respect of insurance, if we are funding any additional transport we should also, if necessary, be funding the wheelchair accessibility aspect. Anybody who has a disability should have the right to wheelchair accessible transport. I welcome what is being done. If there is any issue about funding, the committee would be very happy to support calls for funding through the Minister. Equality of access is critically important. I thank the witnesses for attending.