Dáil debates

Thursday, 21 February 2019

Accessibility of Public Transport for People with Disabilities: Motion


5:05 pm

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Dublin Rathdown, Independent) | Oireachtas source

Before I do anything else, I echo Deputy O'Dowd's words of gratitude to Senator Dolan for the unique perspective he has brought to the Oireachtas on the disability issue. He and his assistant, Mr. Ciarán Delaney, have highlighted and made all of us far more aware of the disability issue in recent times. The fact that the report has been issued is a tribute to Senator Dolan and his office and to the rising awareness of disabilities in the Houses of the Oireachtas.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the motion on the joint committee's report on the accessibility of public transport for people with disabilities, following its launch on 14 November 2018. This time last year, I had the opportunity to engage with Members of both Houses when I appeared before the joint committee during the series of hearings it was holding at that time. In addition to the publication of the committee's report, there have been a number of positive developments in the past year that I would like briefly to outline to the House. In February 2018, I outlined how I had been particularly struck since becoming a Minister by the personal experiences related to me in my meetings with people with disabilities who use public transport. I have had wide consultation with members of the disability community, many of whom have contributed to the report we are discussing here tonight, as well as with disability representative bodies striving to make an impact. Following those discussions, I advised the committee that I had decided that no public transport company under the remit of my Department would in future function without a minimum of one board member with personal knowledge and experience of the needs and difficulties of people with disabilities who use public transport. Following an open competition run by the Public Appointments Service, I was pleased to be joined at a press conference in August last year by the newly appointed directors of those companies. These were Diarmuid Corry from Bus Éireann, Liam O'Rourke from the CIÉ Group, Kevin Kelly from the National Transport Authority, Suzy Byrne from Irish Rail and Elaine Howley from Dublin Bus. Members will be familiar with Mr. Padraic Moran who appeared before the joint committee during its hearings and who I have met on a number of occasions in relation to public transport issues. Last year, I appointed Mr. Moran to the board of Sport Ireland, also following an open competition run by PAS.

In relation to public transport infrastructure and facilities, it is worth reiterating that accessibility features, such as wheelchair accessibility and audiovisual aids, are built into all new public transport infrastructure projects and vehicles from the design stage and that newer systems, such as Luas, are fully accessible. Looking to the future, investment in public transport will be accelerated under the national development plan, NDP, to support the development of an integrated, accessible and sustainable national public transport system. A number of key new major public transport programmes are planned under the NDP over the period to 2027, including BusConnects for Ireland's cities, MetroLink, priority elements of the DART expansion programme and sustainable projects, including cycling and walking. In line with recommendations in the committee's report and as with all new and recently developed public transport projects, these programmes will be fully accessible as part of the normal design. The real challenge, as I have noted previously, relates to upgrading older infrastructure and facilities to make them accessible for people with disabilities. The difficulties and frustrations experienced by people with disabilities using such legacy infrastructure, including our Victorian-era train stations, were outlined very vividly during the committee's hearings. Given the importance of the accessibility retrofitting programme in this regard, the Department was granted a trebling of the funding provided for the programme to almost €28 million for the period 2018 to 2021.

The additional funding for the retrofit programme is facilitating the continued roil-out of programmes to install accessible bus stops on regional and rural services, upgrade train stations to make them accessible to wheelchair users and provide grant support for more wheelchair accessible vehicles, WAVs, in the taxi fleet. I am pleased that the 2019 allocation is €7 million, which represents an increase on the figure of €4 million last year. Under the NDP, there will also be a continued investment programme to fund the retrofitting of older existing public transport facilities to enhance accessibility.

I will update the House on some of the accessibility developments taking place in the different public transport sectors. Under the accessibility retrofit programme, last year €1 million was provided for railway station accessibility upgrades. That figure has been increased to €3 million this year. With increased funding from 2019, it is envisaged that larger projects will be undertaken at railway stations, including the installation of lifts and bridges to allow easy access across track platforms for wheelchair users.

One of the primary difficulties faced by people with disabilities is meeting the requirement to give advance notice of intention to travel. Members will be aware that people with disabilities repeatedly raise this issue and the difficulties it causes for them in trying to live their daily lives. Following the completion of a six-month pilot project in 2018, Irish Rail reduced the period of advance notice from 24 hours to four for people with a disability who required assistance to use DART services. The company is also rolling out the reduced notice period on the Maynooth and Northern commuter lines. While this reduction is very welcome, it is not where we want to be and Irish Rail plans to further reduce the timescale until it is ultimately eliminated.

As regards long distance rail services, Irish Rail is training customer service officers, CSOs, for deployment on all inter-city routes, which will mean that at all stops services with a CSO on board will be able to ensure ramp assistance is available. The full complement of CSOs is expected to be trained and deployed on all inter-city services in 2019. As a result, this development will eliminate the requirement for advance notice on such inter-city train services. I allocated additional funding in 2018 to Irish Rail for the development of a new smartphone app to address some of the key communication breakdowns that occur when providing assistance for persons with disabilities. I had the opportunity to discuss this development before the committee last December. The company intends to deploy the app during 2019.

As I outlined to the committee previously, 100% of the Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann city fleets are wheelchair accessible, as well as approximately 86% of Bus Éireann coaches which are wheelchair accessible by lift. Our policy for quite some time has been that all new buses purchased by Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann for urban centres must be low floor, wheelchair accessible vehicles. The number of Bus Éireann accessible vehicles will increase as more of its coach fleet is replaced with accessible vehicles during 2019. Another concern raised by wheelchair users relates to the provision of dedicated wheelchair spaces on urban buses. As a result of this concern, all of the Dublin Bus fleet purchased in the past few years has both a dedicated wheelchair space and a dedicated buggy space.

While all Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann bus stops in regional cities are fully accessible, we must acknowledge, as the committee's report identifies, that there is a shortage of accessible bus stops in rural and regional areas. The long-term objective is to install a wheelchair accessible bus stop in every town in Ireland. This is being rolled out on a route by route basis, with Dublin to Donegal and Dublin to Letterkenny routes being focused on initially. While this is a longer term objective, in the shorter term the NTA intends to provide an accessible bus stop, in both directions, in all 43 towns nationwide that have a population in excess of 5,000 people by 2021, which will result in 86 accessible bus stops.

In addition to the phasing out of the requirement to give advance notice while travelling on long distance train services, the House will pleased to know that the requirement for advance notification will also be phased out on regional or commuter PS0 bus services, beginning this year. This is resulting from the new single deck buses to be used on PS0 commuter routes up to 50 km. The new vehicles will allow wheelchair users to board with normal ramp access, thereby replacing the high floor type coach on such routes which requires an external wheelchair lift and advance notice. The first of the new buses are expected to enter service in the middle of this year.

Another concern for people with disabilities which is also addressed in the report arises from problems with on-board audio and visual announcements on both buses and trains. Since 2015 all of Bus Éireann's new fleet has been fitted with high definition, HD, multimedia screens that have the capability to show route progress information, next stop information and expected arrival times. However, before this system can become operational, all of the approximately 6,000 bus stops nationwide on the network need to be renamed, using a standard naming criterion, in both the English and Irish languages. The NTA, in conjunction with Bus Éireann, has been working on the short common name, SCN, project and it is anticipated that the project will be completed nationwide during 2019. Separately, the NTA is undertaking this task with all other transport operators.

One of the success stories which tends to get overlooked is the services provided by private bus operators under the rural transport programme which operate under the Local Link brand. Local Link services have expanded in recent years in line with an increase in funding which has grown from €12.2 million in 2016 to almost €20 million in 2018 and 2019. The NTA advises that 80% of the fleet in use on Local Link services is wheelchair accessible. Action 254 of the Government's Action Plan for Rural Development commits to ensuring Local Link vehicles are accessible, having regard to all passenger needs. The objective is to achieve at least 95% fully accessible trips by the end of next year.

Since the introduction of a taxi wheelchair accessible vehicle grants scheme in 2014, the number of WAVs in the fleet increased from 860 in 2014 to 2,201 at the end of October 2018, which represents 10.6% of the total fleet. This is the highest ever level of wheelchair accessible vehicles in the small public service vehicle fleet. It is intended to continue the grants scheme in 2019.

As I outlined to the House previously, we are conducting a review of public transport policy. As part of the review, my Department will be undertaking a public consultation process on different aspects of public transport, including the provision of accessible public transport. I urge members of the public and especially representatives of the disability community to contribute their views to the process.

I will conclude with what I hope the House will agree is a very significant development. It is the NTA’s decision to create a new position of transport accessibility manager. Against the background of the delivery by the NTA of the largest ever investment in public transport under the national development plan and its role in seeking to continually expand and improve the network of public transport services across the State, it is critical that the needs of customers with disabilities be to the forefront in the design and development of public transport infrastructure and services by the NTA. The role and responsibilities of the transport accessibility manager will be wide-ranging and include establishing a formal engagement process with key disability representative groups; developing and monitoring an improvement plan for existing services; assisting in the development of the retrofit programme and ensuring accessibility is built into all new public transport infrastructure; co-ordinating the accessibility programmes of transport operators and their access officers and establishing a contact and complaints handling system for users of public transport who have a disability. The position of transport accessibility manager has been publicly advertised by the NTA and the process to fill the post is under way.

I again acknowledge the work of the committee in producing the report, with all those who contributed to it, particularly the people with a disability who shared their experiences of using public transport. In addition, I acknowledge the work the transport companies and the NTA are undertaking in seeking to improve accessibility for people with disabilities to the public transport system. I take the opportunity to record my acknowledgement and appreciation of the co-operation of the employees in the transport companies and their staff associations, including the NBRU and SIPTU, in helping to make public transport accessible for people with disabilities. Their support has been immense and immeasurable. I particularly thank Mr. Dermot O'Leary for his constant championing of the cause of people with disabilities. I notice he is present in the Visitors Gallery for this debate. I welcome him and his colleagues. It is a great tribute to him and others that while there might be political differences and differences between management and employees, they are transcended where people with disabilities are concerned. They cause people to discard their prejudices and personal interests and work together for people with disabilities, for which I applaud and salute them.


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