Wednesday, 23 September 2015
Public Transport Bill 2015: Second Stage (Resumed)
I made a number of points relating to this Bill previously. Today I wish to make the Minister aware of further issues of concern.
The Bill refers to the Rail Safety Act 2005, which makes reference to fostering greater competition. What kind of competitive vision does the Government foresee in the future of the railways? I struggle to imagine, in practical terms, how various private railway companies, operating on the same rail lines, will improve efficiency. The idea evades the innate practical advantage that is natural monopoly.
Regarding bus rapid transit, BRT, Dublin Bus has entered into a public service contract with the NTA to operate the BRT up to December 2019. We welcome this as it could present an opportunity to develop bus services across Dublin county. However, I raise concerns in relation to privatisation. Sinn Féin strongly opposes any move to put the BRT in private hands, like the Luas, which is a good example of how even in the best circumstances private operators do not necessarily operate any more efficiently than public operators.
Changes to the College Green area do present a possibility for problems but could just as easily be an opportunity to integrate taxi services better into our transport network. Any attempts to ban taxi access to College Green will have a huge negative effect. The traffic implications would force taxis to detour, increasing congestion. A taxi ban would also have a detrimental effect on those with disabilities who rely on taxis regularly.
Regarding issues affecting taxi drivers, I mentioned previously that I welcome new regulations for the passing on of a taxi licence to a bereaved family member. This is a sensible and practical amendment. Sinn Féin had called for greater access to this provision from its inception and this is a positive move which will help many families across the country. I also welcome the new period for paying fixed charges, which will alleviate pressure on taxi drivers.
Regulating and vetting taxi drivers is essential in the development of a strong, safe service for the public. However, while regulation is an obvious necessity, we must ensure that it does not operate unfairly and impact unjustly on hardworking people trying to make a living. Therefore, I must raise the utterly discriminatory attacks on the livelihood of taxi drivers convicted of offences relating to the conflict in the northern part of our country, which raged from the 1960s to 2005. I remind the Government that under the Good Friday Agreement, republican and loyalist former-prisoners are not to be discriminated against and barred from employment, yet this Bill seeks to do just that. Drivers who have worked for decades, contributed to the State and provided quality service without a problem have recently received letters telling them they will not be allowed to renew their licences.
We will be working with such drivers to challenge this disproportionate attack on their right to make a living.
I must express my concern at parts of the wording in this Bill in relation to competition, which strike me as largely ideological. Since the Government assumed office in 2011, the State's subsidy for public transport, which was already far too low compared to that of other European states, has been cut by over 20%. To compound problems further, the Government has sought to erode pay and working conditions for thousands of bus drivers and rail operators, leaving disaffected transport employees no option other than industrial action. Should the Government continue on its relentless race to the bottom, no doubt there will be many more strikes in the future.
The kind of narrative we have around transport focuses on competition as opposed to reliability, affordability and efficiency for those who need the service. Competition ought not to be the absolute priority as a means of achieving high-quality transport services, which it does not. Instead, the focus ought to be on reliability of provision and price stability. The only competition that should be at play is public transport competing with private cars as the best way to commute and to socialise. Competition among bus services, rail services and other transport services will not improve the provision of those services and presents no long-term savings for anyone. It will simply ensure handsome profits for private interests while reducing connectivity for less profitable routes and undermining workers' conditions, all while demanding a subsidy from the State. This is the case in every situation in which public transport has been privatised. It is not cheaper and it is not more efficient, but it is profitable for those who own the companies that take the place of groups such as Dublin Bus, which put public service before profit.
The United Kingdom embarked on measures to systematically privatise its transport network over the past number of decades, and we can see today the result of this policy as prices soar, with a large proportion of the public calling for re-nationalisation of the United Kingdom rail network. Should Irish Rail be fully privatised, be it under an EU directive or purely through the politics of a neoliberal Government, I believe that a future Ireland would find itself in a similar position to the United Kingdom. The ideologically driven notion of competition in the provision of transport is simply detached from the living realities of those who use the service on a daily basis. The re-election of Fine Gael and the Labour Party, I believe, will see a further push to move our services into the private sector, with little regard for the impact on users.
There are a number of technical amendments throughout this Bill and I look forward to debating them.
Obviously, we all welcome anything that will facilitate the further expansion, improvement or development of the public transport infrastructure, or anything that will facilitate greater investment in that infrastructure.
There are a few different aspects to this Bill, the first of which is the bus rapid transit, BRT, system. For anybody who is watching this, we should not use jargon too much. As I understand it, the legislation is designed to facilitate the NTA in making decisions on the development of the BRT system. The system, which involves super bus corridors, is a good development. There are three routes being proposed: Swords to the airport, Blanchardstown to UCD, and Clongriffin to Tallaght, all of which are important routes which are certainly about facilitating consumers - sorry, what is the word - not "consumers"-----
It is about citizens. The Minister is absolutely right.
These corridors seem like a good idea and I would be in favour of them. My fear, which was touched on by Deputy Ellis, is that against a background of consistent reductions in subsidies in the form of the public service payments to Dublin Bus, which have dropped every year, including every year under this Government - from €85 million in 2008 to €60 million now, which amounts to a €25 million loss in Exchequer funding for Dublin Bus - there will end up being a trade-off between these super bus routes, which we need and which are a good development, and the public service obligation to provide commercially unviable routes to citizens. Here, indeed, the distinction between consumers and citizens is quite an important one, because with the reduction in subsidies from the Exchequer to Dublin Bus, the temptation - indeed, I would say, the pressure - tangibly evident within Dublin Bus to see passengers as purely consumers from whom it can get money will result in the cutting of routes that it considers not to be profitable or financially viable. There should not be a trade-off, but it is becoming a trade-off. Sadly, my constituency is one in which it is being felt particularly acutely.
I engaged with the Minister, or one of the Ministers of State from the Department, before the summer recess about what can only be described as the savaging of whole public service routes, or the public service element of routes which, although they might be busy routes, contain parts that are not considered to be particularly profitable. There are plans to either change or cut altogether the Dublin Bus routes 7, 111, 8, 59, 45A and 63. All of those changes, or out-and-out cuts, will hit working-class communities, where there are particularly large numbers of users who are elderly or very young on routes which are not the big commuter routes. In the case of the 7, which is a big commuter route, the part of that route which I suspect Dublin Bus feels is not very financially useful to it - the part that goes through Sallynoggin, and has gone through it for as long as I can remember - will be cut, dealing a significant blow to Sallynoggin. Similarly, Killiney village is losing its bus altogether. The frequency of buses going into Loughlinstown Park, a very disadvantaged working-class area, will be cut in order to facilitate the super commuter route from Cherrywood, which is considered to be a large transport hub. I will not go through the full list, but this is happening.
Indeed, it is no coincidence that many of those routes I have just mentioned are also routes that are part of the outsourcing or privatisation that the Government is pushing through the plan to privatise 10% of orbital routes. It is not a coincidence that these routes are being slashed; they are also the ones earmarked for privatisation, and they are being replaced with the super commuter routes. The Minister should not get me wrong; I want the super commuter routes, but they should be additional to the routes that serve communities, villages, and areas where there is a high proportion of elderly people and so on.
However, that is not happening because the Minister has slashed the subsidy to Dublin Bus, which was already one of the lowest anywhere in Europe. The Minister is engaging in the classic mechanism for privatisation of a service. Although he will deny it and say it is only a bit of privatisation, it is clear what is happening. Bus routes on which communities have depended for decades will be lost in order to facilitate the privatisation agenda and push Dublin Bus away from the public service model into a commercial, for-profit model. For this reason, I am very worried about it. The BRT will accelerate the pressure, although it is a good thing in itself.
In my remaining two minutes, I will discuss taxis. While some of the regulations and changes seem to be reasonably positive, taxi drivers will have concerns about others. Section 2(a), which will bring dispatch operators who are working off apps such as Hailo under the regulation of the NTA, seems like a good thing. Some of these operators could undermine, and are undermining, existing taxi drivers. To bring them under some regulatory framework is a positive move. However, there are other aspects that are more worrying. Section 2(h) specifies that where the licensing authority decides not to grant a licence or to revoke or suspend a licence, there can no appeal. No process in which a decision could be made that could affect the livelihood of a taxi driver should be without an appeals process. There should always be an appeals process. This must be examined.
I have previously raised with the Minister on behalf of taxi drivers a serious problem which arose most recently around the decision to change the fare structure. This required the recalibration of meters, which was a cost for taxi drivers. The representatives of the taxi drivers said the taxi advisory committee did not properly consult with them and that the NTA imposed decisions without a proper consultation process. The Bill should address such matters and provide that there be real consultation rather than high-handed imposition of decisions from above in a way that can potentially be detrimental to the livelihoods of those workers.
I do not have time to make my final point.
While the proposed declaration is not highly objectionable in itself, it seems tokenistic. The taxi drivers are saying that the problem with proper regulation of the industry is enforcement - that not enough NTA staff are going around and doing checks to catch rogue drivers who are not compliant in a whole series of ways. This is of deep concern to bona fide taxi drivers. The declaration looks tokenistic and decorative, given that it is an undertaking to do things that drivers have to do legally anyway. Instead, we should put resources into enforcement. Some taxi drivers made a simple proposal to me that there should be an emergency number for taxi drivers so that they can call the enforcement people if they suspect somebody is not compliant in some way. Such simple, practical measures, which involve a little more resources, would be better than decorative measures that will make no difference.
The most recent Eurobarometer survey on satisfaction levels with public transport across Europe very interestingly found that 9% of Irish respondents were satisfied with the price of public transport, while just 8% of Irish people use public transport once a day, less often than almost every other country in the EU. There are many reasons for this, including the convenience and proximity of transport services. However, the quality of services offered on Irish trains, in my experience, is a major factor.
I am sure the Minister is well aware that Irish Rail regularly makes headlines for publicly apologising to passengers who have to stand in carriages. Most recently, a 12-year-old boy shamed the company into an apology for his 76-year-old grandmother, who was forced to stand for a three-hour journey because there were no empty seats left on the train. The child likened the journey to something in a Third World country. These are all facts. I can deal only with Waterford. Occasionally I use the rail service to Waterford, as do many others. I have debated this with the manger of Irish Rail in Waterford. I have observed senior citizens and pregnant women crammed into carriages like cattle for a lengthy portion of the journey. Last year, I learned that passenger journeys on the Waterford service had fallen by approximately 3,000, one of the worst drops in the country. I cannot say I was surprised. In the weeks before and during Christmas last year, when the trains were packed to capacity, there were three carriages on the Dublin to Waterford train, with the result that dozens of people had to stand in the aisles as far as Kilkenny. Many of these people were looking after young children and had bags of shopping with them. I cannot understand it.
If the Minister is Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport in the next Government, which I hope he is, something will happen in Irish Rail. I have been on trains in which whole carriages of people were standing. If a train has to stop urgently or if there is an accident, the Government will have to do some critical analysis. This has been going on for many years. There was a debate on my local radio station and, as far as I remember, there was no problem with people standing. One cannot stand on a bus or in a car. Trains travel at 80 km/h or 90 km/h. People should not have to stand on a train. This is happening all over Ireland, and the Minister is probably aware of it; I do not know. I have put it on the record of the Dáil that it is a disaster waiting to happen. I hope it does not. If people are standing on a train that is going at 80 km/h or 90 km/h and the driver has to brake urgently, somebody will be injured. There is no question in my mind about it. The company will continue to see a decrease in the use of the Waterford line, and others, unless it addresses the shortcomings in the service. Given that one is not allowed to stand on a bus, why should it be different on a train?
The price is not competitive and customers are not being given the comfort for which they pay. It is an insult to ask somebody to pay €47 to go from Waterford to Dublin. The people who get on the train in Kilkenny and Carlow will certainly stand all the way to Dublin.
When I think about the €47 charge, it strikes me that despite all my criticism of Ryanair, it would be cheaper to travel via Ryanair. It is ridiculous and outrageous that people are being charged €47 for a journey of an hour and a half when it is likely that they will have to stand for an hour.
I understand that despite this chronic overcrowding, more than two dozen Irish Rail carriages that were retired at the height of the recession as passenger numbers fell are still lying idle. I was told this by people in the company. I believe that these surplus carriages went on sale in 2012 but were not sold. The Minister might find out whether this is accurate. Am I to believe that the carriages which were taken away from Irish Rail services are still lying around in yards somewhere in Ireland, even though hundreds of passengers will have to stand all the way to Dublin on tomorrow morning's 6 o'clock, 7 o'clock and 8 o'clock services from Cork and Waterford? It is just not acceptable. Will the Minister speak to Irish Rail about dealing with the overcrowding and putting these carriages back on track?
I want the Minister to think about a final point I will make in this context. I do not intend to be condescending when I say that as a very intelligent man, he needs to think about what might happen to passengers who have to stand for an hour and a half on a train that is going at 80 km/h or 70 km/h. I suggest that something is going to happen unless this is stopped. It has been going on for years. Irish Rail pays no attention to public representatives. When I get off the train and tell Irish Rail staff what has happened, they say, "We are very sorry about that, John, and we will see what we can do about it". People ring me the next morning to tell me that the same thing has happened again. The last time I went on the train, having decided to take the train rather than the car because I needed to do a great deal of writing, I had to give up my seat after 20 minutes. It would not fare well for a Deputy to be sitting while a woman is standing, so that ended that. This is not the issue, however. The issue is that overcrowding is happening throughout the country. The service is poor, bad and dangerous. I am saying now - I want it recorded that I have said this in the Dáil - that something needs to be done about this dangerous service before something critical happens.
The last time I was on a bus, I had to give up my seat for a pregnant woman, so it works many ways. There is a crisis all around. The points made by Deputy Halligan are quite valid.
The Bill before the House is pretty technical. We are not dealing with anything revolutionary here. It is a means of facilitating bus rapid transit, with which I have an enormous problem. I am not really on for that. The other aspects of the Bill relate to relatively small technical matters such as taxis and airport fixed charge notices. Having said that, this debate gives us an important opportunity to stand back and look at the bigger picture. We have been treated to a plethora of announcements from the Minister regarding metro north, metro light, DART underground and DART extensions, etc. We have been told that the Luas is going there and not here. It has really been a case of announcement after announcement with very little clarity or detail about what is being done to develop an integrated transport system for our capital city, where a huge amount of the population lives and a larger amount of the population works. It is probably an illustration of the ad hocmishmash approach that is being taken. There was speculation over the summer that the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, was the only Minister in town. He was popping up in so many places that he seemed to be the only Minister who was working. While I think announcements are good, the lack of cohesion among the plethora of announcements is dangerous and worrying in some ways. Maybe I will elaborate on this point in a minute.
I will not repeat the points that have been made by Deputies Ellis and Boyd Barrett about taxis. When we are talking about regulation, we should note that taxi drivers feel they are super-regulated. There is an almighty level of scrutiny of taxi drivers and their efforts to earn their livelihoods. A similar level of scrutiny and regulation is not applied to those who operate as the competitors of taxi drivers, such as rickshaw drivers. Neither the National Transport Authority, Dublin City Council nor the Garda Síochána will take responsibility for regulating these operators, who are allowed to pick up passengers and operate more or less without any regulation whatsoever. There has to be a level playing field. The points that have been made about the pressures on taxi drivers who are trying to earn their livelihoods are still valid today. We need to be cognisant of that.
I would like to speak about the bus rapid transit issue, which has been spoken about at length. The idea of building rapid bus lanes on public roads to cater for this new type of bus seems to be the Minister's preferred choice of public transport. When that is added in with the shelving of the DART underground project, it is quite worrying, particularly following the axing of the metro north project - the real metro, the big metro, or whatever one wants to call it - in 2011. That project was not replaced in the recent announcements that were made. I suggest that the Government is still trying to untangle it. I am still not that clear on the matter. I suppose the first point is that buses are not a solution. The idea of developing bus services as a short-term solution is often used to avoid the longer-term infrastructure that is necessary.
That is continuing against the backdrop of this country's abysmal failure to meet its climate change obligations. I am cognisant that a city cannot be run on cars. The Minister lives on the north side, although he is not as far north as me. People who live on routes on the north side that are not on the DART line are overwhelmingly reliant on private vehicles such as cars because the bus transport network is so poor. It seems that the new rapid bus system will share road infrastructure that is already over-burdened and crippled. That will not make commuters any more rapid. The roads they drive on will not get any bigger. They will not be able to move more quickly. The proposed new system is to be delivered at an absolutely enormous cost.
The Minister is aware that the city came to an utter standstill last week when a fire took place in the port tunnel. People on the north side, in particular, were left virtually abandoned. It is in that context that the Minister said yesterday that the proposed DART underground project will be put on hold. It has been suggested that the project will somehow be redesigned to provide a lower cost technical solution. God knows what that means. People who are more qualified than me have made the point that the DART underground project was the missing link that would provide a very good solution in dealing with the massive strain that the commuter and DART rail networks are under at present. The stories of overcrowding we have heard from Deputy Halligan are replicated in my own area on the trains coming in from Balbriggan, Skerries, Rush and Malahide, etc. The DART underground project would massively increase capacity into and out of Dublin on commuter, DART and intercity trains. In my opinion, it would lead to an excellent return on our investment.
Like all Deputies, the Minister will have received a massive number of e-mails from the public on this issue. One of the points made in one of those e-mails is that even though the cost of a rail tunnel is high, the benefit is borne over decades and centuries and the expense is inflated away over time. Does London feel that its underground lines were expensive? Does it still feel the burden of that cost today? The person who wrote this e-mail suggests that most citizens would prefer to see the nation wait to build something adequate, rather than spending time and money building something inferior that will need to be upgraded in the future. I agree with that. Obviously, I was glad to hear the Minister announce yesterday that the DART will be extended to Balbriggan. Of course I was pleased, although it is long overdue. It must be a reflection of the Government's feeling that it is under a little pressure in the Dublin North constituency. Apart from that announcement, there was no clarity on how the rest of the project is to proceed or on anything else whatsoever.
The Minister said yesterday that he wants to make progress with "elements of the overall DART Expansion Programme which bring value in themselves, subject to appropriate business cases and the availability of funding". What does that mean? To which elements do the "appropriate business cases" apply? There is no clarity in any of this. In the absence of full funding for DART underground, several elements of the project that have been highlighted here previously could be advanced. I refer, for example, to the next phase of the Kildare line, the elimination of the level crossings in Maynooth and the electrification of the line around Grand Canal Dock. All of those projects would achieve benefits. The Minister's suggestion that we need to "continue to seek the best value for taxpayers' money in everything we do" is fine on that level, but I remind him that millions of euro have already been spent on some of these projects, including metro north. Are we going to flush them away?
I do not think the Minister has given enough details and I do not like this drip feed stuff. There was supposed to be an announcement on Wednesday and now the Minister is announcing something next week in terms of the capital plan. It is not good enough.
Obviously one of the big features was metro north. The point has been made that Dublin is one of the few cities in Europe that does not have a rail link to our national airport. Passenger numbers have increased by 15% in the first half of this year, with an additional 1.5 million passengers, which is absolutely massive. On one level I am not really bothered about the airport, much as I would like to see tourists transited in and out quicker than is currently the case. That would be a big plus but I am more concerned about the urban population that lives beyond the airport. An area like Swords, which has a population bigger than that of Waterford city, has nothing - absolutely nothing. Those who criticise metro - the real metro, that is - as being too costly are generally living on the south side of Dublin. I am not saying that as a cheap pop. Why are there large public meetings in Deputy Boyd Barrett's area when bus routes are axed? It is because they provide a very good service that gets people into town quickly and people treasure them. If a bus service were axed in north county Dublin it would not make a blind bit of difference because the routes are so unwieldy anyway. Buses have to go all around the world and back even to get into town. One would be quicker getting a flight from Frankfurt to Dublin city centre than getting in from Swords. The idea of replacing metro north with metro light or metro-not-really-the-real-one or metro-Luas-but-we-will-call-it-something-else is not really going to address that deficit. It is short sighted and not good enough, although I admit that we are being drip-fed information so the picture is not clear at all. If the idea is a Luas mark two which will stop a kilometre from the airport, then that is a bit pointless. Points were very well articulated in The Irish Times today about Luas being too slow and not having the capacity to take the volume of passengers that is necessary.
The Minister is aware that there have been large numbers of petitions gathered by the public in support of proceeding with some of the projects as they were originally envisaged, and that is absolutely critical. Behind the scenes here is the fact that delivering quality public transport costs money but it is a vital cog in the battle against climate change and a vital cog in the running of this city. Is it not a little sad that there was an announcement today that the Web Summit, which was founded in Dublin, is going to Lisbon because the latter city has much better infrastructure, systems and facilities than Dublin? I have no doubt that the lack of adequate public transport was a key part in that decision which will allegedly cost the Irish economy €100 million. We have had no problem pumping billions into motorways to facilitate private vehicles and to line the pockets of toll companies, over and over again, while a disproportionate and significant lack of investment in public rail transport has taken place. Sadly that, along with the reduced subsidy to Dublin Bus, Bus Éireann and Iarnród Éireann will be the legacy of this Government. Hard cash and serious plans rather than announcement after announcement would go down a lot better.
I thank the Minister for bringing forward this, admittedly, largely technical Bill. It is important for the Members of the House to be given an opportunity to debate this Public Transport Bill, an extraordinarily important part of the role of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Minister in terms of laying out plans for capital infrastructure over the next number of years. Like Deputy Daly - although not as cynical - I view a lot of the proposals that are in the public domain and over which the Minister has been deliberating over recent months as being of key importance in terms of improving the infrastructure in Dublin and the surrounding areas. In particular, I refer to my constituency and thank the Minister for his announcement yesterday relating to DART and the electrification of part of the northern commuter line, which is a welcome initiative. When metro north was paused in 2011, I spent some time with the then Minister, Deputy Varadkar, discussing alternatives in the short term to alleviate the pressures arising from the growth in the north county. I included electrification of the north county line and temporary alternatives to the likes of metro or Luas. That manifested itself with the proposal for the bus rapid transit, BRT. In the north county, as the Minister is aware, the Opposition has been very quick to pooh-pooh such a suggestion on the basis of an assumption that it was the alternative to the likes of a rail-based solution for Swords and Dublin Airport. Of course, it is not an alternative but an additional facility. If it were to go ahead, I am absolutely sure that once the planning was done right in the first place, it would be an additional bonus for the people in the north county to be able to get in and out of the city centre in a more efficient manner. There is one serious private operator in Swords - Swords Express - which offers a pretty good service, it must be said, through the port tunnel and, of course, Dublin Bus which provides ancillary services to and from the city via the airport and direct buses to Swords, which are beneficial.
Opposition Deputies have made various points on the question of whether we go ahead with the likes of metro north or a Luas alternative. I have said both publicly and privately to the Minister that the journey times and the capacity of either service are critical as far as I am concerned. Like Deputy Daly, I am quite indifferent as to whether the service is one or other. My position would be that people should be able get to the city centre in a reasonable period of time from northern Swords. I also want to be assured that the growth of Swords is met in terms of the projections that the population will double over the next 20 years or so, from 50,000 to 100,000 by 2035. Clearly we need to be planning 30 years in advance for whatever service we provide to the north county. If it is metro or if it is a cheaper version of metro and has capacity and journey times planned as part of its roll out, then clearly it will meet the demands of not just my constituency but also the millions of passengers who are coming in and out of Dublin Airport annually. The airport is a critical economic driver, not just for this country but also for my constituency. I understand it accounts for 3% of GDP and, of course, almost 100,000 jobs, which is a very significant number. As has been mentioned by some of my colleagues, Dublin is the only capital city in Europe that does not have a rail option for travellers to and from Dublin Airport.
To return briefly to the BRT, better levels of public transport and connectivity are critical to the growth of the north county in particular. While the city is growing in all areas, Fingal is growing eight times faster than Dublin city centre. There is a huge number of greenfield sites in the north county, particularly north of Swords, which will be expanded into over the coming decades. The development plan process is commencing in Fingal and the plan is expected to be in place in early 2017. Of course, in terms of the local authority's ability to plan for such growth and which particular areas should be focused on, it is incredibly important we are able to deliver upon the public transport proposals that will make a huge difference to the north side. There is no point in us, as the Minister has said on numerous occasions, building 40 more multi-storey car park facilities in Dublin city centre because we do not want people in their cars; we want them on public transport.
We want Dublin Bus to be a viable, profitable company that not only breaks even, but also makes a profit and invests in its fleet as opposed to requiring subvention from the State. The same applies to Irish Rail. While the company provides an excellent service to north County Dublin, economic growth is creating capacity problems. Most passengers who board a train in the morning in Balbriggan find a seat, whereas most of those who board at Rush and Lusk station must stand for the entire journey into the city centre. The benefit of having a DART service to Malahide is that my constituents find a seat on the DART trains. Extending the service to Balbriggan will alleviate pressure on the heavy rail service operating on the Belfast line and give people choice. This connectivity will be critical in rebuilding the economy and sustaining economic growth.
The sources of funding for the proposed projects are another important issue. When the announcement is made on the north Dublin corridor I would like some of the moneys accruing from the sale of Aer Lingus - the connectivity fund - to be provided for transport in north County Dublin. The services that are provided as a result must be integrated in existing transport networks, both Luas and rail, to ensure the greatest possible degree of connectivity in the capital.
DART underground does not affect my constituency but it is a very good idea. I understand the proposal to connect Dublin's rail lines dates back 100 years.
Yes, it is to address poor planning by the Victorians who failed to connect the two rail lines. When the lines were built more than 150 years ago, the city had a much smaller population. It is essential, however, in the 21st century that we get whatever we propose right and ensure it is affordable. It would be difficult for the Government to afford both projects at the same time. While I am pleased from my constituents' perspective that capital investment to the tune of several billion euro will be made in a public transport project in the next six, eight or ten years, it will be necessary in the longer term to address connectivity across Dublin.
The funding sources for the proposed projects will be of critical importance. I would hate the Department to write a large cheque to the National Transport Authority or whichever body is responsible for delivering the proposal for the north Dublin corridor to pay the costs of planning and subsequently fail to follow through and provide every cent that is required to deliver the service that is selected.
As I indicated, this is a largely technical Bill. It also provides for some changes to the regulation of taxis and I am pleased to note that provisions on the small public service vehicle regulations will be underpinned in secondary legislation.
To return to my point on the journey times of commuters, it takes a person boarding a DART in Malahide 28 minutes to reach the River Liffey at Tara Street. If a commuter in Swords requires more than 35 minutes to reach the same destination following the completion of the proposed metro project, it will be viewed as something of a let-down for the north county. The sums involved - billions of euro - mean this is likely be the largest ever capital investment by the State.
Deputy Clare Daly made a point about investment in the motorway network. It is very easy for Deputies from Dublin to make the types of comments the Deputy made. She fails to accept the critical importance of connecting all four corners of the country and not only to Dublin. It is as important as investing in rail infrastructure to ensure we are capable of meeting the demands of the growing population.
Fáiltím roimh an deis labhairt ar an ábhar tábhachtach seo. I am reminded of the great urban-rural divide when I speak on a Bill such as this, although I acknowledge that this legislation is technical in nature. For obvious reasons, much of the debate has been focused on Dublin city centre and many of the changes involve new modes of transport. However, there is life outside of Dublin and we are sore enough after the weekend without Dublin monopolising the debate on this Bill. I ask the Acting Chairman to indulge me by allowing me to broaden the debate somewhat by introducing a rural element.
The Bill refers to the National Transport Authority, among other bodies. My lengthy correspondence with the Minister and Ms Anne Graham, the chief executive of the National Transport Authority, must have caused the destruction of a small forest. I am being sent around the houses and getting nowhere on an issue that remains as relevant today as it was on the first occasion I raised it with the Minister and Ms Graham. I refer to the sharp decline in the number of registered hackney drivers, which was highlighted in a reply to a recent parliamentary question I tabled. West Cork has a particular issue with the area test, although I am sure the problem also arises elsewhere. Cork is a very large county and hackney operators in my locality inform me that they cannot employ new hackney drivers because candidates are unable to pass the new area-based test. I appreciate that the Minister will have a good sense of the geography of west Cork. An applicant for a hackney licence from Clonakilty, Rosscarbery, Bandon or Dunmanway may be asked about side streets in Carrigaline, which is a world away from where they operate. Despite my entreaties to the Minister and Ms Graham, I continue to receive the answer that current practice will continue. This issue is a source of great frustration.
While I appreciate that this is technical legislation, I raise it because people in west Cork do not have the luxury of a public transport system. Unlike Deputy Farrell, I cannot speak about my constituents wanting an improved DART service. The other Deputy Daly in the House, my cousin, spoke about bus services on the north side of Dublin not being as good as services on the south side of the city. Many of the areas I represent do not have a public bus service, which is a luxury we cannot afford. I raise this matter, therefore, in this debate and plead with the Minister to have it re-examined. In the absence of public transport, the people I represent rely on hackney drivers and they feel hard done by as a result of the area knowledge test on which the National Transport Authority refuses to make progress with me.
As I stated, I have received a small forest of paper on this issue. I asked some hackney drivers in west Cork to write to the National Transport Authority outlining their personal experiences of this problem but Ms Graham repeatedly responds to our correspondence by stating nothing can be done.
I thank the Acting Chairman for allowing me such latitude in this discussion. As far as I am concerned, the Bill relates to public transport and we, in west Cork, view hackneys as public transport.
I apologise for arriving a little late and nearly missing my speaking slot.
I welcome the Minister and the Bill before us. Deputy Jim Daly has even lobbied me on the hackney licence tests. In fairness, his argument makes sense, especially in the case of County Cork which is such a large county. I urge the Minister, for my peace of mind, to address the issue.
The Bill is straightforward in the sense that it is largely technical in nature and, on my reading, makes common sense amendments to three or four existing Acts. Like Deputy Jim Daly, I propose to address two or three issues that affect my constituency. Public transport in the area between Kilkenny city and Waterford city is largely provided by taxis and hackneys. Significant investment has been made in the road infrastructure of the area.
The M9, which is now one of the best routes in the country, replaced the N9, which was one of the worst national primary routes. Certainly, I commend that. However, there is an urgent need to connect other urban centres outside Dublin by means of public transport. The Minister has made a conscious effort in particular for rural towns in the Kilkenny, Carlow, Kildare areas where the bus service was due to be cut completely and where a new reformed service has been put in place. That is to be welcomed. However, in particular in my part of the world, there are huge connections across the route from Waterford to Limerick which national primary route remains perhaps one of the worst in the country. In fact, if one travels the length of it, most of the towns and villages, with the exceptions of Piltown in Kilkenny and Clonmel, are still on the original national primary network. It is probably the longest stretch of unimproved national primary road in the country. Significant bus services operate daily between Waterford and Limerick and investment in that road network is long overdue.
I want to use this opportunity to flag another issue. Perhaps, the Minister will be able to find an answer for me on the point. After much unforeseen delay, the New Ross bypass, with which Deputy Wallace will be familiar, is thankfully about to get under way in the early part of next year. The Waterford bypass was completed a number of years ago but as things stand, the four or five mile stretch between the New Ross bypass when it is completed and the Waterford bypass, all of which is in County Kilkenny, will remain a single carriageway road while the two bypasses will be dual-carriageways. It is a classic example. Deputy Alan Farrell mentioned earlier bad planning by the Victorians who did not connect the rail lines in Dublin. It will be a classic case of bad planning in this day and age if that small but highly trafficked stretch of road - the N25 national route between Rosslare and Cork is a European route - is not the subject of some provision to ensure the completed New Ross bypass is connected directly to the existing Waterford city bypass.
I note that the legislation amends the Taxi Regulation Act 2013 to create a new procedure for the handing over of taxi licences from licensees who have passed away, which I welcome. I heard the Minister on the radio yesterday talking about the DART. The DART underground project is hugely significant and obviously something we would all like to see developed. However, the Minister's logic as to why what is currently proposed needs to be revisited is sound in the sense that it is the potentially the biggest single infrastructure project in the country. The scale of funds involved is dramatic and if a better engineered solution, which was the phrase the Minister used, can be found that is more cost-effective, it is grounds for full support for the Minister's position.
Plenty of development levies were applied when I was building it and, believe it or not, we paid them. I realise that what is before us is technical legislation, but I welcome the occasion to address the issue it raises of public transport. There has been a serious lack of discussion of the Government's transport strategy. In response to one of my written questions last April, the Minister stated that the framework, Investing In Our Transport Future; A Strategic Framework for Investment in Land Transport, would address the need for a new rail policy and that a public consultation process would take place in the coming weeks on the current and future role of rail in Ireland. That was April. Now, the final version of the framework has been published and the only mention of the much-needed rail policy is simply repeated references throughout the 36 page document to the fact that we need a new rail policy, that we have historically low levels of spending on public transport infrastructure, that just to maintain the existing infrastructure we will need to spend a lot more and that if we are to meet our 2020 obligations on carbon emissions and renewable energy targets in the transport sector, we must spend more again. However, because we are living under the dictates of a neoliberal Government that is still shoving austerity down our necks, this much-needed funding is unlikely to materialise. Instead, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport is letting our transport infrastructure go to rot while making plans for the privatisation of our public transport system.
This is just another case of the Fine Gael-Labour Government putting the interests of business above all else, including the principle of democracy itself. To quote UCD's Julian Mercile:
[P]rivatisation decreases democratic input into economic decisions and planning as ownership of key economic sectors and provision of significant services is taken away from the public. In short, privatisation is a neoliberal policy par excellence as it contributes to the increasing business power over the economy.
That this much-needed rail policy is unlikely to materialise during the life of this Government is a strong illustration of the Government's poor performance on the issue of climate change mitigation. Such a policy should have as its guiding light the following principle - high-speed rail powered only by renewables and affordable public transit which can unite every community in the country. Instead of anything as progressive and forward-thinking as this, the Government has overseen a whole series of cuts to Irish Rail staff and services and only responds to rising demand in the public rail system in a piecemeal fashion when crisis levels of overcrowding are reached.
The only remarkable expansion has been on the Luas network which happens to be privately owned by the French company Veolia. While the Government plans to privatise the public transport sector, municipalities in Europe are bringing public transport back into the public sector. The French town of Saumur remunicipalised its public transport which had been outsourced to Veolia and a number of departments are planning to do the same. As a result of eliminating Veolia's profit margin, Saumur, which has a population of only 30,000, is expected to achieve significant annual savings of between €400,000 and €800,000. In this country, the cost of public transport has risen by over 60% in the past five years at the same time as services have been drastically cut. Clearly, the Government has no plans to make public transport affordable, especially in light of the move towards the idea of bringing in the for-profit private sector.
Transport is not to the forefront of the renewable energy discussion to anything like the extent it should be. As Gavin Daly pointed out recently on the "Ireland After NAMA" blog, transport accounts for one third of Ireland's energy demands and is growing rapidly, yet it barely ever registers in the energy debate. In fact, instead of transport demand growth being seen as an area of concern, the Government encourages it and trumpets it as evidence of a recovering economy. It happened again this morning when the Minister boasted that the increase in the number of cars on the road was a tribute to the Government's achievements in the economic sector and not, in fact, a testament to its failure to provide adequate public transport, protect the environment or tackle climate change. It is shocking that since the Government came to power, not once has a Minister of his or her own volition linked rail to climate change mitigation. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport was forced to acknowledge the connection three times in response to written questions from Deputy Broughan and me. The Minister can check the record. Transport energy demand, which was responsible for a third of total energy use in Ireland, grew by 2.9% in 2013.
Renewable energy in transport reached 2.8% in the same year. This is an abysmal situation. Advancements in renewable energy in the transport sector are being outrun by the increase in overall transport energy consumption. We are not even running to stand still - we are going backwards.
The Minister's transport blueprint repeatedly laments the lack of funding that his Department gets. This morning, he asked Deputy Catherine Murphy where we would get the funds from to create a joined-up rail transport system. I have an idea for raising some money for investing in renewable public rail while helping to slash global carbon emissions by 20%. According to recent IMF figures, Ireland will subsidise fossil fuel companies to the tune of $1.22 billion this year, $262 per head, increased from $1.09 billion in 2013. The Government has managed to increase corporate welfare to the fossil fuel industry by $130 million in just two years.
The vast fossil fuel subsidies estimated by the IMF for this year include payments, tax breaks and cut-price fuel. The largest part of such subsidies is the cost left unpaid by polluters and picked up by governments, including the heavy impact of the local air pollution, floods, droughts and storms being driven by climate change. We can stop this corporate welfare by endorsing the polluter pays principle and invest the saved money by removing carbon from the public transport sector.
We are on course for serious fines for failing to meet our climate change mitigation targets. According to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, the cost to the Exchequer of purchasing compliance will be billions of euro by 2030 in a "business as usual" scenario, that is, if we continue with a neoliberal government committed to enforcing austerity no matter what the cost to people or the environment.
In reply to a written parliamentary question in March, the Minister was clear that public transport had a crucial role to play in alleviating the consequences of climate change. Rail is among the most efficient and climate-friendly forms of transport. In the draft "Investing in our Transport Future" document, however, rail was talked about as being dead weight. The discussion was framed around the question of what extent of the rail network it was appropriate to retain. The document went on to make the mad suggestion that, unlike car ownership and use, public transport usage was generally adversely impacted by increasing incomes. The report contains no footnotes or references about from where this claim comes. Irrespective of whether it is true, the Minister should fight for the betterment of Ireland's public transport sector and not act as a lobbyist for the National Roads Authority, NRA.
In his address to the UN Secretary General's climate change summit last year, the Taoiseach stated: "Leaders must show conviction, clarity, courage and consistency in their actions." I am sure that he said that with a straight face, maybe with a fake expression of concern, but it beggared belief that he could say such, given the policies that the Government has been prepared to implement. The climate change Bill is disappointing. It will be before the House again next week, but it leaves much to be desired. That our Governments are reluctant to tackle climate change because it is never an election issue is a major problem. We work from election to election in five-year cycles, but climate change requires a long-term strategy. We are not taking that point on board. Someone will have to do it some time. The longer it is left, the more work someone will have to do.
Okay. The Minister has the gist of my points. I would love to be able to get on a train to or from Wexford at weekends instead of driving in traffic that can be soul destroying. Rail is a beautiful way to travel. We must upgrade the system. It requires a great deal of investment. I have often stated how wrong it is that the EU does not have an arrangement under which governments can borrow money on the books at less than 2% to invest in infrastructure instead of being driven into public-private partnerships, PPPs, under which money can cost up to 15%. It does not stack up. It is another form of corporate welfare. The Government should be fighting tooth and nail for such an EU arrangement. This country needs major infrastructural investment not just in public transport, but also in social housing, as everyone knows. Money does not grow on trees, but the EU should play a more positive role in allowing the Government to borrow money at proper rates for investing in infrastructure, that is, 1.7% instead of 15%.
I welcome the Bill, which proposes to address the many anomalies in all aspects of the transport network. A major deficiency in the Road Traffic Act 1961 is being addressed, whereby an amendment to section 106 will correct the implicit contradiction in its provision relating to duties on occurrence of an accident. The new hit-and-run indictable offences introduced in 2014 through amendments to section 106 are provided for under a provision referring to summary offences. A further amendment in section 6 of this Bill will rectify an omission in the hit-and-run provisions that were introduced in 2014. At that time, there would have been an associated amendment to provide for a consequential disqualification for those who were convicted under those measures. This matter is being addressed by section 6(b) of the Bill, and any initiative that ensures a proportionate response and subsequent penalties is only right and fitting in the administration of justice, as the punishment should fit the crime. Given the fact that many hit-and-run incidents result in a loss of life or serious disabilities, the consequences are severe for the victims and their families. In many cases, local communities are devastated. As such, I welcome what the Minister is endeavouring to do in this regard.
The most depressing aspect of the large number of road deaths in Ireland, North and South, is that many are needless tragedies. Some could easily have been avoided. For example, if drivers on dangerous roads had exercised greater care, far fewer would have died or suffered serious injuries. A study of road crashes in Northern Ireland was published this week and entailed an analysis of police statistics in respect of 1,321 collisions in the 2013-14 period. Three trends stand out: three quarters of fatal collisions occurred on rural roads; more than three times more men than women - 106 compared with 30 - were killed; and one quarter of those who died were young men aged between 17 and 24 years. The figures are stark when compared with the low level of motorway crashes. The principal causes of road fatalities were drink driving; excessive speed; and a lack of due care and attention. All of these factors deserve further investigation in order to help secure a more effective solution to pronounced road safety problems.
In the first half of this year, the number of road fatalities in the Republic was down on last year's, but there is little cause for complacency. Yesterday, the Road Safety Authority, RSA, highlighted worrying emerging trends. For example, one third of drivers killed on our roads were not wearing seat belts and there is a 50:50 chance of dying in a collision if not wearing a seat belt, no matter how minor the collision.
Many collisions were minor in nature but because occupants were not wearing seat belts, the outcomes were much more serious. A worrying trend in road accident statistics in Ireland is the recent dramatic increase in motorcycle fatalities whereby in 2013, 2014 and to date in 2015, there were 65 deaths on the roads. A sustained national road safety campaign specifically targeting motorcyclists is absolutely necessary to alert those involved regarding the dangers of speed and the nature of the unlit secondary roads where there is a lack of public lighting, as well as on the rural secondary roads. The numbers involved in serious road accidents will continue to rise until action is taken to reverse these shocking statistics. It is imperative that motorcyclists would have the highest-quality safety protective gear and I refer particularly to helmets. Perhaps something can be done to help in the short term in the forthcoming budget with a substantial reduction in the 23% VAT rate for road safety gear. That would enable bikers to afford to pay for better equipment and better gear. This must be considered seriously and I urge the Minister himself, in conjunction with the Road Safety Authority, to take some necessary action in providing a sense of awareness. In addition, something can be done, by reducing the aforementioned VAT rate, that is very practical and which would be an incentive to get top-quality gear for these people for protective measures.
In one crash study, 73% of accidents involved riders who used no eye protection and it is likely that wind on unprotected eyes impairs vision. The use of heavy boots, a jacket and gloves is effective in reducing abrasions and lacerations, which are frequent injuries. As regards head injury, a helmet is the single critical factor in its prevention. It has been reported that helmets do not reduce traffic sounds, limit pre-crash visual field or cause fatigue or loss of attention. In an important finding, 9% of helmets came off during crashes in Europe because they were not fastened or properly fitted or because they had been damaged in a fall. In 2007, helmets saved the lives of 1,784 motorcyclists in the United States of America and, had all bikers worn helmets, 800 more lives could have been saved. In addition, the helmets are estimated to be 37% effective in preventing fatal injuries, in that for every 100 bikers killed in crashes who were not wearing helmets, 37 could have been saved.
On the question of taxi licences and the regulation amendments, I seek the addition of an addendum to these sections with regard to the existing regulations to obtain hackney licences. This specific matter came up at the meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications this morning, at which a number of members highlighted the obstacles to people in rural Ireland obtaining hackney licences whereby several hoops and all types of impediments are put before people who apply for such licences. There are ridiculous criteria to meet at present, which is causing obstruction in the acquisition of such licences. I refer to people who are highly capable and well-qualified and who would be highly efficient in carrying out the job as a hackney operator to serve the local communities, in which in many cases there is a lack of transport. The Minister could intervene in such cases and I ask him to become involved in this matter to ensure these licences are provided in a way that is within reason. Jobs are being lost because of these impediments and many of these people certainly are providing a vital service in their local communities. In addition, they would have a livelihood. As jobs are involved, I ask the Minister to free up the existing anomalies in this sector.
I thank the Acting Chairman and the Minister and I am delighted to be able to speak to the Public Transport Bill 2015. Obviously, transport issues, including public transport, are never far off the agenda in the constituency of Galway West, which incorporates Galway city. Unfortunately, the city and county of Galway have a number of persistent transport issues that must be addressed, some of which are raised in this Bill. The Public Transport Bill contains provisions to empower the National Transport Authority, NTA, to provide public transport infrastructure such as bus rapid transit. The NTA's own definition of bus rapid transit describes this as "high quality" and as "high capacity" and as emulating the performance and service of light rail but at one third of the cost. In the context of this Bill, bus rapid transit is only mentioned for three routes in Dublin, which I should point out are routes already served by public transport, namely, the city centre to Swords and the airport, Blanchardstown to UCD and Clongriffin to Tallaght. The estimated cost of each of these options lies between €150 million and €200 million or in total, at least half a billion euro. It is clear the focus is very much on Dublin and the transport needs of the capital. Other cities, such as Galway, have clear transport needs which also must be met.
A comprehensive report on public transport options for Galway was commissioned by the city council in 2010 and examined a range of different options, including a light rail transit, LRT, system as well as bus rapid transit, BRT. That report estimated the cost of a light rail system in Galway at €698 million and, given the size and layout of Galway city, it would most likely involve the demolition of or interference with homes, businesses or property. The same report showed that for the entire city of Galway, a bus rapid transit system would cost €114 million for the route construction as well as the rolling stock required. This would be joined by enhancements to the existing bus network totalling €89 million. Those figures were provided in the Galway public transport feasibility study, which includes the total cost of a BRT system of €114 million and an LRT system of €698 million with further bus costs of €89 million. Consequently, it is clear that for the cost of one of the routes proposed for Dublin, an entire bus rapid transit system could be introduced for Galway city. I wish to make that point on this issue because it is important that the needs of the entire city of Galway also be considered. In my view, it goes back time and again to balanced regional development. The higher the population of Dublin, the greater the scale of the challenges, such as transport, and the higher the public funding required. Ultimately, this reduces the amount of funding available for other projects, including transport, for other regions and promotes a cycle that sees further migration from the west to the east, which I do not believe to be in anyone's interest. A targeted investment in transport and infrastructure outside of Dublin would encourage sustainable growth and development and make the challenges facing Dublin more manageable.
Examining bus rapid transit, as this Bill does, is to be welcomed but questions must be asked of other policies in public transport. Why, for example, is there is no regular city bus service between Galway city and nearby population centres such as Moycullen, Barna or Claregalway? Why were bus shelters built adjacent to Galway city cathedral more than five years ago, only for them to lie unused today? Why are there no scheduled bus services using the Quincentenary Bridge in Galway over the Corrib? That bridge was built 30 years ago and would be an ideal route to connect residential areas on the west of Galway city with the employment centres on the east but yet there are no scheduled services from east to west in Galway that do not go through Eyre Square.
Before anyone misinterprets my supportive comments on public transport in Galway as a lessening of my commitment to the Galway city bypass, I do not see the progress of one project occurring at the expense of the other. There should be a strong statement in the forthcoming capital plan with regard to a transport solution, a roadway, a bypass or whatever one wishes to call it, for Galway. As the Minister is aware, this proposal is at the planning stage, that is, the detailed design stage at present, and it is of huge importance. I acknowledge the Minister has engaged in consultation on this matter and that there has been some opposition in Galway. However, my commitment to this project is firm. In respect of road infrastructure, it is the number one project in Ireland in terms of cost-benefit analysis and I believe the majority of people in Galway are supportive of it, as it is greatly needed to improve the traffic congestion in Galway in conjunction with the public transport issues I also have mentioned.
This Bill also amends the Taxi Regulation Act 2013 and will provide greater powers to the NTA. One such change concerns the appeal procedures for vehicle inspection tests for taxis.
These seem sensible and are rooted in public safety. From now on, it will not be possible to use a vehicle as a taxi until such time as it has been brought up to standard.
One area in respect of which the Bill does not propose change, and on which Deputy Tom Fleming commented, is the system of area familiarisation tests for persons applying for a local area hackney licence. I have been contacted by a person from the wilds of Connemara who has undertaken this test seven times, at a cost each time of €90. On each of last three times he took the test he failed on the basis of his not having sufficient knowledge of housing estates in Tuam and Gort. The distance from Dublin to Mullingar is 80 kilometres; from Dublin to Dundalk is 85 kilometres and from Dublin to Wexford is 120 kilometres, whereas the distance from Clifden to Ballinasloe is 135 kilometres. For a person coming from Connemara to be required to know intimately all estates in Ballinasloe, Tuam and Gort to pass an area familiarisation test to obtain a hackney licence is ridiculous. I ask that this be examined. The test needs to be more regional and balanced. There is no need for somebody living in the middle of Connemara or Clifden to be knowledgeable about housing estates in Tuam, Ballinasloe or Gort. I ask that the Minister look into that matter.
This Bill provides for amendments to the Dublin Transport Authority Act 2008, the Taxi Regulation Act 2013, the Road Traffic Act 1961, the Railway Safety Act 2005 and the State Airports Act 2004. It also deals with the functions of the National Transport Authority in respect of public transport infrastructure. The proposed changes will ensure the NTA is able to develop and deliver public transport infrastructure, such as bus rapid transit, BRT, in the event that it is decided to proceed with this project and other similar projects such as cycling schemes. These technical changes to legislation are required to address certain issues identified by legal advisers to the NTA as potentially precluding it from providing such projects.
One proposed amendment ensures the NTA would have the necessary powers to deliver required public transport infrastructure but does not involve a commitment to the development of BRT. Under the capital plan to 2020, funding to support and improve bus services will be a key priority. As well as ensuring a modern efficient fleet, it is essential bus routes and supporting infrastructure facilitate the provision of better and improved services. I understand that a further amendment to the legislation to support this is being considered and will be introduced later.
Changes to how the NTA functions and what it does are worth discussing now in the House, particularly in light of a development that came to light yesterday, namely, that the DART underground project will not proceed as was originally envisaged. While I understand the economic position the country has been in over recent years, I am disappointed that yet again that this project, which would profoundly reshape rail transport not only in Dublin but across Leinster and the wider country, has been put on the long-finger. I would encourage more critical analysis of that decision. There is no alternative to the Dart underground on offer. What was proposed was a railway line running from Inchicore to Spencer Dock via Christchurch, St. Stephen's Green and Pearse Station, which would provide the "missing link" in joining up and integrating all of Dublin's regional and suburban rail services. It has been described by a commentator as Dublin's equivalent of London's Cross Rail. It would enable suburban commuters on the line to Dundalk and Drogheda to travel to Kildare or Maynooth and vice versa. I believe that the postponing of the Dart underground needs to be reconsidered. It is the equivalent of the infamous decision of the former Fianna Fáil Minister responsible for transport, Mary O'Rourke, to have two Luas lines constructed but not joined up. Dublin's public transport needs are increasing. If we do not plan properly for the future development of our public transport system, Dublin and Leinster will lose out. I would like the Minister to respond to the points I have made about DART underground.
Sections 2 and 3 of the legislation provide for amendments to the Taxi Regulation Act 2013. The programme for Government contained a commitment to review and update the regulation of taxis to ensure taxi drivers are recognised as a key component of the public transport system and to provide for a forum for discussion between the regulatory authorities and taxi providers. The taxi regulation review report of 2011 identified 46 actions to address the key issues in the sector in seven areas, including driver licensing, vehicle licensing and standards, accessible services for people with disabilities, compliance and enforcement, consumer and industry assurance, fleet management and rent controls and a rural hackney service to deal with limited access in rural areas. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Kelly, when Minister of State with responsibility for public transport, did an excellent job in this area. I pay tribute to his work in that regard. I believe we should have a Minister dealing particularly and exclusively with public transport. Managing public transport issues across the country is a challenging job and a dedicated Minister of State is best suited to dealing with these issues.
Section 4 provides for an amendment to the Railway Safety Act 2005 to change the name of the Railway Safety Commission to the Commission for Railway Regulation. The Railway Safety Commission was established under the Railway Safety Act 2005 to foster and encourage railway safety and enforce legislation relating to railway safety. The body will have a monitoring function and a role in hearing appeals made by railway undertakings and other interested persons. This is the reason for the change of name.
Section 6 is essentially a technical amendment, correcting section 106 of the Road Traffic Act 1961 which deals with duties on the occurrence of an accident. It was amended in 2014 to introduce new offences for hit-and-run incidents causing death or serious injury. The Attorney General's office has since advised the Department that the amended version of the section contains an implicit contradiction. The new hit-and-run provisions are indictable offences but they come under a section heading referring to summary offences. The Attorney General's advice is that the intention of the law is clear in spite of the error and the Director of Public Prosecutions is continuing to take prosecutions under this legislation. However, it is also the view of the Attorney General's office that the error should be corrected at the earliest available opportunity and this is now being done in this legislation.
On the subject of road traffic legislation, I am proud to have been a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications and to have been involved in making our road traffic rules safer and tougher when it comes to enforcement where dangerous drivers are concerned. Alcohol limits for drivers have been tightened and it is now illegal to drive under the influence of drugs. With this in mind, I commend the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, on his swift response yesterday in signing into law a statutory instrument that addressed the ridiculous situation of a drink driving prosecution being withdrawn because the result of the breathalyser test was read out in English only and not also in Irish. In future, only one of the two primary languages of this State will be required in such matters, which is right given the seriousness of a drink driving case.
I commend the Bill to the House.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this legislation. Before turning to the Bill, I would like to deal with an issue of public transport which I know is also close to the heart of the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. As the Minister will be aware, rural Ireland is experiencing huge problems with transport. Earlier today I read an article in the Irish Independent in which the Taoiseach spoke about the need for the Garda Síochána to invest in specialist vehicles. I represent a community in which a garda has no car and is required to police his catchment on foot. This is not an issue that has been highlighted in the public domain because it is important not to advertise to thugs that particular communities are being left in such situations. There are many gardaí marooned in Garda stations because they do not have access to transport. It was disappointing that of the 94 new gardaí that passed out from Templemore, not one was deployed to our part of the country. I ask that the Minister bring that matter to the attention of Cabinet. I agree that we need specialist vehicles but we also need basic vehicles. We cannot have a situation whereby gardaí in rural communities are left without access to transport.
First, I congratulate the Minister.
I listened to his recent announcement on the Phoenix Park tunnel. It is something we have discussed at length in the past.
I remember briefing the Minister about the Phoenix Park tunnel a long time ago. I must give credit where credit is due. The Minister took it on board when he had the opportunity to do so. As I imagine the Minister has found out, Irish Rail nearly denies the fact that it has the tunnel. I believe it will be of benefit to commuters, particularly commuters travelling from the west and south of the country as well as from the mid-west. They will now be able to get into Dublin city centre. That is a welcome development and the Minister is to be commended on the initiative.
I had to smile when I read the Bill and I saw a reference to the change in the title of the Railway Safety Commission. As you are aware, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, when Charlie McCreevy stood up where the Minister is sitting now and announced decentralisation throughout the country, he said the Railway Safety Commission was to go to the town of Ballinasloe. We are still waiting for it to happen. It was about the only announcement that we have had in the past decade for the town of Ballinasloe other than those relating to job losses or the closure of facilities. I recall questioning the Minister on numerous occasions about when the Railway Safety Commission would be established and when it was going to be decentralised to the town of Ballinasloe. Of course we now know that this never happened.
While I am on the issue of Ballinasloe, I wish to raise a matter with the Minister which I wrote to him about earlier this week, that is, the inter-urban greenway and cycleway that is being developed from Dublin to Galway. I have asked the Minister to look at this issue again because I believe a major mistake is being made in how this route is being mapped out. I have said in the House previously that what we need to do is start from a different baseline. That baseline should be the public lands available between Athlone and Galway, whether Bord na Móna lands, Coillte lands, National Parks and Wildlife Service lands or those of the former Land Commission, which still holds a significant land bank in the west. There are also many public rights of way that are no longer in use. I believe that if the Minister mapped out those in the first instance, he would be surprised by the amount of land available. The Minister could use this land to map out the route. We should also consider the attractions around them. I have no difficulty in that area. What is really frustrating is that this has not been done to date. Despite this, Roscommon County Council, on its own initiative, has used that particular model. The council now believes it is possible to secure an acceptable route between Athlone and Ballinasloe for the cycleway. It would be completely off road with no need to use the compulsory purchase order route. If it can be done between Athlone and Ballinasloe then I firmly believe it can be done between Ballinasloe and Galway. However, we need to go back and look at how we map it out. Rather than looking at scrapping that particular route - I know that is being given consideration at the moment in some corridors - I call on the Minister to look again at how the initial corridors were designed. I believe we can get a solution.
I wish to raise one more parochial issue. This issue has been brought to the attention of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and it relates to the Beara Breifne Way, which runs from west Cork right up to Cavan, where it could link in with the Ulster Way to create Ireland's answer to the Camino. It runs from the north to the south and right through the middle of the country. We have not benefitted from the Wild Atlantic Way or Ireland's Ancient East but we have major potential in this area. One small section needs to be completed to allow this way to be marketed and promoted. I have brought the matter to the attention of the Minister's officials. At issue in the capital programme would be a relatively small sum of money. Approximately €800,000 would complete this route and create Ireland's Camino. It would be of benefit to our part of the country, which has not seen the type of development in tourism that we have seen in the past.
I know that a number of people in the House have raised issues regarding the delivery of services by the various transport agencies and semi-State companies. There has been extensive frustration as people have seen services curtailed in recent years and, because of this, there has been reduced accessibility for some people. One issue that comes up regularly in rural Ireland is the question of the rail stations. In the case of smaller stations, Irish Rail is reducing the manpower available. This is forcing people to use the automated machines in stations rather than buying a ticket at the desk.
Let us consider the station in Roscommon town. If the station is not manned, people do not have access to public toilets or to any shelter if it is raining while they are waiting for the train to arrive. I find these automated machines difficult to operate. Let us suppose I am using the machine and there is a queue behind me. I find myself looking over my shoulder, trying to decide whether I have picked the right route and station. That is all well and good for me, but for older people it is a major challenge. On top of that, many older people use cash, but at least 50% of the time the machine will actually reject the money people put in. In the west and my part of the country in particular, where we have a large older population who use public transport services, we should provide staffing at these stations. It would not represent a major additional cost on Irish Rail. I imagine some mechanism could be found whereby staff could be available when the trains arrive and depart. Not providing this service amounts to removing the rail service for some customers.
Another frustrating issue is far broader and relates to transport to hospital appointments. I have taken this up at the committee with the National Transport Authority. The authority seems to be of the view that this is a local issue and needs to be dealt with locally. It is not. It is a regional issue. Our hospital networks are now set up on a regional basis. The NTA must engage with the hospital groups to address this issue. I will set out the matter in practical terms to highlight the problems we have. I know a young man who has muscular dystrophy. He has physical problems in accessing hospital appointments. He cannot afford to pay for a taxi because it costs him between €100 and €150 to go to a hospital appointment in Galway. He cannot avail of public transport because there is no bus, train or combination of bus and train that will get him to a hospital appointment in the morning and get him back on the same day to Roscommon town. He is in a situation whereby he has to cancel the hospital appointments that he really needs because he cannot physically get there and he cannot afford to pay for the taxi. The Department of Social Protection will not entertain payment for taxis. The HSE will not entertain payment for any transport service. The Saolta hospital group has completely dismissed the idea of giving any contribution towards the cost of transport. The only outlet that will consider providing transport is the ambulance service, if there is an ambulance available and if someone requires an ambulance. However, this only covers a limited number of people. People are losing out on access to hospital appointments. This is all because of a lack of connectivity between the transport providers. It would be far better if we had a bus service that could link up with the rail service so that we could get people into Galway city in order that they can get to their hospital appointments. Moreover, it would be far better if the hospitals would reschedule those appointments in order that people coming from Roscommon, Sligo or Mayo into Galway would not be given an appointment at 9 a.m.
They should be given an appointment for 11 a.m. or noon in order that they can travel on a train or bus. People living in the vicinity of Galway city should be given appointments at 9 a.m. If there was a small bit of joined-up thinking on this, we would deal with a major problem in rural Ireland. People cannot get to hospital appointments and appointments are being cancelled, resulting in people going back on waiting lists which compounds the delays in outpatient appointments.
Bus Éireann has stated that it cannot justify the continuation of inter-urban bus services between towns in the west because not enough people are using them. The Westport to Athlone service is under threat. If, instead of terminating in Athlone, it terminated in Ballinasloe, outside Portiuncula Hospital, which is 15 miles further on, many people with hospital appointments could use the service to attend them. GPs in Ballyhaunis, Ballinlough and Castlerea traditionally referred patients to Castlebar, but patients may not be able to attend those appointments because of the bus schedule. They may take the bus to Ballinasloe and have an appointment with a consultant there instead.
The driver behind the lack of connectivity must be the National Transport Authority. It is supposed to provide co-ordination between the various transport agencies, which are to be commended and are making progress. Announcements were made recently regarding my constituency in terms of transport services in County Leitrim, which are welcome. However, the strategy needs to be far broader than linking up various bus and rail services. People need to use bus and rail services because they need to get from A to B.
Sadly, because of the closure of the hospital in Roscommon and the establishment of regional hospital groups, far more appointments are taking place in Galway city. It should be remembered that the Saolta group covers a quarter of the country. I suggest the Minister asks the NTA to make contact with Saolta and establish a pilot project, based in Galway city and University Hospital Galway. From discussions with the former operations manager, Tony Canavan, I know he and his replacement would be very willing to facilitate the NTA in coming up with a viable solution that would ensure fewer people miss hospital appointments.
I have referred to people being marooned while trying to attend hospital appointments. As the Minister is aware, 30 months ago the Government had to suspend the motorised transport grant and the mobility allowance because of a legal issue. Since then, we have been promised that legislation will be provided to reinstate the payments. The grants are for people with disabilities who cannot avail of existing public transport services. If people with a physical disability, in particular those in wheelchairs, want to use many Bus Éireann routes, they need to book a place 24 hours in advance. We are marooning people with disabilities in rural Ireland because they cannot access supports. The mobility allowance continues to be paid to people who were in receipt of it before the suspension took place. The motorised transport grant has been completely suspended. I understand there is now a delay in the payment of the mobility allowance in the HSE and people are now being paid annually.
On a related issue, there also seems to be an anomaly in the prompt payment system that allows contractors to hospitals to maximise compensation payments, in some cases multiples of the actual moneys due to them. The systems in place are falling down and we need to try to ensure these systems are addressed and responsive to the needs of the public.
I keep raising the issue of transport in the context of health because it is a major factor in people failing to attend appointments and being denied medical services. Some people cannot physically get to appointments. The medical card system is supposed to take account of that fact. If someone in Arigna in County Roscommon has a hospital appointment in Galway, he or she cannot use public transport. It would cost him or her about €200 to pay for a taxi. If that is a once-off, it is not too bad, but sadly if one is diagnosed with cancer and travels to Galway regularly, it will involve a significant amount of money.
Despite this, when the HSE calculates allowances for medical expenses, it does not take such things into account even though in theory it states it does. A person living in Galway city is being treated in St. Vincent's University Hospital in Dublin and receives an allowance of €11.54 per week to cover his medical expenses, including transport from Galway to Dublin. His next door neighbour is being treated in Galway University Hospital and receives the same allowance, even though she lives five minutes away from the hospital. There is something wrong with that. While it is not within the remit of the Minister, his role as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport is far more significant for people who are ill than he probably realises.
In the Minister's constituency, public transport serves local hospitals, but in rural Ireland transport is a significant limiting factor in accessing prompt treatment. It is this lack of connectivity between the various agencies that is causing the problem. I urge the Minister to ask the NTA to take the lead on this issue, improve the utilisation of existing public transport services and ensure that, despite their best efforts, hospitals can become more efficient.
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for allowing me to speak at short notice. As a Dublin Deputy, the Minister knows the importance of improving our public transport system for the working of the city and surrounding towns, as well as for the general good of the country. Improving our public transport system does not solely involve making life easier for people in Dublin; it also involves making life easier for the whole country.
I have no problem with the proposals on metro north and trying to get links to the airport and Swords, places that clearly need greatly improved public transport. I want to draw the attention of the Minister to the total inadequacy of the situation on the west side of the city, through my constituency and into County Kildare. The main line from Dublin to Cork, Kerry, Galway and so on runs from my constituency and into Kildare. Considerable investment has gone into that and in parts it has been turned from a two-line to a four-line railway, but very few people in my constituency use the service. Deputy Lawlor might refer to his constituency.
I suspect it is probably used a bit more because it is probably more worthwhile to use it if one is coming a longer distance than a shorter distance. My constituency has three stations which are hardly used at all. These are Adamstown, Kishogue, which is built but closed, and the Clondalkin Fonthill station. Why are these stations not used? It is not because there are not people who want to get access to the city centre. They are not used because using them would be too slow because of how the railway has been built and because subsequent development has largely left the population centres a distance away from the railway, whether it be Naas, if one goes out that far, Lucan or Clondalkin. There are proposals to develop the land along the railway which would be good. There is a real need for the Government and whoever succeeds it - I hope we will have the re-election of the current Government - to prioritise development there because it is the only way to keep the city functioning as an economic entity and for the well-being of its people.
Public transport works where people can travel fastest from A to B by public transport rather than by private transport. This should always be our aim. If we do not prioritise this work and improve the links from Heuston Station to the city to connect to the Dundrum Luas and the DART we will very rapidly get to a situation where the M50 becomes a car park. It is rapidly heading that way because of the development of the economy, which is a good problem for us to face, but there is a real need to do this. In his response I ask the Minister to address this issue. Perhaps he will remind us in his response of the possible developments on the Phoenix Park tunnel. From what I know of it, it would be limited enough. It would be of value to people who want to link to the north side but not of so much value to those who want to go straight to the city centre. For the well-being of the people of the city and the greater Dublin area, particularly Kildare, and for the well-being of our future economic development this must become a priority, whether through the original proposal of an underground interconnector from Heuston Station to meet the Dundrum Luas and the DART or by some other method. It is absolutely vital that work is done there. I know other areas of the city also require this. We are so far behind other major European cities it would almost make one cry at times, but we must start where we are. I would like to know where this stands in terms of priorities in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport.
Before I speak on the Bill I wish the Leas-Cheann Comhairle all the best on his retirement. I know it is a bit premature, but I will not give him as much grief as I have in the past.
I thank the Minister for being in the House. The Bill is technical but the debate gives some of us an opportunity to broaden its scope a little. In recent years, NTA funding, particularly in constituencies around Dublin, has been most welcome. It has probably been the only source of funding to allow new projects to happen. In my constituency, and that of Deputy Dowds, these small projects were very much welcomed. I have found an issue whereby Kildare County Council never seemed to be ready to take on the funding when it was given to it. It would apply for funding and hope it would get it and would take it from there if it did. It never seemed to put in place A, B and C so that when it got the funding it could start work. What ended up happening in Kildare seemed to be that if it got funding in 2014 it might have been able to start a project in 2015. I know it is a fault with the local authority in Kildare, but I would appreciate a bit more flexibility in the NTA to allow funding whereby a shovel-ready project that would fit into its remit might be taken on board. I know of a project in Leixlip which is shovel ready. We are applying for NTA funding for next year, but if funding were transferred from one of the other projects this year it would be much more beneficial. It may also help to provide funding whereby the NTA might allow local authorities use outside sources for planning.
I welcome the announcement made several weeks ago on the development of the tunnel under the Phoenix Park. From a Kildare perspective it will be hugely beneficial. We need to see whether a better link can be provided for the route from Heuston Station. I hope it will be in the capital funding. It would be cheap as we would spend only small money on it, but it would be a very good way to link Naas, Celbridge and Hazelhatch with the centre of Dublin. People could hop on a train. It could be used instead of the underground proposed by the railway authority.
I get confused about fares. We have one zone after another but there may be only one stop between zones. In most places if one travels three stops one pays for three stops. We should look at this. If one goes from Kilcock to Maynooth one goes from one fare zone to another and it is cheaper to go by bus. We would love people to use the railway because from a transport perspective it is a much more economical way of using existing transport. I ask the Minister to examine zones and fares.
As Kildare is on the periphery of Dublin it gets great services on the spokes to Dublin but very little NTA funding for routes going crossways, such as Kilcock to Naas or Maynooth to Kilcullen. If possible, could licences for private bus operators to work on such routes be put out to tender? It would be extremely beneficial. Many people would like to use public transport if it were available but it is not available on the links between the spokes. We have excellent public transport going into Dublin but nothing linking the orbitals.
I look forward to the Minister's capital programme with all earnestness. I hope he takes on board some of the issues I have raised. I will have no problem with the Bill.
I thank all Deputies for their contributions on the Bill. As they have all acknowledged, this is a technical Bill which focuses on a number of important areas regarding the regulation of public transport and the planning of future public transport projects. All Deputies offered their support for the Bill and offered comments on how it could be improved. As is their right, they also used the introduction of the Bill to raise broader issues on the availability and planning of public transport throughout our city and country.
As my colleagues, Deputies Dowds and Lawlor, are in the Chamber and I listened to their contributions I wish to respond to some of the points each of them made.
Deputy Lawlor focused on the capital plan.
We engaged on that earlier during Question Time. The Deputies are clear about my priorities in the capital plan and the discussions taking place within the Cabinet on the same issue.
Deputy Lawlor made two points that I wish to pick up before I move to the text that is now being circulated on the Bill. The point was made about the fare structure in place for public transport and this can be very complicated. There is also the issue of expense, which a number of people mentioned. We must consider the balancing act of having a fare structure that is simple but which at the same time can recognise that different people will be on different journeys for different lengths of time. Balancing that can be difficulty. The National Transport Authority, NTA, and my Department have made much progress on this, particularly with the introduction of Leap cards, which remove much of the complexity. I accept the Deputy's point that we should look to make the process simpler, and I hope that over time we will find ways to make our fare structure even simpler than now. Dublin Bus, in particular, has made progress in trying to make our fare structure simpler for people to understand in order to encourage more people to use public transport.
The Deputy also offered support for the work done by the NTA in sustainable town and city strategies, which cover many of the funding needs outside Dublin. This has been affected in recent years by all of the terrible change that our economy went through. Over time, I would like to see the strategy rebuilt, although I fear it will not be rebuilt in the way the Deputy wants because there are other funding needs that we must address at the same time. It is a very important project for many communities and towns represented by the Deputy; I also know it works as I have seen evidence of that.
Deputy Dowds also touched on a number of points but I will speak to an area of common interest between both Deputies, which is the proposed opening of the Phoenix Park tunnel. I acknowledge Deputy Naughten's input, as he contributed earlier in the debate and, in fairness, he identified this many years ago as a priority that should be addressed. It is a remarkable issue as the tunnel has been in existence in our country since the late 1870s. It saw substantial passenger use but for many reasons that was significantly reduced and the tunnel is now only really used for freight. Due to investment from the Government - I acknowledge the role of the Minister, Deputy Howlin - the tunnel will now be open for passenger use. I am hopeful that will happen by next summer. This will help carry an additional million passengers on the line spoken of by the two Deputies, although I acknowledge that the greatest benefit will probably be felt in Deputy Lawlor's communities rather than those of Deputy Dowds. That is because of many of the issues recognised by Deputy Dowds.
This project is long overdue but it is happening and the tunnel will be open next year. The investment put in by this Government, particularly in improving city centre signalling, has opened the possibility of using the tunnel. I, for one, am really looking forward to seeing that happen. With regard to frequency, outside of peak periods, there will be one service per day, but in the peak periods, there will be four additional services per day. If I go to the point made by Deputy Dowds-----
Excuse me. I did say "per day" and I thank the Deputy for enabling me to correct the record. It is per hour. My worry now is that every time I refer to the project, I will proudly refer to the introduction of a new service per day. There will be four additional services at peak hours in the morning and evening, with one additional service at non-peak hours. This will be a really big increase in capacity and I hope this will lead to us addressing a point made by Deputy Lawlor on the connectivity between the platform used by those services and the rest of Heuston Station. I acknowledge that because of where the tunnel is located, passengers may be brought to a platform that is a fair distance from other platforms in the station. If the service is as successful as I believe it will be, we will have to consider some measures to see how we can quickly get people to a location where they can use other services in Heuston or, more likely, the Luas platform. It is a distance that must be travelled.
Deputy Dowds made the point about how better to integrate what we have within the city centre. I point out the Luas cross-city project and the extension of Luas to Cabra and Phibsborough, as well as the joining of the Luas lines in the city centre. It is a long overdue contribution that this Government made to that process. When the original Luas lines were built, we were flush with money. I acknowledge the work of Deputy Varadkar, my predecessor as Minister for transport, and the entire Government, as at a time when we had so little money and we were at the depths of participating in a bailout programme, €370 million was secured for the project. I have continued with that commitment to ensure the work continues. The line will be open in 2017, with station construction commencing next year. Its opening is long overdue but it will be a very positive moment.
A number of Deputies made points when I was present and I will cover some of them, as I want to acknowledge the different issues that have been raised. Deputy Kyne spoke about the importance of the Galway bypass project and I know it has been very controversial. I have met families who fear for the very existence of their homes as a result of the project going ahead. I also acknowledge the point he made about the importance of a project like that for Galway city. I spent a recent morning at a transport forum in Galway and I am very much aware of the progress being made in Galway, which was acknowledged by many participants in the forum, but also of the needs that are still there to be met.
Deputy Seán Kenny expressed his disappointment about my decision with regard to DART underground. I have addressed the matter a number of times during the day but I will make two points briefly about it. I have stated very clearly that the tunnel needs redesign but a tunnel in some form will play an important role in joining our existing stations.
I will do so. A key point that should be noted by everybody who commented on the issue today is that yesterday afternoon, the NTA published the business case that informed my decision. The cold reality is that a €3 billion project - the cost of the tunnel alone - would the largest that our country has ever done, and the business case that underpinned it reflected assumptions of the country from a decade ago. Things are very different and will be very different in future, and I am certain a project of a different scale and cost can be put in place to address the needs of connectivity.
Deputy Dowds asked a very fair question. The National Transport Authority yesterday published a number of different options for a tunnel and I also announced yesterday that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, and I have already agreed that the capital funding will be in place to examine the redesign of a tunnel like that, as well as other elements of DART expansion and electrification. I accept that these are important matters.
Deputy Naughten made a number of points and I have acknowledged his role in calling for the use of the Phoenix Park tunnel. He called on me to consider how we can better integrate the needs of local hospitals with public transport and I understand exactly what he is saying. It is a challenge to find ways in which we can continue to fund the expansion of new services. Wherever it is possible, Bus Éireann looks to do it.
I want to make one point on a matter to which Deputy John Paul Phelan referred. Earlier in the year, there was, understandably, much public concern regarding changes that were due to take place in respect of the Nos. 5 and 7 bus routes. Deputies Lawlor, Heydon and Wall raised these issues with me. I attended many meetings with different delegations on the issue and there was substantial public commentary on it. We fixed the issues that people raised. We brought in new routes, I found new funding and we delivered in respect of the needs of people and communities, just in a different way. We actually improved the service for some communities in Carlow-Kilkenny. I wish the same level of focus as went into highlighting the problem had gone into the acknowledgement of the fact that the Government, with the support of Deputies, came up with a way of fixing that issue and responding to most of, though not all, the issues that people raised.
Deputy Tom Fleming made a number of points about hackneys - to which I will come in a moment - while broadly supporting the Bill, as did Deputy John Paul Phelan. Deputy Jim Daly also raised the issue of hackneys.
Deputy Farrell raised particular issues in respect of capacity for public transport in the future, which I addressed earlier in the day.
Deputy Clare Daly said she could not disentangle the various comments I have made in relation to public transport during the past day. I am of the view they have been clear in terms of what I have done and the decision I have made. I will be addressing other matters to which she referred in the context of the capital plan that will be brought forward in the coming week.
I acknowledge some of the challenges posed by the current area knowledge test for hackneys in rural Ireland, which was raised by a number of colleagues. The point was put to me by Deputies Kyne and Jim Daly that for larger counties it can be challenging to ask people who want to participate in hackney schemes to know the detail of every town in the county. I acknowledge that the subdivision of the county scheme could offer some benefits. However, it also poses equal challenges in respect of signage and clarity regarding smaller areas within the county and the costs that would be created. For every Deputy who calls up looking for smaller areas to be created within counties, others in the future will say it is not acceptable that we have hackney drivers who are licensed within counties and who do not know the location of different roads or different parts of various villages. That is something the National Transport Authority has communicated to Deputies and I support it in that. I will, however, revisit the matter in light of the number of Deputies who raised it with me.
Earlier in the debate on the Bill, Deputies Dooley and Ellis raised the issues of long-term funding for public transport and the need for further funding in that area. In the recent part of this Government's term and during my tenure in office, I have secured two Supplementary Estimates for my Department, the vast majority of the money from which went into public transport and, in particular, Irish Rail. The level of PSO funding for CIE was unchanged this year. Deputies were correct to point out that PSO funding declined but this happened across a period in which the number of journeys on public transport also declined substantially. If I look at where we were at the peak of public transport usage between 2007 and 2009 versus the position last year, there was a change of 40 million journeys per year in our public transport network across the period. While I accept that we need to increase investment in future in that area, the efficiencies the PSO changes had to deliver in recent years are the same as those every other form of taxpayer expenditure had to deliver across that period.
Perhaps the most substantial amendment relating to taxi regulation in this Bill is to clarify the procedure for on-the-spot fines and loosen some of the rigidity taxi businesses and owners encounter following the death of a licensee. This measure has been broadly welcomed by the taxi industry. I acknowledge the support of Deputies Dooley and Ellis for some of these measures.
Deputy Dooley commented on complaints about taxi drivers, saying that no further action was taken in three out of every five cases. Some of this inaction is because the complainant decided no further action was merited or because investigation found there was no case that merited further action. To reflect all that, the NTA has begun the process of changing the classifications under which it tracks the status of different complaints. Deputy Dooley raised a fair point regarding the understanding that could arise from the current descriptions.
In relation to issues with the resourcing of taxi regulation, I recently met the officials in the NTA who are involved in this work. I accept that there is a need, as there is in many areas of service delivery, to look at the number of officials who are involved in this work. However, I believe very important work is being done in this area and there has been a substantial improvement in the quality and quantity of taxi regulation in the sector. I want to acknowledge the role played by the taxi industry itself and the co-operation of taxi drivers in making all this happen.
The removal of taxi ranks, particularly in the context of the implementation of Luas Cross City at present, was raised by many Deputies. A great deal of work is currently being done by Dublin City Council in generating replacement spaces. A set of proposals was put to representatives of the taxi industry in that area earlier this month. I will look at this matter and the National Transport Authority is looking at it but when Luas cross-city is up and running, there will be more taxi rank spaces available in the city centre than there were before its construction. I hope that, along with other forms of transport in our city centre, we will see that kind of improvement in respect of the provision of taxi spaces at that point but work is under way now to deal with the issues the taxi industry has raised in respect of this.
I accept that. I am doing my best to respond to the variety of issues people have raised because I did listen to them. However, I will conclude.
A number of Deputies raised issues in respect of rail. We have made great progress in increasing our investment in that area in recent times. As indicated in the opening speech given by the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, on this Bill, I am considering the inclusion of two further amendments to the Bill, which I intend to introduce on Committee Stage. One is to clarify that the NTA is required to engage in one statutory approval process for development in accordance with whatever legislation applies to that particular development and will not be subject to two different and parallel processes. The second is to ratify the COTIF convention on carriage by rail. I am also considering introducing a further amendment on Committee Stage to provide for a by-law for the NTA to have powers similar to the powers Irish Rail and Transport Infrastructure Ireland have under the legislation governing their operation.
I thank all Deputies for the points they made. I have endeavoured to respond to as many of them as I can. I thank the House for its support on this Bill.