Thursday, 5 July 2018
Topical Issue Debate
Rural Transport Services Provision
As Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross will be well aware of the very significant need to address the lack of public transport throughout the country in recent years. Significant work has been done in the major city of Dublin and a considerable number of reviews have examined the best possible public transport model. There has been investment in light rail and new buses and in developing new routes and corridors as the settlement patterns have changed. That is very good and it is the right way to proceed for many reasons but especially from a climate change perspective and the necessity to get cars off the road. That can be done and should be done and the Minister has made significant progress in planning in that regard. The transport sector generally has been way behind in terms of moving away from the burning of fossil fuels and the impact that has had on climate change and our inability to reach the targets that have been set out.
While I know the Government has been making certain plans in that area, it cannot just be focused on major areas of population. Many communities are dotted throughout rural areas, in particular in County Clare, that need additional commuter bus services. I think of areas in west Clare such as Kilrush and Kilkee, and right up along the western seaboard from Milltown Malbay up to Doolin. People travel from there to Ennis, Shannon and Limerick for school, college and work and there is a need to enhance the services. People travel to work from areas in east Clare such as Scariff, Tulla, Feakle and Killaloe to Ennis, Shannon and Limerick and to go to colleges in Limerick. They need an adequate, well-funded public transport service, one which will meet the needs of a developing and changing economy and changing settlement patterns.
It is incumbent on the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, as the wider transport service delivery in this country is changing, to provide adequate and appropriate investment in services in rural areas. There is much talk in this House about rural decline - the closure of Garda stations, small schools and post offices - and the necessity to try to put in place infrastructure to ensure that people will continue to live in rural areas. Line Ministers often say the population is not there and the service demand is not as great as it was so therefore it is inevitable that businesses will close. The underlying issue is that in many instances we have not succeeded in putting in the appropriate public transport services to make it possible for people who want to live in rural areas, who come from the areas, but who need to commute elsewhere for various reasons. Some young people are not in a position to drive and some elderly people do not want to drive. Other people travel for work.
We must take a holistic approach and put in place an appropriate transport service to meet the needs of all communities, not just those in the more densely populated areas. It should be possible to put in place the appropriate level of service by providing smaller buses and more frequent services targeting those who travel to college and work. That will reduce the volume of traffic on the roads and have a significant positive impact on the quality of life of people who seek to travel in that way and also have a consequent positive impact on climate change by taking more cars off the road. If we can group them together as part of a public transport service, that would prevent people making journeys that are not necessary.
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue and for the compliment, which might have been backhanded, about what is being done in Dublin. We are making significant progress in Dublin and the future is looking a lot brighter for public transport there. I do not interpret the Deputy's remarks as meaning that it is at the expense of rural areas but I understand what he is saying about people in rural areas and rural transport operators looking at Dublin with a certain amount of envy. The greater expenditure in Dublin is due to the population. I will bear in mind what the Deputy said about rural areas in County Clare. We are being proactive in addressing the issue.
The House will be aware, that as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I have responsibility for policy and overall funding in relation to public transport. I do not have responsibility for the day-to-day operations of public transport services. The National Transport Authority, NTA, has statutory responsibility for securing the provision of public transport passenger services nationally, including the provision of bus services in County Clare. In addition, the NTA also has responsibility, since 2012, for managing the rural transport programme, which includes bus services in rural parts of County Clare. Consequently, the development of bus services in specific areas is a matter for the NTA in conjunction with the relevant transport provider and the Local Link office.
In view of the Deputy's interest in this issue, however, my Department contacted the NTA about both existing bus services in rural parts of County Clare and new services which are being developed. The NTA has advised my Department that 13 routes operate through County Clare by Bus Éireann under a public service contract with the NTA. Some of these services are entirely within County Clare while others either originate or terminate outside County Clare. All of these services are entirely subvented by the State. An additional three services are operated on a commercial basis through County Clare by licensed operators, including Bus Éireann Expressway. The NTA has further advised that it is in the process of finalising detailed timetables for Bus Éireann services from west Clare to Ennis. The current services on routes 333 and 336 are proposed to be significantly enhanced and improved from the current level of service.
In rural areas, bus services are provided under the rural transport programme, which now operates under the Local Link brand. By way of background information for the House, the NTA contracts the services and the 17 Local Link offices, including Local Link Clare, manage the services in their respective areas on behalf of the NTA. The NTA, with its national remit to secure the provision of public passenger transport services, is best placed to ensure that the Local Link services are developed and integrated with other public transport services. Local Link Clare operates 24 routes in County Clare. The NTA is aware that there remains scope for Local Link services to complement the revised Bus Éireann services and to provide travel opportunities from locations currently not served or very poorly served. The NTA is also considering proposals from Local Link Clare for two new services to include Ballyvaughan to Ennis via Lisdoonvarna, and Ennis via Kildysart extension to include Kilmurry McMahon and Labasheeda. The NTA anticipates that a decision will be made on both of these services shortly.
Accessing social activities in the evening in rural areas presents particular difficulties which I sought to address in meetings with key stakeholders at the end of last year, arising from which the NTA issued a call for applications. Although Local Link Clare did not submit proposals under the original call by the NTA, I have been advised by the NTA that proposals were subsequently received from Local Link Clare.
The NTA is currently examining these applications with a view to having new evening services on three routes in County Clare.
I am committed to the further development of bus services in rural areas and that is why funding has been increased over the past number of years, which has enabled the introduction of new services, including regular five, six or seven day per week bus services as well as demand-responsive services. Key features of these new services have included greater integration with existing public transport services and better linkage of services between and within towns and villages.
I thank the Minister for his comprehensive answer. My compliment to the Minister was not backhanded but rather genuine in terms of what is being done in this city. As one who stays here for three or four days per week, I thoroughly recognise the necessity of a comprehensive bus and light rail service in the city. It is clear from the Minister's response that he has also recognised the needs of rural communities. Although I accept, of course, there will always be funding issues, it is appropriate that, where possible, key areas are identified. The Minister has indicated that there is a focus on those areas, particularly in west Clare, and ensuring an enhancement of the service, which I welcome.
I also draw the Minister's attention to the needs of towns and villages such as Killaloe, Scarriff and Tulla which may be seen as satellites to larger urban areas that have colleges and much employment, such as Limerick and the employment zones in Shannon and Ennis. I hope that as a result of this engagement his officials will ensure that there will be a review of the services in place involving a consideration of potential demand and the lifestyle issues of those who live and work in and travel to education from those areas and that they will work towards putting in place an appropriate service that would meet the needs of such areas.
The focus in the House in terms of rural transport is often on meeting the needs of those who socialise at night. I understand the importance of that and such services may be provided - Rural Link and Local Link. However, there is a far greater number of people who would more widely use public transport if such services were available, which would take off the road many of the cars that have such an impact in terms of climate change. I encourage the Minister to continue with his efforts and put more resources towards rural areas as moneys become available. He will have support from this side of the House for any such measures.
I thank Deputy Dooley. I am committed to improving rural transport throughout the country. The steps taken so far have been small but universally welcomed. The fact that three Local Link services, including that in Clare, did not initially apply did not reflect any disdain or dismissal on their behalf of the night services we were offering but rather were due to timing problems. I welcome that Local Link Clare has now applied. As the Deputy is aware, three evening services are being introduced in east Clare. The first will serve Feakle, Scarriff and Tuamgraney; the second, Feakle, Tulla, O'Callaghansmills and Kilkishen; while the third is a festival service which will serve East Clare Golf Club and surrounding hostels. I will provide the Deputy with a direct response on those routes when I receive further information. We have committed to the provision of those services.
The requirements in rural Ireland are entirely different to those in urban areas. There is a social need for services in rural areas and although there may not be any prospect of the services in many areas being an economic or commercial success, I fully accept there is an obligation on the State to provide such transport for people who are isolated or do not have the frequency or variety of services that are available in Dublin. I hope the Deputy will accept my bona fides in that regard.