Dáil debates

Thursday, 21 February 2019

Accessibility of Public Transport for People with Disabilities: Motion


4:55 pm

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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I move:

That Dáil Éireann shall consider the Report of the Joint Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport entitled ‘Accessibility of Public Transport for People with Disabilities’, copies of which were laid before Dáil Éireann on 14th November, 2018.

I am delighted to introduce this debate on the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport report on the Accessibility of Public Transport for People with Disabilities. I thank the Acting Chairman and the Business Committee for selecting this very important policy report for debate.

The joint committee was delighted to launch this report coming as it did after a significant period of consultation where we listened to witnesses from disability groups and transport groups. More than 20 witnesses attended the committee's hearings last year, many of whom are in the Public Gallery this evening and we welcome them.

The Joint Committee heard some deeply moving evidence from many of those witnesses of their experiences around the inaccessibility of public transport and the challenges facing them, often on a daily basis, when trying successfully to complete bus, train and Luas journeys. These are journeys that most of us take for granted. I also thank the Minister, Deputy Ross, who appeared as a witness at our hearings, for accepting our committee’s report, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s remarks.

This policy report, which formed a major part of the committee’s work programme for 2018, sets out 16 key recommendations to pave the way towards equal access to public transport services for people with disabilities. An accessible public transport system is vital to ensure that people with disabilities have full access to all spheres of Irish society: economic, educational, civic, social and leisure.

In order to develop these recommendations the committee met with a broad range of stakeholders to identify potential policy solutions to improve access to public transport services for people with disabilities. These included disability activists and representatives including the Disability Federation of Ireland, the Irish Deaf Society, the Irish Wheelchair Association, the National Council for the Blind Ireland and Inclusion Ireland. Representatives from the various transport operators - Dublin Bus, Iarnród Éireann, Bus Éireann, Transdev Ireland and the Coach Tourism and Transport Council of Ireland — also appeared before the committee, as did the National Disability Authority, the National Transport Authority, and the Minister, Deputy Ross.

The committee very much appreciates the deeply personal and moving accounts shared by witnesses with disabilities of the difficulties they personally encounter in using public transport. Many of the witnesses described very concerning and completely unacceptable incidences of being stranded at a terminus at night, for example, with potentially no way of travelling home due to a lack of accessible buses. They also described occasions of being left stranded on a train service with no means to disembark. These stark experiences are evidence of the disadvantage, exclusion and unequal treatment that passengers with disabilities encounter while engaging with the public transport system.

The 16 recommendations contained in this report detail ways to increase the accessibility of Ireland’s transport services, the aim being to achieve equal access for all to this vital and necessary resource. First and foremost our committee calls on the Minister and the Government to fund adequately and to provide a clear policy plan to move towards full accessibility on all public transport. It is time for us, as a nation, to prioritise the transition to a fully accessible public transport system for all and to put in place the resources necessary to deliver this as soon as is practicably possible.

Accountability too needs to be embedded into the very core functioning of our public transport system to ensure, for example, that there is redress for passengers in the event of stranding or other instances of poor or inaccessible service.

Other key recommendations in the report include equal access. The committee calls on the Government to fund adequately and provide a clear policy plan to move towards full accessibility on all public transport, including details of funding breakdowns and project timelines.

Ultimately, a measure of achieving the policy ideal of equal access to public transport for all is the extent to which passengers with disabilities can undertake unplanned travel. We must remove barriers to spontaneous travel for people with disabilities, such as requiring passengers to give advance notice of travel, by ensuring that the necessary accessibility infrastructure and assistance is available without pre-booking.

Accessibility requirements of people with disabilities must be a core consideration in the decision-making process for all public transport planning, funding and development. Mobility for people with disabilities must be looked at on a whole of journey basis, meaning that the focus needs to be on ensuring accessibility from door to door rather than bus stop to bus stop.

To accomplish this, accessibility information on route linkages between public transport locations must be provided to passengers. Providing details of step-free routes on journey planners will enable wheelchair users and passengers with mobility impairments to plan their journeys in advance.

Our committee recommends the establishment of a single point of access hub to provide travel information and journey planning across transport modalities. Vital to this is a dedicated customer service contact point using phone, text messaging, email and live chat to address specific queries in relation to accessibility for passengers with disabilities. This information should be provided across a range of formats, including mobile apps, accessible leaflets, subtitled audiovisual content and Irish Sign Language videos. As part of this centralised hub, the committee recommends the establishment of a clear customer feedback pathway on barriers to accessing public transport across all modes. This contact hub should be responsive to passengers, with clear and transparent protocols for addressing the feedback or complaints received. In the interest of monitoring performance, our committee also recommends that data should be collected to track both the types of complaints received from passengers and the nature of the responses to these complaints, in particular in relation to any actions undertaken to address them.

A key concern for the committee is to ensure that accessible provision is in place in the event of service disruption, curtailment or cancellation. That means where a train or bus service is cancelled, any replacement service should be accessible. In the event that there are changes to the accessibility status of services, for example if an accessible bus service is replaced by an inaccessible service, these changes should be clearly communicated to all passengers. Moreover, if it is not possible for operational reasons to source an accessible replacement option in the event of disrupted train or bus journeys, wheelchair accessible taxis should be provided by the relevant operator to facilitate passengers to complete their journeys.

An important part of the process of achieving a fully accessible public transport system rests on developing performance measures to assess accessibility standards across transport modes, operators, infrastructure and facilities. By monitoring these performance metrics against a baseline audit of public transport accessibility, we will be able to track the extent to which accessible public transport is being delivered across transport modes, operators and locations. Ultimately, accountability must be embedded into the heart of public transport delivery. Transport operators must have a formal obligation to deliver an accessible service, with sanctions applicable if they fail to deliver an adequate service. For example, if an operator fails to provide an accessible service where a passenger has pre-booked a journey or if an operator fails to provide an adequate service thereby stranding passengers on trains with no means to embark, that operator must provide redress.

The committee takes this body of work and important policy report very seriously. I assure the House that the committee will not countenance the report gathering dust on a shelf, in particular within the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. Following the commitment he gave to us, we expect the Minister to come before the committee every six months to brief members in detail on the implementation measures initiated by his Department and other relevant Departments in respect of each of the committee's recommendations. Periodic review of the progress of the Department in implementing these measures will ensure that transparency and accountability are embedded at the heart of our transport policy. The Minister can expect an invitation from the committee to appear before us for the first update. We look forward enormously to that first progress report.

Before I conclude, I pay tribute to Senator Dolan on behalf of the joint committee for his input into this report. Senator Dolan, who is with us in the Chamber this evening, is a tireless advocate for the rights of people with disabilities in Ireland and when he raised this issue with the joint committee just over a year ago, we had no hesitation whatsoever in agreeing it was one the committee must prioritise.

5:05 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5:15 pm

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. I acknowledge all of the people who made submissions, particularly those who made presentations to the committee. Some of the people who made presentations to the committee did so at some discomfort and inconvenience to themselves.

They shared very personal stories and first-hand experience with us as committee members, which very much enabled us to publish this report. I also acknowledge Senator John Dolan and his assistant, Ciarán Delaney, for their championing of this and ensuring that this report came to fruition.

The Minister quite rightly says there has been progress, and it would be wrong not to acknowledge it. The appointment of people with a disability to the various State boards is a welcome development and undoubtedly will ensure that any decisions taken at board level in the future will reflect the needs of people with disabilities. What was reinforced to me as a committee member over the hearings was that there are vast differences in the experiences of disability and that it is therefore important to provide a diverse and flexible array of supports to cater for people with the varying disabilities and varying levels of disability. There are mobility issues, people with restricted and limited sight and people with psychological and intellectual disabilities. Speaking of intellectual disabilities, I acknowledge the work that has been done on the promotion of the "just a minute", JAM, card which the various bodies need to acknowledge, take on board and implement. Quite often not every disability is obvious to the person one is dealing with, and we need to acknowledge the diverse levels of disability out there.

Accessibility is a precondition for persons with disabilities to live independently and participate fully and equally in society. Without access to the physical environment, from transportation to information, communication and other facilities and services open or provided to the public, persons with disabilities would not have equal opportunities to participate in their respective societies. I am thinking of two contributions from witnesses to the committee. Dr. Margaret Kennedy told the transport committee that she was left at the end of a very long platform at Heuston Station in the dark, with not a soul in sight, and became very scared. About 20 minutes or half an hour later a single cleaner arrived and Dr. Kennedy was rescued. This incident in the not-too-distant past is a very strong indictment of a State service.

Another witness, Alannah Murray, told the committee she had missed out on business meetings that could have secured her a job. She stated, "I have had to miss appointments because I have showed up for my pre-booked bus only to be told that there has been a mis-communication and I will be unable to travel as the bus has not been properly adapted to allow me onto it." This is simply not good enough and again reinforces the need to address this issue to ensure that people with a disability can lead normal lives and integrate into society just as we have the benefit of doing daily. None of us in this Chamber must warn a company when we want to take a bus or give 24 hours' notice if we want to take a train. We must strive to ensure that just because someone has a disability does not mean he or she should not be able to lead a normal life and get around in the very same way as people who do not have a disability.

The Minister referred in his speech to rail accessibility and the increase from €1 million to €3 million provided for railway station accessibility upgrades this year. How many stations will this address? That is the crucial point. We need to know how many stations will become more accessible with the increase in funding. Is this level of funding enough to make all stations accessible? I do not think so. I do not know. The Minister made reference to the urban bus services, and that was welcome, but he forgot to mention the rural bus services. Only approximately 40% of our bus stops across rural Ireland have been surveyed. Of those that have been surveyed, the majority are yet to become accessible. We do not have them all surveyed so we do not even know how many we need to improve.

This report identifies 16 specific recommendations. Due to the short time I have, I will just allude to a number of them. One is the review of the free travel scheme. This is urgently needed. Free travel is currently made available to senior citizens, and I do not begrudge them that at all, but people with a disability are only eligible for the free travel scheme if they are in receipt of disability allowance. I know a person in my constituency who is on a payment similar to disability allowance and was signed off work due to disability. However, because he has a public service pension, he does not qualify for disability allowance, and because of this he is not entitled to free travel, despite the fact that he has severe mobility and medical issues that require him to travel to Dublin very frequently. I have raised this anomaly with the Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, and I am raising it with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport this evening. It needs to be addressed.

A number of Deputies raised the issue of commercial bus services at the committee meetings. It is proposed to ensure that no commercial bus operator should be allowed to provide a service that does not meet the same standard the Department imposes on Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus. This is not currently the case, and that can be addressed quite quickly.

I like recommendation No. 15 which proposes to establishment of key performance indicators in order that when State companies or commercial operators providing a State service fail in their duty of care, there are consequences in the form of financial penalties, which can then be passed on to the people the companies have let down in the form of compensation.

Two other issues not in the report need to be highlighted. One is a major failing of this Government and the previous Government. I refer to the motorised transport grant, which was suspended almost six years ago. It is closed to new entrants but is critically important, particularly to people who live in areas where no public transport is available. No matter when this matter is raised, whether on the Order of Business or during Priority Questions or Other Questions, it seems to be "imminent". That imminency has lasted the best part of five or six years. It cannot go on any longer. While this is not the Minister's responsibility, as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport he needs to get in touch with the relevant Minister and ensure that this new scheme is opened up to new applicants without further delay.

Another area where the Government is failing very badly is the Disabled Drivers and Disabled Passengers (Tax Concessions) Regulations 1994. I do not know whether other Members have experience of this, but certainly in the past two years the conditions and eligibility criteria that have been set down have become extremely strict. I know a young man who is only kept out of a wheelchair by his own will, and he has been refused on two separate occasions in this regard. The scheme is not fit for purpose. It needs to be reviewed, and I ask the Minister to use his good offices to ensure that this is done.

As the Chairman of the committee and the Minister said, there is a six-month review. The Minister will be invited before the committee at the end of April to give an update on every one of the 16 recommendations. I will be there, as will other members, because there has very much been cross-party collaboration on this. We want to see improvements, and the Minister is the person in the position to deliver on these improvements. I hope he will honour his commitment and I look forward to welcoming him before the committee at the end of April to review all the recommendations that have been put before him.

5:35 pm

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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I welcome the report of the Joint Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport, which sets out a number of recommendations to improve accessibility to all public transport services for people with disabilities. The recommendations will go some way to improving access but they may not go far enough in improving the situation for people with disabilities living in rural Ireland. The number one barrier that people with disabilities face in places such as County Donegal is the lack of public transport. Measures in the report, therefore, while well-intentioned, are not suitably targeted to the reality of living in a rural constituency if one has a disability. Nevertheless, I support the implementation of the report's recommendations in the hope that improvements in rural public transport will be a consideration in the context of all public transport planning, funding and development. While this will require resources, including time and monetary investment, that is what is required if we are to be a country that prides itself on notions of equity and equality. Let us not forget that in the context of our climate action obligations and our necessary transition to a low-carbon economy, we will need greater public transport infrastructure throughout the country and, in particular, in rural Ireland.

People with disabilities living in rural Ireland face an inordinate number of barriers in accessing public transport. County Donegal has no rail or motorway, which makes the Bus Éireann fleet a vital part of our transport infrastructure. For a person with a disability coming from Donegal, a number of gaps in the planning, funding and development of rural public transport lead to significant service interruptions, journeys being cancelled or delayed, or people being unable to attempt a journey at all. There have been recent improvements, however, particularly in the area of upgrading bus stops to make them wheelchair accessible. I have been in contact with the National Transport Authority for years in respect of the provision of wheelchair accessible bus stops in Donegal. While I acknowledge that the bus stops have been successful, they are not enough.

To emphasise this point, I will read aloud an account of Frank Larkin, a disability activist from County Donegal. It is important that the voices of those affected by the issues being debated are heard. The journey from Donegal to Dublin is straightforward for me as an able-bodied person. I get in my car and drive uninterrupted for four hours to Killybegs numerous times a week. For Frank Larkin, however, as we will hear from his own words, it is an entirely different scenario. He told me that he would not use Bus Éireann ever again. He said he had not used the service for some time because he had too many bad experiences. He went on to say there had been improvements in that the route is now accessible but that all bus options should be accessible rather than needing to be booked 24 or 48 hours in advance and that it is impossible to make spontaneous trips as circumstances stand. He said disability awareness and equality training would definitely be required by staff due to the attitude of some to people with disabilities, even though they say they receive training.

Supporting Frank Larkin’s point, the Irish Wheelchair Association recently carried out a survey which found that seven out of ten people with disabilities were dissatisfied with the service offered by Bus Éireann. On Frank Larkin’s point about the advance booking required for journeys, I am glad the report recommends the rolling-out of accessibility services and facilities without prior booking. How we achieve this will fall on the Government's lap and whether it is content with increased spending in this area, but transport companies also need to get on board. It is clear that we need to focus on transport companies and how they deliver their services. It appears that more intensive training is required for service providers to help eradicate stigma.

In a previous report, the National Disability Authority, NDA, stated: “Ease of access also depends on the attitudes of the community as well as those transport staff.” We need to contemplate that and take on the NTA's recommendation that the Government develop a public awareness programme and a staff training programme for customer care. The report recommended that, where possible, the training should be conducted by people with a disability. I am happy with the report’s call for minimum standards of accessibility to be set and monitored by a statutory agency with powers to impose sanctions on transport companies that fail to assist people with disabilities. I also welcome the report’s recommendation that the NDA be given powers to monitor and enforce access for people with disabilities, and I hope it will be followed through. I acknowledge that disabled people are on the boards of the transport companies, which is welcome, but much more needs to be done.

Greater joined-up thinking is required among the various Departments to increase access for people with disabilities. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection must reflect the need for greater accessibility by providing the necessary income supports for all people with disabilities. Some social welfare payments, such as disability benefit, do not cover the free travel pass, but anyone with a disability, whether temporary or permanent, should be offered a free travel pass until he or she no longer needs it. Let us not forget that barriers to transport create barriers in other parts of life. For example, they can restrict the options for a person attending a third level institution or a person’s access to the job market. As we know too well, it also restricts a person's access to healthcare.

It is worth measuring how Ireland stands up to Article 9 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which we recently ratified. The convention explicitly states, “To enable persons with disabilities to live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life, States Parties shall take appropriate measures to ensure to persons with disabilities access, on an equal basis with others, to the physical environment, to transportation, to information and communications". While we have made progress, we have a long way to go and I hope that we will keep going in the right direction.

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin Bay North, Independent)
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I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on the report. I commend the Chairperson, Deputy O’Dowd, and the rest of the Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport on their work in holding hearings on accessibility to public transport and presenting us, as Deputy O’Dowd noted in his introduction, with the "experiences of disadvantage, exclusion and unequal treatment" endured by citizens with disabilities, which is a significant cohort of Irish society. When reading the report, I was struck by the comment of our colleague, Senator Dolan, who represents the Disability Federation of Ireland, in late 2017 that people with disabilities "do not have their basic right to free movement”. That is a profound statement on the level of public transport and all other types of transport in the country.

Other comments on public transport accessibility by witnesses to the committee also strongly challenged public transport operators and the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to fulfil urgently the accessibility principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was ratified by the Oireachtas last year. The 16 recommendations of the report seem to be a comprehensive overview of the steps Ireland urgently needs to take to implement full equal access as defined in recommendation 1 of the report. The measurement of performance by transport operators and all the agencies, such as the National Transport Authority, NTA, and so on, in recommendation 8 and the role of the National Disability Authority in recommendation 14 are also important. The Minister needs to respond with whatever legislation is necessary to provide for that measurement and to hold people to account. If necessary, sanctions should be applied to ensure that the NTA will place its responsibility to citizens with disabilities at the core of its monitoring of public and private transport companies. As the report notes, we are speaking about a significant cohort of our society, given that in the 2016 census, 643,131 people indicated they had a disability. Worryingly, the unemployment rate among persons with disability was reported to be higher than 26%. As Deputy Pringle has outlined, the lack of disability is almost certainly a factor in that regard.

In preparing for the debate, I contacted Ms Joan Carthy, the outstanding advocacy officer of the Irish Wheelchair Association, IWA, whom I welcome along with her colleagues to the Public Gallery. Ms Carthy helpfully sent me a copy of the results of the IWA’s national transport survey of October 2018, for which it had well over 500 respondents from 28 counties. Some 66% of those respondents indicated they use public transport, although some of those who said they did not said they used taxis. Trains and the DART were the commonest form of transport used, while people who used taxis usually had to book them in advance and were rarely able to book an accessible taxi. As the Minister noted at the committee, those seeking an accessible taxi must usually give at least 24 hours' notice, which is a significant issue for citizens with disability and transport accessibility.

A large number of people, 32%, used Dublin Bus weekly, with 22% using it daily but if companions travelling together are both in wheelchairs, they are unable to get on the same bus because of the space for just one wheelchair. There is a long-standing complaint about buggies being placed in the wheelchair space. It is disappointing that 43% of respondents reported being refused access to the bus because of the ramp being broken in 24% of cases, a buggy in the wheelchair spot in 33% of cases, or another wheelchair user already on board in 24% of cases. The Luas seemed to get good ratings from people who responded to the survey.

Some 64% of respondents to the survey said that they had to give notice to their local station if they were to travel by train, including the DART. In my constituency, I have had to make many representations to the Minister in the past few years about when the lifts are malfunctioning in Howth Junction-Donaghmede and a key station on the northern part of the DART becomes totally inaccessible for a citizen with disability.

The availability of accessible taxis is low. Since 2010, new licences were only granted for wheelchair accessible vehicles but just 8% of the small public service vehicle, SPSV, fleet is wheelchair accessible. I was dismayed in 2017 that only €2 million was available under the public transport accessibility grants programme. The Minister said that that has now expanded to €7 million, if he was referring to that specifically.

Clongriffin DART station in my constituency was one of the first stations to become staffless earlier this month because of the new system of the 13 hubs, and will be one of the first stations not to be manned. It is said that the rationale behind these unmanned stations is that it will allow staff at the hubs to travel between stations. Citizens with disability who use public transport have grave concerns about how and whether that system will work.

I warmly welcome the report and acknowledge the input of stakeholders including the Disability Federation of Ireland, Inclusion Ireland, the Irish Deaf Society, the National Council for the Blind, the IWA and other disability activists. I am a member of the informal Oireachtas disability group, which was founded and is chaired by our colleague, Senator John Dolan, which has done remarkable work over the past couple of years. I am also a member of the Committee on Budgetary Oversight and I have tried to ensure that the needs of citizens with disability are input into budget preparations at the earliest possible time. Making all public transport fully accessible should be a priority, as the Minister rightly says, for the entire Oireachtas and it is something that we can work together to achieve. Although we have not signed the optional protocol, we have signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD. We have grave responsibility in this regard and I hope that it will be discharged.

I read with great interest the contributions at the committee. It is somewhat disappointing to read what was said by the Minister and the CEOs, Mr. Ray Coyne of Dublin Bus, Mr. Jim Meade, the director of Irish Rail and Mr. Ray Hernan of Bus Éireann. Mr. Hernan said that the company are trying to get a balance between "the commerciality of the situation" and its overall transport obligations. That is a ridiculous comment because the point of good public transport is to empower and facilitate every user of transport, including all citizens with disability.

I welcome the news that the NDA is working with NTA and academics from DIT and Trinity on improved data analysis. It was disappointing to read some of Ms Anne Graham's contributions, as CEO of the NTA, to the committee. The CEO should lead the organisation towards 100% accessibility and ask the committee for whatever legislation or resources she needs to make that possible, to monitor what is happening and to ensure that the widest accessibility is available. She would not give a timeframe for her target. Some €28 million in budget 2018 was mentioned but during the austerity years it was our most vulnerable citizens, including those with disability, who suffered most.

I asked the Minister a few years ago about the cost of updating bus stations, and he replied that it would cost €11.5 million, with €79 million for railway works. He put the figure for fully accessible public infrastructure that he was taking care of at between €100 million and €200 million. That seems a reasonable sum. Many of us in this House voted against putting €500 million in the rainy day fund at this juncture. One area that we were thinking about was the disability sector. That is achievable and the Minister should work for it.

In recent correspondence, the IWA highlighted a number of disturbing issues, for example, emerging problems with the new Go-Ahead buses which have taken over 10% of radial Dublin Bus routes, including a number of routes through my own constituency. It also mentioned problems with the new Waterford intercity fleet. I hope the representations that have been made about these issues will be dealt with. I commend the committee and its chair for the outstanding work in developing the report. I urge the Minister to accept and act on it.

5:45 pm

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
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Like my colleague, I commend the committee and its Chairman on the very important work on this report. There is no doubt that people with all types of disabilities, including physical, intellectual, learning, hearing, sight, mobility, speech, deafness and mental health issues, do not enjoy access to society on an equal basis with others who do not have a disability. It is important that we try to level the playing field and ensure that those with a disability have access to the same rights, the opportunity to work, to have a social life and to contribute to society. With regard to the report and recommendations, I thought it was particularly interesting that the IWA revealed that only 5% of taxis across the country were wheelchair accessible. That is stunning and while grants are available to taxi drivers to increase accessibility for wheelchairs, they are not sufficient to incentivise taxi drivers to do so. It is important that the Department examines that. We know from surveys that are done that 80% of people with disabilities travel as car passengers because they cannot access public transport.

That is difficult, especially for those who live in rural isolation where there is no public transport and who rely on a family member to drive them places. I live in Newbridge, a commuter town, where, increasingly, people have to buy tickets at unstaffed stations. That is a significant challenge for people with a disability, especially those with intellectual disabilities, who travel alone. If there is a problem with a ticket machine, which often happens, having human support is very important to disabled people, especially when travelling alone. We know that previously people with disabilities had an automatic right to have somebody travel with them but this was taken away and there is quite an onerous procedure to get somebody else on a travel pass. That needs to be looked at. Having to provide notice 24 hours in advance of travel is completely wrong.

When I am talking about that, I think of the care and work of the people on the internships for people with disabilities here in Leinster House. I think of Kenny, who travels every day from Kildare town. I talk to him about the obstacles that he has to go through four days a week to contribute to the work that we are doing. He is a marvellous young man and indicative of the passion and human spirit that we need to help and support. I also think of my brother, Cathal, who has Down's syndrome and cannot drive. Living four miles from the nearest village, Rathangan, he has to rely on my mother or siblings to bring him anywhere. That is not good enough.

It is interesting that while only 5% of our taxis are not wheelchair accessible, we have an excellent Rural Link service in Kildare. Alan Kerry does a really good job with the resources he has but national policy dictates that all vehicles in rural transport fleets must be accessible so every bus is accessible. If we can do that in Rural Link we should be able to incentivise the taxi drivers to do that. The National Council for the Blind of Ireland, NCBI, has denounced the lack of reliable audible announcements on buses, trains and trams. If someone who is visually impaired cannot hear what the next stop is, he or she is severely disadvantaged. Sometimes I strain to hear when I am on an unfamiliar route. The fact that people with travel passes have to pay an extra €5 each way to reserve a seat is wrong. Those who do not have travel passes do not have to pay.

There is an anomaly in that many private bus operators do not accept the travel pass. The Department has to get grips with that. While there is no doubt that different groups fighting for disability rights believe more training is required for transport employees, and I agree, I have come across some excellent people and they need to be commended.

There are approximately 5,000 bus stops that cannot be accessed by wheelchair users and there is no way for disabled people to check the position in that regard in advance. If somebody with a disability is travelling to a place with which he or she is not familiar, he or she will not know until he or she gets there whether he or she will be able to alight from or board a bus. That is completely wrong. The isolation of elderly people with disabilities who live in rural areas has been highlighted in every form of research I have read.

As Chairman of the Joint Committee on Education and Skills, I, along with Deputy Curran, Chairman of the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection, and Deputy Harty, Chairman of the Joint Committee on Health, held several meetings and published a report entitled Review of Supports Available to People with Disabilities Transitioning from Education or Training into Employment. A total of 71% of people with disabilities cannot access employment. While the reasons are complex - I will not go into them now - it is important to say that transport was included for discussion at all of the hearings we held. Different agencies dealing with disabilities came before us and we also heard people talk about their lived experience. When so many people cannot access employment that is absolutely wrong.

Deputy Troy referred to the now discontinued motorised transport grant and the mobility allowance. That is very important for young people accessing education and training, apart from all the other myriad reasons. Prior to Inclusion Ireland's submission for budget 2018 the organisation consulted widely with disabled people and the mobility grant and the motorised transport scheme was one of the issues that arose more significantly than others. Many said a key priority for them was the reinstatement of this mobility grant. It has left families in desperate financial distress and many disabled people in rural areas without transport.

Under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities people have a fundamental human right to full and effective participation and inclusion in society. That right, however, is of little use if the correct supports are not in place. Access to public transport absolutely has to be one of those.

Years ago, the Government rightly stated that people in services and those in institutions should be moved out to live independently and should choose their own support services. That is very important and I applaud those who have helped to make that happen. It is a whole different situation, however, when people move into homes. There are several of them in Rathangan, my home town. Not having access to public transport is very difficult. If we want people to be full members of the community within which they live - and everybody has something to contribute to their community - but they do not have access to any type of transport to enable them to be part of a social network or indeed to go to work in that area there is something radically wrong. We have to empower people with disabilities, give them dignity and respect, and enable them to become full members of society.

5:55 pm

Photo of Imelda MunsterImelda Munster (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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This report came out of a series of hearings of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport where the committee heard from interest groups, charities, transport providers, disability activists and transport service users about the challenges of, and possible solutions to, the serious issues faced by people with mobility issues and disabilities in accessing transport. I thank all those who appeared before the committee for their contributions, particularly those with disabilities who offered us a valuable insight into the challenges and frustrations they experience day in, day out in accessing the most basic of services, transport. I also acknowledge the transport providers who appeared before the committee for the work they have undertaken to date. I hope this report will lead to significant progress in the near future.

Transport offers a vital lifeline to people because it allows them access work, education, healthcare services and a social life. In other words, it facilitates independence. The report makes some useful recommendations: ensuring equal access to transport is a key issue. I submitted an amendment to strengthen this recommendation which was accepted. It calls on the Government to adequately fund and provide a clear policy plan to move towards full accessibility on all public transport, including a breakdown of funding and project timelines.

The report also recommends that the needs of people with disabilities be central to all future transport planning. Periodic reviews, required targets for providers and research are also recommended. While the long-term goal is a move to full accessibility on transport the report also makes short-term recommendations. These include ensuring that passenger information is available in accessible formats on all stages of a journey, ensuring that journey delays and information are visually and audibly available, that there are sufficient staff to assist and enough ramps at train stations. The committee recommended the establishment of transport hubs that would provide information to transport users should they encounter difficulties or should they require additional information and support, or if they wish to complain about a service. We hope this will address some of the frustrations expressed by transport users at the committee hearings about cancellations, being unable to access transport, running into difficulties and finding it difficult to access assistance.

The report also recommends improved communications by transport providers in cases of cancelled service or delays and a commitment that they will ensure that disabled passengers are facilitated in cases where replacement services are not suitable for their needs. The matter of the cost of transport for persons with disabilities is key. People who are disabled have an increased risk of poverty, some persons with disabilities are reliant on the State and if the State fails them they are in a very vulnerable position. The report calls for a review of the free travel pass to ensure that all persons with disabilities are entitled to free travel and not just those in receipt of certain State payments.

I also submitted several amendments in respect of the matter of cost.

The amended report now calls on the State finally to implement the transport support scheme. This scheme was supposed to replace the motorised transport grant and other supports that the State had cut, but it does not appear to be functioning. The report also highlights the need to ensure that the additional requirements of people with disabilities in rural areas and their additional costs are recognised and taken into account during transport planning.

A recurring theme at the committee was the frustration experienced by transport users who have to make arrangements days in advance. If someone wants to take a trip on a Wednesday, he or she has to give notice by Tuesday and if somebody wants to travel at the weekend, he or she has to give 48 hours' notice. Persons with disabilities are expected to put up with bizarre situations that able-bodied people would find simply unacceptable. The report recommends that this notice period be done away with by ensuring that all public transport is fully accessible all of the time.

Along with Government and State companies, commercial operators are also subject to committee recommendations. We call on them to provide fully accessible services and to fulfil the same requirements as semi-State companies. This includes Bus Éireann's express service, which receives no State funding. We are calling for higher standards for commercial operators to be implemented by the NTA. This will be paid for from the operators' profits. We also call for such standards to be requirements for public service obligation, PSO, and other State transport tenders.

The report also makes a series of recommendations regarding accessible taxis. We want to see an increase in the number of accessible taxis and requirements on companies tendering for State transport contracts. We are calling for reporting services to address reports that some accessible taxis will not provide services to wheelchair users.

The recommendations, however, are only as strong as the political will behind them. In order to ensure that real progress is made on the issue, we need real commitments from Government and Government agencies to ensure that sufficient funding is provided. While some progress has been made, particularly within Dublin Bus, many of the more complex issues with regard to public transport still need to be addressed. Recent decisions, such as the decision to remove staff from train stations, must be reversed as they are causing undue hardship for people with disabilities.

It is hard to have confidence in this Government, however, when its previous form shows very little in the way of action. The Government made a commitment to ratify the optional protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This shows that while the Government might appear to be on board, in practice it is unwilling to grant people with disabilities their full rights.

The final three recommendations deal with accountability and monitoring. This is vital because without these recommendations the report runs the risk of sitting on a shelf gathering dust. The key part of these recommendations is the imposition of sanctions on non-compliant service providers if they fail to provide an adequate service by, for example, leaving passengers stranded or refusing to take a booking. Other key parts are the provision of redress for such passengers, the establishment of accountability measures for the NTA including the devising of key performance indicators for various aspects of transport accessibility and ensuring monitoring and the publication of quarterly figures detailing provision failures. Closely linked to this is recommendation No. 16, which calls on the Government to provide regular updates to the committee as laid out in various Government policy documents. These documents should include detailed timelines, implementation status and outcomes. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport will report to the committee every six months on the progress in implementing each of the 15 recommendations in the report.

I look forward to seeing real progress on this report. All of the people who contributed to this report and the committee members are determined to get things right. Unless there is Government will behind this, we will have wasted our time. Let us, in 2019, make sure that equality is central to everything we do from now on. I look forward to seeing progress on this report. The only way this will happen is if the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport prioritises it. This report should be taken into consideration in the planning and development of new infrastructure and in all efforts to make transport more accessible. We must accelerate the rate of progress to ensure that our society is inclusive and to break down the barriers that people with disabilities currently face every single day.

I have a couple of minutes left. Deputy Broughan had raised the issue of the new fleet-----

6:05 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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We have very little time left.

Photo of Imelda MunsterImelda Munster (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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I will be very brief. He raised the issue of the new transport fleet in Waterford. Last July Senator Dolan raised issues concerning the specifications and dimensions of these vehicles, which were not accessible. These are silly things that were flagged up in advance and which are now causing problems. This sort of thing needs to be rectified. It was brought to my attention by Mr. Michael Doyle. It is causing a serious problem and represents a regression in services for people with disabilities in County Waterford.

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I welcome the report and thank the committee for all its work. I have been looking over the recommendations. Some of them are very good and they are all very relevant. However, since I have come into this Dáil we have been through several strikes and disputes with Bus Éireann, Dublin Bus and the Luas. These have usually related to pay claims by the workers or, in the case of Bus Éireann, to the defence of their jobs because many of them were to be let go. In the course of debates on these issues, the Minister, Deputy Ross, made it very clear that he does not have a chequebook or deep pockets to deal with public transport. There are some great recommendations in the report such as having every bus stop immediately adjacent to a kerb, ensuring that access is available and that all ramps are working at every station, ensuring that all signage is working and that signage is provided in the Irish language, engaging with research, and undertaking research with people with disabilities. It goes on and on with some very good, innovative and necessary ideas to deliver real equality and real and proper access for people with disabilities. The first page of the recommendations recognises that achieving a fully accessible public transport system will require resources including time and monetary investment before recommending that a number of measures be taken to improve accessibility of transport in the short term. I have to wonder how we are going to be fixed in the long term because Deputy Ross does not have a chequebook or deep pockets.

As we pointed out repeatedly during those debates in this House, the subvention given to public transport by the Irish State is appallingly low. It is one of the lowest in Europe and our subventions for cities are also among the lowest in Europe. People with disabilities will be among those who will be most affected by that subvention being so extraordinary low and by our hurtling towards more and more privatisation of public transport. With regard to the area in which I live, cuts to the frequency of buses in Ballyfermot, each of which only has one wheelchair space, means longer and longer waits for people who need wheelchair accessible buses. The point was made earlier by Deputy Broughan that two people with wheelchair needs cannot travel together because there are not enough dedicated spaces on buses for them. The drivers do not have the authority to enforce the requirement that those spaces be kept free. One does not want to end up in a situation in which passengers are fighting with each other over whether prams get priority over wheelchairs.

We have an appallingly bad service generally, but it is even worse for people with disabilities. I want to read a letter I got yesterday:

I am writing to you in regard to the report above that is to be discussed in the Dáil tomorrow. I am a wheelchair user from Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal. I have applied to do a degree in Applied Sports with Business in Sligo IT. Bus Éireann customer service has told Sligo IT that it has no accessibility on the route between Ballyshannon and Sligo.

I would like to ask that you will speak on my behalf tomorrow. I survive [and I suppose one suffers on it as well] on disability allowance and do not have a car. I rely on the good will of family members to take me shopping, to the doctors, to physiotherapy etc. as do lots of other people in my situation.

Under the Equality Acts 2000-2004, I should not be discriminated against, I should be able to use public transport to meet my needs, in this case I would like an accessible bus to be put on Route 480 Ballyshannon to Sligo return so that I can independently attend college.

I have started a petition to achieve this and am trying to highlight the need for accessible transport nationwide.

It is unfair that people with disabilities, where the route is accessible have to give 24-48 hour notice to book a place. Wheelchair users in Ireland are not treated equally and most often hide away in their homes because society has [put up] so many barriers against accessibility. I hope that [you] will stand up for the people on this human rights issue and equality for all and help bring down the barriers.

That letter is from Vicky Matthews in Ballyshannon. I read it out because Vicky's situation needs to be repeatedly highlighted in order to remind ourselves of the reason reports like this are designed and the urgency in respect of funding for proper public transport. On the ideological argument against privatisation, the report states that private bus routes are under no compunction to provide disability access. That is outrageous. There are many private companies that have a licence to go up and down on our main routes without providing disability access or wheelchair spaces.

There is also the question of what is actually happening at the moment. We are running campaigns in many areas to stop the destaffing of DART stations. They are taking the security and the human beings out of DART and railway stations because they are trying to make things ticket and machine-ready so people can just move in and out without staff. That is a crazy manoeuvre when we are trying to facilitate people with disabilities. We have to stop destaffing DART and train stations. Human beings must be accessible to people with disabilities who need them.

The father of one disabled daughter makes a point to me that frequently the lifts in stations are broken and they often have to call the fire brigade to get them fixed or get people out of them, because the maintenance is so appallingly bad. Everywhere we turn, the problems mount up in terms of the subvention that is needed to make public transport work properly. We need more subvention. We need to end the habitual drive towards privatisation, as if it was going to be the cure for everything. A cursory glance at what has happened in other countries will show us that it disimproves public transport. We need more and improved public transport with real access and real equality. That starts with real investment not just in the quality but also in the quantity of public transport that is available for all, in particular for people with disabilities.

6:15 pm

Photo of Brendan  RyanBrendan Ryan (Dublin Fingal, Labour)
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It is absolutely imperative that we support the actions recommended in this report to fix the barriers to accessibility within Ireland's transportation system. At present, those in the disabled community are being treated as second class citizens. Due to the fact that public transportation has not been made accessible for their use, their freedom has been limited and many have been forced to live a life of isolation. While the needs of the disabled community are incredibly diverse, we have a responsibility to these citizens, as their representatives, to build the infrastructure of Ireland to meet their needs.

Some of the key recommendations within this report include the following: providing passenger information in accessible formats, especially when there are cancellations, interruptions or delays; confirming that emergency procedures provide accessible evacuation routes; supplying taxi tokens for individuals when there are no public transportation options available; and making accessible facilities available without prior booking. This problem of inaccessible public transportation has become an issue of human rights. Disabled citizens of Ireland should be able to move freely without compromising their safety and dignity. Spontaneity is one of the greatest privileges stripped from the disabled community within our current system because they must book aid services at least 24 hours ahead of time. Granted, the DART has now reduced that time to four hours, but that still does not change the problem that individuals cannot access services when they need to make an unplanned trip, such as in the case of needing to visit a family member in hospital. Life often does not go to plan and forcing these individuals to know when they are going to need to use public transport strips them of their ability to live autonomous lifestyles. This problem could be fixed if funding were to be allocated to ensure each station is always manned with trained staff members who can make each individual's journey as seamless as possible.

The services we are pledging to provide must also be implemented with consequences for the transportation providers, if the services fail to work in the way they are intended. The Labour Party disability chair, Mick Keegan, gives an example of this when he says:

A lot of money has been invested in making kerbs high enough to allow wheelchair access to Dublin Buses. We need drivers to pull in so people can actually use them. We need to work on road design to make sure this is always possible and we need to improve training of drivers.

There are also other experiences reported where disabled passengers have pressed the emergency assistance buttons on the train and found them broken or ignored. These experiences are abhorrent and unacceptable. The staff who are failing to complete their duties must be held accountable and each station must ensure that there are enough employees always on duty to aid disabled individuals in need of assistance. When stations are left unstaffed, this issue becomes a problem of public safety for all citizens. Individuals who frequently experience horrendous conditions while travelling quickly become disheartened and frightened when it comes to their ability to travel, so they will be much less likely to want to try it again.

Beyond making this system accessible for individuals with disabilities, the public transportation system should also be welcoming and encouraging of their use of the system. When people feel their use of provided services is resented by staff because of the extra work such services require, yet another barrier is constructed between the disabled community and their freedom. The best way for this report to have its desired impact is for the committee to continue to work hand in hand with the disabled community to ensure that the needs of their diverse community are met.

I thank the Acting Chairman for allowing me to contribute. I congratulate the joint committee members and Chair on their work. I am the spokesperson on transport for the Labour Party but we do not have a position on that committee. The presentation of committee reports in the Dáil Chamber on a Thursday evening is a great development and it is very important that it continues. I also congratulate Senator John Dolan as a key influencer in all of this.

Photo of John LahartJohn Lahart (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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I join Deputy Brendan Ryan in commending our colleague from the other place, Senator John Dolan, for his sterling work on behalf of a number of bodies in this space. I also thank our signers this evening for communicating our contributions to those outside. I welcome the report of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport on accessibility of public transport for people with disabilities. Much has been said and I do not want to repeat it. I acknowledge, as others have done to some degree, the significant advances that have been made in the last ten or 20 years in respect of the provision of facilities with people with disabilities and special needs in mind. One of the great leaders in this has been Dublin Bus. I raised an issue last year in respect of the livery of Dublin Bus. The company took great pride in the depth and breadth of its public consultation on the design and colour of Dublin Bus vehicles. The colours are designed specifically with those who have visual impairments in mind, so they know from a long distance away that a Dublin Bus vehicle is on its way, as all of us do. These are small but significant gestures to people with disabilities. Clearly we need more, and I will come to that. Certainly compared with 20 years ago, the fleet itself has been enhanced considerably. I always find Dublin Bus drivers to be exceptionally courteous and hard working in their attempts to parallel park the bus up to the new kerbs. The new kerbs cost a significant amount. They are permanently in place now. I was surprised to read that additional training is needed for them in terms of providing close-to-kerb pick-up opportunities for people with disabilities.

I acknowledge that this is an issue that arose in committee, and so it must be something that is required.

I also acknowledge the role that Dublin Bus plays in supporting people with special needs. The public consultation dimension of BusConnects last year was very interesting. One of the great problems that much of the public expressed with the BusConnects proposals, which had nothing to do with Dublin Bus, was the challenges it would pose for people with disabilities, special needs or mobility problems. Instead of seamlessly taking one route to their place of work, leisure or training, those people might have to disembark, connect elsewhere and then connect again to get to their destinations. More than any other group in our society, those with mobility challenges and those with disabilities would have been disadvantaged most by the proposals put forward. Fianna Fáil highlighted that in all of our submissions to the National Transportation Authority, NTA, and we hope that it has taken that on board. If nothing else, and there was much more, the BusConnects public consultation phase highlighted quite accurately issues that would affect those with disabilities and would pose significant challenges for some people. Indeed, those matters were highlighted quite quickly by those working in the area of disabilities.

We often laugh at the real-time bus stop signage, but it is an advance, and it is providing more information for people of all abilities about the bus service. Clearly, there are challenges and this report points them out. We have not mentioned bus shelters, but they are a basic element of the bus service. Everybody uses them. Luas stations also have virtually no cover for anybody, whether fully able-bodied people or those with mobility challenges. This report affords us an opportunity to look at this.

The report contains recommendations on how to improve the bus services. I am focusing on bus services, but I only have a short time in which to speak and perhaps it is useful to focus on just one or two things. I have mentioned buses stopping immediately beside bus stops. I hope that when we review this in the future this will be happening. I believe it is not an issue for Dublin bus drivers, but it may be something they have to be reminded of. One of the great outreach endeavours Dublin Bus engages in which parents have told me about concerns children or young adults with special needs. If they are able to travel independently to their place of work or training, Dublin Bus has a well-used facility where an assigned employee goes to those individuals and coaches them through the procedure of taking a bus, including how to find the bus stop and finding the route. They also accompany those individuals on the route until they become comfortable with it. This is just one of the unheralded public services that Dublin Bus provides.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but we should remind drivers to ensure that a passenger is fully seated and is in a safe place before a bus takes off. Drivers should clearly state the route number and destination as passengers board, and also declare when the bus arrives at each stop if an automated announcement is unavailable. These ideas are easy to implement and would cost nothing, but they could make a significant difference to the quality of people's experience of public transport.

On rail, the report refers to the need for ramps, lifts and emergency call buttons to be provided and the need to ensure that they are functional at all stations. Other Deputies have mentioned the dwindling number of staff at some stations. I have heard about this through constituents and people I know. In most cases it is not related to publicly funded public transport but rather taxis. People come out of an event at night and simply cannot get a wheelchair-friendly taxi. They can be standing around literally for hours, yet the State has invested quite a significant amount of money in grants for public service vehicles to ensure they are equipped for that purpose.

I will not take up time for the sake of it. I have made the points I wanted to make. I welcome the report, and will welcome the Minister of State's response in terms of how the Government intends to implement some of its key measures. Some of these measures are very easy to implement, while others will require some degree of investment.

6:25 pm

Photo of Catherine ByrneCatherine Byrne (Dublin South Central, Fine Gael)
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On behalf of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, I thank all who spoke on the motion for their thoughtful and considered contributions on all of the issues raised. I will bring their comments and concerns to the Minister and I hope that we can put some of the recommendations into action. I thank the Chair of the Joint Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy O'Dowd, all the committee members, and Senator John Dolan, who championed this issue. I thank all of those who contributed to the report, in particular those with disabilities who have shared their experiences of using public transport.

I can say with certainty that we are all united in wanting a public transport system which has the needs of customers with a disability at its centre. To achieve this requires a multifaceted approach and the active engagement of all the key stakeholders. It involves not only the physical infrastructure, but also measures such as ticketing and information systems, travel assistance schemes, disability awareness training for staff, and contact and complaints handling systems. Crucially, it requires the early and ongoing involvement of people with lived experience of disabilities and their representative organisations in the planning and design of public transport infrastructure and services.

The individual transport operators, both public and private, the NTA and local authorities, given their respective roles and responsibilities, must each play their part in delivering an accessible public transport system. This requires co-ordination and a joined-up approach. The NTA, with its functional responsibility for promoting the development of an integrated, accessible public transport network, has a key role to play. The NTA’s new position of transport accessibility manager, will act not only as an internal spokesperson in the NTA for customers with a disability but will also have responsibility for co-ordinating the accessibility programmes of transport operators, reviewing and auditing accessibility plans of transport operators, advising on the development of transport operator training programmes, and co-ordinating the access officers across all public transport operators.

The Minister, Deputy Ross, in his opening speech set out some positive developments which have taken place and are taking place. Many of these are being brought about as a result of the transport operators themselves identifying and acknowledging the need to improve the service they provide to passengers with disabilities. Others arise from commitments and actions under a number of whole-of-government strategies and plans, in particular the national disability inclusion strategy and the comprehensive employment strategy for people with disabilities. These commitments and actions are monitored at a national level by the NDIS steering group and the CES implementation group, respectively. At a departmental level, the public transport actions for which the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, the NTA and-or transport operators have a lead role are monitored and reviewed by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport's accessibility consultative committee, ACC. Membership of the ACC is drawn from organisations representing people with disabilities, members of the disability stakeholders group, key agencies under the aegis of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, as well as other relevant State agencies. The ACC’s work programme updates and minutes of meetings are available to view under the public transport section of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport website, www.dttas.ie/public-transport/engIish/accessibility.

One important aspect of the accessibility consultative committee is the opportunity to engage directly with transport operators and relevant agencies. During the past year, several of the transport operators have made presentations to the ACC at which members have been able to raise policy and high-level issues of concern. I understand that the feedback from these has been positive and that a key theme emerging is the importance of communications, both in terms of raising awareness of the good things that are happening and in letting people know when things are not working as they should. This engagement at the ACC complements the work that goes on at the disability users groups that each public transport operator has in place. The groups provide a forum for operators to consult and update disability organisations on accessibility proposals and developments, as well as for disability organisations to have operational and other accessibility issues addressed. This is all positive and it should be welcomed. However, the testimony to the joint committee hearing of those living with disabilities is a crucial reminder to all of us that we have some way to go before we meet our obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, as ratified by the Government in March of last year. Article 9 of the convention provides that state parties "shall take appropriate measures to ensure to persons with disabilities access, on an equal basis with others, to the physical environment, to transportation, to information and communications, including information and communications technologies and systems, and to other facilities and services open or provided to the public, both in urban and in rural areas". Article 4.2 provides that "With regard to economic, social and cultural rights, each State Party undertakes to take measures to the maximum of its available resources and, where needed, within the framework of international cooperation, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of these rights". We must therefore plan and strive for the progressive realisation of these rights. These are challenges to achieve in the context of our legacy of public transport infrastructure, in particular our Victorian-era railway stations.

The report of the joint committee acknowledged that the achievement of a publically accessible public transport system will require resources, including time and monetary investment. Therefore, the committee recommended several measures to improve accessibility of public transport services in the short term. Many of these measures do not require new or upgrading infrastructure. Some concerns were raised about proper utilisation of accessibility features that already are in place. Reference was made to practical steps that staff can take to make a journey more accessible for people with disabilities. The committee report is a welcome addition to other Government strategies mentioned earlier that are aimed at improving the lives of people with disabilities. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, has asked me to assure the House of his commitment to play his part as Minister with responsibility for the policies and overall funding of public transport to achieve this aim.

I wish to thank everyone involved. From reading the committee report it is obvious to me and to many others that those who use public transport services in particular have real concerns. I agree with Deputy Lahart with regard to Dublin Bus. The company has made vast improvement throughout the city not only in the buses but in how the staff approach people with disabilities. I have had several experiences on some local buses. Often it is down to the person who is driving the bus to facilitate people and to give them time. This may require pulling up at the right time and giving people the opportunity to take their time to get on the bus. Sometimes it is difficult. I have witnessed this myself. A friend of mine who has a disability is in a wheelchair. We had to wait for three buses to pass before my friend could access a bus with a wheelchair.

I thank the officials of the Department for their time and effort in putting this together. I intend to bring back to the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, the concerns raised this evening.

6:35 pm

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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I thank the staff of the committee, especially Mr. Paul Kelly and Ms Etaoine Howlett, who helped in the preparation of the report. Without their help it would not have been the success that it clearly has been. I will thank those who spoke in the order in which they spoke. I thank the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, and the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Catherine Byrne. I thank Deputies Troy, Pringle, Broughan, O'Loughlin, Munster, Bríd Smith, Brendan Ryan and Lahart. We have had 11 speakers altogether in the debate. This shows how important it is to Members from all parties and from the Independent ranks. I wish to acknowledge the presence of the visitors in the Gallery. They include witnesses who came before the committee and gave their time, effort and ideas. I thank Mr. O'Leary in particular and his colleagues, as well as Mr. Ciarán Delaney. I left Ciarán until last because he is probably the most important person who we meet in the House. He is forever and always articulating, fighting for, supporting and trying to get change for people with disabilities. He personifies the importance of advocacy. That is what makes those of us who are politicians do things differently.

At the end of day we have 15 recommendations. We will have the Minister before the committee at the end of April. We will be asking for reports on each of the 15 individual recommendations. Preferably before then - and if not then thereafter - we might identify or fix on four or five other new things that will happen or that we want to happen before the next six months unfold.

I acknowledge the comment of the Minister, Deputy Ross, to the effect that we all agree on the significance of the development at the National Transport Authority. The authority has created the position of a transport accessibility manager. That means that at the heart of all purchasing, routing and licensing of public transport there will be a transport accessibility manager. The role will involve formal engagement. It will not be hit-and-miss affair but a formal engagement with key disability representative groups. The role will involve developing and monitoring an improvement plan for existing services and, as the Acting Chairman pointed out, issues relating to private service providers who may not necessarily have the facilities that public service providers are obliged to have and the question as to how one makes that happen. The role will also involve assisting in the development of retrofit programmes and ensuring that accessibility is built into all new public transport infrastructure. That is an absolute sine qua non. In fact, it is the only way forward.

I learned one thing in particular from our committee hearings. Some people came down to us from Belfast using the just-a-minute, JAM, card. If someone with a disability presents at the point of contact with the service a card with the letters "JAM", it is recognised in Northern Ireland. I hope it soon will be recognised all throughout the Republic as well. The idea is that the driver, who is professionally trained, will acknowledge and be aware instantly that the person has a disability and that adequate concern and time must be given to that individual. I believe the initiative works efficiently and well. That is a constructive and positive outcome from our deliberations.

It has been an honour to chair the committee. The report could not have happened without the support of all our members. I thank the Acting Chairman for chairing the debate. I look forward to meeting the Minister in the near future to set about making the progress that is so badly needed and that everyone in the House, including ourselves and the witnesses in the Gallery, is fighting for.

Question put and agreed to.

The Dáil adjourned at at 7.40 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 26 February 2019.