Dáil debates

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Bus Services

1:40 pm

Photo of Seán FlemingSeán Fleming (Laois, Fianna Fail)
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Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle, for the opportunity to raise the important issue of the replacement of bus services that are urgently required in County Laois. I am speaking on behalf of the people of Mountrath, Castletown, Pike of Rushall and Borris-in-Ossory, who rely each day on the JJ Kavanagh & Sons bus service.

People received shocking news last week when they were told that from next Tuesday, 16 April, JJ Kavanagh & Sons will be withdrawing from the route through those towns. There are eight buses travelling in each direction each day and JJ Kavanagh & Sons has provided an excellent service over the years. However, the company has made a commercial decision and people are very disappointed. People use these services to go to work in the morning and return home at night, to do their shopping and daily business in Portlaoise and to go to hospital and medical appointments. Students use them to get to third level colleges. Other people use them to see their family and friends. Many people plan their lives around the public transport bus services and, as public representatives, we are here to serve those people. To put it in context, this is the Dublin to Limerick return route and the people in Moneygall, Toomyvara and Birdhill are also impacted by this decision. However, the people in Laois are primarily affected. JJ Kavanagh & Sons wishes to operate mainly on the motorway and to skip all the local towns because it says it is losing business on the motorway routes if it is taking the longer route through those small towns.

The issue is that a replacement service is required when this service is withdrawn next Tuesday. An application was made to the National Transport Authority and it approved the change of licence. It did not have much choice in the matter, but obviously it has known about this for some time although the news only broke locally a few days ago. The authority has had ample time to ensure a replacement service is put in place. I will quote from what appears to be a very good press release from the authority last Friday, and I hope it will deliver on the good intentions contained in it. That is all we want. I have no wish to have an argy-bargy on this, just to have confirmation before the Dáil gets up tomorrow that there will be a replacement service. The NTA stated "where commercial operators withdraw or curtail services, the Authority examines whether, in the absence of any commercial services, a public service obligation (PSO) exists to provide socially necessary but commercially unviable public transport services". The authority has examined this as a result of the change in the licence, which it would have known about as it has been dealing with the application. It stated "The Authority has completed an examination of the affected locations and has determined that there is in fact a requirement to continue to provide services to meet the social need."

According to the statement, funding is not an issue, there is a local service requirement, there is a public service obligation and it must provide for that. To that end it has been engaging locally with Bus Éireann, Local Link in Tipperary and Local Link in Laois with a view to providing solutions for customers next week. I also received an email from the chief executive of the National Transport Authority in which she said that the NTA is doing this with a view to providing solutions for bus customers at local level both in the short and long term. People understand that to mean that next week there will be a short-term solution until a new procurement process is put in place for a long-term arrangement with another local operator. That is what we seek - a seamless transition. We understand JJ Kavanagh & Sons is leaving the route, but people will need a subsidised PSO service. Everybody agrees that should happen but I hope the Minister will be able to confirm that it is in place for next Tuesday. There is a willingness on the part of the NTA to do it but we must ensure it happens seamlessly from next Tuesday.

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Dublin Rathdown, Independent)
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As Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport I have responsibility for policy and overall funding in respect of public transport. I am not involved in the day-to-day operations of public transport. The operation of bus services is a matter for the transport operators with oversight by the NTA.

Route 735, the bus service to which the Deputy refers, is a commercial service which operates between Dublin Airport, Dublin city and Limerick and is licensed by the NTA. Licences set out the nature of the service and conditions under which a licensed public bus passenger service must operate, such as the point of origin and destination, as well as a detailed timetable and stopping places. By their nature, commercial services cannot and do not receive any PSO funding from the Exchequer. All commercial bus operators will only provide services where it is commercially advantageous for them to do so and are free to pull out or curtail their services. Where operators pull out or curtail commercial bus services, the NTA will grant such amendments as it has no legislative powers to refuse.

Under the terms of the new licence, the private company, JJ Kavanagh & Sons, will only serve Portlaoise, Roscrea and Nenagh from April 16. It will no longer serve Borris-in-Ossory, Mountrath, Castletown or the Pike of Rushall in County Laois. I understand that the NTA has arranged a briefing on this issue with Deputies from Limerick, Laois, Offaly and Tipperary at 12.30 p.m. on Thursday in Leinster House. I am sure the Deputy will be there as I am sure he was instrumental in arranging it. I will not anticipate what will happen at the meeting but presumably it is being held to be constructive.

In circumstances where commercial operators withdraw or curtail services, the authority examines whether, in the absence of any commercial services, a PSO exists to provide socially necessary but commercially unviable public transport services. Such examination includes an assessment of the demand for public transport services and options to either reconfigure existing PSO services or to competitively tender for the provision of services. In either event, the NTA's ability to provide such services is subject to the availability of funding, which, as the Deputy noted, is not an issue in this case. To that end, the NTA is already engaging with Bus Éireann, Local Link in Tipperary and Local Link in Laois with a view to providing solutions for bus customers at local level, both in the short term and the long term. Timetables of services are currently being drawn up with the aim of not only meeting the social need but also improving levels of service to a wider area.

The Government is acutely aware of concerns about the proposed withdrawal of certain commercial services in rural areas. The reality is that commercial operators are continuing to take advantage of the major improvements to the national roads network in order to offer improved journey times between Dublin and regional cities by providing more direct services with fewer intermediate stops. The NTA has a key role to play in assessing, within available funding, the appropriate response to changes in services that have an impact in rural areas. The NTA has contracted for the provision of bus services for commercially unviable but socially necessary services in rural areas. As a general principle, PSO funding for all public transport should be allocated to ensure that socially necessary services, particularly in rural areas, are provided to the greatest extent possible.

Photo of Seán FlemingSeán Fleming (Laois, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for his reply, which is substantially along the lines I indicated arising from my direct contact with the NTA since last Friday.

I asked it to arrange a briefing session in Leinster House for tomorrow morning, which it agreed to do. I have notified the Deputies in all of the counties affected by the decision to be present. We hope it will be constructive and have a good outcome to enable us to get on with the rest of our lives. Nobody wants to see a gap in service and it would be dreadful if there was to be a gap for a day or a week or two. People will completely believe the plug has been pulled on small towns and villages. That is avoidable. Whatever has to be done to ensure a replacement service next week will, I hope, be done. As the Minister indicated, there have been contacts with local operators, including Bus Éireann and Local Link services. There is a good town link service running along part of the route and other private operators who could enter the fray might perhaps tender to operate a service on a long-term basis. What we need is a short-term measure to be in place from next Tuesday and to last probably for a couple of months. When the timetables are agreed to, the contract will have to be put out to tender. Tenders will have to be assessed and approval given to whichever organisation wins to commence its service and advertise accordingly. This process will inevitably take a number of months to complete. We need to get over the hump between now and then to ensure there will be continuity of service.

This isisue does not just concern people in County Laois, whether in Mountrath, Castletown or Borris-in-Ossory, who travel to and from Roscrea regularly; it also affects people in County Tipperary and north Offaly in some measure. The service may have to cover the full route from Nenagh to Roscrea on what was the old N7 to Portlaoise, now that the motorway, as the Minister pointed out, is attracting intercity bus services.

I also make a plea which I will repeat tomorrow for good weekend and Sunday services. Kavanagh's bus service were available seven days a week. Some of the Local Link services only offer a five or six-day service. We also need a Sunday service to facilitate those attending college.

My final point is that there will be long-term implications. From now on people will not be able to take a bus directly from Mountrath to Dublin. One will have to take the bus to Portlaoise to link with the ample number of hourly services from Portlaoise to Dublin.

1:50 pm

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Dublin Rathdown, Independent)
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It is fair to say the Deputy has made a compelling case, but he would not expect me to give a commitment in respect of a specific route and times. He understands fully that I cannot and would not do so, as it is up to the NTA to decide that matter, but it is clear from what I said and have gathered from what has been happening in this area that the Deputy is pushing an open door. I support his sentiments. There is a real reluctance on our part to see routes in rural Ireland deteriorate or diminish in any way. I want to make that point absolutely clear.

Despite the narrative which is often peddled in this House, the Government is very committed to providing increased and better transport services in rural Ireland. One has only to look at the funding provided for Local Link services which has been increasing since 2016. With €14.9 million allocated in 2018 and again in 2019, there is additional public service obligation, PSO, funding provided for regular Local Link services. It amounted to €4.5 million in 2018, bringing total funding for Local Link services to €19.5 million. The total in 2019 will be almost €20 million. It represents a significant increases on the 2016 allocation of €12.2 million and in 2017 of €14.4 million. The increased funding has enabled the introduction of 66 new commuter services in the Local Link network since 2016, operating five, six or seven days a week. Key features of the new services include greater integration with existing public transport services and better linkage of services between and within towns and villages. Demand responsive services continued to be developed nationally throughout 2018 in response to local needs.

I wish the Deputy well in his mission tomorrow when he can certainly say I have expressed support so as not in any way to infringe on or hinder the progress of public transport services in rural Ireland.