Tuesday, 10 May 2022
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
The Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, made an announcement some time back that he would be applying a cut in public transport fares for our youth by 20% and then announced a few weeks later that there will be a 50% cut in fares for students and young people travelling on public transport. This should be welcomed but, as it has gone ahead now, it will have a disastrous effect in rural communities as no local commercial operator - better known to the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, and myself as the private service operator - can avail of the 20% or the 50% deductions. I raised this in the Dáil with the Minister as soon as he announced the 20% decrease in early April but he still railroaded ahead with it, wiping every private service operator off this decrease and leaving many of their struggling businesses with an uphill battle to survive.
The local commercial operators, as we all know, were still reeling from the shock when the Minister announced in the past two weeks that he is railroading ahead with a 50% decrease for students and young people’s travel. Again, this is something to be welcomed, as many would say, but the Minister put nothing in place for the private operator to pass on this decrease to the students, mainly in rural Ireland, saying there are technical and funding issues preventing him from doing so. This 50% decrease will benefit those who travel on Bus Éireann, Luas, the train, DART and Dublin Bus, all Dublin city-type transport, which I do not begrudge. However, a private operator like West Cork Connect, which carries 80% of the passengers on west Cork routes, has buses leaving Skibbereen and Bantry every hour, on the hour, every day, passing through Clonakilty and Bandon to Cork on one side, and from Dunmanway and Ballineen to Inishannon to Cork and back on the other side, a service, I may add, which has opened up west Cork. This local commercial operator is employing a huge number of staff in west Cork but is not allowed to pass on the recent 20% or proposed 50% decreases to west Cork students. It is not just putting his business in jeopardy, but also Wexford Bus, Cobh Connect, Aircoach, Go Bus and Citylink, which are all facing the same wipeout.
This is another gaffe by the Minister, Deputy Ryan. On top of that, it is a direct hit on the young people and rural communities who totally depend on private operators to connect their communities. The Minister for Transport, with the aid of the Government, simply wants to wipe out the private bus operators, or that is the way they feel anyway. Unlike Bus Éireann, Luas, DART, Dublin Bus and the train, they have to pay their staff and pay for their fuel and for the wear and tear on their vehicles. Instead of encouraging them with a so-called Connecting Ireland dream, the Government is going to completely disconnect transport in rural Ireland because many of these operators are going to go out of business as a result.
Why was what should have been such a positive announcement by this anti-rural Government held off until everyone, rural and urban, could avail of this decrease? The Minister, Deputy Ryan, knows of this bias he has created. This Government decision will see private bus companies being forced out of business by State-backed cuts and now leaves them contemplating taking legal action. Not alone is this unfair but it is anti-competitive as well. Why can the Minister for Transport not get this right? Will the Government step in now and treat everyone in rural Ireland and urban Ireland the same when it comes to the decrease in fares for our youth?
The company West Cork Connect is now struggling to survive. That operator is providing a service that no one ever provided in west Cork before and no one ever will touch it again if he walks away from this. The Minister, Deputy Ryan, met him and told him that when he gave the 20% decrease, he could not pass it on to private companies because he could not afford it and then, three or four weeks later, he announces a 50% decrease. I cannot understand where the money came from, all of a sudden. This West Cork Connect operator, as I said, is up against it because of these cuts being given to public transport and not to him. He is also being moved from his parking space on St. Patrick's Quay in Cork city, which is going to be a disaster for him going forward. That is another issue on which I would appreciate an answer.
I thank Deputy Collins for raising this important topic, which I am taking on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Ryan. I understand the Deputy’s question is in regard to the extension of the recently introduced 20% fare reduction initiative on public transport services to include private transport operators.
Commercial bus and coach operators are an integral part of the overall public transport system in Ireland. They play a pivotal role, particularly in areas around the country which are not covered by existing public bus and rail services. In recognition of this important role, the Government has continued to provide temporary financial supports through the Covid-19 pandemic with a view to protecting capacity across the public transport system. I am pleased to inform the Deputy that these financial supports were extended earlier this year up until 30 June 2022. To date, almost €60 million of State funding has been provided to support commercial bus operators during what has been a challenging time as transport demand patterns evolved in response to the pandemic.
In regard to the 20% fare reduction initiative, it is important to highlight that this measure was introduced as part of a suite of Government measures to help combat the rising cost of living. The Government allocated €54 million in Exchequer funding to support this transport initiative. The fare reduction was rolled out to public service obligation, PSO, services outside the greater Dublin area from 11 April and nationwide from 9 May. These discounted fares will benefit the hundreds of thousands of people across the country who use PSO public service transport every day in 2022. The fare reduction is funded until the end of this year.
However, the funding allocation does not include an extension of the scheme to commercial operators. Unlike with PSO services, the National Transport Authority, NTA, does not set, monitor or regulate fares on services run by commercial operators. The operators themselves set fares on their services based on their own commercial judgment. While it is not currently intended to include the commercial operators as part of the 20% average fare reduction initiative, it has always been the Minister's intention to include these operators as part of the longer-term young adult card initiative announced as part of budget 2022.
In recognition of the importance of incentivising more young people to use public transport, funding was secured to provide for the introduction of the young adult card on both PSO and commercial services. This measure will allow any person nationwide between the ages of 19 and 23 years to avail of an entitlement for discounted travel costs and to increase the level of discount over and above the current student discount to an average discount of 50% across all services, including city, intercity and rural services. The young adult card was launched on PSO services at the start of this week, with more than 1,000 applications received by the NTA on launch day alone. The initiative will be broadened to include commercial operators later this year, with the aim to have it in place before the recommencement of third level colleges.
The time lag is due to the fact it is technically more challenging to roll out fare initiatives such as the young adult card on the commercial bus network than it is on the Leap-enabled PSO network. An array of various ticketing equipment is in use on fleet used by commercial operators and needs to be catered for. To expedite the process, the NTA has established a joint working group with commercial bus operators to consider options and to develop a plan to implement the young adult card in as timely a manner as possible. Such fare initiatives will be of great benefit to the public transport user and will promote a modal shift into the transport sector.
I thank the Minister of State for the reply but she cannot talk about Covid-19 supports because, in fairness to these operators, most of them had to take eight or ten passengers, so they were in an absolutely dire situation at that time.
Supports are good at any time. I respect that but it cannot be seen as those supports carrying operators over for the remainder of their lives. The bottom line is that it is very obvious what is happening. The Minister for Transport is wiping out private service operators. That is how they tell me they feel. Outside of Dublin, the local commercial bus operators are the biggest operators in the country. They carry out 30 million passenger trips yearly.
In a recent meeting with the Minister for Transport the private operators asked a straight-up question as to why were they not included in the 20% bus fare decrease for the youth on their buses. They were told by the Minister, Deputy Ryan, that it was for financial reasons that he could not go ahead. To their astonishment, a few weeks later, he announced a 50% decrease and again exempted them. Where did this Minister find the money that he did not have a few weeks earlier? Was it carbon tax money robbed from the hard-working people of rural Ireland?
It is no disrespect to the Minister of State, because she is doing whatever is asked of her, but it is a disgrace that the Minister is not here to answer straight-up questions and give us a date that the private service operators, who carry more than 50% of bus passengers in Ireland, can pass on the 20% or 50% decrease to their customers. If he does not, he will be the cause of disconnecting public transport in rural Ireland, as is happening already.
It is an attack on our youth. This is a great idea. I have no objection whatsoever to passing on a 20% or 50% deduction to the people who travel on the DART or the Luas. I wish them the very best of luck. We should be delighted for them but if it is good enough to pass it on to them, it is good enough to pass it on to the people of rural Ireland, whether they are in west Cork, Mayo or Wexford. The Minister of Transport has failed in his duty to do so because he cannot see outside the Pale. It is Dublin or nothing. That is what is happening here. The private operator will go out of business and we cannot afford to allow that happen in this country.
I reassure the Deputy that both the National Transport Authority, NTA, and the Department of Transport have been engaging directly with the commercial bus operators to help inform policy decisions with regard to the public transport sector, especially those related to the ongoing impact of Covid on the sector, and with regard to the various fare initiatives being introduced this year.
In addition to the working group that I referenced earlier, the Department of Transport has been engaging with the Coach Tourism and Transport Council of Ireland, CTTC, since May 2020. To date, 23 meetings have taken place. More recently on 25 March, the Minister, Deputy Ryan, met with the CTTC to discuss its concerns and the key issues facing the sector. While it is not intended to include the commercial operators as part of the 20% average fare reduction initiative, which is due to run to the end of 2022, it is intended to include these operators as part of the long-term young adult initiative.
The NTA is working closely with operators in order to achieve this shared goal as quickly as possible. However, as the Deputy will appreciate, in order to roll out the card across the commercial bus sector, time is needed to make the necessary changes to the wide array of ticketing systems employed across the network. The NTA has advised that the intensive technical work to achieve this objective is currently under way. It is hoped that the young adult card initiative will be expanded to include the commercial bus sector by the end of the summer.
Initiatives such as the young adult card and the 20% average reduction on public service obligation fares mean that 2022 looks set to be an exciting year for public transport provision throughout the country as we slowly return to pre-pandemic travels. I trust this clarifies some of the questions that the Deputy has raised.