Thursday, 22 September 2022
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
3. To ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport the way in which he intends to address poor service standards, including no-shows and poor punctuality, on many bus routes operated by an organisation (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46550/22]
The Deputy is aware that the performance of all public transport operators is monitored by the NTA as part of the contractual arrangements in place between it and the operators. Many operators in the sector are experiencing difficulties with staffing, both as a result of Covid-19-related absences and difficulties in recruiting new drivers. These issues are found across all types of operators - public and private - including the company mentioned by the Deputy, Go-Ahead Ireland. I expect I can mention the company without any difficulty, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, as it is referred to in my response anyway. Go-Ahead Ireland is the company to which Deputy O'Rourke specifically refers. It is experiencing higher than normal levels of Covid-related staff absences at present, resulting in a knock-on effect on service delivery with some services not operating as scheduled.
The NTA is working with operators to try to mitigate the impacts, first through recruitment campaigns in recent months with significant numbers of additional drivers expected once required training and tests are completed and licences are issued by the Road Safety Authority, RSA.
Second, there is NTA engagement with the RSA to try to expedite the testing and licence process for new bus drivers. Third, the NTA is working with operators to minimise service cancellations, ensure first- and last-service buses operate and, on low-frequency routes, avoid, where possible, the cancellation of consecutive low-frequency services. As part of the NTA's contractual performance-monitoring system with operators, issues of poor reliability and punctuality performance can result in financial penalties for those operators, such as Go-Ahead Ireland.
The NTA has asked me to convey its apologies to passengers for the major inconvenience the current poor service performance is causing. Operators forecast significant improvements in reliability in the coming months, dependent on the successful recruitment and retention of critical staff, in particular drivers. It is hoped this will resolve the reliability issues being experienced.
Go-Ahead Ireland has a limited number of services, yet I hear about many of them from colleagues throughout the country, largely in the commuter belt area and Dublin, such as the 184, the 185, the 45A, the 238, the 270, the L52, the 115, the 120 - I could go on. I raised this with representatives of the NTA who appeared in committee yesterday. There are problems in the sector generally, but they are particular and pronounced with Go-Ahead Ireland. The services provided are having a significant impact on families getting kids to school. They have lost out on school bus transport and Go-Ahead Ireland services are failing them. Time and again, it fails to deliver a standard of service. Will the Minister confirm how much Go-Ahead Ireland has been fined this year and how its service standards compare with those of other operators?
I share the Deputy's concern and, as I said earlier, the NTA apologises to the travelling public, who are not getting the service they deserve. I am informed the NTA is formally meeting the company weekly to review performance, associated customer feedback and driver recovery plans, and there is continuous monitoring and engagement with the operator to improve the situation. As the Deputy noted, there have been payment reductions for poor operating performance in the last quarter last year and the first quarter this year, of more than €200,000 on each occasion. The company, as I understand, is taking driver applications from categories B and D licence holders. Go-Ahead Ireland is training applicants to drive a bus and putting them through the test, which is urgently required, but there can be no complacency here. Every company operates under different circumstances but it has to deliver for the travelling public, and the NTA is very much pursuing that matter.
In light of those fines and the recognised poor standard of service, there are questions to be asked as to why it is worse with Go-Ahead Ireland than it is with State providers and as to its terms and conditions of employment and so on. Was it a mistake to privatise those routes? Should they have been maintained within the State service? Plenty of private providers do an excellent job where the State has failed to provide services throughout the country, particularly in rural areas, but in this case they are largely urban routes. Was it a mistake to privatise them, as I believe it was? Will consideration be given to service performance when contracts are up for renewal?
I agree that great work is done by a wide variety of bus companies throughout the State, and this is not to denigrate one type versus another. Moreover, we have had problems in some of the public transport routes elsewhere. Nevertheless, one of the mechanisms here involves review, monitoring and consequences if companies are not able to meet the standards set. If that proved to be a more enduring problem, the NTA would have to review how it contracts and provides a service. It is not the case that we just leave it all to the private market; we have a regulated system and standards have to be met. If they are not, there are consequences.