Thursday, 22 September 2022
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I know the Deputy from Dún Laoghaire will be interested in parts of this. It is disappointing not to have a Minister from the line Department present. Were it anyone else but the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, replying I would postpone the matter until next Tuesday. I know the line Department will be watching this. I know the Minister of State will bring back the content and comments faithfully. She has done so before and I really appreciate it.
Neighbours of mine was very excited recently because their son gained a place in UCD having done the leaving cert. We were chatting about induction week and I asked how the son was going to get to UCD. I said there was a bus from outside the estate, route 175. Then the local and strong organisation, Knocklyon Network, was inundated on its Facebook page in the past week with comments from residents asking them to raise the issue with local public representatives. I said I would do my best and try to raise it on the floor of the Dáil. I waited until today, but it has been a busy week. I assure any of them who are watching that I have raised it with the National Transport Authority, the NTA, and I have written and communicated directly with the managing director of Go-Ahead Ireland, which is responsible for three of the four routes I will raise.
The first is route 175. It runs through Ballyboden in my constituency through Scholarstown and Knocklyon and serving Ballycullen, Firhouse, Old Bawn, into Tallaght village, past The Square and out to City West. In that area there are hospitals, schools, colleges, a business park, industrial estates and major employment centres. It is a critical route. It passes a number of schools, particularly Educate Together schools, but others also, including pupils from outside the catchment area. The schools are utterly dependent on bus services.
The second is route 75, which runs from Tallaght to Dún Laoghaire via Dundrum. I see the Acting Chair is nodding his head. That route starts in The Square in Tallaght, and shoppers and employees depend on it. Again, it goes through Old Bawn, Rathfarnham shopping centre, Rathfarnham village and passes schools. It connects out to Dundrum Luas. It is a vital link. It also connects to the Stillorgan shopping centre.
The third is route 27 from Jobstown passing, for example, the Coombe Hospital, Crumlin shopping centre, Kilnamanagh, which has a great shopping centre, Tallaght Luas, Tallaght Hospital and Tallaght village. These are critical routes.
The final one is route 17 which only spends minutes in my constituency, passing through Rathfarnham.
There have been failures in timetables, cancelled bus routes and the disappearance of bus times from timetables. I particularly feel for students who at this time have just started their school year. They are excited about it. We are trying to keep cars off the road. These are vulnerable times, including early in the morning and late at night. We can picture a young adult, a young woman maybe, standing at a bus stop and the bus not turning up. The person has to wait by themselves for another 45 minutes to an hour for the next bus to come.
I have a few more comments to make in the second part of my contribution, but that essentially outlines the background.
After what I am about to read, the Deputy will certainly have a few more comments to make. I thank Deputy Lahart for raising this important topic which I am taking on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Ryan.
I understand that the Deputy’s question is in relation to the impact on second and third level students, and other commuters, when buses on the 75, 175, 27 and 17 routes fail to operate according to schedule leaving commuters and students abandoned and stranded at bus stops and to learn how this is being addressed by the bus operators.
I further understand that the issue of service reliability on these routes was raised by both Deputy O'Rourke and Deputy Lawless earlier this morning during Oral Questions with the Minister for Transport.
From the outset, I note that the Department for Transport has responsibility for policy and overall funding in relation to public transport. However, the Department is not involved in the day-to-day operation of public transport services nationally, including those public service obligation routes currently operated by Go-Ahead Ireland. It is the National Transport Authority that has statutory responsibility for securing the provision of public passenger transport services nationally by way of public transport service contracts, and for the allocation of associated funding to the relevant transport operators. PSO services are socially necessary but financially unviable services and the PSO programme represents a significant expenditure of taxpayers' money. Funding support has increased in recent years.
Currently, the vast majority of PSO bus services are provided by either Dublin Bus or Bus Éireann through what are known as direct award contracts. The remaining routes are operated by Go-Ahead Ireland, which entered the market in September 2018 as part of Government’s commitment to open-up the bus market through a programme of tendering known as “Bus Market Opening”.
A key Government objective is to provide all citizens with reliable and realistic sustainable mobility options, and public transport plays a key role in the delivery of this goal. To support this objective, in Budget 2022 the Department of Transport secured €538 million of funding for PSO and Local Link services provided by State operators and under contract by the NTA this year.
As the Deputy is aware, the Covid-19 health emergency has had a profound impact on the public transport sector due to the fall in passenger numbers and the associated drop in fare revenues. I am advised that to date passenger numbers remain below pre-Covid levels and demand is currently at 90% of that experienced in 2019 during the week and ahead of pre-pandemic levels at weekends.
In the context of the Deputy’s specific question regarding the 75 and 175 routes currently operated by Go-Ahead Ireland, I have been advised 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.
I have been further advised that Go-Ahead Ireland is not alone in experiencing these issues and many operators in the public transport sector are facing challenges with staffing both as a result of Covid-19-related absences and with regard to recruiting new drivers.
However, while these staffing issues are being experienced by both commercial and PSO operators, it is also true that Go-Ahead Ireland is experiencing higher than normal levels of Covid-related staff absences at present. These absences are having a knock-on effect on service delivery with some services not operating as scheduled.
I understand that the NTA is working with Go-Ahead Ireland to try to mitigate the impacts through recruitment campaigns, engagement with the Road Safety Authority, RSA, regarding the testing and licence process for new bus drivers and by working with Go-Ahead Ireland to minimise service cancellations, ensure first-service and last-service buses operate and on low-frequency routes to avoid, where possible, the cancellation of consecutive low-frequency services.
I appreciate it. Are we surprised that passenger numbers are less than they were before Covid-19 when we have bus services as poor as that? I am a great supporter, and the unions know this, of the public service bus and Dublin Bus. The fact is that I simply have not had a complaint about a route that Dublin Bus operates. All four routes that brought to the Minister of State's attention are operated by Go-Ahead Ireland. I have found that the NTA tends to be much more sympathetic towards Go-Ahead Ireland in its parliamentary responses in terms of excusing this and that. Three quarters of the Minister of State's response was about the background of the response provided to her tonight. There is no suggestion or answer as to how this will be addressed, or what those second-level and third-level students, workers, hospital visitors, hospital workers, supermarket workers and people doing their shopping will do tomorrow when they are standing at a bus stop anywhere between Citywest and Ballyboden and every stop in between when their bus does not show up. In the case of students, they may be lucky enough to have parents who have a car on the road to get them to college or school or else they will have to find an alternative route.
I chaired the session on parliamentary questions to the Minister for Transport this morning when the Minister was in the Chamber and I did see and hear that. The Minister needs to call the NTA in now and say this is totally unacceptable. A good part of the Minister of State's answer revolved around how much the State invests in the public service obligation, PSO, contracts. Clearly, this contractor is not operating the contract in a fit-for-purpose manner. It is not meeting the public service demand or public demand.
I ask the Minister of State to bring back to the Minister the request that he call in the NTA, which is responsible for both the Dublin Bus routes and the Go-Ahead Ireland services that are provided in Dublin, and demand explanations. We saw the issue with school transport and how quickly it was responded to in rural Ireland. Buses were found from places and provided on the roads to service school pupils. Buses and drivers will have to be found for those constituents in my constituency and beyond who are left stranded at bus stops where timetables are not met but are still advertised as running according to normal. Some immediate action will have to be taken. I thank the Minister of State for her long forbearance on this. She can cut her answer short if it saves the Acting Chairman time.
I would like to reassure the Deputy that the NTA is engaging regularly with would Go-Ahead Ireland and other public transport operators regarding any service provision issues on the public service obligation network, and that the NTA is providing regular updates to the Department of the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, on these issues. I can also confirm that 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.
I have been informed that these matters will be discussed between the NTA and Go-Ahead Ireland at the forthcoming quarterly review meeting. Deputy Lahart may wish to be aware that penalties were previously applied to Go-Ahead Ireland for quarter 4 of 2021 and quarter 1 of 2022, amounting to €266,000 and €209,000, respectively. Further to that, the NTA formally meets Go-Ahead Ireland on a weekly basis to review performance-associated customer feedback and driver recovery plans and will continue to closely monitor the situation.
I am advised that the public transport operators are forecasting improvements in reliability in the coming months, depending on successful recruitment and retention of critical staff, in particular of drivers. It is hoped that this will help to resolve the current reliability of the issues being experienced. I will bring back to the Minister the Deputy's frustration-----