Thursday, 22 September 2022
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
My question relates to the reliability of bus services in County Kildare. However, before I get onto the issue of buses, I should just share with Members present that ironically, I almost missed my question because my train service was delayed on the way in this morning. The 8.20 a.m. from Sallins is repeatedly late. Not only does it delay that train, but that connects to the Hazelhatch train, which does the inner shuttle. It means that a trainload of commuters can be left stranded when it is late. I would appreciate attention being given to that issue.
My question today concerns the Go-Ahead bus routes, primarily the 120 bus, which serves Clane and Edenderry, the 115 on the Kilcock side and the 126 on the Naas side. That route was recently re-tendered. It should have improved when it was given to a new operator, not go backwards. There are issues with reliability, no-shows and punctuality. It is dogged.
I am sorry to hear that the Deputy's train was late this morning and that he, like Deputy Tóibín, had difficulty getting to the Dáil, which may account for some of the reordering of questions we have had to do.
First, as I have mentioned, 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. These contractual arrangements allow for not just the monitoring of performance by the authority and the publication by it of annual performance reports, but importantly, the contracts also allow for the imposition of financial penalties where performance does not meet the required standard. It is the case that operators in the public transport sector are experiencing difficulties with staffing both as a result of Covid-related absences and also difficulties in recruiting new drivers. However, it is also the case that Go-Ahead Ireland 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. In addition, last week the company notified the NTA of a cybersecurity alert that resulted in major difficulties in communicating rosters to drivers across the Go-Ahead group internationally, including Ireland, causing a number of additional service cancellations across the Go-Ahead Ireland network, over and above those associated with general driver shortages.
As part of the NTA’s performance monitoring system, poor reliability and punctuality performance results in financial penalties. I am informed that these matters will be discussed between the NTA and Go-Ahead Ireland at their forthcoming quarterly review meeting. As I said in reply to Deputy O'Rourke earlier, the Deputy 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 €266,968 and €209,188, respectively. 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 monitor and engage closely with the operator.
The difficulty here is that there were issues with services, and the 120 in particular, pre-Covid and pre-Go-Ahead. In fact, it was considered by the regular commuters on the bus that the service would improve and there was a bit of excitement about it. I replied to some representations at the time saying that there was light at the end of the tunnel because a new operator was coming on board and the service would improve. That was the assumption. There is great frustration and disappointment that rather than improving, it has gone backwards. I am aware that the NTA had imposed penalties. Perhaps it will consider further penalties. I welcome that. If a carrot-and-stick approach needs to be applied, so be it. That is all well and good. However, it is almost a year on now. I appreciate that coming out of Covid there were difficulties with recruitment and all the rest of it, but we have been hearing about staff and driver issues for 12 months now. Surely, a properly organised, managed and regulated company can get to grips with such issues within 12 months, rather than having them persistently drag on. Perhaps, in my reply, I will give some examples of how people are affected. I appreciate that the NTA is in talks, but perhaps those talks need to be escalated and expedited, because it really needs to get this moving, in every sense.
I agree with the Deputy. As I said earlier, if companies are not delivering on the terms of the contract and the service level agreements, there have to be consequences. The NTA has that stick with which to impose fines. The operators that cannot meet service standards cannot expect that they will retain and continue to provide services on particular routes. It is a problem. There is an issue right across all public transport companies and the various sectors of the economy. We know about the issues with getting full employment and the real difficulty in getting trained staff in. It is a real problem. However, that cannot just be allowed to continue. We have to examine it and intervene. I mentioned earlier that Go-Ahead Ireland is taking driver applications at present. One of the key issues that we have to examine is the training apprenticeship model. As I understand it, Dublin Bus has a more traditional apprenticeship-type system, where candidates are taken in and right through. I will say to the NTA that we must look at the apprenticeship and other training models to ensure we have the drivers we need, and not just accept the shortage as an ongoing reality.
That is a very good idea. It makes perfect sense to do that, rather than having some casual labour being brought in for a route here or there and being let go again. Having an apprenticeship model as a career path is the way to go. Perhaps the Minister can point the NTA towards that because the driver shortage is across the board. I will share a few examples with the Minister. I have had multiple representations to my office over the past year. One example concerns a local business that has taken on a Ukrainian refugee, who has been placed in local accommodation with a family. The refugee is cycling to the nearest bus stop and then getting a bus to the beauty salon in which she has been employed. Unfortunately, the business is in the position of almost having to let her go because she cannot get to work on time. The business is doing its best to accommodate her. She is great and everything else is working, but she cannot get there on time. Another lady told me that she commutes home in the evening from Dublin. She feels very vulnerable standing at bus stops late at night in Dublin city centre. She cannot guarantee that the bus will arrive on time. She is waiting for the bus on the quays, sometimes for long periods. Indeed, she told me that she waited four hours one night for a bus to turn up. This is not a safe or sustainable situation. On a practical level, the real-time app that should tell people when the bus is late only flags it when the bus is already late. I experienced that myself this morning on the train. The real-time app only updates at the end. If the real-time bus app told passengers that it was late half an hour or an hour beforehand, they could stay in work or go for a coffee, rather than waiting and finding out what they already know.
The use of public transport depends on the confidence of its users in the delivery of a reliable service. I would like to raise the issue of the 70 bus service, which runs between Littlepace and Dunboyne and has been withdrawn by the NTA. This is going to leave passengers without a direct service when BusConnects eventually comes in in 2024. More than 4,000 people have signed a petition against the removal of this bus service.
Will the Minister use his office to connect with the NTA and the BusConnects team to have a good look at this service? It is a good service and people are using it. People were all over Facebook today talking about Dunboyne and Clonee, towns which are packed with traffic. We need that service. Many young people attending school travel from Clonee to Dunboyne because no school places were available in Clonee. I ask the Minister to ask those organisations to look again at that service.
We will look at the various options. I will make a general point. There is bad weather today, the schools are back and offices are busier midweek than they otherwise might be. Many people will have seen that the traffic this morning was very heavy. The problem is that we do not have enough public transport. The solution to these problems is increased public transport and providing the priority for public transport. What should give us encouragement in that regard is that the public transport numbers are shooting up. There are difficulties on particular routes, and we will look at them, but the public is responding. Where we have started to introduce the BusConnects routes in Dublin, including the H-spine and the Lucan spine, the evidence is that it is working. The numbers are shooting up. It is a virtuous process we can get into. Some services in Dublin, including the Luas, are not back to the numbers they carried previously. However, around the country, metropolitan public transport is shooting up. Where we are starting to provide BusConnects routes, it is working. We will look at a problem on any route but we should not distract from what is happening, that is, a big increase in public transport.