Dáil debates

Wednesday, 5 October 2022

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Bus Services

9:42 am

Photo of Jennifer WhitmoreJennifer Whitmore (Wicklow, Social Democrats)
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I thank the Minister of State very much for being here. I know this is not her area and I appreciate her taking the time to be here. I raise the absolute shambles of a public transport service in north Wicklow and particularly the services provided by Go-Ahead Ireland. This has been an issue for a number of years now.

I am speaking here about route 184 to Newtownmountkennedy, route 185 to Enniskerry and route 44A to Bray. People are inundating my office with messages about the poor service that is being provided by Go-Ahead Ireland. There are more no-shows than shows. We have situations where people are at bus stops and half-full buses are driving past them and not picking them up. I have constituents who have missed work because of it. I have constituents whose children have missed school and, therefore, they have missed work because they have had to take their children to school. I have constituents whose young daughters who take the bus have been left stranded at night, because the bus does not show up at 11 o'clock, or whatever time it is that they are going home. It is completely unacceptable.

The National Transport Authority, NTA, has fined Go-Ahead Ireland for not meeting its contractual obligations. My understanding is that it has been fined every year since 2019. It is clear at this stage that Go-Ahead Ireland is incapable of providing that service to people. While the NTA is fining people, the fines have not improved the service. Therefore, Go-Ahead Ireland is obviously just absorbing the fines, but it is not providing a better service. A fine is not going to help someone who waited 18 months to get a hospital appointment only to miss it because they could not get to St. Vincent’s University Hospital. Fines are not the solution to this.

At this stage, people in north Wicklow are completely losing confidence in public transport. The Minister can talk about great visions of a country where we have fantastic public services, where everyone can get out of their car and get onto a bus to commute to Dublin city or get to their school by public transport. However, the Minister and the NTA must get the basics right. If a bus is scheduled and you leave your house, you should expect to be able to get that bus - not for it to be a no-show and not turn up at all. Not only that, but people are not being informed that the bus will not turn up, so it is being cancelled without notice. It is completely unacceptable.

At what stage will the NTA hold Go-Ahead Ireland accountable for this poor service? We have heard excuses about Covid. We have heard excuses about the recruitment of bus drivers, and I know that is an issue, but at some stage Go-Ahead Ireland will have to start providing the service it is paid to provide and has been contracted to provide. At what point in time will the Minister have discussions with the NTA about providing a fast, efficient and, most importantly, reliable service to all the people in north Wicklow who rely on Go-Ahead Ireland to get about their daily business?

I thank the Minister of State. I hope that the reply she reads will be as comprehensive as the one she read on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Humphreys.

9:52 am

Photo of Anne RabbitteAnne Rabbitte (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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Would the Deputy believe that this is my second time to take a Topical Issue debate on transport? I think the last debate was when Deputy Lahart raised issues with route 174. Deputy Whitmore has referred to routes 184 and 44A. I am sad to say that it is the same operator. I will keep to the script, which is from the Minister for Transport. I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue, which I am taking on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan. I understand the Deputy’s question about the issues with Go-Ahead Ireland bus service provision in north Wicklow. I further understand that the issue of service reliability with Go-Ahead Ireland routes has been raised by Deputies Devlin and McAuliffe and, as I said, by Deputy Lahart in recent weeks.

I note that the Department of Transport has a responsibility for policy and for 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 the public service obligation, PSO, routes that are currently operated by Go-Ahead Ireland. The NTA 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. The PSO programme represents a significant expenditure of taxpayers' money. Funding support has increased in recent years.

For anybody who is listening in, it is not as though the Government and the Department are not paying Go-Ahead Ireland to provide a service. That is an important piece. While there is a lot of language here, they are being paid to provide a service at designated times that is reliable and can be trusted. That is the point. While it might not be viable to run all of these services, we are paying Go-Ahead Ireland to provide them. We acknowledge that as a State.

Currently, the vast majority of PSO bus services are provided by 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 the 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 under contract by the NTA. The Department recently secured €563 million in budget 2023 for the continuation of these essential services and for the continuation of both the 20% average fare discount and the young adult card.

As the Deputy is aware, the Covid-19 emergency had a profound impact on the public transport sector due to the fall in passenger numbers and the associated drop in fare revenues. I will skip through the next part of the script, because Covid-19 has moved on and because people are dependent on the delivery of services.

I have further been advised that Go-Ahead Ireland is not alone in experiencing issues and that many operators in the transport sector are facing challenges with staffing as a result of Covid absences and issues with recruiting new drivers. 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 driver recruitment campaigns.

Photo of Jennifer WhitmoreJennifer Whitmore (Wicklow, Social Democrats)
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I thank the Minister of State. It is time that the Minister for Transport, the NTA and Go-Ahead Ireland put the Covid baby down and start taking responsibility for not providing the service that, as the Minister of State says, it is paid to do. It is incredible that a Green Party Minister, the Minister for Transport, is saying that it is not his responsibility to provide these services and make sure buses turn up on time. That is absolutely incredible because when I see press releases and photo opportunities in relation to buses, the Minister is there with them. I would like him to take responsibility for the non-provision of public transport services within Wicklow.

That so many Deputies from different parts of the country and different parties have raised the issue of Go-Ahead Ireland and have identified problems with it is a clear indication that the Minister needs to intervene now and needs to take this under control. The Minister needs to ensure that whoever the State is paying to provide this service is doing what they are paid to do so that people can expect to get a bus when the bus is scheduled to be there.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. I also want to quickly mention another transport issue. I ask the Minister of State to bring it to the Minister for his attention. In July 2021, a bus service provider in west Wicklow, Premier Coaches, applied to operate a direct route from Dublin to Blessington. It took a year of work with the NTA to get that route - route 863 - officially accepted. That was done in August 2022. Many people in the Blessington and west Wicklow community are relying on this route to get them into Dublin. They are still awaiting a start date for this route. I ask the Minister of State to pass that on to the Minister and to ask him to come back to me with an update on it because this is an important route as well.

Photo of Anne RabbitteAnne Rabbitte (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputy. I will certainly bring back the issue of Premier Coaches in west Wicklow to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan.

The Minister has instructed the NTA to meet with Go-Ahead Ireland on a weekly basis to get an update on what exactly is happening. They are managing it now at a micro level, as opposed to a macro level, which is unfortunate. The Deputy is right. Go-Ahead Ireland is absorbing the fines as opposed to seeking a solution about delivery times. I will bring this issue back to the Minister but, as I have said, he has instructed the NTA to meet with Go-Ahead Ireland on a weekly basis to ensure the fines are delivered. However, I will bring it back to him that there are three more routes on the cards.