Dáil debates

Wednesday, 5 October 2022

Public Transport: Motion [Private Members]


10:02 am

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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I move:

That Dáil Éireann:

recognises that: — the increased cost of fuel is having a huge financial impact on people across the country;

— people living in rural Ireland are in a unique position, whereby they require more flexible and accessible public transport links;

— 55 per cent of commuters into Dublin are relying on public transport;

— Ireland now ranks amongst the highest globally for urban traffic congestion;

— public transport services in Ireland are unreliable and inaccessible, forcing people to use alternative transport;

— there is an urgent requirement for vastly improved accessibility on all public transport; and

— the need for readily accessible public transport is even greater for the disabled community, particularly those living in rural Ireland; notes that: — private cars are the transport mode with the largest energy use and account for 43 per cent of all transport energy demand;

— energy demand by private cars is 67 per cent greater than the combined demand of both heavy goods and light goods commercial vehicles on Irish roads;

— Dublin Bus can only accommodate one wheelchair user per bus;

— if a wheelchair user wishes to use the train service, they must provide 24 hours' notice to rail staff, greatly hindering their right to freedom of movement, general quality of life, safe passage and transport in cases of emergency;

— Luxembourg currently works off a free transport system; and

— Germany has agreed to extend a trial period of heavily subsidised public transport to tackle serious issues with carbon emissions, accessibility, and the cost of living; and calls on the Government to: — provide free public transport;

— invest in rural transport addressing frequency, flexibility, reliability, and accessibility;

— invest in upgrading buses and trains;

— ensure that all buses are accessible to people with disabilities beyond the current capacity of one wheelchair at any given time;

— implement appropriate planning and design changes to rail services to ensure that wheelchair users and disabled people are able to travel without notice;

— provide more suitable transport infrastructure such as bus shelters;

— extend Iarnród Éireann to include services in County Donegal;

— extend Local Link services to include more rural areas;

— extend Local Link timetables to ensure that peak hours are better serviced in order to allow people to rely on the service to commute to school and work;

— extend Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann timetables to ensure that peak hours are better serviced in order to allow people to rely on the service to commute to school and work;

— extend Local Link night-time services, with a view to supporting and generating business to the rural hospitality sector;

— implement strategic planning to upgrade Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus to ensure a more reliable service;

— create permanent contracts for bus drivers and transport workers;

— invest in a recruitment drive for drivers;

— invest in upgrading buses and trains so that they are fully accessible; and

— invest in fully electric buses.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to introduce my motion regarding the provision of free and accessible public transport to the Chamber. It has become a running joke that not having a train service is a personality trait for Donegal people. There seems to be a general consensus that we cannot introduce ourselves, or talk about where we are from, without first confirming the fact that our part of the world is so neglected that we do not even have access to a train. We are the forgotten county after all and we have worn this title for so long that it seems to have crept into our psyche and made itself a significant part of our identity.

The provision of free and accessible transport is a sensible proposal which would address many of the issues that people across the country are faced with today. It would address the increased cost of fuel, the significant rise of carbon emissions in recent years, the reliability and accessibility issues we are currently experiencing with our public transport services and the lack of services we are seeing in our rural communities in general. The provision of free and accessible transport would positively affect every single person and community in this country. However, there is no doubt that Donegal is at the heart of this motion. My constituents have had to deal with the lack of public transport for a long time. I take this opportunity to recognise and pay tribute to my constituents, who have been calling for such provisions for years and who I hope to give a voice to with this motion.

Fare-free public transport is far from a novel idea. To date, more than 100 cities have already made public transport free, with more taking the leap every month. Fare-free public transport brings an array of environmental, economic and social benefits, including cleaner air, reduced emissions, reduced costs for users and improved social inclusion among society's most disadvantaged. Public services such as schools, libraries, roads and parks are free to use for everyone. Applying the same principle to public transport implies that, as a measure of mobility and universal accessibility, it should be free as well.

I will begin by addressing the cost-of-living crisis, which is hitting our citizens from all angles. People are struggling to make ends meet and yet are still met with continuously rising bills and fuel costs. Households are struggling to pay their bills and fill their tanks and families are having to make hard decisions on whether they can afford to make the same journeys that they were making before. This particularly affects families from rural communities, who often have to travel long distances to gain access to schools, work, sports clubs, dance classes or even a swimming pool or cinema. In my own town of Killybegs, the nearest swimming pool is 30 km away and the nearest cinema is 58 km away. They are even farther for those living in Carrick or Glencolumbkille. Parents want their children to have the same opportunities as every other child. I have had many parents tell me they have had to start making compromises at the expense of their children’s sports, interests and social lives. We should not be forcing parents to make such unfair compromises. It is not fair and it is not good enough.

Free public transport is a social justice policy. It helps to lift people out of poverty through greater equality of opportunity and accessibility. For people on low wages, transport expenses matter. As we know, a car is an expensive item to keep on the road. Unfortunately it is the only viable option for many. For those who rely on public transport, the current fares and fees are also deterrents. When bills, heating and food costs rise, every euro counts. Offering meaningful savings would help lower-income families. Strasbourg provides a useful demonstration of the benefit free transport can have for the cost of living. It was reported that families in Strasbourg with two children could save €550 per year on the cost of their travel passes. The city of Tallinn in Estonia reported that the decision to make public transport free greatly benefited lower income households in and around the city. After the policy was introduced, public transport use increased by 29%.

According to the European Commission, continuous growth of transport demand, along with the increased traffic congestion, has negative consequences on the environment and on the economic competitiveness of member states. Providing an attractive and reliable public transport service is considered to be an important element in creating sustainable mobility. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, transport has had the greatest increase of greenhouse gas emissions, with a 112.2% increase between 1990 and 2021. Passenger cars were responsible for approximately 54% of road transport emissions in 2020. The same report from the EPA notes that there is an undeniable correlation in the data between the increase in emissions, private cars and economic activity. That is to say, commuting to work is a prime source of our national greenhouse gas emissions.

This requires targeted action that will remove more cars from our roads. Fewer cars means fewer emissions. However, in order for this to be successful, we must incentivise citizens to use high-capacity, responsive, frequent, electrified public transport. Providing free, frequent public transport would encourage commuters to stop relying on their car, which would reduce emissions and congestion. For example, in Vienna, a low yearly fee gives people unlimited access to public transport. This has been taken up by half of Vienna's population, where 38% of all journeys are made by public transport, with walking now being more popular than using cars.

The issue of accessibility to all has been raised from a human rights perspective. The European accessibility act, EAA, will introduce new requirements regarding accessibility for products and services, including transport, and will apply from 28 June 2025. The EAA ensures that disabled people and the elderly community will benefit from fewer barriers when accessing transport. Section 13 of the EEA states that the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities requires "that people with disabilities have access, on an equal basis with others, to the physical environment, transportation". Accessibility is essential for participation in society. As an example of a current issue, Dublin Bus can only accommodate one wheelchair user per bus. If wheelchair users wish to use train services, they must provide 24 hours' notice to the rail staff, greatly hindering their right to freedom of movement, general quality of life, safe passage and transport in cases of emergency. I know of instances where people have provided the notice to Iarnród Éireann, but when they arrived at the station, there was nobody to take them off the train. That is wrong.

Ireland has an opportunity to join the other leading member states in making our national public transport infrastructure accessible to our disabled and elderly communities. We must recognise the importance of social inclusion and of logistical freedom. We must acknowledge the incredible worth of the contributions that disabled and elderly people make to our communities. This can only happen if the means of inclusion is properly facilitated. This requires not only making public transport free but also ensuring that it is flexible, efficient and well planned to create a genuinely reliable service. This motion calls for investment in transport, addressing frequency, flexibility, reliability and accessibility. How are we going to encourage people to use public transport when it is completely unreliable? I am sure everyone here has taken Dublin Bus before and I am sure many have had complaints from constituents in recent months about the service. People are often left standing for long periods while multiple buses pass them by, completely full, causing people to be late for work and school. We have heard many cases of people trying to get the bus, then having to give up and hop in the car instead when this is not an option. We are forcing people into using personal vehicles when our transport services are unreliable, then we are penalising them for it. The reality is that their social and economic lives are hemmed into the limits of the public transport that is available to them.

In rural Ireland, there is a complete lack of reliable and responsive public transport. It is almost laughable. It means that anyone without a car is excluded from social and economic inclusion. Shops, work and education are all held to ransom by a limited transport service. Not only does Donegal not have a train service, but the idea that the Government would even consider reinstating one is no longer taken seriously. The Local Link service in Donegal is probably the one of the best-developed Local Link services in the country, but it is still not good enough and it means very little when dealing with a large county with no rail access. The Local Link service has greatly benefited our communities and it is the first step in providing decent transport, but it badly needs to be extended to include all areas.

There is no point in having an extended service without also extending the timetables. If someone living in Clondalkin got offered a job in Portobello, the 25-minute commute would not be an issue. The bus would provide a simple transport solution. If people in Killybegs were offered a job in Donegal town, 25 minutes away, the only way they would be able to accept that job in the current situation would be if they had access to their own car, as the current timetables do not provide a sufficient service at peak hours. This is a significant obstacle for disabled people, especially in rural communities, and for everybody else. It goes without saying that if people live in rural Ireland, they need to own a car. However, no concessions are made for our rural population in this regard.

Free and accessible public transport is necessary to tackle the issue of accessibility and inclusion.

It is clear that free public transport is a practical and effective way to reap climate, social, health and economic benefits. It is a single solution that solves multiple problems. It will be a wasted opportunity if the Government does not recognise that.

People throughout rural Ireland are regularly left waiting for buses that do not arrive, even in the case of buses that are a part of the Expressway link. Perhaps two or three of those buses do not arrive. Those days must become a thing of the past. We can make that happen by providing real jobs and ensuring drivers have work. We must provide a service that is reliable and free at the point of the use. We must also ensure a service for everybody.

10:12 am

Photo of Joan CollinsJoan Collins (Dublin South Central, Independents 4 Change)
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I thank Deputy Pringle and his office for bringing forward this motion for the provision of free and accessible public transport. This is an important motion and I fully support its emphasis on rural areas and greater access for those with disabilities. I also want to approach this issue from the point of view of meeting the targets for CO2emissions, and the transformation to a green economy. Public transport has a key role to play in that transformation. Due to a criminal lack of planning and investment in public transport, we have been forced into a situation where we are the most car dependent society in Europe. Cars make up 75% of vehicle use. We have the highest mileage per household in Europe and we also have the highest transport costs, 25% above the EU average.

In 2021, buses and coaches, both public and private, accounted for only 3% of journeys, with rail at less than 1%. The transport sector, internationally the fastest growing economic sector, relies on oil for 92% of its energy use in Ireland. In 2021, private cars represented the largest fossil fuel demand, with 42% of total transport energy demand. In 2019, 74% of journeys were made by private cars. One of the side effects of this is the effect on air quality. The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, has reported numerous breaches of safety levels due to increased emissions of NO2. The presence of fine dust particles has meant an increase in asthma of 1,700 cases per year, particularly affecting children and those with other respiratory issues.

We need to make the transformation now to a low-carbon public transport country, in the process transforming access and affordability. We need to put in place an integrated public transport system to include buses, light rail, cycling and walking, and for that to be a key part of the planning process. We need to connect rural areas to the main towns and cities, andvice versa. Transport poverty in rural areas prevents people from accessing essential services, jobs and schools. Housing needs to be centred in and around villages for public transport to service more people.

Accessing services and getting to work can also be a problem in suburban areas. However, the so-called BusConnects reorganisation of the bus routes in Dublin has gone in the opposite direction to what is required in many areas. In general, the reorganisation means reduced services in many working-class areas. An example is the replacement of the No. 79 bus route in my constituency. It is a long-established route serving Ballyfermot and goes right through the working-class community in the south inner city. That route has been replaced by a new service, the No. 60, which will no longer go through lower Ballyfermot or the Liberties. It will bypass those working-class communities. This is typical of BusConnects across the city. It would be more correctly called "BusDisconnects" in many communities in Dublin.

I catch a bus from the Oblate Church of Mary Immaculate in Inchicore. It is served by the Nos. 68, 69 and 13 buses, which come from Greenoge, Grange Castle and Rathcoole, and serve the city. Those routes are all due to be stopped and redirected down Crumlin Road in Dublin 12. People in my area of Inchicore will be left with one bus per hour. We have access to the Luas at the Blackhorse stop but the tram is jam-packed by the time it gets there I would not get on the Luas during rush hour, although I do use it. All this means that people must walk to Inchicore village, approximately a ten-minute walk. Such a walk is grand for people who are fit and healthy, and have no kids to drag behind them. That is the reality. There needs to be genuine dialogue and consultation with local communities about how to best improve public transport services. We need serious State investment not just to expand our public transport network but also to eliminate its dependence on fossil fuels. It would be easier to do this with bus and coach transport than with the heavy rail network. CIÉ estimates that 1,500 electric buses will be required. Some 800 such EVs have been ordered, along with three green hydrogen buses. Green hydrogen technology is still at an early stage and is key to the greening of heavy rail. The electrification of existing railway lines would be expensive and time-consuming. The light rail system, such as the Luas and the DART, should be extended in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway, etc. The MetroLink service to Dublin Airport should go ahead.

There is also the issue of making transport free. This is crucial as a key incentive to get people out of private cars by providing a serious option for getting to work, shopping and availing of essential services.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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I support the motion and thank my colleague, Deputy Pringle, for putting it before the House. The Green Party is heavily shaping Government policy. The mantra, of course, is that we should move to public transport. There has been a lot of discussion about penalising the use of cars through congestion charges, etc. Uniquely, we are talking about penalising people before alternatives are in place. I do not have a problem with trying to reduce congestion in Dublin, nor have I a problem with trying to get people to use public transport and more energy efficient methods of transport, thereby reducing carbon emissions. I have no problem with any of that. However, we have never invested in public transport in this State. That is not the fault of the Green Party.

I have previously raised the issue of what was once the direct Limerick to Dublin line, via Castleconnell, Ballybrophy, Nenagh, Cloughjordan and Roscrea. Passengers change at Ballybrophy to get to Dublin. The Minister told me there has been considerable investment in the line, which I welcome. As a result of that investment, the travel time on the line is 15 minutes shorter than it used to be. However, if someone wants to travel by rail from Birdhill to Dublin in the middle of November, after the investment, there will be a train at 6.58 a.m., which arrives at 9.57 a.m., and a train at 7.52 a.m., which arrives at 11 a.m. Both of those trains take in excess of three hours. When I was a child, some 40 years ago - I am 48 now - that journey took a shorter time. Time matters. People who wish to take a train to Dublin will ask how long it will take. It is a very pleasant journey. There are calves running alongside the carriage, etc. It is a relaxing journey for those who have the time. However, I can drive from Birdhill to Leinster House in the middle of Dublin, let alone Heuston Station, in two hours and 15 minutes. Trains need to be invested in if we want people to use them. The problem is the lack of investment and I blame successive Governments for that. There has been a considerable lack of investment in public infrastructure throughout the country.

The motion refers to the lack of wheelchair accessibility on our trains and buses. That is a problem. The lifts across the DART service are regularly out of order. That issue affects the Minister of State's constituency. There has been a lack of investment and funding to deal with those issues. That most severely impacts disabled people, as the motion points out, and I am happy to support that because it curtails their right to freedom of movement. However, the lack of accessibility also curtails the ability of anybody who has a pram, which is a large cohort of the population. I am not saying that cohort is more important than wheelchair users merely because it is a slightly larger cohort. The impingement on the rights of those with prams is less serious than the impingement on the rights of wheelchair users. However, we are left in a position where a large cohort of the population cannot use the DART if the lifts are not working.

Some of the Minister of State's colleagues have criticised people with sports utility vehicles, SUVs, driving around south County Dublin. If someone has two children and two prams, it must be tempting to buy a high car to get them in and out of, particularly when he or she cannot get them in and out of DART stations because the lifts are not working. Instead of criticising people for the choices they are making, the Government must give them choices.

I expect that is something the Minister of State supports and I am disappointed in the Government. There is a movement in that direction by this Government but it is not enough, particularly given the climate crisis we are facing and the amount of criticism we are levying at people for using cars, be it to drive from Clare, Birdhill or Cloughjordan to Dublin, or to drive around Dublin. Until alternatives are provided, it is not reasonable to criticise people and that remains my view. I do not have a problem with trying to move people onto more sustainable forms of transport but we have to provide the alternatives and provide those forms of transport first. I am happy to support the motion.

10:22 am

Photo of Ossian SmythOssian Smyth (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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I thank the Deputies for bringing forward this motion, which, as they can imagine, is close to my heart. I thank Deputies Pringle, Joan Collins and McNamara for their clear statements, which I listened to and which I will address in detail later on. The 50% cut in the price of public transport for young people and the 20% cut are the most dramatic interventions in the fare system for public transport since Charlie Haughey's free travel scheme for elderly people. A 66 year-old person is not an elderly person anymore; I will be one myself in a few years so that is something to look forward to. I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak about the importance of continued investment in our public transport. I am doing this on behalf of the Minister for Transport and I have no doubt that we will all agree on the Government's commitment to delivering an integrated, accessible and sustainable public transport network throughout the country. The Government will not oppose the motion but there are some minor details that we have an issue with, which we will discuss this morning.

The Minister for Transport is conscious of the need to connect our people and places across Ireland. It is important to provide opportunities for all citizens to access their employment, education, healthcare or go shopping. He is strongly committed to improving public transport services in rural areas and to piloting new transport initiatives for people of all ages and abilities living there. Whether it is reduced car dependency or a more integrated transport network, our vision for rural Ireland is ambitious and one that is a key motivator at his Department as it prepares its work programme for 2023. I was in County Donegal a few weeks ago and I met the former Tánaiste, Mary Coughlan, who is on the board of Transport for Ireland, TFI, Local Link Donegal Sligo Leitrim. We discussed what her issues were with the service there, which has been reinvested in and improved but is by no means perfect. However, there have been huge improvements in the Local Link service, which we can talk about later. The Department of Transport and the National Transport Authority, NTA, are supporting this by providing increased funding for enhanced TFI Local Link services for regular, timetabled, door-to-door and demand-responsive services, where more than 90% of those journeys are fully accessible. The Department and the NTA are looking to explore alternative options to boost coverage, including non-conventional options such as demand-responsive transport, community cars and local area hackneys. Government is committed to reviewing the extensive learnings from the pilot study in County Leitrim, which positively integrated non-emergency health transport with public transport offerings. One of the key plans for enhancing the existing transport network throughout Ireland falls under the connecting Ireland rural mobility plan, which entails the enhancement of regional networks connecting cities and regional centres nationwide through expanding TFI's Local Link services and by prioritising public transport projects that enhance connectivity.

As well as playing a key social role within our communities, encouraging greater use of public transport is also critical to tackling our climate change challenge, as Deputy Collins said. The Department of Transport's sustainable mobility policy sets out our vision for the future of sustainable mobility in Ireland and it aims to support a transition to more sustainable daily travel method. We have targets to deliver 500,000 additional daily active travel and public transport journeys and a 10% reduction in the number of kilometres driven by fossil fuel cars by 2030. This policy is underpinned by a robust action plan set out to 2025 alongside capital funding allocated in the revised national development plan, which is to ensure delivery. In the more urban parts of Ireland, projects such as BusConnects will provide more sustainable, accessible and reliable transport options to everyone, resulting in higher quality services. By revitalising public transport and providing safe and active travel routes, the project represents a necessary modal shift away from private transport. The fleet renewal will save the equivalent of 85,000 tonnes of CO2 per year, in line with targets set in the climate action plan, while improving capacity. It is vital that BusConnects continues to engage in real dialogue with the communities it is serving. I have seen many examples where BusConnects put forward a project for a particular area, such as a village or town, and then went back and completely revised it to make sure it was in line with what people in the area wanted. Better projects resulted from that.

On our rail network, the Department of Transport, in co-operation with the Department for Infrastructure in Northern Ireland, is preparing a strategy for the development of the railway sector on the island of Ireland from 2040. The all-island strategic rail review will examine the role of rail with regard to: improving sustainable connectivity between the major cities; enhancing regional accessibility; supporting balanced regional development; and providing improved connectivity to the north west of the island. This review will also consider the potential scope for improved rail services along the various existing or future potential corridors of the network. That scope will include the potential afforded by disused and closed lines. It will be one of the most significant reviews of the rail network on the island in many years and will provide a framework to develop a much-improved rail network in the years ahead. The review is expected to complete in the fourth quarter of 2022.

Additionally, the new DART+ fleet contract award is an exciting marker of progress in the delivery of the overall DART+ programme, which is the largest ever investment in our rail network. DART+ will modernise and improve existing rail services in the greater Dublin area, increasing the network from 50 km to 150 km of railway corridor and doubling capacity for 26,000 passengers per hour to up to 52,000 per hour during peak hours. In addition, it will allow for frequent, modern and electrified services to Drogheda on the northern line, Hazelhatch and Celbridge on the Kildare line, and Maynooth and M3 Parkway on the Maynooth line, while improving DART services on the south-east line as far south as Greystones. We look forward to the first order of 95 new carriages entering into service in 2025, allowing the current fleet to be used elsewhere and creating additional capacity across the system.

To further champion the ethos of public transport for all, the Minister for Transport is fully committed to strengthening our public transport offerings and to progressively making them accessible for all, especially for persons with disabilities or reduced mobility and for older persons. The Department of Transport and its agencies are progressively making public transport accessible for disabled people, including in rural areas, by ensuring that new infrastructure and services are accessible from the start and by retrofitting older legacy infrastructure and facilities. Accessibility features such as wheelchair accessibility and audiovisual aids are built into new public transport infrastructure projects and vehicles from the design stage. Additionally, the Department is committed to further reducing the 24 hours of notice for travel on rail services, which has been brought down to four hours in major train stations. However, work remains to be done on the retrofitting of older legacy infrastructure such as the Victorian era train stations. To support these works, the Department continues to provide funding into a multi-annual accessibility retrofit programme, which includes programmes to: install accessible bus stops in rural and regional areas; upgrade bus bays at regional bus and train stations; upgrade train stations to make them accessible to wheelchair users; and provide grant support to increase the number of wheelchair accessible taxis. A key Government objective is to provide all citizens with reliable and realistic sustainable mobility options and public transport plays a key role in delivering this goal. To support this objective, in budget 2022 the Department of Transport secured about €538 million of funding for public service obligation, PSO, and Local Link services provided by State operators and under contract by the NTA this year.

The Government is strongly committed to helping combat the rising cost of living being experienced throughout the country and, in this context, a suite of new measures was introduced to help with this issue, including the 20% average fare cut on public service obligations, PSO, services, which was brought in during April. In recognition of the importance of incentivising young people to use public transport, the Minister secured €25 million in funding to provide for the introduction of a young adult card, which allows any person nationwide aged between 19 and 23 to avail of a 50% discount across all services, including city, Intercity and rural services. Mature students in full-time third level education are also included in the scheme, as are eligible visitors to Ireland within the young adult age cohort. Further, the NTA is widening the age rules of the scheme to allow 16-, 17- and 18-year-old students in third level education to apply for the student Leap card so they can also get that 50% discount. The Department recently secured €563 million in budget 2023 for the continuation of these essential PSO services and for the continuation of the 20% average fare cut and the 50% fare cut on the young adult card.

It is important to point out that while we are not opposing the motion there are specific calls within it that are not in line with Government policy and these relate to the provision of universal free public transport and Government intervention in employment matters. On free public transport, the Government has invested significantly this year and will continue to invest in 2023 in reduced public transport fares generally by cutting PSO fares by an average of 20% and by introducing the youth adult card. As part of the roll-out of BusConnects Dublin, the TFI 90-minute fare has been introduced, which provides for competitive fares and removes any actual or perceived penalty associated with interchanging between different public transport services within a 90-minute window.

A significant body of international research demonstrates that beyond a certain level of intervention in the fares area, there is a much greater benefit associated with improving and expanding the public transport services themselves. Indeed, in one region, Tallinn in Estonia, which has been mentioned, the OECD recently recommended that fares be reintroduced. A key concern is that the funding required to support free services comes at the expense of investment in supporting public transport services at the levels necessary for optimal existing levels of service and for expanding and improving those services. There is no point in making a service completely free when people cannot board the service in the first place. The service has to be improved. I have visited Tallinn and have seen it working, or not working, at first-hand. I have also seen what they have done in Luxembourg. The approach adopted by Government to date in this area is considered appropriate and the focus at the moment is retaining the reductions introduced, expanding them until end 2023 and supporting new and improved services for next year.

10:32 am

Photo of Marian HarkinMarian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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I am pleased to support the motion to make public transport free and accessible. It is certainly ambitious but I believe its time has come. The Minister of State said we cannot afford it and suggested it does not work as well as they thought it might elsewhere. The argument of not being able to afford something is not a good argument if the objective is positive. I will come back to that later. We are in a crisis at the moment and sometimes a crisis is an opportunity to do things differently and look at things differently. We are not just in one crisis; we are in two. We have the cost-of-living crisis and the climate change crisis. These two crises coming together favour many of the proposals in the motion. While the programme for Government might not have been in favour of free universal public transport, now is the time to consider it. I will come back to that later.

The motion is ambitious but surely its time has come. The Government is not opposing it, which is itself a recognition that what is contained and asked for in it is largely reasonable, doable and a good policy proposal. I thank Deputy Pringle for giving us an opportunity to debate and tease out some of his ideas. There are a lot of really good ideas in it . Some, perhaps, will take longer to put in place than others. However, all of them are good proposals in their own right. We have an opportunity this morning to discuss some of them. It is ambitious but it gets many of these policy proposals right, especially in the context of the cost-of-living crisis, the need to cut our CO2 and other emissions and, crucially, the need to ensure all public transport is accessible.

When most people hear the word "accessibility", they think about somebody in a wheelchair, somebody who has very poor mobility or somebody who suffers from sight loss or whatever. They think of a person with a disability. In truth, access is so much more than this. Access is about universal design. It is not about people with disabilities. Access is for everyone. Sometimes there is the idea that there is them and us - there are the people who have disabilities and, God, we need to do something about it, and then there is us, and we can get on with our daily lives. The reality of life is that many of us will become "them" as we age, as our mobility may be compromised. Universal design deals with that issue for all of us from birth to death. There should not be any question about this. It should be the way we do our business. Whether it is our buildings or our transport infrastructure, we must now and for the future ensure universal design. That is what this motion is asking for in broad terms. It is going in the right direction, and I know the Minister of State will agree with me. We have signed up to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD. That requires us to take the universal design approach. Whether it is our buildings or transport infrastructure, this is a whole-of-population approach and it needs to be embedded in all our designs. Accessibility should be a given. We often speak of independent living. All of us have independent living. It is crucial to the lives of persons with a disability. We think in terms of access to buildings or services. However, it is also about freedom of movement, the kind of movement that, for now at least, the Minister of State and I and most people in the Chamber take for granted. The motion is asking us to put that policy at the centre of where we move from here on public transport. The current situation whereby sometimes 24 hours' notice needs to be given has to change. I am not saying it will be changed by tomorrow because that takes time. The change should be as immediate as possible for all public transport. Private transport may take a little longer. I am not letting those providers off the hook or excusing them. Everybody has a business to run and has to look at costs. The sooner it becomes embedded as the way we do and think about things, the better.

I want to briefly comment on the issue of rural transport. Sometimes the sentiment is that rural people are wedded to their cars. That is not true. The practical issue for many people who live in rural areas is that if they do not have a car, they cannot move about. Rural people want public transport just as much as anybody who lives in an urban area. It has to be affordable. Reduction in our use of CO2 is key. It needs to be frequent, accessible and cheap. My colleague, Deputy Pringle, is looking for it to be free and I support him fully. However, there are steps along that way that we can take. I recognise that Government has decreased fares for certain sectors and so on. That decrease needs to be across the board for everybody.

It is not enough for transport to be frequent, accessible and cheap; it needs to be integrated. Online ticketing can be a nightmare. Someone who decides to book the night before to get a better price can only activate that 90 minutes before the bus arrives in rural Ireland and, I presume, elsewhere. They might have no Internet coverage when they get to the bus stop. The whole system is not working well enough as a system for people to be confident in using it to deal with their transport issues. There is also an issue about it being integrated.

I have received numerous emails from people who travel from small, rural parishes or villages into their local town. There might be a bus service twice a day that brings them to their local town but when they arrive they find that the main bus services to elsewhere have left five or ten minutes earlier. There needs to be integrated thinking about the provision of rural transport.

The Minister of State mentioned a rail review and improving train services in the north west. Deputy Pringle and I are well aware that the rail review does not include the word “Donegal”, unless there is a new one that I am not aware of. The county needs to be included if anybody is seriously thinking about ensuring we have a rail service. Deputy Pringle will confirm I am right in saying Donegal is one of the few counties in the country, perhaps the only one, that does not have a train service. Perhaps there is one other. There needs to be a commitment to that. The current rail review will not do it.

Free public transport would be a boost to everybody, especially in the current cost-of-living crisis. The Government's proposals for young people are not enough. This needs to be universal.

10:42 am

Photo of Darren O'RourkeDarren O'Rourke (Meath East, Sinn Fein)
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I am sharing time with colleagues. If it was only Donegal that did not have rail, we might be in a far better starting position. Unfortunately, there are many other counties in the same boat as Donegal. Many people will be familiar with the map that compares the rail network today with the rail network 100 years ago. It is an incredible shame that we are where we are now and have lost that fantastic infrastructure that would serve us so well.

The OECD will release a report today or in the coming days that will reflect on Ireland’s approach to transport and the Government’s approach to transport policy. It will be critical of the Government's decision to place so many eggs in the basket of electric vehicles. It is well known at this stage that the target of 1 million EVs is a fantasy target and meaningless. If Government had sense, it would just walk away from that, for many reasons.

The many reasons for expanding the public transport network have already been articulated in terms of climate, social benefits, inclusivity, health and economics. A public transport network is like a good education system; it is a great social equaliser.

Sinn Féin produced a set of proposals. I welcome the opportunity to speak on this and I thank Deputy Pringle for tabling the motion. We need the Government to be aggressive and ambitious in the roll-out of public transport. It needs to involve more than reports and targets. Communities need to see delivery to ensure they have a public transport system that is accessible, affordable, available, meets their needs and works for them. That is the standard. It needs to make sense for people. If the public transport option does not make sense for people, they will not use it. In many cases, they will not use it because they cannot use it; it is not affordable, accessible and available to them.

Sinn Féin set out a suite of proposals. I understand from the budget discussions that the Government is considering many options. We want to set out what we want the Government to do and what we would do if we were in government. We would make the 20% public transport fare reductions permanent, not just extend them to the end of next year. We would make them permanent and expand them to private bus operators. Whether it is Suirway in the south east, Buggy Coaches in Kilkenny or, in my area, Ashbourne Connect, these are services that are either dropping or reducing their services because they cannot compete. We would cut public transport fares by 50% for those under 18 to encourage positive habit formation. We would make public transport more accessible for people with disabilities by investing €12.6 million in the public transport accessibility retrofit programme. We would do that every year for a term in government bringing the total in that fund to €137 million. That would, in a five-year term, make all public transport fully accessible.

The Minister of State has heard the stories of people having to wait 24 hours or having to send a notification and about lifts not working and public transport services not being accessible. That needs to be addressed. We would accelerate the roll-out of rural bus services. There is a good plan in Connecting Ireland and there is a real demand for it. However, the funding is not there. It is a five-year €56 million programme, with €5 million invested in the first year, and we do not know what will come in subsequent years. Sinn Féin would put €25 million into that programme this year. The Government should do the same. In 2023, we need communities to see new services they can access at an affordable rate.

Photo of Pauline TullyPauline Tully (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons Disabilities, CRPD, general comment on Article 9, accessibility, sets out that it is a precondition for persons with disabilities to live independently and participate fully and equally in society. Without access to transport, among other facilities and services, persons with disabilities do not have equal opportunities to participate in society. The UN committee also notes that the physical inaccessibility of public transport and other facilities is a major factor in the marginalisation and exclusion of children with disabilities and it markedly compromises their access to services, including health and education.

The National Transport Authority, NTA, has statutory responsibility for promoting the development of an integrated, accessible public transport system. As we said, on all new public infrastructure there are accessibility features, such as wheelchair access and audiovisual aids, built in from the design stage. I very much welcome this. However, there are serious issues with older infrastructure and facilities, with progress being much too slow. For the State to align with the CRPD in the transport sector, there is a need to develop a sustainable and universally accessible national public transport system, including 100% of Local Link bus services being wheelchair accessible. There is also a need for annual targets to be developed for the retrofitting of older public transport infrastructure, with a report measuring progress against these targets.

Transport is highlighted in the comprehensive employment strategy, the national disability inclusion strategy and in the CRPD as one of the key services that helps people with disabilities participate in everyday life and obtain employment. It is estimated that by 2026, persons with disabilities will account for roughly 16% of the population. It is crucial that this cohort of Irish society can access public transport and we ensure the needs of an ageing population are met. The report, Accessibility of Public Transport for People with Disabilities, produced by the Joint Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport in November 2018 emphasised the necessity of having integrated, universally designed public transport services that are accessible to everyone, especially persons with disabilities. The Joint Committee on Disability Matters also highlighted this in our contribution to the draft initial state report under the CRPD.

The accessibility consultative committee set up under the national disability inclusion strategy to monitor progress in making public transport more accessible highlighted that there is little consideration given to the needs of people with disabilities when designing mainstream programmes. It further noted that such programmes can therefore be a missed opportunity at best or, at worst, can further marginalise people with disabilities and increase inequalities.

The National Disability Authority, NDA, made submissions to both the MetroLink and BusConnects public consultations, which highlighted a significant lack of consultation and consideration for persons with disabilities at each step of the proposed project to ensure the final service is universally designed. The NDA also noted in its BusConnects submission concern that the revised BusConnects proposal did not include a number of key points that the NDA had previously advised regarding the different elements of the proposed project. There is no purpose in having consultation with disability groups if their recommendations are not taken on board.

Rural Ireland is particularly badly served in terms of access to public transport in general, but especially for people with disabilities. Disabled people living in rural areas are often highly dependent on family members or taxis for travel, which incurs higher costs. Local Link buses serving smaller towns and villages need to be 100% wheelchair accessible and shuttle services to transport hubs such as existing rail stations need to be extended. There are still towns and villages where those in a wheelchair cannot get onto public transport. Bus Éireann has done considerable work to upgrade its coaches and main stations but there are major questions about bus stops outside the main stations and the slow progress being made in that regard. It must be dramatically accelerated. I welcome the fact that all new public transport infrastructure has accessibility features such as wheelchair access and audiovisual aids built in from the design stage but significant investment is required in respect of older infrastructure and facilities. The progress that has been made in that regard is far too slow.

Deputy Pringle raised the issue of a rail service being extended to Donegal. I would like to include counties Cavan and Monaghan in that because they do not have a rail service. I do not think Fermanagh or Tyrone have one either. That whole area could be linked up very well. There was a rail service to the area at one time and we need one again.

10:52 am

Photo of John BradyJohn Brady (Wicklow, Sinn Fein)
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Public transport needs to be accessible, affordable, frequent and reliable but that is certainly not the case at the moment. That is due to many issues but I wish to focus on the issue of privatisation. The policy of this Government and the previous Government to privatise particular routes has been a disaster in recent years. Go-Ahead now operates 30 routes that were previously operated by Dublin Bus. Since it took over the routes three years ago, it has been an unmitigated disaster. In my constituency of Wicklow, three routes were privatised, namely, the 184, 185 and 45A routes. I could list off case after case of people having been left abandoned at bus stops, waiting on buses that are running late or cancelled or simply do not show up. The result is that people are late for school, work or hospital appointments. It has been an unmitigated disaster right across those areas.

There is a solution to this, however, which is to take that contract off Go-Ahead. The NTA has a responsibility here. For the first six months of this year, fines of €850,000 have been issued to Go-Ahead for the Dublin routes alone. For all its routes, more than €1.15 million in fines have been issued to Go-Ahead. This month, the NTA has a decision to make as it can extend the contract by a further year. It is due to extend to October 2023. The NTA can extend that by another year, bringing it up to October 2024. A decision should be taken now not to extend the contract. However, the NTA and the Government need to go further and cancel that contract with Go-Ahead immediately and give it back to Dublin Bus, which can and will provide a reliable bus service for areas such as Enniskerry, Kilcoole, Kilmacanogue, Greystones, Bray and all the other areas in Wicklow and right across the 30 routes that are currently being let down by Go-Ahead, which has made an absolute disaster of the service it operates. As my party and I have stated repeatedly, privatisation has not worked. This is a prime example of how privatisation has failed. The onus is on the Government and the NTA to revoke the licence and reinstate a service that is fit for purpose.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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Ba mhaith liom tacaíocht a thabhairt don rún seo. Tá sé ciallmhar ó thaobh na todhchaí, na timpeallachta, tráchta agus costas teaghlaigh agus oibre. This is a significant time for public transport. My home city of Cork is one of the areas in which there will be a big focus on trying to shift people from relying on their cars to using public transport more. We are currently in the middle of consultations on BusConnects. I believe BusConnects is a good idea and it can work but, for that to happen, it is important that the NTA engages with communities, listens to them, takes on board their feedback and operates in a flexible way. My discussions with the NTA thus far have led me to believe there is a willingness to work with communities and to adjust in order to take local concerns into account, and I welcome that.

However, it is possible that some of the confusion, issues or design defects could have been avoided if there was a permanent NTA presence in Cork. If we are looking at BusConnects, light rail and everything else connected to the Cork metropolitan area transport strategy, CMATS, the proposal put forward by me and the Cork Chamber of Commerce through many years, of a delivery office for the NTA in Cork, is a logical one.

Another point that arises in the context of BusConnects is that although the potential is undoubtedly significant, bus drivers in Bus Éireann have told me it does not have anywhere near enough staff to deliver the kind of frequency that is envisaged. It is vital that we avoid situations such as those highlighted by Deputy Brady, where we end up relying on private contractors, some of which are not reliable enough. It is vital that we ensure Bus Éireann has enough drivers to ensure this is delivered.

CMATS has several good elements but it is inadequately ambitious in terms of suburban rail. The outer suburbs are well served under it, as is east-west. The north-south connection, however, is a missed opportunity. A significant amount of traffic crosses the city every day. Under CMATS, large commuter populations in places such as Douglas, Carrigaline, Ballyphehane and Togher will not be served but they could have been.

Photo of Claire KerraneClaire Kerrane (Roscommon-Galway, Sinn Fein)
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Public transport is still very much non-existent in many parts of rural Ireland. We are still seeing the loss of services. Last summer, the Dublin-Galway X20 bus service was taken away, which particularly impacted the likes of Aughrim and Ballinasloe in east Galway. That services are still being lost very much flies in the face of the green agenda and encouraging people to get out of their cars and take public transport. The roll-out of Connecting Ireland has been welcomed by Sinn Féin. However, only slightly more than €5 million has been spent on it this year. We need that funding to be front-loaded so that services are put in place and then built on. Likewise, there have recently been long-awaited changes to Local Link, including in County Roscommon. Those changes are welcome but we need Local Link to be promoted far better and we need it to continue to be built on going forward.

In many cases, the rail services that are currently in place are totally inadequate. There are rarely enough carriages to meet demand. If we are encouraging people to get out of their cars and take a train, particularly to commute, the lack of seats is a significant problem. Timetables also need to be considered. Irish Rail will repeatedly say that increased capacity needs to be considered. We need to ensure we meet demand. There is a particular issue with capacity on the Westport-Dublin line. There are never enough carriages and people are left standing or sitting in doorways. That should not happen. It is incredible that wheelchair users still have to give 24 hours' notice to get on a train. That is wrong and should not happen. It shows how far we have to go in respect of disability services when it comes to transport in the State.

I refer to the west and north west. The inclusion of the western rail corridor in the Trans-European Transport Network, TEN-T, to guarantee that funding is critical for the region. In 2019, the west and north west was downgraded from a developed region to a region in transition. It has now been downgraded again, to a lagging region. This is a serious situation that the Government is ignoring. That is why the region has been downgraded again. Critical infrastructure is key, and that includes transport.

Photo of Mairead FarrellMairead Farrell (Galway West, Sinn Fein)
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Ar dtús ba mhaith liom an bus oíche a ardú leis an Aire Stáit agus seo ceist atá luaite go sách minic agam sa Seomra seo. Tá dhá líne nua curtha le bus 24 uaire i mBaile Átha Cliath agus cuirim fáilte roimhe sin ach tá gá le bus oíche i nGaillimh freisin agus ar fud an iarthair. Tá a fhios agam go bhfuil an bus 424 ag taisteal níos déanaí anois agus gur féidir le daoine, mar gheall air sin, dul i gcomhair béile agus dul ar ais abhaile ach teastaíonn tuilleadh busanna cosúil leis seo agus teastaíonn a leithéid in iarthar an chontae freisin. There are several matters I wish to raise with the Minister.

One issue I have raised a number of times in the Chamber is that of a night bus in Galway. While the 424 service is now running later, there is a need for increased night buses, specifically in the eastern part of the county. There are two new lines for 24-hour bus services in Dublin, which is very welcome, but we need to see the same level of support in more rural areas, for example, for students who cannot find accommodation in the city and have to travel out further, as well as for people who are working late at night.

We know people will use public transport if they have the option. I see that on the Galway-Dublin bus, which is packed. Speaking of the Galway-Dublin bus service, it is an outrage that the 20-X20 service was cancelled. It provided a vital service for people in rural areas to travel to Dublin.

Another issue I want to raise is the western rail corridor, on which there has been a long campaign. It was a fantastic rail service for the west. My great grandad was a train driver on the western rail corridor, so my family is acutely aware of the importance of the service. Again, when there is a rail service available people will use it. If we are serious about people using public transport, we need to make it affordable but we also need to make it accessible. Unfortunately, it is not accessible for the vast majority of people in rural Ireland.

For students living outside Galway city, making it to college by 9 a.m. using the bus service is not realistic in many cases. That needs to be addressed.

11:02 am

Photo of Duncan SmithDuncan Smith (Dublin Fingal, Labour)
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On behalf of the Labour Party, I welcome the motion. The conversation on free and accessible transport is the only one we should be having on transport in this country. This motion is another opportunity for us to discuss the issue in some detail and, hopefully, move the conversation forward.

In the most recent budget, the Labour Party proposed a €9 climate card, which would be a monthly charge for unlimited travel modelled on a pilot scheme used successfully in Germany through the summer of 2022. Unfortunately, we did not see any great furthering of progressive green transport policies in the budget we have just had, satisfied as the Government was with its initial moves on fare reduction and the provision of active travel measures which, in fairness, we can see in some areas of the country. There was no great step forward in the provision of more affordability or free transport in the budget.

One of the reasons the Labour Party did not propose a free transport scheme in this budget is that there are still concerns about how poor our transport network is. The motion speaks to that in great detail, particularly in rural areas. Free transport was introduced in Tallinn in Estonia in 2013 as a cost-of-living measure but the infrastructure was not in place and it has not led to a reduction in car usage or an improvement in transport infrastructure. That case should serve as a warning to us until we get our transport network correct and to where we need it to be. We need to ensure we have a funding model in place that will provide that. It is a balancing act of continuing to reduce fares, making them more affordable, encouraging people to use public transport where they have it and where they can, but also of ensuring that there is an ambitious plan to improve our network across rail, bus and other active travel measures.

I welcome the submission last week to An Bord Pleanála of the planning application and railway order for MetroLink. This morning, while coming into town on the bus, I saw on Twitter that a councillor for the Louth region had sent a photo of the type we all see of the Google traffic heat maps of the city. The M1, from just north of Balbriggan right down to Whitehall, was an angry dark red colour. That is not just this morning but every morning. The councillor in question said that incentives should be increased for people to use the northern commuter rail line. That line, however, is at capacity use and we will not get the increased carriages we need for the service for some years. The answer to ease the congestion on the M1 corridor is the delivery of MetroLink. People on the north side of Dublin know how important that is. This is not just a Fingal or Swords issue but it is the entire central spine of north County Dublin.

While improved links to the airport would benefit the entire city and people coming into the country, we on our side of the city want to see fast and efficient progression of this railway order and planning permission. Any frivolous objections from people in areas that are not on the line or are not impacted by the M1 corridor and the traffic nightmare on it every single day of the week should be given short shrift because the north side of Dublin needs this. The south side of Dublin has Luas lines, a DART link and bus services, and will get BusConnects. The north side of Dublin needs the MetroLink and that should be made crystal clear to those in government.

We expected a change in the short hop zones in the budget. Unfortunately, the kite was flown in advance of the budget but the measure did not make it into it. Along the N7, for example, we have areas such as Newbridge where the rail fare is €12 to get into the city, whereas from Naas it is €4. My colleague, Senator Mark Wall, has been raising this issue for a number of years. We have people getting into their cars in places like Monasterevin and Newbridge who should be getting the train but do not do so because it is unaffordable. A modification of the short hop zone would help.

These are things that can be done. There are still anomalies in the 90-minute fare. We need to see stations such as Skerries and Balbriggan on the northern commuter rail line brought into that. They are well within the 90-minute commute time but because they are marked on how long it takes for a bus to get from Balbriggan to Skerries, they are outside that scheme. Again, these are other measures and low-hanging fruit that could be delivered now to get people to use the public transport services that are in place.

Accessibility is a major issue that should go hand in hand with the delivery of clean transport. While we are seeing movement towards electric and hybrid fleets in our bus services, we are not moving at the same pace on increasing disabled accessibility. A Dublin Bus can only accommodate one wheelchair user at a time. That is just not good enough. I have been dealing with a number of activists and representatives of the Irish Wheelchair Association. Users of some of the more modern wheelchairs, which are very large in size, find it difficult to board a bus, even if there is no other wheelchair user already using the service. While we need to move towards clean fleets, we also need to move towards more accessible fleets. The ongoing problem of broken lifts in our railway stations is another disgrace and one which continually inhibits wheelchair users and people with mobility issues from using a service they may have in their locality. Again, we did not see anything in the budget on that.

I will conclude on the issue of Go-Ahead Ireland services. This is an absolute disgrace. We have been raising for months the fact that people are being left at bus stops every morning in Donabate, Portrane, Portmarnock and Sutton, and other services in Kildare and north Wicklow were mentioned earlier. The routes may be different but the story is the same. We have people missing hospital appointments, arriving late for work or having to get a taxi. Instead of being able to avail of the discounted fares the Government has brought in, they are having to pay higher fares for taxis just to get into work and avoid being penalised by their employers for being absent or late. This is a public transport service that is failing the public. When the contract for Go-Ahead Ireland services comes to an end, these services need to revert to Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann, the previous holders of those contracts and the proper public transport providers.

11:12 am

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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What we need in a public transport system is that it is reliable, efficient, accessible and cost-effective. The reliability issue is the one I want to deal with first and I want to pick up on the point in regard to Go-Ahead Ireland. Kildare was the first area where the buses transferred across from Bus Éireann and we were told at the time it would be a seamless service. Last week, the fines for Go-Ahead Ireland in regard to Kildare were €450,000 for the first six months because it did not provide that reliable service. We were told it would be on the hour, every hour, but the bus routinely does not turn up. It is not as if there is a ten-minute gap between one and the next. People are left waiting and when the next bus arrives, it is full.

These are real examples, not hypothetical situations. Employees are at risk of losing their jobs because of persistent lateness. College students have missed exams and they routinely miss classes. Primary school pupils are left stranded by the bus service for upwards of 80 minutes. There is no other public transport option on most of these routes. In Clane, for example, there is no train and no alternative service. Last night, for the bus service that comes out of town on the half-hour, every hour, the 7.30 p.m. bus did not turn up, the 8.30 p.m. bus did not turn up and people then got on the 9.30 p.m. bus. Why would anyone use public transport when that is their experience? The unfortunate thing is that this is not unusual.

This is the commuter belt. It is an area with a very large population. If we do not provide public transport that is reliable, people will get in their cars. I do not know if the Minister has noticed, but the M4 and M7 feature every single solitary day on AA Roadwatch and, in fact, the difficulties are local as well as national.

BusConnects is not just a rural issue. The C spine, which was the second spine delivered for BusConnects, is a very mixed bag. There are not enough drivers, there are the same problems with buses not turning up and there are fewer peak services than there were before the C spine. Peak-time services would leave at different departure points and they are very often full at some locations. Not a day goes by when I do not get complaints, and this is a year after it was introduced. In some parts of that C spine, it is working fine but where it is not working, it is a disaster.

The Social Democrats did a survey in north Kildare which had 1,200 respondents. We sent it to BusConnects, which pretty much said “Thanks very much for the survey but all we are going to do is scale back on one of the services.” I think that is what it did to begin with: it put in a service that was likely to fail so it could take it off. Who is this service for, if it is not for the NTA and not for the people using it? People are saying that there are loads of buses but they have no service. If we cannot go back and look at that, what is the point?

The key issue is that people are getting back in their cars and once they do that, it is very difficult to get them back onto public transport when they have had a very poor experience. If we look at land use and all of the city apartments that are being built, what is happening is that families are moving further out into Fingal, Meath and Kildare, and it is increasing the demand when the service is not reliable. One could not say that Go-Ahead Ireland is providing a service. Nobody wants the fines. What they want is the service but it seems incapable of delivering a service that meets the needs or is reliable. A contract is a two-way thing. If Go-Ahead Ireland is not meeting the contract, then the contract has to be revoked. It is just not good enough. It is every single solitary day, and this is not an unusual thing that is happening. As I said, land use is exacerbating the situation in that there is increased demand but less service.

We absolutely need an accessible service but reliability is equally important to people with disabilities as it is to people who do not have disabilities. This should be a universal system that is reliable but that is not what we are getting at the moment.

Photo of Holly CairnsHolly Cairns (Cork South West, Social Democrats)
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I thank the Independent Group for enabling this very important discussion. There is no good argument against free and accessible public transport. It helps to improve employment and social connections, it reduces dependence on cars and it frees up the roads for people who must use them. Despite the many benefits, many people who need public transport have to fight for this service or are simply denied it. Over the past few months, I have been helping families to access school transport, and a situation in Goleen was just resolved this week, over a month into the school year. To have disgracefully few services in rural Ireland means many disabled people cannot work, despite their capacity to do so, and they cannot participate in community and social life.

Over the summer, a group of young adults in Castletownbere, who needed a bus service for day services and training, could not access this. Local Link and other organisations had to work tirelessly to resolve the issue but, ultimately, it is a funding matter and a basic planning matter. No one should have to fight for a basic service that they are entitled to. The future of public transport access to Castletownbere is under doubt under the Connecting Ireland plan, which classifies it as a local route rather than a regional one, which would downgrade the connectivity of the entire Beara Peninsula. Castletownbere must be recognised as a hub for the area.

The Cork-Kinsale bus route goes via the airport, which means regular commuters are delayed due to the extra time taken in accommodating tourists. There needs to be a separate service for regular users to ensure they can get to work and appointments on time.

I was contacted about a case where an individual with free travel was charged €2 each way to book tickets, with no guarantee of getting a space on the bus. This highlights the many contradictions in the system.

Bus stops are an important part of public transport. We have a shocking lack of sheltered bus stops, given our climate. Villages like Riverstick, Belgooly and Drimoleague are screaming out for proper, basic bus stops. Bandon is very poorly served, meaning many older people cannot access buses. There is a pressing need for bus stops on the western side of the town, another issue I have raised with the Minister.

Public transport should be an easy win for the Government, if the will was there. However, the Government seems to see little economic value in public transport. It is a service that is primarily used by the less well-off and more vulnerable in society, people with disabilities, older people and lone parent families. It is clear that after another budget designed to benefit the better-off, there is no hope of a genuinely accessible public transport system from this Government and that approach needs to change.

Photo of Gino KennyGino Kenny (Dublin Mid West, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I wish to share time with Deputies Boyd Barrett and Barry.

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Gino KennyGino Kenny (Dublin Mid West, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I welcome this very important motion on free transport. I think there is a very valid argument in regard to public transport being free, accessible and of top quality. All the evidence suggests that where we have such a system, people will use it. I always remember going to Europe for the very first time and being amazed by the system of public transport. It was the thing that stood out most to me when I went to parts of Europe, in particular the accessibility and the fact it was relatively cheap. It got even better when I went east to the ex-communist countries and although they had their faults, their transport was pretty unbelievable for countries like that.

There are many valid reasons we should have free public transport and one of the main reasons is around environmental issues. Capitalism has relied on the car culture. We only have to look at the M50 and many other places in Ireland where there is complete dominance of cars. That is not environmentally sustainable. If we build and give people an option or an alternative to cars, they will use it. As I said, all the evidence points that way.

The privatisation of certain services in Dublin has been an unmitigated disaster. With Go-Ahead Ireland, a company that runs certain services in Dublin mid-west, buses are not even showing up for two or three hours.

Imagine how frustrating it is if you are waiting for a bus to go to work but it never comes, so you have to pay €25 for a taxi to get to work, and when you are coming back from work, there is no bus again. These services need to be taken back into public hands.

A model of free transport with connectivity and accessibility is important. It has been put in place around Europe so that getting a bus, train or any other form of public transport, except taxis of course, is free. Where free transport is accessible, people will use it. Once people start doing that, there will be fewer cars on the road, which would be a very good thing.

11:22 am

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I thank the Independent Group for tabling this important motion. People Before Profit strongly agrees with the introduction of free and frequent public transport and has campaigned for it for a number of years. We have budgeted for it in all of our budget submissions in recent years. Despite the Government's claim that it is committed to trying to address the climate crisis and reduce car use, it is resisting introducing what is an obvious measure, that being, making public transport free and frequent. Public transport has to be both. The lack of decent public transport blights rural Ireland to a great extent, leaving many people isolated and without services, but it is also something that affects us here in Dublin and elsewhere in urban Ireland.

Besides an immediate move to free public transport, I will make two suggestions. First, we have a great deal of windfall money from our corporate tax receipts. Some of that should be invested in purchasing social and affordable housing, but another large chunk of it should be used as a one-off capital investment to expand the national bus fleet considerably. This is obvious. Our fleet lacks capacity. We can see that where schoolchildren and rural Ireland are concerned. Expanding our public transport fleet would be money well spent. I urge the Government to do this and to buy electric buses, not only as part of the climate transition, but also to provide services for people.

Second, we need to abandon the stealth privatisation of public transport. One of the reasons for buses not turning up is that, as part of the competitive tendering out of routes and privatisation of public transport, these companies - Go-Ahead Ireland in particular - cannot recruit and retain enough bus drivers. The only thing that private operators can do to try to get in on a route is to drive down labour costs and labour conditions. It is a race to the bottom in terms of the treatment of bus drivers and other bus workers. This flows directly from the competitive tendering out of routes and means that people do not want to work as bus drivers any more. If we want to build the public transport capacity that we need, we must abandon the competitive privatisation of routes, renationalise the entire public transport system and treat our transport workers properly instead of constantly putting pressure on them in terms of wages and conditions.

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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The case for free public transport is overwhelming and unanswerable. In Germany this summer, the €9 monthly rail fare scheme was availed of by 52 million people, equivalent to 60% of the population. The scheme reduced CO2 emissions by 1.8 million tonnes. Free public transport was implemented in Spain last month. That scheme will run to the end of the year. In Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, free public transport for residents has been in place since 2013 and results in a reduction of 742 tonnes of CO2 annually. In Kansas City, the incidence of antisocial behaviour and aggression towards drivers fell by 17% after the introduction of free fares. Obviously, disputes over fares plummeted, which was a key factor in that.

From the point of view of the cost-of-living crisis for ordinary people, combating the climate emergency and ensuring the health and safety of drivers, which is no small matter, free public transport makes excellent sense. It should be introduced throughout the entirety of the EU, not just for periods of three or four months, but from one end of the year to the next. The Minister should set out a figure for what that would cost in this State. We know that €580 million in fares was collected in 2019, the last full year before the pandemic. The other major cost would be increasing the size of the bus and train fleets and hiring extra staff to meet demand. Let us see that number. It will be paid for 100% by wealth taxes. That is a discussion that we will have another day.

Photo of Verona MurphyVerona Murphy (Wexford, Independent)
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I thank the Independent Group for tabling this motion. It allows me the opportunity to highlight some public transport difficulties that people in County Wexford are facing.

I had occasion during the summer to write to Bus Éireann regarding the high number of cancellations on Wexford bus services. A good example of this serious disruption occurred in the period from 9 to 25 July when a total of 38 services to or from Wexford were cancelled, often at short notice. These cancellations caused significant disruption for many passengers, in particular those who made Bus Éireann a central part of their plans to get to and from Dublin Airport during the holiday season. I understand that the 6 a.m. departure from Dublin Airport to Wexford on 23 July was cancelled and that a tweet to inform customers of this cancellation was not posted until six hours later at 12 midday. This practice was repeated many other times, with a public announcement not being made until after the scheduled departure times had passed. The sheer volume of cancellations and the provision of late notice of same shows blatant disregard for customers by Bus Éireann and brings into question the effectiveness of contingency planning at Bus Éireann. People need an explanation of why so many services in Wexford were cancelled. They also need to know how Bus Éireann intends to prevent this problem from recurring so that County Wexford commuters and holidaymakers can have confidence in the service that is supposed to be provided.

Government policy has been aimed towards moving people away from cars and onto public transport, and both the carrot and stick are being used. The carrot is the reduction in fares and the stick is the increase in the carbon tax, making travelling by private car more expensive. In many parts of rural Ireland, the public transport system is not a viable alternative to the private car. Random and short-notice cancellations do nothing to promote public transport as a feasible alternative in County Wexford.

Another area of public transport that is wholly inadequate in County Wexford is the rail service. Journey times by rail from Wexford to Dublin are no better from Wicklow onwards than they were in the late 1800s, with the Wexford service often crawling from Greystones to Connolly Station due to the timetable dispatching slow-running DART trains in the way of the Wexford service. If you are in Wexford, the only way you have to get to any part of the country by rail is to go via Dublin. We have a rail line from Wexford to Waterford that has been lying idle since 2010. Irish Rail ran that line into the ground until it had driven so many passengers away that it closed the line in 2010, when the Green Party was in government.

Turning back to the Rosslare line, the earliest train to arrive in Wexford town from Dublin on a weekday gets in at 12.07 p.m. There are no morning arrivals. On a weekday, there are five and a half hours between trains. There is a departure from Rosslare at 7.20 a.m. but no further departures until 12.55 p.m.

I welcome attempts to incentivise people to use public transport through low fares, but in addition to those, the housing crisis and people's inability to find accommodation in our cities means that, now more than ever, we need to consider a high-speed rail network, starting with the Wexford to Dublin line.

Approximately 10,000 commuters leave Wexford daily to head to work, mostly by car. Providing an incentive to use rail would mean we could get people out of their cars, and this could include the provision of reliable services and faster journey times. We also need high-speed services with better connectivity around the country.

11:32 am

Photo of Seán CanneySeán Canney (Galway East, Independent)
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The school bus service has been decimated and thrown around the place in recent months. It is a thundering disgrace. Transport services for people with disabilities in the context of schools have been cast into disarray. Parents have been all over the place trying to get their children, including those with special needs, to school, and this is an ongoing problem. Further announcements that additional money will be forthcoming to take care of previous concessionary ticket holders are not washing because there is no way that Bus Éireann has the capacity to take this task on. The company does not know how to do it.

I will let the Minister of State know what is going on with public transport in Galway East. We have, for example, reduced services between Gort and Galway city and services being taken away in Kilreekil. Since 2007, there has been talk of a bus lane that would run from Claregalway into Galway city. There has been report after feasibility study after report after initiative after design and whatever else, but nothing is happening. This can be done and no land needs to be taken. It is just a matter of someone deciding to do this to ensure we can remove from the road the 30,000 cars now going through Claregalway because there is no bypass. We also have no park-and-ride facilities to service Galway city. Many people are travelling from the east of the county into the city and they are undertaking those daily journeys by car. Those people are spending, and wasting, up to 15 hours of their lives sitting in their cars weekly and putting more carbon into the atmosphere. This is not the way things should be.

Of course, there are solutions. One of the main ones is the extension of the western rail corridor to run north from Athenry to Tuam and then on to Claremorris. This would give us a rail line that would service the route from Westport to Galway and from Westport to Limerick. Ballina and Castlebar would also be connected by rail. In the Minister of State's own neck of the woods, a rail connection would run from Limerick city to Foynes Port and this would create the capacity to deal with freight in an efficient way. This endeavour has support right across this House. A feasibility study was undertaken by the eminent Professor Bradley, and it showed this project can be done. No planning permission or consents are required. If the Government decided to proceed with this proposal, it would be up and running within two and a half years.

This is the type of project we must undertake. It is shovel-ready. An example of how well it would work is that the present line running between the cities of Galway and Limerick, which was restored in 2011, is the fastest growing rail line for passenger traffic in the country. This is happening against the tide as well, in the absence of the timing and frequency of services that it had been proposed would have been put on that line. Four services are now running on that line when there should be seven. We must also ensure that we create the passing loop at Oranmore to allow more passengers to get into the heart of Galway city from the east of the county. Bus operators are doing their best, but it is very difficult when it is not possible to get a bus lane. The buses then have to sit in traffic and compete with cars, and this is a problem.

If we are fair to the private bus operators trying to do their work, and to the people in Galway East, north Mayo and further on, we will end up with a good public service that will be fit for everybody to use. Additionally, we will be able to connect the towns and cities of Ballina, Westport, Castlebar, Tuam, Athenry, Ennis, Galway and Limerick. We will also be able to have the access we require to ports in the context of the development of our offshore energy resources. If we do not do this, we are wasting our time.

Photo of Richard O'DonoghueRichard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
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Transport for Ireland, TFI, has set up Local Link services as a link to national bus services. Lack of housing and student accommodation is forcing many of our young people to stay at home rather than renting, and this is resulting in a huge demand for bus links among those going to work and universities and colleges. I was delighted that Bus Éireann this morning announced six new routes for Limerick. These will run from Galbally, Hospital, Knocklong, Herbertstown and Caherconlish to Limerick city. I am currently seeking the provision of an extra bus service for Bruff, as we have a centre for Ukrainians there. The bus services are being put under great pressure in the mornings as people are travelling to work, education institutes and social appointments. The knock-on impact is that the bus is full when it leaves Bruff and this means people waiting at other stops, such as at Grange and Ballyneety, cannot use the service. The Local Link service running from Glin to Athea, Carrigkerry and Ballingarry is also welcome, as is the link with the national bus service in Croom.

Many parents of third level students are commuting up to 150 km daily to get their children to classes. The colleges must also address the issue here because they should put on a park-and-ride service to ensure these students can get to their institutions and get there on time. I refer as well to public transport in the context of outreach clinics set up around the country, such as by the HSE and Headway Ireland. Service users, including the blind and the elderly, need to get to their appointments in clinics, but many cannot because they have no alternative transport. Equally, the current rental market also means that bus services are extremely important. We can see how Local Link servicers and the private bus providers have been carrying this burden for many years. Now, I ask that the bus services be put in place.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I thank the Independent Group for bringing forward this motion. It has been proven in the past that providing free public transport works. In the case of the elderly, it is good to get people out of their homes and to take them on a journey. It is good for the economy. It is good for the people themselves and their health to be out among people. It is good for finances because they spend money. In this context, let us look at the diversity and size of County Kerry. People are dispersed across areas the size of Brosna, Knocknagashel and Lyracrumpane. In south Kerry, we have places like Valentia Island and Portmagee. I am trying to get additional services provided there. We already needed more services. Now we have Ukrainian people, who are very welcome, but they need transport. We did not have the transport originally for the local people. Now, we have more people living in those locations and we need additional services. I ask the Minister of State to take on board, in particular, these types of situations. West of Dingle, in mid-Kerry and, indeed, all over the county, we have an inadequacy of bus transport. Providing more transport and making it free would give us the advantage that people living in urban areas have now.

I also wish to highlight and thank the people involved in providing Local Link services and buses. I refer to the private operators and the people working in keeping the wheels rolling. It is not easy to be in business today. Therefore, I thank the private operators for their work in providing buses. The rail connectivity we have in County Kerry is extremely important in ensuring we have as much accessibility and as many times as possible to allow people to work. I thank the people who operate the airport at Farranfore. I thank them for the service and for ensuring we have as much connectivity as possible. I refer to flights arriving early and late to ensure people can work and do everything from our county and have the advantage of living in a rural location as well.

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I thank the Independent Group for bringing this motion forward. On the matter of free and accessible public transport, we are told and we see that Dublin city has eight times more public transport than the rest of Ireland. I ask the Minister of State to think about this fact. I reiterate that Dublin city alone has eight times more public transport than the rest of Ireland.

While I appreciate there is a need for free public transport, in very rural places, such as we have in Kerry and Donegal, we must realise that it would be impossible to provide free public transport for everyone unless we have all the money there is in the Central Bank. The Government must realise there is still a need for cars, whether those are powered by petrol, diesel or electricity, as long as those sources provide a viable and reliable option. We still need cars and people need assistance.

There is no alternative for those people who need to go to work, school and elsewhere.

I, too, thank the Local Link services for the great work they do in getting elderly people out a couple of times a week to their local town or village, such as Curragh, Scartaglin, Brosna, Kenmare and Lauragh. They do great work.

On this notion the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, had that one car would do 30 people in one village and to place the car in the village, that man is for the fairies. The more we go on, the more I realise that this Government has no idea what is happening in rural Ireland.

11:42 am

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
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I thank the Independent Group for an excellent discussion this morning, and for the motion.

A few months ago, the Minister continuously announced a decrease in the cost of transport services, mainly in and around Dublin. That suits his constituents, but we have to drag him here tooth and nail through the Dáil to give that 20% decrease that he gave to the people of rural Ireland using the private bus operators that are out there trying to deliver a service to rural Ireland. Now the Minister has announced that he will do that, but the divil is in the detail. We have not found out when that is to happen. Is there an exact date? An announcement is beautiful and the Government is plentiful with announcements, but when things are happening on the ground is what we do not know about. That has not happened, as far as we are concerned. That is a fight for us. If there is any decrease, it will happen in the cities but not for the rural operators.

I questioned the Minister here recently about what kind of extra services has he given to west Cork since he came into office and there have been none. He is talking about two down the road. One of them is already in operation and I do not know why he is offering that.

We have a great Cork Local Link but that can only provide as much services as it is afforded to do so by funds. Bus Éireann is often critical, but nobody in Bus Éireann has ever sat down with me and told me about the company's plans. However, West Cork Connect has plans. I accuse the NTA of disconnecting rural Ireland. West Cork Connect wants an every-hour on-the-hour bus service from Skibbereen, Clonakilty, Bandon, Inishannon to Cork and it has been refused that service. They took 1,000 people last Friday to and from west Cork and left loads of people at the bus stop. This is the NTA's decision that it will only allow a service every two hours instead of a every hour that they can deliver, and will deliver. They will bring people to west Cork and take people to the city where they want to use public transport. We are being continuously disconnected totally. They wanted to provide a service from Goleen into Skibbereen several times a day and the NTA refused them. Now we will hopefully succeed in getting a route - Kinsale, Belgooly, Riverstick and Ballinhassig.

The NTA continues to disconnect west Cork and I, for one, will not take this continuously. The Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, needs to listen, not look away, when we are talking.

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick County, Fianna Fail)
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On behalf of the Minister for Transport, I thank all the Deputies for their contributions to the debate.

In both the motion and the contributions from individual Deputies, we can see the range of challenges and opportunities and the progress which has been made to date. I believe that we are all in agreement about wanting a public transport system that serves all members of society, regardless of where they live.

As outlined earlier by my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, the Government is dedicated to developing an integrated, accessible and sustainable network of public transport offering across Ireland in both urban and rural areas.

The House will be aware that the Government has an ambitious vision to transform transport services and infrastructure nationwide. I will briefly give some examples of the transformative developments that are on the way. Under Project Ireland 2040, spatial planning and capital investment are being linked together in a meaningful way, while significant investment being made in new public and sustainable transport initiatives, as well as major new road projects. Furthermore, capacity on the Kildare, Maynooth and northern rail lines is being increased by more than 30% compared to today. In fact, the new railcars to achieve this increase have started to arrive and will enter service next year.

To help us to meet our climate targets, we have decided that from 2019, no new diesel buses would be purchased for urban PSO bus fleets. Deputies will be aware that a fully electric town bus service is operating in Athlone. Similarly, as part of BusConnects, the current fleet of buses in Dublin will be increased and converted to a zero-emission fleet by 2035, meeting increasing demand and saving the equivalent of circa 85,000 tonnes of CO2 a year in line with our climate action targets. Buses and shelters will be modernised, increasing accessibility and ensuring safe and enjoyable trips for passengers.

The Department of Transport's sustainable mobility policy, published earlier this year, recognises that transport needs are not uniform across the country and that tailored solutions are needed for both urban and rural areas. The policy aims to deliver 500,000 additional daily active travel and public transport journeys as well as a 10% reduction in kilometres driven by fossil-fuelled cars by 2030. The policy is underpinned by a robust action plan out to 2025 alongside capital funding allocations in the revised national development plan to ensure delivery.

Increased investment in the inter-urban and regional network will improve journey times, enhance reliability and maintain safety across the network.

Public transport in rural areas is vital. Turning to rural areas specifically, whether it is reduced car dependency or a more integrated and accessible transport network, the Government’s vision is ambitious, and one that is a key motivator as the Department of Transport prepares its work programme for 2023. Of course, the connecting Ireland rural mobility plan is a key component of that vision. I reiterate that it will significantly increase both the number of routes and the frequency of existing services throughout the country. I see that in my own county of Limerick, where we have lobbied for and received an increased frequency on many routes and, more recently, we see the TFI Local Link creating an imaginative new bus route, all the way from Tarbert across west and south Limerick to the town of Croom, servicing Tarbert, Glin, Atteagh, Carrigkerry, Ardagh, Newcastle West, Ballingarry and Croom.

I am also in the process of lobbying for an increased frequency on the bus routes serving Bruff and Kilmallock and other locations in Limerick and I am also lobbying the NTA for increased bus shelters where we have a deficiency of infrastructure.

Under connecting Ireland, the NTA is proposing an overall increase of approximately 25% in rural bus services as part of the five-year connecting Ireland plan. Hundreds of rural villages and areas will for the first time be served by a viable public transport link. Service improvements are being rolled out under connecting Ireland with more planned before the end of this year.

The Minister for Transport is fully committed to strengthening our public transport offerings and progressively making them accessible for all. This requires a whole-of-journey approach, which refers to all elements that constitute a journey from the starting point to destination. It also means applying the principles of universal design.

In addition to the sustainable mobility policy, some of the other key guiding policies include the UNCRPD, the national disability inclusion strategy and the comprehensive employment strategy for people with disabilities. The public transport accessibility actions across these and other national strategies have been combined into the Department of Transport’s accessibility work programme, which provides the framework for prioritising projects and programmes to progressively make public transport accessible. The Department will continue to engage with all stakeholders, including disabled people, as we improve our systems for everyone.

I reiterate that the strategic rail review will examine the role of rail in supporting relevant policy objectives in both Ireland and Northern Ireland, with particular emphasis on achieving climate change objectives. The House will be pleased to know that this review will also consider the potential scope for improved rail services along the various existing or future potential corridors of the network, and that scope will include an analysis of the potential afforded by disused and closed rail lines. It will be one of the most significant reviews of the rail network on the island in many years and will provide a framework to develop a much-improved rail network in the years ahead. The Department of Transport expects the review to be completed by the end of this year.

I assure the House that the Minister for Transport emphasises the important role transport plays in all our lives and is acutely aware of the concerns raised as regards making public transport fully integrated, accessible and sustainable for all. The planned investment in the public transport sector will improve people's quality of life and allow urban and rural areas nationwide to grow and to develop into the future. I am confident that, with these plans, which all contributors today agree are necessary, we will leave a legacy of a much more efficient framework for the provision of public transport in Ireland.

11:52 am

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I thank my colleague, Deputy Pringle, for his work and the work of the staff in his office. He is putting the spotlight on transport and asking us to look at it in a new way as an essential part of the solution to climate change. I welcome that the Government is not opposing the motion. The question, however, is what the Government will do as a result of it. Of course, we have asked that repeatedly. It is not reassuring that there is no Minister, either junior or senior, with responsibility for transport here. Such a presence would be helpful.

We are having this debate in the context of a climate emergency that was declared more than three and a half years ago. The Dáil declared a climate and biodiversity emergency on 9 May 2019. Ireland's emissions have continued to rise, despite the fact that the world is burning. Those words were used by the Minister for Finance at the time of the budget last year. The words were forgotten this year but the planet continues to burn. I may be reading the Minister of State's body language wrong - I am not sure - but the words the Minister used were "the world is burning".

Ireland's emissions continue to rise. There was a 4.7% rise in 2021 compared with 2020. That is according to the EPA, not the radical Deputies on this side of the Dáil coming up with figures out of the sky. Transport emissions accounted for 17.7% of total national greenhouse gas emissions, and road transport accounted for 94% of all transport emissions. We have cited all these figures over and over again. What we want is a complete transformation. I hear the Minister of State's good news and the good news in Galway about BusConnects and so on. What is missing is the realisation that we need urgent transformative action. We cannot continue with the model of consumption we have and the model of trading in the free market we have had. That is carried into aviation and into emissions coming from aeroplanes, in respect of which we have the emissions trading scheme, which allows airlines and countries to barter emissions. Can you imagine? The very system that caused climate change in the first place, the very unregulated market that allowed for endless consumption, is now put into the airlines as part of the solution. It just beggars belief.

Deputy Pringle has given the example of Luxembourg, which works from a free transport system. Has anyone in this Government looked at Luxembourg to see what the good and the bad are in that regard? Has anyone looked at Germany, which has introduced a €9 per month public transport ticket for a limited time? I believe that public transport was overwhelmed with people wanting to use the ticket. Has anyone examined that? Has anybody gone over there on a delegation to see and to learn? What about Malta, which introduced free transport, I understand, on 1 October? Does the Government think we could learn from that? The reason the Government is not doing that is that it wants to continue tinkering with the system as opposed to recognising that this is it and that we have only a tiny window to make the changes. Of all the changes needed, transport is not the easiest, but it is the most tangible area where we can make a difference. Free public transport has to be an aim and a target of the Government. If the Government cannot do it overnight, it has to recognise that it is what we need. The fact that the Government has introduced reduced fares is very welcome, but we see that the people are way ahead of us. They want to use public transport.

I will finish by going back to Galway. I appeal to the Minister of State to take Galway on as a pilot project. It is a beautiful city, with the Corrib river and the sea, and in between we have allowed terrible planning and transport decisions that see our city congested and that are threatening the viability of our industry there. Park-and-ride was put into the city development plan in 2005 but never rolled out. We now have the NTA telling us it is looking at one side of the city. We have children who cannot get on school buses. We are constantly told the figures for children who use school buses but we fail to realise that school buses should be used to their maximum potential to get as many people as possible on them. We have a university in Galway and the residents in Connemara are begging the university to put on a bus in order that the students can get from Cois Fharraige isteach go dtí an ollscoil, agus níl aon duine ag éisteacht leo. This is a positive motion. This is something we can work on together.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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I will sum up the debate. I suppose I could be forgiven for thinking a reshuffle we knew nothing about has taken place and that the Minister for Transport has changed to the Minister of State, Deputy Collins, or the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, because nobody from the Department of Transport seems to have bothered to turn up to this debate, which is telling in itself. If there is a genuine reason a Minister cannot be here for a debate, normally he or she informs you beforehand that something has happened. That has not happened, so it seems the relevant Ministers just did not bother their arses turning up. That shows, maybe, what the Government thinks about transport across the country and about these issues. It probably shows what it thinks about the Opposition. Maybe it shows what it thinks about the Independents as well, but that is a debate for another day. It is disappointing. I know a missive from the Minister for Transport was read out, but it would have been nice if he had actually bothered his arse to turn up.

I have long been raising the issue of rural transport with the Minister and would have liked for him to have heard today's contributions and the support for the motion in the Chamber. It would be nice to get a reply to the emails and correspondence we send him too, but that is probably a bit of a stretch as well at this stage. Although I am glad the motion is not being opposed, it is not good enough for the Government merely not to oppose it. It is imperative that it do all it can to support it, implement it or, at the very least, look into and consider the many benefits of free and accessible public transport. As I said at the beginning of the debate, free and accessible public transport is a single solution to multiple problems. It is a wasted opportunity for the Government not to recognise that.

I understand that most of the concerns on the side of the Government have to do with cost so I will address that. The Government, in focusing on the fear of initial short-term investment, is completely overlooking the long-term financial benefit that free public transport can provide. High transport costs have become a great barrier in our labour market. Commutes take time and money, be they in a car or on fare-based transport. Pursuing free mobility could be a route to generating employment while also ramping up efforts to achieve climate and environmental targets. From a global perspective, the benefits of free public transport are notable. In purely economic terms, the World Bank estimates that a total investment of $4 trillion today in public buses, trains and rail networks would yield annual benefits of $1 trillion all the way up to 2030, totalling a net value of $19.6 trillion. By 2050, scaling up mass transport options would create nearly 12 million decent green jobs. While that example is on a global scale, the same principles hold true and apply at national level. I have received many questions asking, "Why free transport? Why not just ask to extend the services?" The first reason is that this is aimed to be a cost-of-living measure that is permanent and works to improve our citizens' lives in the long run, rather than a once-off payment that does very little to create any change or provide any proper relief for people. The second reason is that we spend little of our budget on public transport. It would cost the State very little to provide a free and extended public transport service. While it would cost little, the benefits would be huge. In the case that the benefits outweigh the cost, we should always act in the interests of our constituents.

The Government very often likes to follow in the footsteps of Europe. This motion gives it the opportunity to do just that. We would not be the first European country to introduce free transport and we certainly would not be the last. Many European cities have implemented fare-free public transport schemes over the past 20 years. A comparison of these schemes shows that there are many differences in their implementation. This reflects the way in which the various municipal authorities have tailored fare-free public transport to the characteristics of each locale, recognising the unique needs of the communities therein. We have the opportunity to evaluate and to consider each of these systems and we should jump at the chance to do so.

The example of Tallinn was mentioned by the Minister of State and others. Tallinn is the 2023 European green capital because it has learned from its teething problems and is currently introducing a systems overhaul to its free transport system, doubling down on its commitment not only to its citizens but to the climate as well. There are lessons we can learn from that.

I want to emphasise that Donegal is at the heart of this motion. I cannot count the number of times I have been contacted by constituents who have been let down and abandoned by public transport in the county. Bus Éireann services are completely unreliable and it worries me deeply to hear of constituents left stranded, with no way home. My community relies heavily on bus services because with no train service at all, we have very little in the way of public transport. The Government's priority should be to ensure a functioning bus service at the very least. Ongoing issues include the constant breakdown of buses with no replacement coaches available and a lack of drivers to run the services. These issues have a huge impact. They can put people's lives in disarray but are easily fixed. I have been contacted by constituents who have missed college, work, matches, concerts, flights and hospital appointments. This is unacceptable and cannot go on.

The motion calls for the provision of more buses, investment in the upgrade of trains and buses and a recruitment campaign for drivers, as well as the creation of permanent contracts for drivers and transport workers. These simple measures would go a long way towards making our transport service reliable. We have so little in the way of facilities and services in County Donegal and the least the Government should do is make sure we have the necessary transport links to access facilities and services elsewhere. We have had enough of being forgotten about and we will not accept it anymore. Perhaps the Minister of State could print off a transcript of the debate and send it to the Minister for Transport.

Question put and agreed to