Wednesday, 3 October 2012
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this issue because the timing is important. Behind the motion lies a very real concern about the effect on people in various parts of the country of a decision taken by Bus Éireann a number of weeks ago, which only came into the public domain in the last week to ten days. The company intends to reduce the amount of accessible bus stops across a variety of Expressway routes in Ireland. It is doing this because the Expressway service is not subsidised, which I ask the Minister to explain. I thought the general subsidy to Bus Éireann covered all of its services. The company has said it does not and, consequently, it is competing with private operators and needs to make its services more efficient.
As a result of the elimination of bus stops along the Expressway routes, which had been serving, admittedly, a small number of people, such people are now going to be denied access to the service. These people are primarily in the lower socio-economic groups and are mostly elderly people who rely on public transport. I have heard reports about people in County Wicklow who will now have to walk over a mile to get a bus. That is not acceptable. In my own part of the country, the matter was brought to my attention by a local councillor, Mr. Seán McGowan, who lives between the villages of Dromod and Rooskey on the N4. A number of passengers were being collected and alighting from the Expressway service there and had come to rely on it. Now they are going to be denied that service. The argument is that there is an Iarnród Éireann station at Dromod which they can access but it is a matter for speculation as to whether such changes will make the route more efficient. Councillor McGowan has argued at council level and in the local media that the amount of time saved as a result of coming off the N4 to pick up and drop off passengers would be minimal. He has also proposed that of the five services a day that are on the N4 between Sligo and Dublin, one in the morning and one in the evening could be retained.
However, this is a policy issue and not just a question of efficiency. Such is the concern that this morning at the meeting of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications, all committee members, of all parties and none, unanimously agreed that a letter would be sent to Mr. Martin Nolan, the CEO of Bus Éireann, asking that the company suspend the implementation of its amended timetable, which is due to be introduced on 7 October, until a representative comes before the committee to explain and justify the company's actions. The committee also agreed to communicate with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport on the matter.
I am highlighting this issue, which is predominantly a rural one. When I say rural, I mean non-Dublin because the Expressway service goes into all of the major cities in the country. I raise the matter to highlight it and also to try to ascertain the view of the Minister. I assume the Minister is aware of the issue and I wish to know what steps, if any, he has taken to convey to the board and management of Bus Éireann the concerns that have been expressed to him by Deputies and Senators of all parties.
I thank the Senator for raising this matter and note that the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications discussed the issue this morning. As I come from the poor end of County Meath, namely, the Kells district, where there are more roads than in the rest of the county, I know what the Senator is talking about with regard to people being isolated. What amazes me is the fact that in places like north Meath, Cavan and elsewhere, buses are going up and down the road with only one or two people on them. Departments must work together and companies, whether they be public or private, will have to start working together. That said, people do need a bus service and I appreciate where the Senator is coming from.
I am taking this Adjournment debate on behalf of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, who is out of the country on official business. It must be stated that the Minister has no personal or ministerial power when it comes to bus routes and route frequencies operated by Bus Éireann. The provision of bus services and the routes they take are operational matters for the company, in conjunction with the National Transport Authority, NTA. However, as the Government is the sole shareholder in the CIE companies, the redesign of this and other Bus Éireann routes is something that the Minister is aware of and he has made inquiries with the company on the matter.
It should be noted that Bus Éireann operates a mix of services. It operates the school transport programme for the Department of Education and Skills. Furthermore, along with the other two CIE companies, it has the contract to 2014 from the NTA to run the public service obligation transport network. In return for this contract, the CIE companies receive a subvention known as the public service obligation, PSO, payment. This payment is so that Bus Éireann can provide important and necessary bus services that would otherwise not be viable.
In addition to the above, Bus Éireann also operates commercial services. These commercial services are in competition with private operators and do not form part of the PSO network. Bus Éireann does not receive a subsidy, either directly or indirectly, for these commercial services. Bus Éireann's inter-urban bus services, known as Expressway, are part of these commercial services. Unfortunately, the Expressway services were not as direct as their competitors. The recession has had a very big impact on the company in terms of a reduction in both revenue and passenger numbers. Also, new and better motorway infrastructure has played its part in changing the expectations of the customers on Expressway routes. Therefore, to gain competitiveness, Bus Éireann has had to redesign its Expressway service to make it more attractive to consumers. The Minister appreciates that changes to the bus services will inconvenience some passengers. However, given the financial position that Bus Éireann and the CIE companies find themselves in, there is no alternative for the companies but to ensure that commercial services operate on a commercial footing and that, unfortunately, limits their scope for changing the services.
More broadly, rural transport is a critical component of public transport services and it is vital for the development of a fully inclusive society, both from a social and economic perspective. In January last, the Government approved new arrangements for the development and implementation of integrated local and rural transport services. It was decided that the NTA would be assigned national responsibility for local and rural transport services integration, including the rural transport programme, RTP, and this has been effective since 1 April 2012.
This new role for the NTA, coupled with its existing national remit for securing the provision of public passenger transport services, will enable the development of better links between local and rural services and scheduled bus and rail services. This is something which is fundamental to a wholly integrated transport network. Local integration working groups have been established in some areas, while in others, RTP groups have been working informally with potential partners to identify transport integration opportunities. Work has commenced on the inclusion of the RTP services in the national journey planner and the inclusion of RTP and school transport services in reviews of public transport services being undertaken by the NTA in the south eastern regional authority areas, the Border, midland and west area and the south and mid-west area. Consideration of RTP services in these reviews will serve to highlight transport needs and offer opportunities for integration.
The integration process is set to achieve the efficiencies required in the face of the country's challenging fiscal climate. Some of the challenges are complex, involve multiple players and give rise to matters not always within our control. Integration can deliver a more complete and effective transport service in local and rural areas which will be better at meeting the transport demands of all users. The Minister acknowledges the concerns expressed regarding the impact on certain passengers of the redesign of Expressway routes and has asked the chief executive of Bus Éireann to brief Oireachtas Members on the changes to services in the north west. He will also ask the NTA to take account of locations which will no longer be served by commercial services in its ongoing reviews of public service obligations. It should be noted that future cuts to the level of subvention for public service obligation public transport will, however, limit the scope for the addition of new services.
I am grateful for the comprehensive reply given by the Minister of State and acknowledge that the Minister, Deputy Leo Varadkar, is not only aware of the issues arising but has also been proactive in addressing them. I hope the NTA will now consider the revised arrangements with a view to integrating rural transport services for those who are going to be denied access to public transport. The changes will primarily affect those who are most vulnerable and do not have access to private transport. From that point of view, I am grateful that there may be some hope of alleviating the pressure on them.
The Senator referred to the Oireachtas committee that met this morning. Sometimes I find Oireachtas committees to be more powerful than the main Chambers. I would like to think the Senator's request will be considered, as there are too many empty buses on the road, like the milk lorries in our area several years ago when five milk lorries from five companies could have been travelling along the same route. It does not make sense. It is a question of co-operation and making the best use of the money available.