Wednesday, 27 January 2016
Public Transport Bill 2015: Second Stage
I thank the House for the opportunity to introduce the Public Transport Bill 2015 today. At the outset I emphasise that this is a technical Bill that amends six existing statutes and does not involve any new regulatory policy. It is a short Bill comprising just ten sections, as passed by the Dáil. Broadly speaking, the Bill amends the following Acts: the Dublin Transport Authority Act 2008 to ensure that the National Transport Authority, NTA, has the necessary powers to develop and deliver public transport infrastructure which has been approved for funding; the Taxi Regulation Act 2013 which is primarily to provide for greater precision in the Act on certain provisions and more specific technical enabling powers for regulations made by the National Transport Authority, NTA, under the Act; the Railway Safety Act 2005 to change the name of the Railway Safety Commission to the Commission for Railway Regulation to reflect the broadening of its remit in relation to railway regulation; the Transport (Railway Infrastructure) Act 2001 to provide for certain procedural issues in relation to Transport Infrastructure Ireland's by-law making powers for Luas passenger services; the State Airports Act 2004 to clarify certain provisions relating to fixed payment notice; and the Road Traffic Act 1961 to address an implicit contradiction in its provisions relating to duties on occurrence of an accident as well as an omission relating to disqualification on conviction for hit and run offences.
Before looking at each section in more detail, I emphasise that the amendments proposed are technical in nature and do not involve any new regulatory policy. Section 1 relates to the public transport infrastructure functions of the National Transport Authority. This section provides for the amendment of sections 2 and 44 of the Dublin Transport Authority Act 2008 in relation to the public transport infrastructure functions of the NTA and the insertion of four new sections into the 2008 Act in relation to public passenger transport services. The proposed amendments to the Dublin Transport Authority Act 2008 will ensure that the NTA can develop and deliver public transport infrastructure such as Bus Rapid Transit, BRT, in the event that it is decided to proceed with such infrastructure or other projects such as cycling schemes. Under the capital plan to 2020, funding to support and improve bus services will be an important priority. As well as ensuring a modern efficient fleet, it is essential that the bus routes and supporting infrastructure facilitate the provision of attractive services. In this regard, the proposed amendments will address a constraint in the existing legislation which creates a differentiation between public roads existing before the establishment of the NTA and public roads which were developed after the NTA was established and provide that the NTA would have equivalent vires to provide public transport infrastructure on public roads constructed either before or after the establishment date of the NTA. The purpose of this particular amendment is to ensure that the NTA has the necessary powers to develop and deliver public transport infrastructure which has been approved for funding.
Furthermore, the amendments will clarify that the NTA is required to engage in one statutory approval-permission process for development in accordance with whatever legislation applies to the particular public transport infrastructure development concerned. The objective is to remove an anomaly that would leave the NTA subject to two different and parallel processes. In addition, the proposed amendments will also enable the NTA to make by-laws in respect of public transport passenger services, currently provided by Dublin Bus and Bus Eireann, which will be tendered to commence operations in the latter part of 2016.
Section 2 provides for amendments to the Taxi Regulation Act 2013 to provide for greater precision in the Act relating to certain provisions, more specific technical enabling powers under the Act for regulations made by the NTA and punctuation, textual corrections and refinement. The programme for Government contained the commitment to review and update the regulation of taxis to ensure that taxi drivers are recognised as a key component of the public transport system and to provide for a forum for discussion between the regulatory authorities and taxi providers. The taxi regulation review report of 2011 identified 46 actions to address the key issues in the taxi sector in seven areas, namely, driver licensing, vehicle licensing and standards, accessible services for people with disabilities, compliance and enforcement, consumer and industry assurance, fleet management and rental controls and a rural hackney service to deal with very limited access in rural areas.
The Taxi Regulation Act 2013 was introduced primarily to give legal effect to recommendations of the taxi regulation review report of 2011 relating to increased enforcement measures, including a demerit scheme to deal with recurrent breaches of small public service vehicle, SPSV, regulations, the issue of on-the-spot fines for an increased range of offences and a proportionate system for mandatory disqualification from holding a licence on conviction for a serious criminal offence. The 2013 Act also repealed and replaced the Taxi Regulation Act 2003.The commencement of the 2013 Act and the introduction of new small public service vehicles, SPSV, regulations by the National Transport Authority, NTA, in tandem with that commencement has delivered a significantly greater level of compliance, improved and streamlined the regulatory regime for driver and vehicle licence holders. It has also provided an enhanced degree of professionalism in the industry. Customers of taxi services also benefit from greater transparency and the information available in respect of licensed services. A range of quality of service actions have been initiated which have resulted in a renewed commitment to improve the utilisation of wheelchair-accessible taxis.
The substantive amendments to the Taxi Regulation Act 2013 provided for in the Bill are as follows. There is a substitution of a new definition for dispatch operator to include a service allowing intending passengers to arrange the hire of a SPSV, so as to ensure the applicability of the dispatch operator licensing requirements to technological intermediaries. The amendments will provide that licensing regulations made by the NTA under section 7 may provide for written declarations or undertakings to accompany a licence for a number of specified matters. They will also provide that the licensing authority may only grant a licence to drive an SPSV to a person holding a driving licence to drive such a vehicle, the automatic revocation of such a licence on surrender of the licence by the licence holder to the NTA and that representations and appeal provisions under section 13 will not apply to decisions of the licensing authority to refuse to grant a licence or to revoke or suspend a licence as a result of a vehicle not meeting the required standard for SPSVs under regulations. They will extend the period during which the nominated representative of a deceased licence holder may apply to the NTA for the grant of a licence of the same category from the current three months to nine months after the death of the licence holder. The amendments will provide for the exclusion of the address of the holder of an SPSV licence from the details that must be provided when information is requested by the NTA with regard to a licence on the register of licences and amend the definition of "appropriate court" so as to confer jurisdiction on the Circuit Court for an application under section 30(8) of the 2013 Act by a person to allow him or her to apply for or to continue to hold, as the case may be, a licence notwithstanding a conviction for an offence specified in section 30(3).
Section 3 provides for the substitution of a new section 48 for the existing section 48 of the Taxi Regulation Act 2013, relating to fixed payment notices, primarily to prescribe the period during which payment may be made under the "second payment option". Apart from this change, the substituted section 48 effectively restates the existing section 48 but with greater precision.
Section 4 provides for the change of name of the Railway Safety Commission to the commission for railway regulation and consequential amendments to section 2(1) and section 14(2) of the Railway Safety Act 2005 to reflect its planned designation as the regulatory body under Directive 2012/34/EU establishing a single European railway area to monitor competition in the rail services market. Directive 2012/34/EU requires each member state to designate a regulatory body to monitor competition in the rail services market in the state to ensure non-discriminatory access to railway markets. The regulatory body will have a monitoring function and a role to hear appeals made by railway undertakings and other interested persons. The Railway Safety Commission was established under the Railway Safety Act 2005 to foster and encourage railway safety and to enforce legislation relating to railway safety. It is proposed that the date for the change of name is to be appointed in an order to be made by the Minister.
Section 5 provides for the amendment of section 66, as inserted by section 134 of the Railway Safety Act 2005, of the Transport (Railway Infrastructure) Act 2001, relating to the making of by-laws for railways by Transport Infrastructure Ireland to require that notification regarding the making of by-laws for Luas passenger services and copies of draft and final by-laws be published online.
Section 6 provides for an amendment to section 27 of the State Airports Act 2004 to further facilitate the operation and administration of a fixed payment notice process that applies to alleged offences for contravening a provision of by-laws relating to the parking of vehicles at an airport. Section 7 amends section 27A, inserted by section 51 of the State Airports (Shannon Group) Act 2014, of the State Airports Act 2004 to provide that the fixed payment notice process that applies under that section also applies in respect of alleged offences under section 47 of the State Airports (Shannon Group) Act 2014.
Section 8 is technical amendment of section 106 of the Road Traffic Act 1961, which deals with duties on occurrence of an accident. It was amended in 2014 to introduce new offences for hit-and-run incidents causing death or serious injury. The Attorney General's office has since advised the Department that the amended version of the section contains an implicit contradiction. The new hit-and-run provisions are indictable offences but they come under a section heading referring to summary offences. The Attorney General's advice is that the intention of the law is clear in spite of the error and the Director of Public Prosecutions is continuing to take prosecutions under this legislation. However, it is also the Attorney General's view that the error should be corrected at the earliest available opportunity. Section 8 also provides for an amendment to section 26(3)(b)(i) and Second Schedule of the 1961 Act to rectify an omission when the new hit-and-run provisions were introduced in 2014. When the new hit-and-run provisions were introduced, there should have been an associated amendment to state that there would be a consequential disqualification for those who were convicted under the new provisions. As this was not done at the time, it is provided for now in this section of the Bill.
Section 9 provides for the force of law to be given to the protocol of 3 June 1999 for the modification of the convention concerning international carriage by rail, COTIF, of 9 May 1980. The COTIF convention sets out rules and procedures for international rail travel. Ireland is one of only a small number of members of the organisation yet to fully ratify this convention. This failure to ratify has led to infringement proceedings being taken against us by the European Commission. As a result, and following advice from the Attorney General's office, I have decided that Ireland should expedite the ratification of the convention by means of primary legislation. Irish Rail has been fully consulted on this matter and it should be noted that the enactment of legislation in this area will not have any significant practical impact on rail operators or passengers in the State.
Section 10 is a standard provision setting out the short title and collective citation provisions for the Act.
This is a technical Bill but as is often the case with technical Bills, it is important. I commend the Bill to the House and look forward to Senators' contributions and constructive discussion on this Bill.
I thank Senator Mooney for facilitating this and I apologise to the Minister and Senator O'Neill. I mean no discourtesy to any party. I thank the Minister for his presentation and the many interesting points made. The deadline is because of the need to take a team photograph of the members banking inquiry prior to the presentation of its report at 3 p.m.
There is much to support in the Bill and I will briefly go through some amendments. I will not press them as that would be the height of rudeness towards the House. I will go through the thoughts involved with them.As with yesterday, I wish we were some months away from dissolution and we could go through some of these things and see whether we could tease out anything worthwhile. I again thank the House for facilitating this. I gather that all Stages will be taken today. I will not be moving mine at any later stage as we did yesterday so I hope the Minister will be able to leave the House as he wishes.
Is it possible for the NTA to be the regulatory body? It regulates buses. Could it take over the functions referred to by the Minister relating to railways? In respect of the deletion of the section referred to by the Minister relating to the NTA and rail passenger services, including light rail and metro, I would make it more comprehensive. Does it have advantages in terms of reducing the number of quangos and getting better administrative fit? The Minister is a far better judge of that than I am.
St. Stephen's Green received a Green Flag award. The Green Flag is an international scheme that promotes the highest standards in parks and green spaces and the OPW is very proud of it. I was seeking to repeal a section of the Dublin Transport Authority Act 2008 which allows access to St. Stephen's Green. Can St. Stephen's Green be protected given how much we value it as a wonderful neighbourhood facility and how much the OPW has put into it? Does it need protection? The original protection was from 1877 when the Guinness family donated it to the city. Those protections were reduced in 2008. Happily, nothing has happened. It is as beautiful as ever but do we need to retain those protections?
Dispatch operations are in the world of Uber and Halo and so on. Do we need to be involved in the regulation of that? In respect of small public service vehicles, I understand that the application for a licence must be accompanied by a written declaration by the applicant for the licence concerning the roadworthiness of the vehicle and compliance with vehicle standards specified in the small public service vehicle regulations. Is it necessary to have confirmation of that if somebody says they are compliant or is the documentation required to prove compliance? Is there a full stop or comma in the wrong place that makes it implicit that they sign their application but they also independently provide advice rather than self-assessment? If that strengthens things, I will leave it with the Minister for his consideration.
We discussed safety yesterday with many contributions from all sides. Should all safety be looked after by one safety organisation? Rather than retaining the Railway Safety Commission and adding an economic function, why not put the economic function into the NTA and put the safety function in with road safety? Rail represents probably about 2% or 3% of passenger movements in the country. I think we have a budget of approximately €15 million or €16 million, which is far higher than its proportion of traffic. Is safety an activity we could conduct under one body or two?
I apologise to the House for being rushed but if those contributions are of use to the Minister and other Senators, that is the spirit in which they are offered. When one is on a committee investigating a €64 billion banking bailout, transport problems seem quite solvable and manageable so I wish the rest of the House every success in doing so.
The Minister is very welcome to the House. As he stated, the Public Transport Bill 2015 is a technical Bill and does not involve any regulatory policy but we must pass these things through the Houses. Section 1 amends the Dublin Transport Authority Act. It aims to ensure that the NTA has the necessary powers to develop and deliver public transport infrastructure that has been approved for funding. It is envisaged that €884 million will be invested in public transport from 2013 to 2018. The economy is picking up and if the Minister is still in office, he would like to see that funding increased. It is important that we continue to improve our public transport, particularly as our economy grows and more cars come on the roads. We need a new policy to improve the structure because people do not want to be stuck in traffic jams in the morning so public transport is the only way.
Will this Bill give the NTA the powers to bring in a by-law involving congestion charges in Dublin city or Cork city? In respect of planning, people say it takes too long in this country to provide infrastructure and that we must go through too many hoops. I see this Bill clarifies that where the NTA is required to seek statutory planning approval from An Bord Pleanála for a particular development, it does not also have to engage in a similar process with the relevant local authorities. Is it true that local authorities will be bypassed and the NTA will go straight to An Bord Pleanála in respect of the provision of major infrastructure?
Other parts of the Bill concern rapid bus routes. I see that €650 million could be spent on rapid bus routes from Swords to the airport to the city centre, from Blanchardstown to UCD and from Clongriffin to Tallaght. This is another way we can improve our public transport. It is a good idea if we can put in proper bus routes that allow people to move around quickly rather than putting in light rail.
In respect of tax regulation, much of it concerns safety and the safety of passengers. The fixed charge offences will be implemented immediately. A taxi can be put off the road for offences. If I went in with my car for an NCT as a private individual and there was a missing light bulb, a tyre was slightly worn or something small was faulty, I would not pass my NCT. What must be wrong with a vehicle for it to be failed immediately and put off the road? It is important that we have confidence. People cannot be driving vehicles that are defective, particularly in the public transport sector. How serious must a defect be before a vehicle will be put off the road and the person goes through the appeals process?
The Bill provides for an amendment to the Railway Safety Act 2005 to change the name of the Railway Safety Commission to the Commission for Railway Regulation to reflect the broader remit relating to railway regulation. We have always said that our rail system is underused and many people find that it is too expensive. People can get good value on our rail system with on-line ticketing. As people look more to public transport and the Government tries to encourage them to do this, there will be more value in booking tickets.
The Bill amends the State Airports Act 2014 to clarify certain provisions relating to fixed payment notices. It seems that airports are not complying with certain by-laws and this will bring certain by-laws into it. This provision relates to the parking of vehicles, which I presume are cars and that Ryanair or Aer Lingus aeroplanes will be clamped in the area. A fixed charge can be implemented.
The Bill amends the Road Traffic Act 1961. I see that the Attorney General has some concern about provisions relating to hit and run incidents.The Attorney General's advice is that the intention of the law is clear in spite of the error, and the DPP is continuing to take prosecutions under this legislation. However, it is also the Attorney General's view that the error should be corrected at the earliest available opportunity. I presume that the Minister or the next Government will try to correct that matter in the next Dáil and Seanad session. We need by-laws, in particular to deal with incidents of hit and run. Over the past year people have been seriously injured and killed in hit and run incidents. It is important that the law stipulates that there is an immediate disqualification from driving if one leaves the scene of an accident.
I commend the Minister on bringing forward this Bill. The Government is running out of time but this Bill will come into law very soon as it has gone through the Dáil. I hope that it passes through this House today. The Minister has been in here for the past few days which shows how progressive a Minister he has been in the transport area. I wish him the best over the next month and hope to see him back here with the same brief.
I welcome the Minister back to the House and concur with all of the remarks made by Senator O'Neill in his respect.
Fianna Fáil supports the passage of this Bill, particularly the introduction of harsher sentences for hit and run offences. We introduced our road traffic Bill 2013 prior to the Minister taking over his brief but I am sure he is familiar with our legislation. We believe our legislation provided the impetus for the introduction of today's legislation because it sought to crack down on hit and run drivers by introducing a tougher penalties regime and extending the power of arrest by the Garda.
While we welcomed the Government's acceptance of our key recommendations on tougher sentences for persons convicted of hit and run offences, we were disappointed with its refusal to grant additional powers to the Garda to test individuals suspected of a hit and run offence for alcohol intoxication for up to 24 hours, citing legal investigation barriers. Perhaps the Minister has a view on this. Perhaps some of the legislation that we have talked about in recent times will address the matter. For example, we have recently introduced drug testing. If a lacuna exists then we urge the Government to reconsider as the law incentivises persons involved in a traffic accident to flee the scene of an accident to avoid being tested for alcohol intoxication. I thought that loophole was closed. I thought there was a time when one could refuse to be tested and leave the scene of the accident. I raise the issue because I would like to hear the Minister's view.
I agree with the Minister when he said: "This is a technical Bill but as is often the case with technical Bills, it is an important one." However, the devil is in the detail. I shall refer to the transfer or change of name for railways but must first get all of my ducks in a row. I welcome the changing of the name of the Railway Safety Commission to the commission for railway regulation because it reflects the broadening of its remit in terms of railway regulation.
I also welcome the Minister's commitment to provide Metro North. He has a particular interest in the project because it would pass through his constituency. I shall outline the only thing that disappointed me about the project of which I have been a great supporter and will talk about the economic argument in a minute. I could never quite understand why the last Government and this one never grasped the nettle when it came to this project. Dublin is the only major capital city in Europe that does not have a direct rail link to an airport so it is quite astonishing that we have done so well in terms of the number of visitors to the country. Dublin Airport has had a massive increase in passenger numbers in the past year. Unfortunately, it is still difficult to reach Dublin Airport despite the availability of alternative modes of transport such as taxis, private cars and buses run by various operators.
I am a huge supporter of railways and if I had been a Minister for transport I would have moved might and main to find some way to provide a railway link to the airport. I know it is not an easy job to do. There is a commitment to provide the link in 2017. That seems like a lifetime away and goodness knows what the economic conditions will be like in the intervening years. Perhaps the Minister will be re-elected. Maybe I should say that when he gets back in and is appointed to a powerful Cabinet position, I would urge him to seek an earlier completion date and for the project to be given greater priority. Not only will the rail link - and I particularly refer to the intervening stops along the route in north Dublin and areas such as Ballymun which has been economically downgraded - prove to be economically efficient and beneficial, it will also act as an economic stimulus. The Minister knows all of the arguments in favour of the project. I am sorry for going on about it but I had to avail of this opportunity to nail my own colours to the mast. I am a big supporter of Metro North and the sooner it happens, the better.
In the context of changes to disability access in taxis, I read an article on the subject that was published in one of the national newspapers last week. I am sorry that I did not cut out the article and take it with me to discuss here. On reading the article two things struck me. First, the individual who wrote the article is a wheelchair user. In her article she was highly critical of the lack of access on trains for wheelchair users. I use the train whenever I can and I thought that there was wheelchair provision given that we have a modern fleet. I thought further about the matter and realised that a wheelchair user would need help to get on and off a train due to the way that railway platforms and trains are configured. I sometimes use the DART to travel to and from Connolly Station. I have noticed that on arrival at the station one is immediately advised to mind the gap between the platform and the trains. I can confirm that it is a big gap even for an able-bodied person. Does the Minister have a view on the matter? Can something be done to improve wheelchair access? The author of the article also made the point that disabled people could not use their social security or protection card to get through the barriers. I found her assertion strange because I have seen people use their cards to get through the barriers. I am sorry that I do not have the newspaper article with me. I do not want to lead the House astray on the matter but the author did say something about travel cards not working for disabled people who want to use the rail network.
In the context of taxis, I welcome the section mentioned by the Minister. I have read his statement twice but please correct me if I am wrong in my interpretation. I have deduced from reading his statement that if a taxi is not up to the standards required under the regulations and a person's licence is refused then there is no right of appeal. That provision is right. A taxi should be compliant and it is either roadworthy or it is not. This is a black and white issue. Like the Minister and many of my colleagues here, I regularly use taxis to get around this city. I have found that the overall standard of taxis is pretty good and I believe that they have improved a great deal over the past number of years.
Another hobby horse of mine is the introduction of a standardised taxi for Dublin. I remember that the late Séamus Brennan, who was the Minister for Transport when the first legislation on taxi regulation was introduced in the early 2000s, toyed with the idea of having a standardised taxi for Dublin city similar to the world renowned London taxi but his idea withered on the vine. It is a pity that we do not have a more distinguished and distinctive taxi for Dublin city, using either colour or a particular model of vehicle, like many European cities. Obviously a cost would be involved. I have often wondered if the current Minister has given any thought to the idea. A London style taxi is wonderful but expensive. There are a couple of London taxis located around this city but not many. In the context of the standardisation of vehicles, apart from the maintenance and condition of vehicles, the establishment of a Dublin taxi could be considered by the Department and rolled out at some stage. The initiative would add to the identity of this city. The same could be done for the cities of Cork and Limerick but a pilot project could be rolled out in Dublin. Since the taxi industry has been deregulated taxis now come in all shapes and sizes.
Another aspect of the Bill that I am interested in relates to the changes to the airport parking regulations. Section 6 of the Bill deals with fixed payment notices at airports.Section 7 sets out a declaration, which states:
Section 27A (inserted by section 51 of the State Airports (Shannon Group) Act 2014) of the State Airports Act 2004 is amended in subsection (1) by inserting "or an offence under section 47(4) of the State Airports (Shannon Group) Act 2014 for a contravention of subsection (1)(a) of that section where the person in apparent control of the vehicle concerned allegedly leaves the vehicle or the vicinity of the vehicle," after "relating to the parking of the vehicle at the airport".
In other words, the declaration states that up to now - please correct or clarify this for me - if a person drives to the airport to drop off or collect somebody and leaves the vehicle, it is not a statutory offence. It is now being introduced that if a person leaves the vehicle it is an offence and he or she can be fined. That is Big Brother government. Most people comply, and there are people on duty at Dublin Airport who move the traffic along. However, there are circumstances where people, particularly but not exclusively people coming from the country, may have travelled a long journey to collect somebody and they are the only driver and the person to be collected is not yet in the arrivals hall. There is plenty of space to drop off and collect people, which is great, but there needs to be some flexibility built into the system. That flexibility is currently provided for because I put my hands up and say that I have left my vehicle for about two minutes to dash into the arrivals hall to identify somebody and bring him or her out, but under this new proposal that will change. It will mean that drivers can now get a fixed penalty. They will now be fined. It is a petty. What has motivated it? Did it arise from experience of operational procedures at the airports? It applies to what is termed "State Airports" so it will apply to all of the State airports, namely, Dublin, Cork and Shannon.
Has there been any change with regard to the fixed payments, and this again applies to public service vehicles? It does not seem to be in the Bill or in the wider Road Transport Bill. The Minister knows that people who have been prosecuted for parking a car illegally have come before the courts and said that they never received notice of the fine. The issue seems to be proof of postage of the notice of the fine, but the Bill does not address that issue of those who say they never got notice of a fine. As the Minister knows, proposals have been made that notices of fines should be sent by registered post because the system is being flouted, and there is no question about that. I am a little irritated by the fact that when I get a fine I pay it, and then I find that somebody will go to the courts and say they never got it. Most judges will throw the case out because there is no proof that a person received notice of the fine. I refer to fixed payments only in the context of their application to taxis. I think I am right that the same principle would possibly apply here, so the Minister may have a view on that.
I again welcome the Minister to the House. As he said, this is a technical bill, and both of my colleagues here have raised the areas of contention, which I will not go back over. I wish to mention a related matter, and it is not my provisional licence issue, which I have raised on numerous occasions with the Minister. I happened to be in the home of a hackney driver last week. I noticed that on his mantelpiece he had a large amount of envelopes and he told me what they were. He works with a hackney company and every time he goes on a shift he gets a letter from the National Transport Authority, NTA, to say that he is on duty, and when he clocks off he gets another letter from them to say that he clocked off. Therefore, if he has four shifts of hackney driving for the week, he gets eight letters, and if he has five shifts, he gets ten it acknowledged that he was going on duty, and likewise, when he was finished, he sent a text message and it again acknowledged it. It seems, considering the amount of hackney drivers there are, that thousands of these letters are going out every week, and I wonder about the cost factor, and why it is necessary.
Cuirim céad fáilte roimh an Aire. Ní minic a bhímid ag caint lena chéile anseo, but it is pleasure to be here. I do not normally take the transport brief but I look forward to raising a few points with the Minister. This is a mainly technical Bill dealing with a number of technical aspects with which we do not have any great issues, but I wish to use the opportunity to raise a number of other issues regarding transport.
At present the public transport services owned by the State are CIE, Bus Éireann, Dublin Bus and Iarnród Éireann. These companies have struggled through and survived the worst of the economic downturn but they now face many new challenges. Some of these challenges are positive. For instance, it is important that public transport companies are challenged by their service users to become more accessible, intuitive and reliable through the use of innovation and technology. Despite a slow lead-in in the past few years, these companies have embraced the use of technology to make their services better. Very few Dubliners under a certain age do not have the Dublin Bus app on their telephone or a Leap card in their wallet, and most people have used online features provided by Bus Éireann and Irish Rail. The one failing we see is in the integrated information apps developed by Transport for Ireland, which feel like something created by someone who has never had to depend on public transport in Ireland. Most people to whom I have spoken about these integrated apps have said they are not worth attempting to use. Bizarrely, there are two apps provided by Transport for Ireland rather than one integrated app combining real-time information with journey planning. The addition of the recent mobile top-up for Leap is welcome, but I have heard that many people have installation problems after card details are put in.
High fuel costs are being tackled to a degree by the use of other fuel sources and technological innovations in vehicles but more could be done. Public transport could be given a proper fuel rebate, for instance. A major challenge is the Government's attack on the pillars of Irish public transport. Subsidy for public transport, which was already far too low compared to other European states, has been cut by over 20%. Rubbing salt into this wound, the Government has aggressively sought to undermine public transport companies by ignoring the concerns of workers and putting in motion a privatisation plan which will act as a thin end of the wedge. Fine Gael and Labour have now driven through their privatisation agenda by planning the tendering to private companies of 10% of public bus routes and 100% of Bus Éireann routes in Waterford. This will not happen for some time but already it has damaged public transport provision. Earlier this year Bus Éireann began the process of removing some routes which received no subsidy from the State but were important in linking rural communities. It did this because the company is attempting to streamline its services as much as possible so as to protect its public service obligation, PSO, routes from going into private hands in the coming years. Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus know that the loss of one subsidised route will endanger another route and that with every route lost-----
In fairness, other Senators before me have made general statements on public transport. If the Chair wishes I will turn to specifics regarding taxi drivers where many issues have been raised. Particularly in Galway the ongoing issues of decals and older cars have been raised with me. Senator Mooney has correctly noticed some of the wonderful cars in New York and London, the black cabs, etc., many of which are more than ten years old, whereas we have gone to a regime whereby cars of a certain age are decommissioned. I know some people who had very good-quality, high-end taxis, for example, BMWs or Mercedes, and who have had to trade them in because of the new regulations. The cars were passing all the tests so the drivers felt that this was a very strange thing to have to do. They also find that decals are making them a target when they leave the cars at home at night. There is the issue of them being a target for burglary, but also where somebody is dependent on the car for private use, he or she cannot have a dual use. It has to be only a taxi. I have been given the example of the wife of a taxi driver wanting to take the car to do the shopping, but the car is then seen as a taxi and she is given hassle in shopping centres. This is a very practical issue.
A more serious issue in Galway concerns regulations. These appear to be applied on a nine-to-five basis whereas most of the infringements by taxi drivers who are not playing by the rules happen after hours.It is difficult to get the regulator to deal with issues such as taxis pulling up outside pubs where there is no official rank; drivers jumping rank and vehicles being driven by people who should not be driving them. These are the types of issue that are being raised with me on a continual basis. While I had hoped these issues would be addressed in the context of this legislation, that does not appear to be the case.
We welcome the new fixed payment notice charges. We need to ensure that in regulating taxi drivers, punishing wrongdoing and upholding standards we do not mistreat a group of hard working people who are trying to make a living and contributing to the public transport network with good levels of efficiency. The recent removal across the State of taxi ranks and the failure to provide alternatives are not acceptable. We need taxis in towns and cities and drivers to be able to ply for hire at ranks. Construction work is part of a living, breathing city, but drivers have been uprooted by these works without much consideration being given to their needs in providing a service. We need ranks for taxi drivers and where the customers are. I understand this is often the role of the local authority, but it is not always easy for councils to respond in situations where there are such major works.
The regulation and vetting of taxi drivers are essential in the development of a strong, safe service for the public. However, while regulation is an obvious necessity, we must ensure it does not take place unfairly and impact unjustly on hard-working people who are trying to make a living. On the utterly discriminatory attacks on the livelihoods of taxi drivers convicted of offences related to the conflict in the northern part of the country which raged from the 1960s to 2005, I remind the Government that under the Good Friday Agreement, republican and loyalist former prisoners are not to be discriminated against or barred from employment, yet the Bill seeks to do just that. Drivers who have worked for decades, contributed to the State and provided a quality service without a problem have recently received letters informing them that they will not be allowed to renew their licences. Sinn Féin will be working with such drivers to challenge this disproportionate attack on their right to make a living.
The Rail Safety Act 2005 makes reference to fostering greater competition. We struggle to imagine how, in practical terms, various private railway companies operating on the same railway lines will improve efficiency. Perhaps the Minister might comment on this issue. This practice evades the innate practical advantage that is a natural monopoly. Sinn Féin believes competition should not be the absolute priority as a means of achieving high quality transport services, as it does not. Instead, the focus ought to be on the reliability of provision and price stability. The only competition should be between public transport services competing with private cars as the best way to commute and socialise.
I would welcome the Minister's thoughts on the many issues I have raised, particularly those to do with the taxi industry.
I thank all Senators for highlighting the many issues that have been raised. Given the broad range of areas covered by the Bill, unsurprisingly a breadth of matters have been raised by each of the Senators who have spoken. I will try to respond to each of their queries in turn.
Senator Sean D. Barrett spoke about the role of the National Transport Authority, NTA, and asked whether it might take on the role of regulatory body in respect of rail services. I understand the Senator has tabled a number of amendments to provide for this, but he may not now get an opportunity to move them. He makes the point that because the NTA is the regulatory body for other forms of transport, it would be appropriate for it to also perform that role in relation to the rail market. That is not an approach that would be possible to take to the rail market in Ireland or more broadly, the reason being that under recent European Union regulations, each member state is required to have a single independent body with a regulatory function in relation to rail services. We believe it is appropriate that this role be discharged by the Railway Safety Commission which I am satisfied has the expertise and ability to perform the function.
Senator Sean D. Barrett also spoke about the impact of a potential metro project on St. Stephen's Green. The Senator has long been voicing his concern in that regard. I remain confident that when the project moves through the planning process, many of the matters raised by the Senator will be dealt with. He also raised the more broader issue of the need for regulation in dispatch services within Ireland. I am strongly of the view that there is such a need. I do not believe competition and regulation are in any way incompatible. Many of the operators involved in providing these services within Ireland accept regulation and understand it has a role to play in the provision of a better service for their consumers, while ensuring their industry is on a sustainable and firm footing.
Senator Pat O'Neill made a number of points about the Bill and broader transport policy. He referenced the fact that funding for public transport infrastructure was due to increase in the coming years under the Government's capital plan. As a result of the current growth and change in the economy, the Government is able to fund this infrastructure. Its availability will, in turn, facilitate more sustainable growth into the future. On the Senator's question about planning applications and where they should be lodged, it is very much dependent on the nature of the planning application being made. A planning application that falls under the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act should be lodged directly with An Bord Pleanála, while planning applications for many other forms of transport infrastructure should be lodged with the relevant local authority.
Senator Pat O'Neill also spoke about changes in technology and the increased number of bookings made online via devices and Apps. The Bill seeks to ensure we will have in place a comprehensive definition of dispatch operations to reflect in law the type of change taking place in the provision of dispatch services within Ireland.
Senator Paschal Mooney touched on a number of points about the Bill. He also articulated his support for the metro project and asked what could be done to enable it to commence sooner. Provision is made in the capital plan, as drafted, for an interim review such that if the economy were to improve further, particular infrastructural projects could be reviewed and, I hope, brought forward. However, this is dependent on what happens in the economy and the Government of the day. The speedy delivery of the metro project is exceptionally important. The Senator is correct in saying it is likely that the project, as planned, will not be open for use by commuters until approximately 2026.
Only a relatively small portion of the timeframe involved is related to the availability of funding to the Exchequer. Much of it is driven by how much time it will take to construct a railway order, the understandable work that will need to be done in the lodging of that order with An Bord Pleanála and how much time it will take the board to consider it. The procurement process will take some time to complete owing to the magnitude of the project. All of this must happen before the commencement of construction. In this regard, I have previously used the analogy of the expansion of the Luas to Phibsborough and Cabra and the linking of the Red and Green lines which, by the standards of Luas, is a substantial project. In comparison with other public transport projects across Europe and elsewhere it would only be a medium-sized project, but the timeframe involved, in terms of the decision-making process to allow the project to commence and become operational, is four or five years.The metro project is many magnitudes larger than that. I have always acknowledged that it will take a long time for that to be built. I hope it will be an option for the next Government, when the capital plan is being reviewed, to look at how that project and other projects could be brought forward or changed to reflect the demand we know is there for them.
Reference was made to disability access on trains. I am very much aware of disability access across all forms of public transport and, to digress slightly, I am very pleased with a recent decision I made to make more funding available to Bus Éireann to allow it to acquire more coaches, so that all its coaches will be fully wheelchair accessible. Much work is being done on how we can make our entire coach and bus fleet as wheelchair accessible as possible and Dublin Bus has already done tremendous work in this area.
With regard to airports and the change planned there, I acknowledge the concerns on the application of that policy. The main reason it is being brought forward is because of how busy our airports have become - Dublin Airport is case in point - and it is appropriate, in some circumstances, to have the ability to issue a fixed charge notice.
In regard to uniformity of taxi vehicles, as is the case of London and New York, because we have organised the availability of transport, in terms of taxis, through private vehicles for so long, that is probably not something we will be able to do at any point in the foreseeable future. However, the uniform branding, the decals and some of the points raised are an important step towards making our taxis more recognisable by the public. I agree that the quality of the service available has massively improved in recent years.
Senator Kelly referred to letters he saw in his colleague's home. I have been getting some information on this but perhaps we will get more information from the Senator on the issue after the debate or during Committee Stage. The NTA has launched an online service for small public service vehicle, SPSV, users which we believe deals with the need for hackney service drivers to be able to register, in a convenient manner, when they are on duty and for the service they provide. It is online through a website. An app and the text service, to which the Senator referred, are available as well as an information telephone line. During the debate on the Bill, perhaps the Senator will respond back to what I have said in case there is any change.
I will now respond to Senator Ó Clochartaigh's broad points. He referred to all the changes happening with regard to technology and the use of public transport. Ireland was behind the curve on this for a number of years but we have made a fair bit of progress in recent years. More than one million Leap cards are being used and progress has been made in the past 18 months in the roll-out of the Leap card well beyond Dublin. The card is available in many cities across the country. My objective is to extend the card nationwide in the next few years. It will be especially important for Bus Éireann and Irish Rail services that the Leap card will be applicable everywhere. It will be of particular value to be able to use a Leap card when using the Bus Éireann services anywhere in the country. This will be an important improvement beyond where we are now.
The Senator is correct that there has been a reduction in PSO funding. However, over the past year, the level of funding has been rebuilt from approximately €200 million with an increase of €28 million on top of that. Nearly one third of all the cuts have now been rebuilt over the space of budget 2015. I made the decision on the funding change in recognition of the fact that I want more bus services available across the year and in order for that to happen, additional PSO will be required.
On the privatisation of 10% of routes, which has been debated in the House for many years, I am sure I will not be able to change the Senator's mind today. However, those routes have gone out to tender. It is open to Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann to tender to win those routes they are currently operating. That process is under way. Those new services will be operational from the end of 2016.
Concerns were raised by constituents about decals and it is a point also raised by my constituents. However, one of the reasons this is a good change is that while vehicles are privately registered and privately owned, they are providing, and are licensed to provide, a public service. It is important to brand the vehicles in order to make it clear they are providing a public service. It also indicates the expectations people might have regarding the level of service, the quality and cleanliness of the vehicles and so on. There have been huge improvements in that aspect in recent years.
It is correct that because of the construction of the Luas cross-city project, there has been a reduction in the number of taxi ranks and a change in their locations. I accept that this situation has been a cause of dissatisfaction to many in the taxi industry but it is our objective, when Luas cross-city is operational, that there will be an expansion in the number of taxi ranks available in the city. The National Transport Authority has worked with the taxi industry on this.
I will conclude with the potential privatisation of rail services. I have made the point publically, and to the European Commission, that due to the small size of our railway market, the mandatory tendering that may apply to other European rail markets do not apply in Ireland. We only have a single rail network in the State and the interoperability between our rail network and other rail networks is quite limited and is confined to Northern Ireland, in particular, the Dublin-Belfast service. The situation would be completely different if we were located elsewhere in Europe where national rail markets interchange at many different points at borders with neighbouring countries. It is different for Ireland and this has been recognised by the European Commission in its recent decision on the fourth railway package now being reviewed and discussed in the European Parliament. I think I have addressed all the points Senators put to me. As I said in my opening contribution, this is very much a technical Bill that covers many different aspects of road traffic and public transport legislation. In many areas we are looking to make some progress.
I have just been reminded that I did not address the point Senator Mooney made about the Bill Deputy Dooley introduced in the Dáil to create a hit-and-run offence. We dealt with some of the Deputy's proposals under the Road Traffic Act 2014. I should have said that a proposal Deputy Dooley made in the Dáil regarding not having the home address of drivers who are registered made public has been incorporated into the Bill. I should have acknowledged that when I introduced the Bill in the Seanad.
The Senator asked whether it would be possible for specimens to be tested up to 24 hours after the incident took place. The advice we received from the Medical Bureau of Road Safety was that it would not be advisable to extend the time for taking specimens to test for intoxication because it might be very difficult to correlate the result with the time at which the incident took place.
If I have missed any points Senators raised, there will be an opportunity to address them later.
I asked the Minister if the NTA would have the power to introduce by-laws for congestion charges. Section 2(h) proposes to insert a subsection (15) into section 13, which would immediately revoke or suspend a licence where a vehicle fails a vehicle standards inspection test. The effect of this would be that the vehicle that fails a vehicle standards inspection test cannot be used as an SPSV during that appeal period. I asked how defective a vehicle must be before it is failed. I trust it will not be over a lightbulb or something like that.
The Senator asked if the legislative basis for congestion charge already exists. This Bill does not create the ability to do it. Most of the discussion on congestion charging and multi-point tolling focuses on the M50. I have said that until we substantially expand our public transport capacity, we would not be in favour of changing that and introducing a new tolling regime. Given that, I have not made any provision on that area in the Bill.
The Senator asked what could cause a vehicle to fail its NCT. It could well be a lightbulb. The NCT requires that a vehicle meets a variety of requirements in order to qualify for a certificate. The change to the appeals mechanism over NCT certificates was mentioned earlier. The Bill makes a change in that regard. It became apparent to the NTA under the operation of the current regime that were a vehicle to fail, the licence would still be valid during the period in which the appeal would take place. Such a vehicle should not be on the road because it has failed its NCT. If during the period of appeal the vehicle is still on the road, that is clearly a problem. The Bill changes that appeal mechanism.