Wednesday, 27 January 2016
Public Transport Bill 2015: Committee and Remaining Stages
I have a question on public transport and the National Transport Authority. There is an ongoing issue with bus transport in County Meath. Over the past year, the NTA and Bus Éireann have been carrying out a review of bus services in the county. About a year ago, people were invited to make submissions. We did that and there were fears about one or two services. Gradually through leaks and e-mails from Bus Éireann, we have been finding out about extremely substantial changes to bus services in County Meath, which I presume have been organised jointly by Bus Éireann and the NTA. The difficulty is that we really do not know what is happening. It looks like a cut to services for many areas in the county, including Duleek, Kilmoon, Ratoath, Batterstown and Kells. There was a significant difference between the indication at the initial consultation seeking people's views on improving services and the proposals being leaked.
I know we are discussing a Bill but it relates to public transport. I appeal to the Minister to use his good offices to grab these organisations by the scruff of the neck and at least let the people know what is going on. If there is to be public consultation, which is a good idea when changing public transport services, the public should know what is proposed so that they can be consulted properly. The fear is that many of these cuts are being left until after the general election - there is no definite date as to when they will be implemented. There is no definite information about what exactly is being proposed. There is considerable fear and concern in the community. The Minister is in a good position to get these bodies that come under his remit, albeit not under his direct control, to serve the public and let the public know what is going on.
Representatives of the NTA and Bus Éireann appeared before the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications in recent weeks to discuss the current provision of services. I am not aware of the specific issue the Senator has mentioned. I will ask the NTA and Bus Éireann to provide me an update as to what is happening and I will furnish that to the Senator.
Two days ago The Irish Timesreported that an application by Dublin Bus for funding to provide hybrid buses in Dublin had been rejected. Coincidentally, yesterday I met some representatives, including Mr. Coyne, of Dublin Bus at a briefing that had been organised by my colleague, Deputy Dooley, our party's transport spokesperson. They pointed out to me that the way the industry was developing in Europe was focusing on more efficient diesel engines. I was somewhat surprised at this because some weeks ago, representatives of the non-fossilised gas industry made a presentation to the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications. They stated that the motor industry particularly in Italy and France has been converting to this hybrid form of non-fossilised gas. They expected that similar vehicles would become available in Ireland.
I declare a bit of an interest here in that in the 1970s, I had a liquid petroleum gas, LPG, tank installed in my car. As pointed out, that was a fossilised fuel that came from oil. However, the new gas is non-fossilised. I took the point they made in response to the query I raised about the refusal of funding. I understand that they have three buses on trial at the moment and they may have been looking for more. In light of the heightened awareness of the adverse effect of carbon emissions on our climate and the whole issue of climate change, does the Minister not believe this is the way to go? Was it because the industry norm for buses is different from that for private cars? That was what they pointed out to me. I was somewhat surprised that the bus industry was continuing with diesel, albeit a cleaner and more efficient diesel. All I have read about diesel indicates that regardless of how efficient it is made, it still has a high CO content that adversely impacts on the environment. I would like to understand this. I know I am throwing the Minister a policy issue out of the blue. Has he or have his departmental officials thought about this as the way forward for the public transport system in order to minimise carbon emissions?
I am well aware of the Senator's point.The challenge we have is that the cost of the buses to which the Senator refers is multiples of that relating to the vehicles we can access which are diesel-powered but which are considerably cleaner and more efficient than they have been in the past. I have engaged with Dublin Bus on this matter and it is considering all kinds of measures to make its fleet more environmentally friendly. The particular challenge in obtaining coaches or buses propelled by alternative fuel sources is that they are much more expensive than the most efficient diesel buses.
It would amount to multiples of the cost. We are considering the matter very closely with Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann to see what further progress can be made.
With regard to the overall public transport network, the answers are obvious but still worth stating. We must try to make our buses as environmentally friendly as possible. Services such as the Luas and a metro could have a very positive effect on the carbon-emitting potential of the public transport network. With respect to the broader use of alternative fuel sources, the Minister for Communications, Energy an Natural Resources, Deputy White, and I have just launched a very short consultation period - it is short because we want action - on the changes we can make that would lead to the broader use of alternative fuels for private car use. We would be able to make a gain with regard to emissions by making our transport system more environmentally friendly but a bigger challenge now is how we make use of private cars more environmentally friendly. Some progress has been made with electric cars but it is not enough and their usage is still low when compared with what we hoped or expected. As the technology relating to electric cars and hybrid vehicles improves on an almost monthly basis, we will review our policy in the area to see if there are steps that the Government can take to encourage more people to use those vehicles.
I am grateful for the Minister's response. It is clear we are singing from the same hymn sheet, which is sensible. I am thinking about the State's transport fleet of private cars. The people promoting gas made a very convincing argument for the use of gas-fired cars. Current petrol or diesel cars could be adapted to use that system. I presume that is relevant to the comments between the Minister and his fellow Minister, Deputy White, and it is being considered as well.
I alluded to the issue of transfers or decals on Second Stage. Will the Minister consider magnetic signage? Many other self-employed people who use their vehicles for work employ such signage so that when the vehicle is parked at home, for example, they can remove the signage and ensure it is safe. I am informed that the implementation of the regulation is an issue. Ostensibly, there are people who work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. regulating and policing an industry where work is done 24 hours per day. Many of the issues brought to my attention arise late at night, so how will the section deal with them in particular?
The Senator mentioned the latter point on Second Stage. I have worked with the National Transport Authority on this and the Senator makes a fair point in saying that the greatest use of transport services occurs in the evenings and on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. We cannot deal with this legislatively but it is a matter of making the right resources and funding available directly to the National Transport Authority so it can do that work. We are working on that. I have met the teams that do this work and that go to the taxi ranks to ensure that taxi regulations are being well administered. I am also aware of feedback from the taxi industry that it wants to see more of that. We need to respond by increasing the resourcing, with the NTA being more efficient with its resources, so more work can be done at the time needed. That is instead of any change we can make in the law itself.
The Senator made a point about the signage being magnetic rather than adhesive. I am very reluctant to go down that path as we have made such progress in the uniform branding of taxi vehicles and in the context of increasing their quality. I will pass the Senator's observations to the NTA and its chief executive and ask for a report on what it is doing with the issue. I will share any feedback with the Senator.
The Minister responded to comments from Senator Ó Clochartaigh about the integration of the European rail network with Ireland. If I interpreted those remarks correctly, he referred to the Dublin-Belfast line as being perhaps the only example that would be part of that integrated policy. Before Christmas, as one of its members, I had the honour of representing the transport committee, along with its Chairman, Deputy John O'Mahony, and Deputy Michael Fitzmaurice at a seminar organised by the European Parliament on this matter. All three of us made the same contribution in various ways but a common theme was that the policy adopted by Europe, which seems to have been agreed by the Irish Government, is based on population density figures. This means that the vast majority of the rest of the country is not eligible for funding under this European rail network. The Dublin-Belfast line is eligible because it is on the east coast, which has a larger population.
We returned from Brussels and discussed just last week our visit in the context of the end-of-year report to the committee. The committee agreed that it would write to the Minister directly and ask if his Department would encourage a change in the criteria that would allow for financial encouragement for peripheral areas in the country. The development of the rail network will not stop; it may be piecemeal in nature but it will go on. I have a great hope that a Minister for transport in the near future will reopen the western rail link, even if only for freight transportation. Irish Rail is in favour of that and neither the Government nor the Department is against the proposal in principle. It is a financial issue. The development of a rail network will go on in different ways and areas. If we remain party to this European policy that is based on high population densities, we will not get any financial benefit from Europe for the development of rail in the peripheral regions.
I am not sure if the Minister has had the opportunity to read the correspondence, which would have been sent in the past week. If he has not read it, I respectfully request that the Minister take the time to do so and, hopefully, respond.
I have not yet received the correspondence but I will inquire about it. I am sure it is on its way to me. I assume the funding referred to by the Senator is the TEN-T funding stream. In my experience of dealing with TEN-T funding, the criteria tend to be carefully set by the European Commission. When I receive the letter, I will respond to the committee.
The State faces a challenge in its further expansion of the rail network in particular but not so much in building it, although that is expensive in itself.This is why TEN-T funding can help and is helping with some exploratory works that are being done on the development of a freight line for the Shannon Foynes Port. However, the great cost the State faces is in the maintenance of rail and then in the public service obligation, PSO, funding that is needed to provide the rail service itself. In my experience in recent years, the capital cost has less to do with the construction of a rail network and far more to do with its maintenance. Moreover, the current funding needs created by the maintenance of passenger services on the rail network are also extremely substantial. I am sure that if any future Minister must make a decision on the expansion of the rail network, these concerns will receive as much weight, if not more, than the cost of expanding the network itself.
I am grateful for the Minister's response. While I was aware he would be familiar with the European project, in the context of the rail network to which I referred and going back to our earlier dialogue, there is growing awareness of the adverse impact on the environment of CO2 emissions. There is growing awareness that railways can make a valuable contribution and there may now be a rethink on taking more freight off the roads and putting it back on the rail network, which appears to have been neglected over a period of years, perhaps as much by Irish Rail as by any Government intervention. This is why I am a particular proponent of the re-opening of the western rail corridor for freight initially.
The argument may not have been put to the Minister directly - although it may have been at one of his presentations before the transport committee - but it certainly has been made by a group from the west of Ireland and it links in with the Minister's comments about the development of the Shannon Foynes Port, namely, it would be more economically efficient to run freight down the west of Ireland, linking up with Foynes and over to Waterford and out than the way it moves at present, which is to travel eastwards to Dublin and then downwards. There is a powerful economic case, as well as a climate change case, and so on.
I appreciate these are the dying days of the present Government and the Minister will not be able to pull rabbits out of the hat but in policy terms, the Department should not take its eye off the ball with regard to the freight issue in the overall context of what I have argued. I appreciate the point about maintenance but having examined the costings from Irish Rail, I understand the maintenance costs would be considerably lower for freight than would be the case for passenger services, for which one would be obliged to re-open stations and so on. As a first step, to maintain the rail network and to provide a more efficient contribution to the national economy, the Department should keep this proposal in its sights and on the radar as a policy issue.
I have already made my contribution on section 7. It is mean-spirited and unfair to consumers at airports to introduce this new law, which I believe will impose an unnecessary burden. I believe the current system is working very well, despite the fact that this issue has come up. As I have seen it, even with the current flexibility in the system that allows people to leave their cars for a short period, the system is working well, certainly in Dublin Airport. I do not believe there are major parking problems in either Cork and Limerick. It may be more an issue at Dublin and in light of that, I intend to oppose the section.
I thank Senators for their contribution to this debate and for facilitating the speedy passage of the Bill. This legislation is very broad and contains many different pieces but experience has taught me that unless one takes the opportunity to update items of legislation as experience demands it, one inevitably pays a larger price later on. This Bill seeks to do so and I again thank all the Senators for their contributions and for facilitating its passage. As always, I thank my officials for their work in the drafting of the Bill and the provision of support in this process.