Seanad debates

Wednesday, 3 November 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Public Transport

10:30 am

Photo of Ned O'SullivanNed O'Sullivan (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister for Transport.

Photo of Erin McGreehanErin McGreehan (Fianna Fail)
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I, too, welcome the Minister. I am delighted he could be here with us this morning. What prompted me to put forward this Commencement matter was anger and frustration in regard to the inconsistent access to public transport in this country, which I hear about and witness, but do not experience because I am able-bodied. When I want to travel by train or bus I can do so. However, for thousands of citizens in this country who wish to travel they have to jump through hoops. They have to pre-book, plan and make arrangements and be ready to be let down at all times. They face barriers and blockages and cannot obtain either access or answers. These are our friends and neighbours and their human rights are being denied and, often, ignored.

I want to a highlight a particular situation that occurred last Saturday. Vicky Matthew took to Facebook to highlight that Connolly railway station in Dublin had failed to meet its obligations to her as a customer. She had given 24 hours notice that she would require ramp and assistance. This lady did everything that she was supposed to do, but she was abandoned on the train. She telephoned the station for help, but nobody arrived to assist. A random passenger helped her by getting a ramp to enable her to get off the train. This is unacceptable. We have to find a better way of providing equity in our society.

Another situation involved a man from Louth, Mr. John Morgan, who highlighted to me that he had been prevented from travelling to Wales to see a relative. He had purchased flights and planned to travel to Dublin Airport from Dundalk via the Bus Éireann 100X service. He left home early in the morning to ensure he would be on time for his flight. He had contacted Bus Eireann two weeks in advance to ask about wheelchair accessibility on the 100X service. His call was promptly returned and he was told that the bus leaving Dundalk was not accessible. It is not an accessible route and that meant he could not get to the airport. Owing the lack of infrastructure, he was prevented from travelling.

The infrastructure on public transport does not fully enable the freedom of movement on all modes of transport. This is not only about access, it is about having to give notice. It is about singling people out to be different, making them do things differently to those of us who are able bodied. Therefore, it is not about choice but about planning ahead for a smooth journey to become a reality. The lack of accessible transport services impacts on inclusion, social interaction, jobs, education and mental health. The cost of living with a disability affects not only the disabled person but his or her family and community, as well as every aspect of his or her life. For some disabled people, transport is inaccessible for small and simple reasons such as human error, lengthy pre-booking requirements, inaccessible routes and because the built environment does not link with the transport service, that is, the bus does not connect with the pavement.When that happens it means that the route is inaccessible.

Independent Living Movement Ireland has done excellent research and I am delighted the Minister is in the House as I can give him copies of its research. The organisation is a disabled person's organisation, DPO, that is run by people who know their story best, which means they are the best advocates for themselves.

I highlighted in my Commencement matter that our rights are obligations of the State, under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD. Article 9 relates to transport and states "To enable persons with disabilities to live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life, States Parties shall take appropriate measures to ensure to persons with disabilities access, on an equal basis with others, to the physical environment, to transportation, to information and communications". We should not block them and I hope that we will adopt the optional protocol to the convention, as it will ensure that we are accountable for not taking action on accessibility.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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The Senator is absolutely right to quote Article 9 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. As she said, the article puts obligations on State parties to ensure access for persons with disabilities to, inter alia, transportation in both urban and rural areas. In line with that article, my Department and its agencies are progressively making public transport accessible for people with disabilities, including in rural areas, by ensuring that new infrastructure and services are accessible from the start, and by retrofitting older legacy infrastructure and facilities to make them accessible.

Accessibility features, such as wheelchair accessibility and audio or visual aids or both, are built into all new public transport infrastructure projects and vehicles from their design stage. Newer systems such as the Luas are fully accessible, as are all new buses purchased by the National Transport Authority. However, as the examples cited by the Senator in respect of Connolly Station and Mr. Morgan and his difficulties show, work remains to be done, particularly on the retrofitting of older legacy infrastructure such as a lot of our Victorian-era train stations. My Department, therefore, funds an ongoing accessibility retrofit programme that is managed by the NTA, which includes programmes to install accessible bus stops in rural and regional areas, to upgrade bus bays at regional bus and train stations, to upgrade train stations to make them accessible to wheelchair users and to provide grant support to increase the number of wheelchair-accessible taxis.

The Department has developed a number of three-year sectoral plans called Transport Access for All, under the Disability Act 2005. The concept for Transport Access for All is based on the principle of accessible public transport that does not distinguish between people with disabilities and other passengers. The third sectoral plan was published in 2012. The first whole-of-government national disability inclusion strategy, NDIS, was established in 2013, followed by the current NDIS for the years 2017 to 2022, which covers all sectors of society, including transport.

In addition to the NDIS, the UNCRPD, and the Comprehensive Employment Strategy for People with Disabilities 2015-2024, there are a range of other national strategies that contain actions towards making public transport accessible for persons with disabilities, persons with reduced mobility and older people. All of these actions across all such strategies have been combined into the Department of Transport's accessibility work programme, which is in effect the successor to the sectoral plans.

My Department's accessibility work programme provides the framework for prioritising projects and programmes to progressively make public transport accessible. It is a living document that is updated quarterly in advance of meetings of the accessibility consultative committee, ACC, and the NDIS steering group.

Under the national disability inclusion strategy, each Department is required to have a disability consultative committee to oversee and monitor the actions assigned to it and its agencies. My Department's consultative committee is called the accessibility consultative committee. It is the successor to the Department's public transport accessibility committee, which was established in 2000. Members of the accessibility consultative committee are drawn from organisations that represent people with disabilities, members of the disability stakeholders group and key agencies under the aegis of my Department, as well as other relevant State agencies. The ACC uses the accessibility work programme to monitor progress in progressively making public transport accessible in line with the UNCRPD, the NDIS and other national strategies. The next accessibility work programme update will be published in early December on the gov.ieportal. That is where previous updates along with minutes of all ACC meetings can be found.

Photo of Erin McGreehanErin McGreehan (Fianna Fail)
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I am glad to hear that there will be an update in early December. This is a great country for producing policies and documents but work and investment are needed. We are talking about encouraging everybody onto public transport. I would love to have a safe and accessible transport for all of my community and friends because I want to know that they are going to be safe. I want to know that they are not going to be blocked getting on or off a bus or train and that people who are visually impaired know at all times where they are.

Accessibility is not about equality. We are all equal and we all should have equal access. Accessibility is about equity. We need to build equity within the infrastructure and create a fairer society. Citizens with disabilities deserve every single right and deserve not to have barriers put in front of them. Almost 15% of the population has some sort of a disability and, therefore, are a huge cohort of our friends and community. I thank the Minister for his time.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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I know from my experience of transport campaigning and planning over 25 years is that when one designs access for all then everyone benefits. Let us take the Luas as an example, because it was designed as an accessible system. Such infrastructure benefits everyone, whether that be a parent with a child in a buggy, someone in a wheelchair or someone who is visually impaired because it has been designed for people with disability.

I want to give some further detail as background. Lifts at stations has been a critical issue for disability. This year, we have provided an investment of €5.8 million and an additional €2 million was provided in recognition that we need to accelerate the programme.

The Senator mentioned an incident that occurred at Connolly Station, which is a real concern. My understanding is that as there is not a mechanism or an automatic wheelchair ramp facility for heavy rail systems, someone from Irish Rail must be in attendance. In the instance cited, another passenger was in attendance for whatever reason, which is not acceptable. Irish Rail is developing a smartphone accessibility app to address some of the key communications breakdowns that occur - as human error can occur - when providing assistance to persons with disabilities. I hope that initiative may see such instances not happen in the future.

Let me refer to Mr. Morgan's experience on the coach. My understanding is, and the information that I now have, is that all long-distance coach types require the removal of up to four seats to be accessible and that is why there is a 24-hour notice requirement. I am surprised that the Dundalk route did not have a coach where seats could be taken out for whatever reason.

I have been told that in the case of long-distance coaches, they do not yet have anything other than high-floor options, which present some difficulties in terms of making travel easily accessible. For all public service obligation, PSO, regional commuter routes now - up to something like 50 km - new buses are coming that, typically, will have low-floor access thereby allowing wheelchair users to board with normal ramp access. So the situation is slowly changing. It is particularly difficult on older rail and on long-distance bus services but that should not stop us looking to make sure that they are as accessible as any new services that we provide.