Seanad debates

Tuesday, 5 April 2022

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Public Transport

2:30 pm

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton.

Photo of John McGahonJohn McGahon (Fine Gael)
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I am here today to welcome a really progressive and ambitious project that we are embarking upon, which is the youth travel scheme. For those who do not realise it, the youth travel card is providing 50% free cost of travel to those aged between the ages of 17 and 23. The reason I am standing in the Seanad today to raise this in the Commencement debate follows on from a very important meeting I had yesterday with Paddy Matthews, who is the founder and managing director of Matthews Coaches, which operates buses from Dundalk, Drogheda and Bettystown. If I have to declare an interest in one sense, I was a commuter with Matthews Coaches for seven or eight years to Leinster House, when I worked here as a member of staff. It is a wonderful service that provides so much for people in my community. It was a service that started 20 years ago, when there were no direct services between Dundalk and Dublin and Drogheda and Dublin. It provides a valuable resource for the people of my county.

The problem is that the introduction of the 50% levy is not scheduled to take place on 9 May for the commercial bus operators alongside all of the public service operators. It will be included at a later date, and that has been confirmed in the past 24 hours by the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, so we know that. What I am coming to the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, and the Government about is that we need to bring clarity as soon as possible for those in the private bus sector and to be able to say to them that the 50% will be available for them at a certain date.

I googled the figures before I came into the House. At the minute, a return ticket on a Matthews Coaches bus from Dundalk to Dublin works out at about €17 whereas a return ticket on Bus Éireann works out at about €11. If we were to take the 50% off for Bus Éireann which will come in on 9 May, 50% of €11 is €5.50, so why on earth would I get a bus for €17 return when I can take one at €5.50 on Bus Éireann? Granted, the Bus Éireann 100X bus provides a different service and takes longer to get to Dublin because it goes via other villages and via Dublin Airport, but that is a substantial price discrepancy. That will be the case even when the 50% discount is introduced for private buses, given 50% of €17 is €8.50, so Bus Éireann will still be cheaper.

The problem is that what we are introducing now is a massive discrepancy between public and private operators. We are coming out of a pandemic in the last two and a half years where bus passenger numbers have been down massively. Before this pandemic, Matthews Coaches would have carried about 7,000 people a day but it is operating at 51% to 56% of that today. For it to be able to get any sort of profit or run a manageable service, it needs to get back to about 70% of pre-pandemic levels. It accepts it will never get back to 100% because of remote working and because of the way things are, but it needs to get back to a certain sustainable level. I am not saying we are doing this as a Government - this is just a grey area that has come along. However, we are completely undercutting people who are involved in the private bus sector around the country as a result.

Competition is key. We need to provide competition in an open market to provide the best outcome for consumers, but this is not open competition. It is providing a substantial financial advantage to public sector bus operators compared to the private sector. What I am looking for from the Minister of State today is clarity that the Government will introduce the 50% discount and provide a timeline for when it will come in. That clarity and certainty will be very important for those who are involved as private operators in the bus sector.

Photo of Hildegarde NaughtonHildegarde Naughton (Galway West, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator McGahon for his question. I welcome the opportunity to discuss this important topic. I am answering on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, so I will be relaying the Senator's comments to him.

I understand that the Senator's question is on the inclusion of the commercial bus sector in the young adult card initiative. It has always been the intention of the Minister to include commercial bus operators in this exciting fares initiative. I want to be very clear that licensed bus and coach operators are an integral part of the overall public transport system, particularly in areas around the country that are not covered by existing public service bus and rail services.

In recognition of the important role that these operators play, the Government has continued to provide temporary financial supports throughout the Covid-19 pandemic for certain licensed commercial services with a view to protecting capacity across the public transport sector throughout the crisis.

In acknowledgement of the continuing difficulties facing the sector, I am pleased to inform the Senator that the Minister recently approved an extension of the supports up to 30 June 2022. To date, during this challenging time, over €60 million has been provided to support the commercial bus operators.

On the Senator's specific question regarding the young adult card — which recognises the importance of incentivising more young people to use public transport — the Minister was delighted to secure €25 million in funding for the scheme's introduction as part of budget 2022. The exciting initiative will entitle anyone between the ages of 19 and 23 to discounted travel costs and to increase the level of discount over and above the current student discount level to an average of 50% across all services, including city, intercity and rural services.

Mature students in full-time education will also be included in the scheme, as will eligible visitors to Ireland within the young adult age cohort. The discount will initially be made available on all subsidised public service obligation, PSO, bus, rail and Luas services. I expect to launch the young adult card on PSO services next month. It will be broadened to include commercial operators at a later date, with an expectation to launch before the end of the year. It is clear that the young adult card will be of great benefit to the cohort of users in question. Not only will it promote a modal shift in the transport sector but it should also contribute towards reduced reliance on private transport, with the associated benefit of transport-emissions savings.

The National Transport Authority has commenced work on the implementation of the new fares structure for young adults and its deployment. It is technically more challenging to roll out the young adult card on the commercial bus network than on the Leap-enabled PSO network. As such, it will take longer to make the fare discount available to commercial bus operators.

The NTA is in detailed discussions with transport operators and my Department regarding the range of issues that need to be addressed. To assist with this process, the NTA has established a working group to consider options and develop a plan to implement the young adult card on commercial buses in as timely a manner as possible, taking account of current ticketing capabilities to ensure a viable scheme is implemented.

The working group includes three representatives from the Coach Tourism and Transport Council of Ireland, two further representatives from the commercial sector and a representative from the Department of Transport. The industry experience of the working group will likely expedite the process of deploying the young adult card to the wider commercial bus sector. I will relay the Senator's comments to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan.

Photo of John McGahonJohn McGahon (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for the clarity. The commercial bus operator sector is central in providing an effective and inclusive public transport system. We need to have private operators along with public sector operators. Commuters from my town who get the Matthews bus to Dublin will be discriminated against between 9 May and whenever the Government decides to introduce the 50% reduction for people who avail of private transport.This is the crux of the issue that I want to get to. I accept that the Government is going to do this and am very appreciative of that. I am looking for clarity from the Government. I appreciate the Minister of State going back to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, about it. I am looking for clarity as soon as possible so that certainty can be given to private bus operators that the 50% will be included with them by whatever date. The longer it goes on, more passengers are going to stop taking private buses and go with the cheaper option of public bus companies. It is about making sure there is a fair playing field for commuters and those in public and private bus operating sectors also.

Photo of Hildegarde NaughtonHildegarde Naughton (Galway West, Fine Gael)
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I hear the sense of urgency around getting this over the line. I reassure the Senator that both the NTA and the Department of Transport have been engaging directly with commercial bus operators to help inform policy decisions in respect of the transport sector. On the working group I mentioned earlier, the Department of Transport has been liaising with the Coach Tourism and Transport Council of Ireland, CTTC, since May 2020. To date, 22 meetings have taken place and a further meeting is scheduled to take place later this month. More recently, on 25 March, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, met with the CTTC to discuss its concerns regarding the sector. As outlined earlier, it is his intention to include commercial operators as part of the youth adult card initiative. The NTA is working closely with operators in order to achieve this as quickly as possible. I will certainly relay the concerns the Senator has highlighted to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 3.22 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 3.35 p.m. Sitting suspended at 3.22 p.m. and resumed at 3.35 p.m.