The Social Dimension of Living in Rural Ireland must be recognised - Deputy Breen speaking during the Debate on the Public Transport Regulation Bill 2009

November 16th, 2009 - Pat Breen

Deputy Pat Breen: I welcome an opportunity to speak on the Public Transport Regulation Bill 2009. I listened with interest to Deputy O’Connor speaking about rural areas in Tallaght. I invite the Deputy to visit the rural areas of west Clare to see at first hand isolation and the lack of public transport. I will return to this issue later.
The Bill makes a number of important changes to public transportation regulation. It reforms the current bus route licensing regime and extends the public transport route procurement scheme introduced for the greater Dublin area to the rest of the country. It also transforms the Dublin Transport Authority into a new body, the national transport authority, which will be merged with the Commission for Taxi Regulation. The Bill gives the new national transport authority a consultative role in future regional planning guidelines. As the population increases, it is important that we plan for future transport needs. Climate change, the conservation of fuel supplies and recession mean more people will start to use public transport.
Michael O’Leary of Ryanair proved with his low cost carrier that passengers will travel anywhere if the price is right. It is important to have a good pricing system in place for public transport services, whether trains, taxis or buses.
The Bill has two main functions, namely, to update the legislation on public bus licensing and regulation and to create a new national transport regulator, the national transport authority. Any effort to streamline Government agencies will save money and improve customer service, which is always welcome, particularly in these times. Nevertheless, the Bill falls far short of what is required. The remit of the new transport authority will extend to the entire country and the authority will be responsible for commercial bus route licensing. It will also assume responsibility for the distribution of public transport subventions. As I indicated, the Commission for Taxi Regulation will be merged with the new authority.
The notes on the Bill provided by the Oireachtas Library and Research Service detail the long history of transport regulation in this country. The issue has been a topic for debate for a long time. I entered the Dáil in 2002 and was appointed deputy Fine Gael Party spokesperson on transport when the late Séamus Brennan was Minister for Transport. The regulation of public transport, including integrated ticketing which has still not been introduced, were key issues at the Joint Committee on Transport at that time.
One hears a great deal about the urban-rural divide in transport. Public transport is non-existent in many rural areas. I am disappointed the Bill does not deal with the rural transport initiative which funds transport services in rural areas. A cloud has hung over the service since the publication of the report by an bord snip. This service in rural Ireland is a lifeline, particularly for the elderly, the disabled and those without transport living in rural areas. There are many people living in rural areas who do not have transport.
When I was growing up I lived seven miles from Ennis in west Clare in Ballynacally. Each morning three or four buses served those who worked in Shannon, Ennis and Limerick. Now there is no bus service. Major changes are happening. There are many more cars on the roads. I travelled to study my third level course in Limerick, 30 miles away from my home, by public transport. I took two buses, one from my house to Ennis and another from Ennis to Limerick. I did that for three years. It was a great service. I was home every evening and it worked extremely well. The weekly fare was £2.10, which was great value for money at the time. However, many rural areas now have no bus service and are losing many more services such as post offices. Many communities are suffering as a result. The local post office in my parish of Ballynacally closed last week. This is linked to transport initiatives. Many elderly people are affected by the closure of services in rural areas and have to travel for nine, ten or 11 miles to pick up their pensions or do their shopping.
A rural transport initiative is provided by the Clare accessible transport scheme, which I commend. It has seven or eight coaches. When the report of an bord snip nua was launched a number of months ago a public rally took place in O’Connell Square in Ennis. The buses and all those in east Clare who use the transport initiative came to Ennis and invited all the public representatives to talk to them. We talked to pensioners, disabled people and those who want to get out of their houses for a day. This vital link is extremely important in rural areas, and I hope this service can be saved and will not be cut due to the shortfall in the public finances. I met a constituent at the march in Ennis from O’Callaghan’s-Mills who uses the service on a Friday to collect his pension and who said if the rural transport service was not in place he would be like a prisoner in his own home. The financing of the rural transport initiative is an issue which must be addressed to remove the uncertainty rural people are experiencing.
Bus Éireann has axed a number of routes due to the current downturn in the economic circumstances. The early morning service from Kilkee to Ennis was one of the routes which has already fallen victim to cutbacks and I understand other routes are currently under review. There has been a lot of discussion on whether the bus market should be totally liberalised and deregulated but it is important to strike a balance. There are no queues of buses ready to set up routes in rural areas and it is likely that bus services will be axed in some places as the company strives to cut costs.
The social dimension of living in rural Ireland must be addressed and we should examine whether an extension of public service routes is required in order to sustain rural communities. It cannot be all about pounds, shillings and pence; there is also a social dimension. For instance, many people are now being left to survive on their own in remote rural areas with little or no contact with the outside world. It is something on which there has been focus recently with the publication of the Road Traffic Bill and the proposal to reduce from 80 mg to 50 mg the legal limit for blood alcohol levels while driving, a proposal which will affect many people in rural Ireland. A transport initiative should be set up in conjunction with the Bill to help people who like to have a drink, want to abide by the law and go to their local pub. Local pubs in rural Ireland are closing every week. The social dimension of this issue is something we have to try to protect. It is a major issue which cannot be ignored and is something to which the Government will have to face up. Deputy O’Connor referred to Tallaght but there are no transport facilities or taxis in rural Ireland.
If the public service routes were extended, some of them could be tendered out to private bus operators, which might be more suitable as they would be able to run services using smaller buses which would be more economical and cost effective. Many such operators live in and provide a great service in rural areas. They serve people who want to go to bingo, elderly people, people who want a social dimension to their lives and football and hurling teams. Such bus operators could play a role in connecting rural villages and providing a service for people who want to avail of it.
In recent years we have seen a rise in disputes over the allocation of licences and I hope the new authority will address this issue. I have seen cases where an operator ran a service without a licence for a period of time and there was a demand for it. In some cases it did so because it was waiting for the Department of Transport to make a decision on a licence. In other cases, Bus Éireann had difficulty getting a licence for a route which it was willing to serve. The new licensing authority must make sure the system is less cumbersome, that major delays are not incurred waiting for decisions on licensing routes and, most importantly, that the system is fair and open to all.
Our public transport system lags behind many other EU countries. Integrated ticketing appears to be light years away. I compliment Iarnród Éireann on the ticketing barriers it installed at Heuston Station where one must use a ticket to gain exit from the station. When one looks at the metro and subway systems in other European capitals one can see we are light years behind. It is only in the past number of years that the Luas system came into operation, which serves only the southern part of the city. The northern part of Dublin has no Luas or metro service, but is a busy area because it is linked to Dublin Airport. We still depend on buses and taxis to take us to the airport, the busiest airport in Ireland and one of the busiest in the British isles. That shows how far behind we are.
The bus lanes which are in place have proved effective for buses and taxis. We are light years behind the systems which transport people in cities such as Paris, Budapest and New York. Many of these people are transported underground and if they were to be transported above ground, there would be chaos. The Luas has gone a long way towards improving our transport infrastructure, but it must be extended to all parts of Dublin.
I spoke on integrated ticketing and that appears to be some time away, although the use of new technologies will make it easier to achieve. In Auckland, New Zealand, they are investing in new technologies so that they can co-ordinate the entire public transport system. This includes automated gates, as well as smart card readers on buses, ferries and rail stations. Our system is still stuck in a time warp and we still have bus queues because drivers must collect payment before a bus can move.
I have gone to Strasbourg from time to time for Council of Europe meetings and it has a fully integrated ticketing system for commuters, whether they use the tram system which is similar to Dublin’s Luas or the bus system. That proves very effective for tourists, business people going to work in the morning and all other commuters. A system similar to this for Ireland should be in place so that people could buy a ticket and get on the Luas or a bus. It would be more efficient than the current system and bring about fewer delays, particularly with Ireland’s inclement weather. It rains much of the time here and there is much pushing and shoving to get on the buses.
I speak also from the perspective of tourists visiting Ireland who may be used to efficient systems in their own countries. For many tourists coming to Ireland - to rural Ireland or cities like Dublin - it can be a nightmare. A person should be able to purchase a day pass to get around like we can in other European countries.
The Bill does not include rail travel but I cannot understand why we are not moving towards a co-ordinated public transport system. For example, in my own constituency, the Ennis to Limerick commuter line has proved a major success and the frequency of the service from Ennis to Galway is to be increased shortly. I welcome that improvement, which will take place in the new year. As part of the improvement, we will also have a new station open in Sixmilebridge, which will help commuters travelling to Ennis and Limerick. They can travel to Shannon by bus. Sixmilebridge is approximately 12 km from Shannon Airport and it would make sense for tourists travelling from Limerick to Shannon or vice versa to be able to purchase a ticket to travel onwards to and from the airport on a bus or train.
These are the reasons we should be moving forward and why I welcome that the new authority will have an input into local development plans. It is important that our local public transport requirements are planned and co-ordinated. The Commission for Taxi Regulation will merge with the new authority, although I note there is no proposal to address the oversupply of taxis in the market. We all know of problems with taxis in our rural towns, particularly at the weekends when there are no taxis around despite an abundance being evident during the week. The same is true of Dublin.
I remember when I first came here as a Deputy that I found it very hard to get a taxi on Dawson Street but there are now queues of them all the time. Changes could be made to the current system to ease the oversupply of taxis. To suggest that some taxis will leave the industry because of the current decline does not resolve the problem as there will only be additional people on the live register.
Overall, the Bill is disappointing and does not address the key issues. It is a failed opportunity to deal with public transport, which is the way forward. I will return to what I said at the start; the passenger will go anywhere if the price is right and the transport is there.