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Thursday, 30 Sep 2010

Vote 32 — Department of Transport

Mr. Tom O’Mahony (Secretary General, Department of Transport) and Mr. Noel Brett (Chief Executive Officer, Road Safety Authority) called and examined.

I welcome everyone. We are in public session. We are considering the 2009 annual report and appropriation accounts of the Comptroller and Auditor General, Vote 32 — Department of Transport, chapter 28 — barrier free tolling on the M50, and also Special Report 71 of the Comptroller and Auditor General on driver testing in the Road Safety Authority.

Before commencing, I advise witnesses that they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give this committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence regarding a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against a Member of either House, a person outside the Houses, nor an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. Members are reminded of the provisions within Standing Order 158 that the committee shall refrain from inquiring into the merits of a policy or policies of the Government or a Minister of the Government or the merits of the objectives of such policies.

I welcome Mr. Tom O'Mahony, Secretary General of the Department of Transport. Will he introduce his officials?

Mr. Tom O’Mahony

With me are Mr. Liam Daly, principal officer, Mr. John Murphy, Assistant Secretary General, and Mr. Fintan Towey, principal officer.

I see Mr. Noel Brett, chief executive officer of the Road Safety Authority, RSA, is on his own, as is Mr. Hugh Creegan, head of PPP, commercial operations and strategic planning, National Roads Authority, NRA. Who are the officials from the Department of Finance?

Ms Deirdre Hanlon

I am Deirdre Hanlon and this is my colleague, Ms Áine Stapleton.

I welcome everyone. I invite Mr. Buckley to introduce the issues we are discussing.

Mr. John Buckley

In 2009, the Department of Transport spent just over €3 billion. Its major categories of spending were almost €2 billion on upgrading national, regional and local road networks and almost €1 billion on the expansion and improvement of the public transport system.

Two reports are to be considered. Driver testing has been the responsibility of the RSA since 2006. The result of an examination by my office of that function was reported in November 2009. The examination found that the RSA had succeeded in reducing the waiting times for applicants and by the end of 2008 it was almost within its target of ten weeks. This was achieved by using a contractor to conduct tests on its behalf and by using additional overtime

The contractor engaged by the RSA conducted more than 300,000 tests up to the end of 2008 at a cost of €24.4 million. A positive feature of the contract arrangement was the opportunity it provided the RSA to adopt some processes and practices employed by the contractor and to incorporate some of the technology used by the contractor in updating its systems. On the other hand, some concern arose about the quality of the actual testing. Over the course of the contract, in a sample of more than 2,000 tests conducted where the RSA supervisor accompanied contract testers, the RSA supervisor disagreed with the result issued by the contract tester in 7% of cases. The pass rates recorded by contract testers were higher than that of RSA testers. The national average pass rate for RSA testers was 49% compared to 62% for contract testers. Variation was evident at both national and centre level.

From the point of view of effectiveness, the challenge for the authority is to maintain a service that conducts a professional independent testing of drivers in each individual case while pursuing consistency in the overall testing process. Overall, a high level of variation was evident in test results of individual centres. The average pass rates for 2008 ranged from 39% to 60% in RSA centres and between 51% and 77% in centres where tests were administered by contract staff. There was also considerable variation between results determined by individual testers, with some testers consistently passing or failing more candidates than other testers operating from the same centre. One third of RSA testers had pass rates that varied from their average centre pass rate by more than 10%. Almost half of the contract testers had pass rates that diverged by more than 10% from their average centre pass rate.

To demonstrate the effectiveness of its operations, the RSA would need to be in a position to validate the appropriateness of divergences in results between centres and, within centres, to isolate the factors that caused the decisions of individual testers to vary significantly from the centre average. In regard to the former, while it is accepted that variations in test results may arise due to the profile of candidates attending individual centres, validation of pass rates awarded is important to ensure consistency of testing. The RSA had not carried out such validation procedures at the time of the examination.

At the level of individual results the consistency of testing is likely to be most effectively addressed through a combination of supervision and follow-up training to the extent that the divergence is attributable to examiner focus and scoring. In general, the report suggests more scrutiny might be necessary where results vary by more than 10% from the centre average. At a later stage, consideration could be given to reducing this percentage further.

Chapter 9 of the annual report for 2009 deals in some depth with governance and performance monitoring of semi-State bodies. It does not fall for consideration today. However, this report notes that, at the time of the examination, there was no service level agreement in force between the Department and the RSA. Service level agreements are a common oversight mechanism used by Departments. They define the roles and responsibilities of the Department and the agency and set out the expected performance levels and the monitoring arrangements.

Turning to the issue of barrier-free tolling, National Toll Roads, NTR, had exclusive rights over the collection of tolls at the West Link Bridge section of the M50 until March 2020 and was paying the State a portion of the toll income. The decision to opt for barrier-free tolling necessitated the buying out of NTR's rights. The buy-out arrangements were reviewed in my 2008 annual report and discussed by this committee last December.

To implement the decision, the NRA appointed an operator to design, build and operate the barrier-free system. A full barrier-free tolling system has been in place since August 2008. The examination focused on the first year of operation of the barrier-free facility — August 2008 to July 2009 — and particularly on how revenue in the first year of operation compared to revenue in the previous 12 months. Overall, after taking account of the M50 buy-out and establishment costs, the net cost of tolling operations up to the end of the first 12 months of operation was approximately €3 million. In the period prior to barrier-free tolling, the State would have received proceeds in the form of a revenue share of approximately €22 million from NTR and €14 million by way of taxation, an income of the order of €36 million.

The results of the first year suggest an annual cash flow of €13.5 million after paying the annual cost of NTR buy-out payments. This excludes the one-off costs of construction and commissioning. The gross income includes penalty receipts of more than €10 million, which are likely to reduce as more people opt for automatic payment, but the financial impact of this is difficult to estimate.

An incidence of barrier-free tolling is the fact that some leakage of income will occur. First year charges amounting to €5.5 million were doubtful to be collected. This was attributable to the fact that €2.2 million was unpaid in respect of journeys involving vehicles registered outside the State, mostly in Northern Ireland. A memorandum has been signed by both jurisdictions in this year, 2010, which should help to reduce the level of unpaid charges in the future. Second, €2 million in toll charges were at enforcement stage. The rate of recovery of these charges is low and €700,000 related to accounts that turned out to have insufficient funds. Of the toll charges that were at the early stages of collection, it was estimated that €400,000 would not be collected, based on the recovery rate achieved in the first 11 months.

I thank Mr. Buckley and invite Mr. O'Mahony to make his opening statement.

Mr. Tom O’Mahony

I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to address the committee. I propose that following my opening statement, Mr. Noel Brett from the Road Safety Authority, RSA, will deal with the report on driver testing and Mr. Hugh Creegan of the National Roads Authority, NRA, will provide a statement on the barrier-free tolling issues covered in the report. Obviously both men will then be available to answer any questions in respect of those issues. However, I also wish to refer briefly to the two specific issues.

As regards the report on driver testing, I am pleased to note a number of positive conclusions. In particular, the Comptroller and Auditor General found that despite a doubling of applications for driving tests between 2005 and 2008, the RSA succeeded in dealing with the surge in applications, as well as the historical backlogs, and has radically improved the timeliness of test provision. Second, the Comptroller and Auditor General found that outsourcing provided the RSA with a comparator for driving test delivery and this knowledge transfer contributed to the improved design of information technology systems developed by the RSA, which will improve its administrative processes and management information.

At the same time, the report identified a number of areas for improvement and made recommendations as to what kind of improvements were needed. Most of those recommendations obviously relate to actions to be taken by the RSA and Mr. Brett will address any questions the committee might have regarding them. However, one recommendation in the report is specifically addressed to the Department of Transport. It calls on us to put in place a service level agreement with the RSA setting out the expected performance levels for the driver testing service and the process for monitoring and reporting. The Department has accepted this recommendation and departmental officials have held discussions with the RSA regarding the development of the service level agreement and it is our intention to have in place this agreement by the end of this year.

Although the service level agreement will put the Department's relationship with the RSA on a more formal footing, I should stress that since the establishment of the authority four years ago, the relationship has been highly constructive and mutually supportive. I also make the point that it has been a highly effective collaboration, as measured by the most important performance indicator available, namely, the consistent reduction every year in the number of fatalities on our roads. The first three years of the RSA's existence have seen a fall of more than one third in road deaths from 365 in 2006 to just 240 in 2009. Moreover, nine months having elapsed this year, at present we are running at a rate that is more than 10% lower than last year's level, which obviously was at a record low.

In respect of barrier-free tolling, the Comptroller and Auditor General's report covers the results of a review of the commissioning of the facilities in the first year of operation of the barrier-free tolling system. It also examined the comparative financial performance over the previous year, the challenges in maximising toll revenue and how operations are monitored. Despite some inevitable teething problems early on, overall barrier-free tolling on the M50 now is operating successfully. The new system, coupled with the completion of the M50 upgrade works, has helped to ease congestion on the motorway and has improved traffic flow on the entire Dublin road network. Since the introduction of the new system, toll revenues have risen, primarily due to an increase in traffic volumes. Last year, I informed members that the benefits of the West Link buy-out, which was essential to deliver barrier-free tolling, would exceed the costs and would provide good value to taxpayers and users of the M50 and it is clear that this is turning out to be the case.

I will now turn to the transport Vote, which is dominated by the Transport 21 programme. Very high levels of investment in road infrastructure continued over the last two years and the major interurban road programme now is virtually complete. The M1 from Dublin to the Border, the M4-M6 from Dublin to Galway, the M7-M8 from Dublin to Cork and the M9 from Dublin to Waterford now are all fully open to traffic. As for the remaining major interurban route, namely, the M7 from Dublin to Limerick, one further section was opened this week. Just one piece of the jigsaw remains outstanding, which will be open to traffic in November and at that stage the entire major interurban road programme will be complete. In addition, the upgrade of the M50 motorway and the M3 from Clonee to north of Kells also were completed in 2010.

On public transport, phase one of the western rail corridor opened in March this year and services began on phase one of the Navan line in September. The Luas extension to Cherrywood is due to open in October and construction continues on the Luas line to CityWest, which will open in 2011. Planning work is continuing on metro north, the DART underground, the Luas BX/D line and other projects. In the first four years of Transport 21, Exchequer funding amounted to almost €9 billion, with expenditure in 2009 totalling €2.124 billion. Given the current difficult economic circumstances, it now is unlikely that all the projects originally identified in Transport 21 will be completed by 2015 as originally intended. However, no projects have been cancelled, planning work remains a priority and Transport 21 continues to provide a strategic framework for capital spending on transport infrastructure into the future.

On the current side of the Vote, expenditure totalling approximately €698 million occurred in 2009. Of that, expenditure on national roads maintenance and work on regional and local roads accounted for €170 million. The Road Safety Authority received €33 million to help reduce the driver testing backlog and to promote road safety awareness. The continued State support for its public service obligations on public transport came to €314 million while 2009 also saw the support for regional airports continue by way of public service obligation and operational support payments, which came to €18 million, as well as capital grants of €5 million for safety and security works. Finally, the total spend on the maritime sector amounted to €47 million, comprising €39 million in current and €8 million in capital expenditure. This expenditure reflects the ongoing commitment to modernise and develop the Irish Coast Guard and our maritime safety administration.

This concludes my statement and I will be happy to answer any questions from members of the committee after they have heard the other opening statements.

I thank Mr. O'Mahony. May we publish his statement?

Mr. Tom O’Mahony


I invite Mr. Brett to make his opening statement.

Mr. Noel Brett

I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for affording me an opportunity to appear before them to assist in its examination of the Comptroller and Auditor General's special report No. 71 on driver testing in the Road Safety Authority. I have submitted a detailed written response to the committee that outlines the work the RSA has undertaken to modernise the driver testing service since the establishment by the Oireachtas of the authority in September 2006. The report by the Comptroller and Auditor General provides a good overview of the challenges faced by the new authority on its vesting day and the report notes the early successes in reducing waiting lists and waiting times for the authority's customers, despite a doubling of applications between 2005 and 2008. The authority itself is particularly focused on delivering the best possible value for money and the highest possible level of service to the public.

As Accounting Officer, I am particularly pleased that the Comptroller and Auditor General's report found the RSA to have fully complied with public procurement rules in respect of the contract issued with SGS and that no issues arose with regard to the appropriate use of public funds and that there were no issues of fraud. The Comptroller and Auditor General suggested a number of specific improvements, particularly in respect of information technology, supervision and structures and management information. The RSA fully accepts these recommendations and has made substantial progress on implementing each recommendation. The RSA itself is committed to developing further the driver testing service and I have outlined this in detail in my written submission. The big challenge facing the RSA in the future is to maintain the service levels and to ensure that the return on investment made by the Exchequer is maintained and not diminished. In the current economic climate, it is particularly important that members of the public can obtain a driving test quickly to enable them to take up employment or college places or, in the case of the unfortunately increasing number of people who are obliged to emigrate, to enable them to at least do so with a full driving licence in order that they can secure employment. I am happy to answer any questions that members may wish to ask me on my submission or on the report by the Comptroller and Auditor General and to take on board any recommendations that members may have for the service.

May we publish Mr. Brett's statement?

Mr. Noel Brett


Mr. Hugh Creegan

I thank the committee for the invitation to appear before it in respect of barrier-free tolling on the M50. As the committee will be aware, the M50 motorway has undergone a transformation in recent years. Prior to that upgrade, the motorway had attained an unparalleled level of notoriety due to the delays, congestion and frustrations that were a daily feature of using it. Hardly a day went by without reports of extensive delays at the Red Cow junction, the toll plaza or elsewhere. With considerable justification, the motorway achieved a level of public animosity that set it apart from all other roads in the State.

Effectively, three problems with the M50 needed to be addressed if it was to function satisfactorily. These were the insufficient number of lanes, overloaded junctions and insufficient capacity at the West Link toll plaza. All three deficiencies would need to be addressed to "fix" the M50. Solving only one or two of the problems would simply move the congestion to the third area and would not deliver the full solution needed. Accordingly, the proposals to upgrade the M50 targeted all three areas. A sequence of construction contracts delivered four lanes in each direction from the M1 junction in the north to the Scholarstown junction in the south and a widening to three lanes in each direction from there to the Sandyford junction. Ten junctions have been upgraded in total, with free-flowing traffic links replacing traffic signals and roundabouts at the busiest movements. We are pleased to report that the last and final link in that upgrade, effectively bringing the project to a completion, was opened earlier this month at the N3 Blanchardstown junction.

It is worth noting that many road users and adjoining residents endured considerable inconvenience during the period of the upgrade works and we fully acknowledge the delays and disruptions they experienced. We hope they and every other user of the M50 will now reap the benefits of that work.

The construction contracts addressed the need for more traffic lanes and upgraded junctions. A separate solution was required to deal with the West Link toll plaza. The solution was to implement a barrier-free tolling system on the M50 and remove completely the delays and congestion associated with the existing toll plaza. This was a significant challenge, in that barrier-free tolling is a new concept internationally and there are only a limited number of such installations around the world. Indeed, the M50 is the first example in the world of transitioning an existing toll plaza to a barrier-free system in a single change.

The NRA took control of the existing West Link toll plaza in August 2008. On 30 August 2008, the new electronic barrier-free system was switched on and the demolition of the existing toll plaza commenced. By the end of October, the existing toll plaza had been completely removed and the final road layout through the area previously occupied by that toll plaza was fully in place.

As identified in the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General, approximately €77 million in toll revenue was collected in the 12-month period to the end of July 2009. This was based on an average number of vehicles per day of just under 90,000. Traffic figures on the M50 are now showing an increase of approximately 10% over last year's figures and average monthly flows in recent months have exceeded 110,000 vehicles per day.

In implementing the M50 barrier-free system, a number of payment options were put in place to facilitate toll payment in a manner that suited each particular user. A user could opt to use an electronic tag mounted on his or her windscreen and establish a payment account based on that tag. The advantage of this arrangement is that the tag can be used for toll payment at all other toll plazas around the country. Alternatively, users could set up payment accounts specifically for the M50 based on their number plates. Finally, those who did not want to set up such accounts could make payments on a pay as you go basis either on-line, through a call centre or through a chain of retail outlets nationwide.

Approximately three quarters of daily users of the M50 have set up payment accounts. The remaining one quarter operate on the pay as you go basis. Overall, approximately 740,000 vehicles are either equipped with electronic tags plus payment accounts based on those tags or have set up payment accounts based on their vehicle number plates.

The introduction of barrier-free tolling on the M50 has been one of the key elements of "fixing" the M50. It has removed the problem of queuing and delays that bedevilled the old West Link toll plaza. Coupled with the major upgrade works that have now been delivered, it contributes to providing a level of service to the users of the M50 motorway that is significantly above what had been the situation previously.

May we publish Mr. Creegan's statement?

Mr. Hugh Creegan


I thank the witnesses for their submissions. Mr. Creegan finished by discussing barrier-free tolling. For anyone who uses the M50, barrier-free tolling has been a considerable improvement. It was with a sigh of relief all around that the old congestion receded.

We all know that traffic flows have increased, as outlined by Mr. Creegan. This is positive. Did Mr. Creegan state that revenue from the tolls increased by €77 million last year?

Mr. Hugh Creegan


That reflects the traffic. I will focus on the non-collection of tolls. The reciprocal arrangement with Northern Ireland will help. When will it be in place?

Mr. Hugh Creegan

The arrangement was put in place earlier this year.

Has it has proved fruitful? According to the Comptroller and Auditor General's report, some €2.2 million remains outstanding for collection.

Mr. Hugh Creegan

That is right.

What is the current situation?

Mr. Hugh Creegan

That €2.2 million is broken down into two categories. Northern Ireland vehicles comprise the bulk of the amount. The other category is vehicles from 49 or 50 other countries that use the M50 irregularly. Earlier this year, a memorandum of agreement was signed between the Republic and Northern Ireland. We have commenced exchanging information with Northern Ireland.

We have initially focused on promoting compliance, that is, getting users of the road to change their behaviour, set up accounts and pay the toll as required. We are satisfied with the response to date, in that approximately 55% of the people we contact are moving from being non-compliant to compliant users of the M50. We will continue this approach, then start to track back into the historic debt that is owed.

The figure we have is €2.2 million. What is the outstanding figure for this year? Is it increasing? I am trying to get a handle on it.

Mr. Hugh Creegan

It is decreasing. We are focusing on promoting compliance, contacting current users and getting them to set up accounts or other means of payment. Given the increasing level of compliance, the figure for outstanding debt is decreasing.

Is there a figure at which the NRA will write debts off in the belief it will never get them? How does it go about enforcement?

Mr. Hugh Creegan

It is not a specific point per se. We are operating an enforcement system with two objectives in mind — first, to provide a deterrent to non-payers and second, to operate on a cost-effective basis. The Deputy is correct, in that chasing every last toll debtor is an inefficient use of resources. We have not established a specific line which we will not cross. Instead, we will focus on our two objectives of promoting compliance and running a cost-effective enforcement service.

What of the performance of the toll operator? An operating permit was awarded in January 2010. The operator had reached a 92% target. Some nine out of ten vehicles passing through the toll plaza were targeted or identified. Is this figure in keeping with what Mr. Creegan expected? What is the international norm?

Mr. Hugh Creegan

The 92% figure does not just relate to detecting vehicles on the road. It is a measurement of the performance of the overall operation from end to end. For example, the operator would be required to send a penalty notice after day two, so it picks up whether this gets done or is left until after day three. It reflects a number of parameters, not just identifying vehicles on the road. Vehicle identification is 99.95% accurate. The 92% figure is a contractual payment arrangement under which we measure every part of the operator's performance and not just how many vehicles pass the toll point. What the operator is achieving is in line with international norms, although they are limited.

So it is what Mr. Creegan expected. Is he happy with the performance of the contractor? What supervision or parameters are there to ensure that tolls are collected and that vehicles are identified by the contractor?

Mr. Hugh Creegan

The answer to the question on whether we are happy with the performance of the operator is absolutely "Yes". At the beginning, we were not happy. Back then, we had a system that worked well but we definitely had customer service problems. The level of service being given to customers was not as good as it should have been. That was tackled and a new call——

Mr. Hugh Creegan

Effectively, what happened in that case was that the service was removed from a particular call centre in Newry, Northern Ireland, and moved to a company in Cork. From our perspective, the service being provided is vastly superior to what it had been previously. Overall, the satisfaction rating we get through feedback from customers reflects that. I admit that we were not happy at the very beginning but we are very happy with where we are now.

We have a myriad of tools to monitor and measure the contractor's performance and how it deals with every step along the way. All of those tools are used, deployed and reported on a regular basis. The Comptroller and Auditor General would have seen a large number of those reports in the work that went into producing this chapter.

I thank Mr. Creegan and will address questions to Mr. Brett. Driver testing is another area where we have a positive story in that there were long waiting lists and the number of people looking for driving tests was enormous. It dominated much of our attention in transport. What is the average waiting time at present?

Mr. Noel Brett

Throughout the country, the average waiting time is just under 8.6 weeks.

It has decreased from the high of more than 30 weeks.

Mr. Noel Brett

Absolutely. It is critical that people can get a test quickly and we have to maintain that. At one stage at the point of taking over the service, the average wait in the country for a driving test was 34 weeks. At another stage some years prior to that, it had been more than 62 weeks. Thankfully, now it is possible to get a test in under 8.6 weeks. We also have a facility whereby if somebody requires a test for reasons of employment we can usually facilitate them in a matter of days. We hold some tests back to enable us to do that.

I know it is very positive that waiting lists have been reduced but what the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General focused on, and what we want to ask questions on, are the standards that existed at the time of the changeover and under the contractor that was in place. Obviously, inconsistencies have been highlighted; in some cases, whether one got a test depended on one's address or luck. When the figures came out one saw that there were inconsistencies in the standards set by the contractor initially appointed and that there was a need for the RSA to step in and introduce more driver training. Will Mr. Brett explain this to us? Who paid for the additional training to put standards in place?

Mr. Noel Brett

The first outsource contract was let to SGS by the Department of Transport in 2006. The RSA was established by the Oireachtas in September 2006 and we took over the supervision and management of driver testing, including that contract. From the off, we monitored on a weekly basis. In April 2007, we did a full-scale audit which we and our board felt was good practice. If one outsources something of that size and scale one should go in early and do a full audit. We did a full audit of the outsource contractor in April 2007. We identified some consistency issues in its service with which we were not happy. We had all of its staff retrained, despite the fact that they were originally trained to our specifications. We required them to take additional training and we deployed some of our own staff to do additional supervision and oversight of the contractor. The RSA bore most of the cost for that. We did recover some costs from SGS but we bore most of the cost.

Will Mr. Brett give us an idea of the cost?

Mr. Noel Brett

Off the top of my head, I think we recovered €158,000 from SGS for that. I would have to go through the accounts to dig out the full cost. We took the view that it was time and money well spent because it was critical that our test was acceptable not only throughout Europe, but in all countries with which we have mutual exchange agreements. If the credibility of the Irish driver testing service came into question we would have significant problems.

It is important, and I tried in my submission to clarify the issues and variations that do occur in driver testing services internationally, and in the submission I show examples as to why there are variations. Even in the best countries, such as Sweden and the UK, there are far greater variations than in Ireland. I will give the example of the driver theory test. A candidate learns off theory test questions and sits in front of a computer and answers questions on a screen. In Ireland, there is a 10% variation in pass rates in the theory test between the best centre and the worst centre; Abbeyfeale has the highest pass rate and Navan has the lowest. In a very structured environment, one will have variation. In the most highly regulated environments, for example, in health care and science laboratories, one will have false positives and mistakes and variations.

Nevertheless, we would have expected the contractor put in place to have had the standards to be able to do the job. However, Mr. Brett found out down the road that this was not happening.

Mr. Noel Brett

The contractor did meet the standards. The point is that from the off, the RSA was in there and driving up standards and working with the contractor. Ironically, for the contractor there is no incentive to have a high pass rate. There is an incentive for it to have a low pass rates because it will get more work. In fact, our concern was that the pass rate was higher than we might have expected it to be. That is why we went in with the supervision. We are happy that overall the Irish driver testing system stands up well internationally and even more so in the past 12 months as we have made the improvements that I outlined.

Have there been variations in the past six months? Is Mr. Brett happy that it is more consistent? Would he give us the background to the supervision now in place?

Mr. Noel Brett

There are a number of issues with regard to consistency in the area of practical testing and one-on-one testing of a practical skill. We have done a number of things. Every member of staff working on driver testing in the RSA has been completely retrained and has completed two weeks training. For the first time since the service was established in 1964, that training included a mandatory assessment and one had to pass one's assessment. Every tester has now been trained and has passed the assessment. We put in place all of the IT arrangements that the Comptroller and Auditor General had examined and stated would add value. We now have that tracking and quality assurance in place.

Has the IT been of benefit?

Mr. Noel Brett


I am sure it has.

Mr. Noel Brett

At the time of the audit of the supervisory system we inherited, supervisors had to get a batch of paper sheets and go through them one by one to try to identify trends by centre or by tester. It was not automated. It is now completely automated. Now, a candidate goes on-line to book a test. He or she chooses a test centre and the day and time of the test. The candidate manages all of that. It is like booking an airline flight. Prior to this, it was all paper-based. We have made a huge change in this area.

In terms of supervision, we do struggle. We have seven testing supervisors to cover the entire country and we have 123 driver testers. It is very difficult for seven people to cover the country, which has 52 test centres, and to supervise at that level. As I stated in my submission, on two occasions we sought approval to change the supervisory structure. Unfortunately, that was not acceded to. We can do it within employment numbers and budget and it is something that I want to seek again so I have the level of people to do the supervision properly. That is one of the difficulties I face.

In the past eight months, we have begun to contact tranches of customers to ask them about their experience of the service. We are doing proper customer feedback. We have also put in place formal quality assurance procedures, including being well on the way to getting external accreditation for the entire service to ISO standards. We believe this will also drive consistency for us. At the time of the audit, we had inherited the service and were addressing legacy issues. I am confident that we have addressed them and that we are well on the way. However, we still have a lot of work to do and that work is well under way and we are well resourced to do it.

Supervision is a difficult area. You do not have the supervisors. The national number is seven.

Mr. Noel Brett

I have some vacancies and that is clearly an area I need to bolster to ensure the level of detailed supervision. Supervision is not just about checking results but about mentoring, coaching and bringing up standards. We are in discussion with the Department of Transport on that.

How many vacancies are there?

Mr. Noel Brett

At the moment we have 8.5 vacancies in driver testing across the country from a complement of 123. Four will retire next year.

Are they supervisors or driver testers?

Mr. Noel Brett

There are two supervisory posts empty and 8.5 driver tester posts empty.

The authority is not in a position to fill them.

Mr. Noel Brett

Unfortunately, no. As a result of the Government embargo, I cannot do so.

Will Mr. Brett comment on that? It is a result of the embargo.

Mr. Tom O’Mahony

The Committee of Public Accounts is not the place to negotiate between the Road Safety Authority and the Department of Transport on staffing levels. That is the only comment I could make.

There is a difficulty. Supervision and driver testing vacancies are not being filled.

Mr. Noel Brett

We are maintaining the level of service and are pleased to do so. We are meeting the urgent demand that people have for employment purposes and are pleased to do so. We have addressed every single issue that the Comptroller and Auditor General raised in terms of quality and consistency. The Comptroller and Auditor General has itself drawn attention to the supervision issue and I am not seeking to negotiate here at all.

Mr. Noel Brett

That is the issue to be faced.

While the witness was speaking I thought of the legacy of people with provisional licences. I am thinking of older people who would have had provisional licences and probably still have them. Has that been addressed at all? The concentration seems to be with younger people, and I am sure they make up the bulk of those looking for driving tests, but there are many others.

Mr. Noel Brett

There is nobody left in the country with an old provisional licence and everybody is now on the new learner permit with all the conditions going with it.

Is that everybody?

Mr. Noel Brett

Yes. There are 29,000 people on their fifth or subsequent learner permit. They are predominantly older people and we have a programme in place where if a person is particularly nervous about the test or has failed on several occasions, a driving test supervisor will conduct the test to try to help people through it without compromising the standard. We have managed to reduce by approximately 15,000 the number of people on a fifth or subsequent provisional licence.

Sometimes there are isolated cases and, for example, an older person in rural Ireland may have had a husband who always drove but who has had a stroke or became unwell. Such people may get a first learner permit but use their car very infrequently while collecting a pension or going to mass. Those people will not get the level of driving experience required to pass a test, and these are the type who may be in repeat scenarios. We try to facilitate and help those people as best we can but to give them a full licence, the standard must be demonstrated.

They are the people I am thinking about. Some people may be terrified of the theory test and that may be a major difficulty as well as the driving.

On the service level agreement, Mr. O'Mahony mentioned that there are negotiations for it to be put in place. Why was it not in place at the beginning? What is being considered now? Is it being done retrospectively? Would it not have been better to have had it in place at the beginning? Would we have had a case where standards would be met immediately and there would not have been difficulties with the initial contract?

Mr. Tom O’Mahony

The Deputy may remember that the issues we have been discussing in terms of the need to monitor the contract closely related to the supervision by the RSA of the test carried out by the independent contractor. They would not have been affected one way or another by a service level agreement between the Department and the RSA.

I stressed in my opening statement that we feel from the establishment of the RSA, which effectively took over functions carried out to that point by the Department, we have had a very good and constructive, mutually supportive and close relationship with the RSA. The majority of the staff were our staff who moved to the RSA.

The legislation provided for the possibility of putting a service level agreement in place but it was not done at the start because the focus was on getting the new arrangement up and running. There were major issues surrounding backlogs of driving tests and so on which were addressed. Although we do not feel the system suffered by not having a service level agreement in place, we accept the recommendation that it would be better practice to have one there. It will be in place by the end of this year.

I have a question for Mr. Brett with regard to predicting where we will be with demand. The matter was raised in the Comptroller and Auditor General's report. How is that being addressed and does the authority feel that it is more in control in that respect?

Mr. Noel Brett

The introduction of our new information technology system has given us much more scope in terms of predicting demand. I have dealt with the matter specifically on pages 13, 14 and 15 of the written submission. We have a demand model in place and we draw on material from the driver theory test application rates, learner permit application rates, historical demand and data from the Central Statistics Office, CSO, on demographic trends and migration. We have high, low and medium rates as they relate to projections from the CSO.

The report shows the way we predict demand based on the model we use. In Ireland, demand is highly responsive to what is in the media. For example, on 1 September, when we announced graduated licensing, there was a doubling of applications for two weeks and it then fell off. In July one newspaper ran a speculative piece about what might be in graduated licensing and our applications tripled for two weeks before falling off again. Demand is very responsive to such matters. The acquisition of a driving licence is key to people getting employment and it is now a life skill as opposed to a luxury, so people are very responsive to media coverage or speculation.

In terms of core demand, we are satisfied with the historical backlog with the doubling of applications and we are now down to a core service. The challenge now is to match supply with demand.

The issues dealing with semi-State bodies and the relationship with semi-State bodies is not a topic for discussion today. We will come to that at a later session. I put Mr. O'Mahony on notice that we will take a very in-depth look at the peculiar relationship between the Department and CIE, for example, and the late submission of annual reports by that company. All that will be dealt with in a separate section.

I have a question on output statements from commercial semi-State bodies. Is the Department looking for such statements? It is a general question.

Mr. Tom O’Mahony

The reason for my hesitation is that there is a distinction between commercial and non-commercial semi-State bodies. We would not normally look for output statements from commercial semi-State bodies but we would from non-commercial semi-State bodies. CIE is a commercial body.

Why is that?

Mr. Tom O’Mahony

It is operating in a commercial environment and is not reliant on the Exchequer for funding. It operates a different reporting regime.

It got €315 million last year from the Exchequer.

Mr. Tom O’Mahony

Yes and that related to the provision of specific subvented services. The relationship is now with the National Transport Authority, which we fund. It draws up contracts and every service funded under the subvention is funded under a very precise contract which sets out the service requirement which must be provided and includes holding back a certain amount of funding until there is an assurance that the service has been provided under the terms of the contract. That is the process by which the output and return for the Exchequer funding is monitored, scrutinised and reported on.

We will return to the issue. I am very concerned about what I see happening within CIE and the lack of transparency in the company, indicated in the late reporting by that semi-State commercial body to the Department and the taxpayer. There is one issue on which I would like the delegates to give a detailed report, if they can. It relates to contract No. OBC/409/A, a flyover that was built on the outskirts of Cork city to facilitate the Cork-Midleton rail link. I do not expect answers today but I would like to receive a report on the associated costs, purpose, usage and efficiency of that flyover.

Mr. Tom O’Mahony

We will provide a note to the committee.

I thank everyone for their contribution and opening statements. There is much positive news. I have a question for the Department of Transport and Mr. O'Mahony that I am almost fearful to ask. What is happening with regard to integrated ticketing? It has been on the books from 1994. When will we reach endgame and have fully integrated ticketing for our public transport systems?

Mr. Tom O’Mahony

Very soon, because the elements are almost entirely in place. If one uses Iarnród Éireann one now has the option of that company's smart card. The Dublin Bus-Luas smart card will be available shortly, certainly within the next few months. When the practical experience of that approach has been refined for the rail, bus and Luas systems, early next year and certainly during the first half of 2011 these will merge into a single card which can be used on any of the systems. There will be an electronic purse facility in that one can load it up either by adding one's annual or monthly ticket to it or loading it up with cash.

Will that include the DART?

Mr. Tom O’Mahony

Yes. The Iarnród Éireann card which is in operation already includes DART and commuter rail.

Mr. O'Mahony is hopeful that by next year bus, rail or Luas passengers will be able to use a fully integrated card.

Mr. Tom O’Mahony

Yes, in 2011.

I do not expect Mr. O'Mahony to have the figures to hand in regard to the cost of that specific project and I realise we are going back some distance to 1994. Have we managed to keep within budget for the overall cost of implementation of integrated ticketing?

Mr. Tom O’Mahony

The capital budget for the project is slightly in excess of €55 million and, so far, €31 million has been spent. The board running this project is confident it can deliver it within the overall figure of €55 million. We have probably made the point before but it bears repeating. We appreciate it has taken a long time to get to the stage of having integrated ticketing, longer than anyone would have hoped. Equally, however, nothing would be worse than bringing in a system which failed or a system which had hitches——

Mr. Tom O’Mahony

——or one in which the consumer did not have confidence. That has happened in one or two places around the world. The view has been to bring it along and that is why, on a temporary basis, there is a particular card for the Iarnród Éireann system and another being tried on Dublin Bus-Luas. They will merge into a single card but only when any potential teething difficulties specific to Iarnród Éireann, DART, Dublin Bus or Luas have been addressed.

I thank Mr. O'Mahony for his answer on integrated ticketing. It will be a big monkey off his back when the ticketing comes in and people can see and use it. Obviously, there has been much interest and comment on it.

I refer to the integration of public transport services, specifically how the bus network feeds into the rail network. My experience is that there tends to be a large degree of disconnect in the publishing of new timetables by Iarnród Éireann versus those of CIE or Dublin Bus. From a Department of Transport perspective, are we getting a handle on that? That is probably the biggest frustration customers have regarding the proper working integration of our public transport system. Will Mr. O'Mahony comment on that?

Mr. Tom O’Mahony

Yes. The Deputy is absolutely right. There is much publicity at present about the Dublin Bus network review, for example. Some of it has been implemented recently and the rest will be rolled out over the coming months. The whole point about something such as the Dublin Bus network review is to work out how the bus system needs to change to fit in with the transport infrastructure being put in place. This will become all the more important over the next few years because as we develop projects such as metro north, the DART underground and new Luas lines, eventually we will move to a situation where, for the first time, there is a transport network in Dublin. The idea then is that buses and routes going across the city become much less relevant and the role of the bus as a support — I believe this is the point the Deputy intends — for the heavier system becomes all the more important. Therefore, items such as timetables must match.

As a practical example, at the start of this month the new rail service from Dunboyne to the docklands opened. An initial issue for many people using that service was that it goes to the docklands rather than to Connolly Station. Docklands was not convenient to where people want to go. What Dublin Bus and Iarnród Éireann promoted heavily over the past month was the fact that the bus services which served the docklands station have been changed where necessary. They tweaked the timetables of the services so that the bus will go shortly after the train comes in. That is the type of thinking which might not have been there in the past but is present now.

There probably is a degree of competitiveness between some of the operators, whether bus or rail. I purposely steer away from being parochial but there are many examples where that type of thinking is needed.

Mr. O'Mahony mentioned metro north. When I said I would not be parochial, I lied because metro north is to come to Swords. I am especially disappointed with regard to the in with An Bord Pleanála, especially with the last report due. We had hoped to have a decision in early September. Does Mr. O'Mahony have an update from An Bord Pleanála on the inspector's report? When does he expect a decision to be made?

Mr. Tom O’Mahony

An Bord Pleanála has notified the Railway Procurement Agency, RPA, the applicant in the project, that it expects to make the decision at the end of October.

That is from the Department's perspective. Speaking as a Deputy, I can say it beggars belief for many people that for a major project such as this which is effectively funded by the State, a State agency such as An Bord Pleanála can hold up the process because of a delay in completing an inspector's report even though it had six to eight months to complete it. Has the Department any view in that regard?

Mr. Tom O’Mahony

An Bord Pleanála has its statutory role which was given to it by the Oireachtas. It has to carry out its role and be satisfied it has been through the processes. It is frustrating when a project takes a long time to get through the processes but, that said, this is a major complex project with many implications for all the areas in which the work will take place. Along the course of the project it has been necessary to make changes to the design here and there in the light of things that emerged and to deliver a better project. Those changes themselves have given rise to a need to stretch out the process. Beyond that, all I can say is that we recognise that An Bord Pleanála has to do its job in full.

I hope it finishes soon so that we can get moving on the project. It is very important infrastructure for the city and the north Dublin region.

We spoke about tolls. I am not sure how this relates to barrier-free tolling. The success of the upgrade to the M50 is there for everyone to see. It was interesting that in his opening statement Mr. Creegan mentioned that it was probably the first project in the world whereby there was a one-step transition from the manual barrier. That road has been transformed.

Deputy Clune dealt with toll receipts and various things like that. I want to ask about the Dublin Port tunnel and the tolling there. A number of months ago there were changes to the toll. The peak figure was reduced from €12 to €10 and the off peak and weekend figure to €3. It is fantastic infrastructure. What is the usage? Has the usage by vehicular traffic increased in the port tunnel on the basis of the reduction in the tolls? I ask Mr. Creegan to answer that question first and then we can then pursue the matter further.

Mr. Hugh Creegan

Yes, indeed. Obviously half the traffic through the tunnel is toll free, namely, HGV traffic, and that has reduced slightly over recent years for obvious reasons. The toll reduction applied to the half of the traffic that actually pay tolls in the tunnel, that is, cars and white vans, has caused an increase in that traffic in the order of 15%.

The main purpose of the tunnel is to keep HGVs out of the city centre but it acts as a great connection to the airport from the city centre and the south of Dublin. On the basis of a 15% increase in vehicular traffic there, are there any plans to expand it to public service vehicles to allow a reduced cost for taxi operators, hackneys and others? Buses are not charged for using the tunnel.

Mr. Hugh Creegan

No, buses go through free and there has been a big increase in bus traffic.

Yes. For Dublin Bus and private operators which are running routes, the tunnel is under-utilised Has the Department of Transport considered how to utilise that infrastructure better to increase the number of public transport vehicles using the tunnel?

Mr. Tom O’Mahony

In fairness, it would be more appropriate for me to pass the question back to the NRA——

Mr. Tom O’Mahony

——-because it is responsible for the smooth operation of the tunnel.

Mr. Hugh Creegan

In terms of bus traffic, it is free through the tunnel. As I said, we have seen a steady increase in the number of buses using the tunnel since it opened two years ago. In terms of the use of the tunnel by taxis on a free basis, we have concerns given the volume of taxis in Dublin city. We discussed this issue with the Joint Committee on Transport and we undertook to ensure that at the end of the year we would consider whether the position on taxis should remain as it is or be changed. When we review our toll charges, which we do at the end of each year, that will be considered and some decision will come out of it.

With regard to the port tunnel, did the NRA or the Department have any dealings with Dublin City Council in regard to the construction of the new bridge over the Liffey? A lot of people thought it would have served tunnel traffic but there is no left turn on the quays onto it.

Mr. Hugh Creegan

Is the Deputy referring to the new bridge?

Yes, the James Joyce Bridge.

Mr. Hugh Creegan

It is not part of the national road network. While we had some consultations with the NRA, it is not something with which we were intimately involved.

Mr. Tom O’Mahony

Is the Deputy referring to the Samuel Beckett Bridge?

Mr. Tom O’Mahony

I understand that was a planning condition from An Bord Pleanála.

It was. I wish to raise a number of things with Mr. Brett on road safety and driver testing. He dealt with learner permits and there has been a sea change. I commend the RSA on the work that has been done to reduce waiting times, which is significant. A number of years ago the waiting lists were almost unmanageable and people did not believe it could be done. The staff deserve to be commended on the work they have done.

The Comptroller and Auditor General highlighted a couple of areas within that. On the monitoring of the work the testers are doing, testers should be able to complete an average of eight tests a day. People are not robots and different things come into play. Does the RSA monitor the output of the staff and the different testers?

Mr. Noel Brett

Yes, the individual tester has no control or influence over his or her productivity. We schedule eight tests per day in summer time and seven in winter time because of the reduced light, although that is something we are trying to address under the Croke Park agreement. Each tester is scheduled to the maximum level. Where we lose capacity is when people cancel at short notice by telephone on the day or do not turn up for their tests. We have taken a number of measures in terms of blocking off capacity to prevent losses like that.

We now allow people to book on-line and choose the time that suits them. In the past one was given a date which could be in the middle of the school or working day or one may have had child care issues and the date may not have suited. Now one chooses one's own date and time. We are now in a position to remind candidates of their appointment time by e-mail and text and we do that routinely. Since we have introduced the new on-line scheduling we find candidates are picking the vacant slots caused by short cancellations. Our productivity is up.

Mr. Noel Brett

The individual tester has no control over how many tests he or she does. He or she is scheduled to the maximum level. Where we lose capacity is when people do not turn up or if people turn up with a car which is not roadworthy, not taxed or uninsured. We cannot take them out on the test and they are cancelled and forfeit their fee. That is where we lose capacity. We have tightened up significantly in terms of lost capacity.

I thank Mr. Brett.

What is the annual cost of cancellations?

Mr. Noel Brett

In 2009 the in-house driver testing service total was €11.4 million and we lost about 15% of our tests through cancellations. If the RSA cancels the test because of driver tester sickness, we bear the cost. If the candidate fails to turn up or turns up with an uninsured vehicle, he or she bears the cost. It should be borne in mind that the service is now almost entirely self-funding. That was one of the points made by the Comptroller and Auditor General in 1999 and again in 2009. We are now almost entirely self-funding. The only cost in terms of cancellations is if the RSA has to cancel because of staff sickness.

I thank Mr. Brett. I have a question for Mr. O'Mahony before I call Deputy Fleming. I refer to the travel tax. Travellers pay the tax on booking with the airline and when they cancel the tax is being kept by the airlines. Has Mr. O'Mahony done an estimate of the net loss to the Exchequer of this practice by the airlines? It should revert to the clients.

Mr. Tom O’Mahony

Yes, it would not be a net loss to the Exchequer because if the travel has not taken place the only issue is whether the airline should be keeping it or giving it back. As it is a tax issue it is primarily one for the Minister for Finance. Having said that, I understand that some airlines refund the tax. All airlines accept responsibility to refund the tax but in some cases an administrative charge is put in place which means it is not worth the customer's while to claim it. That is not an issue over which we have any direct control. I do not have any estimate of what might be involved.

The McCarthy report mentioned increased dividends from commercial semi-State bodies to the Exchequer. The Department was identified in the report as one which would bear the responsibility for getting that increased dividend. What has it done since the publication of that report regarding the dividends of commercial State bodies?

Mr. Tom O’Mahony

Commercial State bodies which are in a position to pay dividends are paying them. Some of the commercial State bodies are not generating profits currently. I am aware the Dublin Airport Authority paid almost €20 million to us in respect of 2008. I am aware a dividend was paid last year by Dublin Port although off the top of my head I am not sure of the amount. Under the corporate governance arrangements we have with all our agencies, there are regular meetings. The Minister meets the board every year and the Department has more regular meetings than that. One of the issues pursued by the Minister when he meets the boards is the issue of dividends.

Can Mr. O'Mahony provide the committee with a list of the dividends from all the boards of the companies under the Department's jurisdiction?

Mr. Tom O’Mahony

Yes, we will send it on.

What are the arrangements for funding for county roads? Until a couple of years ago, that was dealt with by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the local authorities. When the change of responsibility occurred, funding for county roads was passed to the Department of Transport and local authorities apply to the Department for funds for maintenance repairs and improvement grants. Last week was the closing date for applications from local authorities which go directly to the NRA. What is happening? Why is the Department out of the loop? There was probably an official sanctioning of the decision but why did it happen? Most of the motorway projects are nearly complete. Is this being done to use excess staff in the NRA?

Mr. Tom O’Mahony

It is about efficiency and finding the most efficient way of operating the scheme. From 1 September last, certain functions in the administration of the regional and local roads investment programme were transferred from the Department to the NRA.

Was that a few weeks ago or 12 months ago?

Mr. Tom O’Mahony

It was in September 2009. It did not involve changing legislation, it was done on an administrative basis, although there is a copy of the agreement in the Oireachtas Library. There was discussion of this at the Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. The NRA handles the day-to-day administration of the regional and local roads investment programme but the statutory position of the local authorities is not affected. They continue to have the statutory responsibility for the improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads and the statutory position of the Minister for Transport has not changed. He is still fully responsible for regional and local roads policy and continues to approve the annual allocation of regional and local grants to local authorities. He deals with parliamentary questions and Adjournment debates on the topic. The administrative work that would have been done by a section of the Department for the Minister is now done for him by the NRA because of its expertise and recognising that the resources available to the Department are falling significantly as we work through the public sector staffing reductions.

The level of grant each local authority gets is still determined under the same criteria — the money we have for the year, the eligibility criteria for different schemes, road pavement conditions, the length of the road network, competing demands from local authorities and so on. The overall objective is to supplement the resources the local authorities provide themselves in the most appropriate manner.

The staff levels in the NRA increased as the motorway programme was ratcheted up. There have been reductions in the staffing levels in the NRA to reflect the shift in emphasis from roads to public transport under the programme for Government but there will continue to be substantial road improvements, road building and road maintenance programmes to the tune of €6 billion between 2010 and 2016 in the Government capital programme.

The Government is conscious that the NRA has built up a skilled resource with particular expertise in procurement, capital investment, major infrastructural projects and engineering. The Government view is that resource can be deployed in areas beyond roads and, therefore, we are involved in working through how to implement a merger of the NRA and the RPA.

Is that a new announcement?

Mr. Tom O’Mahony

No, it was already announced.

It was in the McCarthy report.

Mr. Tom O’Mahony

It was recommended in the McCarthy report and the Government has announced that this will be done. It will bring to bear the expertise needed in the major public transport investment programmes that lie ahead and there is a long-term possibility of this merged body taking on other projects, even outside of transport, where capital investment and procurement expertise would be of use to the State.

As part of this process, for regional and local roads the funding inevitably varies because the cost of resurfacing a kilometre of road varies in different local authority areas. There is variation in surface testing computer results when we come to different local authority surfaces. Is anyone asking why costs vary from one county to the next, with the idea of introducing central purchasing or a national list of contractors? Efficiency was mentioned. Does the Department believe there is scope for efficiency by getting more consistency between the typical road maintenance works? Is there a variation? Local authorities submit schedules based on the sections of roads they are repairing so what is the level of variation from county to county?

Mr. Tom O’Mahony

I do not have the data with me but we can send them on to the committee. We sent a new memorandum this year to local authorities on grants for regional and local roads with an original implementation date of 1 July. Some aspects have been deferred until December but the purpose is to make the grant money we allocate more output oriented. There will be tighter conditions and controls on the basis on which money is given. That should help us move to a situation where we can be satisfied that consistent value for money is being given across the various local authorities. I will send whatever information we have on the variations.

Will the Department send a copy of that circular as well?

Mr. Tom O’Mahony

We will.

In view of the difficulties of funding for local authorities, how does the Department know that the money it allocates for road repairs is spent on roads and is not used for housing or water? What mechanisms does the Department have in place to protect the money that goes from the Department to local authorities? There are systems in place but how much would be given to local authorities for regional and local roads? Is there any way to check it is being spent on the roads or is any of it subsumed in local authority overheads?

Mr. Tom O’Mahony

There are procedures in place. The best I can do on that issue is compile a note on it and send it to the committee.

Great. Mr. O'Mahony will send us a copy.

Mr. Tom O’Mahony


What is the current position on the rest areas on the motorways? One or two such areas are being provided on the M1 or the M3. The Naas dual carriageway on the Dublin-Cork motorway, on which I travel several times each week, is utterly unsafe. We may speak about road deaths. A significant number of road deaths are attributed to drink and speed but there is also the issue of tiredness. The lack of rest areas is very serious. What is the Department's position on the provision of rest areas and who funds them?

Mr. Tom O’Mahony

One or two rest areas have opened on the M1 during the past week or two and one is due to open on the M4. Proposals for four other rest areas, at Athlone, Cashel, Kilcullen and Gorey, have been submitted to An Bord Pleanála by the NRA and planning approval has been granted in respect of Kilcullen and Athlone. The rest area at Gorey is to be built as part of the N11 PPP, and is due to start next year. There is a funding issue about moving to construction of the other nine areas. The Minister has asked the NRA to look at any possible alternatives that may be able to deliver them. In the meantime, while rest areas are not a substitute for service areas, a number of parking areas has been built into the design of the new motorways so that vehicles can be parked safely to allow drivers take rest periods. As an interim measure, the NRA is putting information signs on dual carriageways indicating the presence of refuelling facilities within one kilometre of a junction. I appreciate that is inviting people to come off the motorway which has its own issues and sometimes people are not willing to do that. Clearly, the Department's view, which is backed up by RSA estimates, is that driver fatigue is an issue. We need to move as quickly as we can to have full service areas at the optimum locations. We have a funding constraint so it is a question of identifying how much progress can be made and if we can find ways of doing this whether through PPP or private sector involvement.

I am not sure of the figures but I think we have spent of the order of €16 billion on national roads improvement and now we are talking about the safety element. That does not stand up. Would it be acceptable by European standards to build a motorway from Dublin to Limerick without providing for a service area? Certainly that is not acceptable by my standards. Why is the provision of such areas an afterthought? I have the greatest praise for the motorways that have been built but yet we have this discussion after all the roads are open. I appreciate the matter was raised previously but this discussion should have taken place six years ago before the plans were submitted to An Bord Pleanála. Why did the Department allow these roads to be built without service areas being factored in or was it the Department's philosophy that traffic on the motorways would dip into the local towns to keep them alive and that was a perverse reason for not providing for service areas? Everybody knows that was a nonsense and now we have the motorways without service areas. That is the only conclusion I can come to given what has happened in recent years. Was there a different thinking on that issue earlier?

Mr. Tom O’Mahony

The discussion took place three years ago. I cannot disagree that it would have been better if it had taken place earlier. In October 2007 the National Roads Authority produced a policy paper at the request of the Minister for Transport so presumably work would have been done on it some time before that. That policy paper identified optimum locations for 12 service areas. The intention from that point onwards was to build the service areas into the system. We have a funding constraint which obviously was——

Is Mr. O'Mahony saying this was a lack of forethought? The Chairman and the Deputy will agree with me the Department was well able to plan the motorway from Cork to Dublin with two toll booths but was not able to plan a service area where people could park in safety, refuel, take a break, have a cup of coffee and drive the next hour safely.

Mr. Tom O’Mahony

The policy paper was sought in 2007. I do not have any insights on the policy before that time.

We are agreed that it is a pity service areas are not in place. Mr. O'Mahony must accept that.

Mr. Tom O’Mahony

It is a pity they are not in place. We are seeking to move on them as fast as we can find a means of providing them and, in the interim, to provide safe alternatives which would be the rest areas and directing traffic to refuelling or dining facilities within a kilometre of the various junctions.

Ultimately the cost of adding a facility to a motorway will be much more expensive than had it been done as part of the original construction project. Presumably the PPP operators will have a ransom right over the motorway whereby one cannot move in on its motorway to provide such a facility unless it gets its pound of flesh. Perhaps the NRA would comment on the entitlements of PPP operators to hold the ransom on whether one of these services areas will be provided on one of its routes? In fairness, I cannot envisage many men, not to mind any woman, wishing to park in any of the rest areas, locking the car door and taking a snooze for half an hour. There are no lights on them. I cannot envisage people being happy to use those areas, especially at night, and I certainly cannot envisage a lady doing it. What is the role of the PPP operator now that he owns the road? Will he dictate whether there will be a rest area and will it be built on his terms or not at all?

Mr. Hugh Creegan

The short answer to that question is "No". He has no ransom.

Does the NRA have a right to put an opening on-and-off his motorway?

Mr. Hugh Creegan

Yes. In fact, we have just done that on the M1 motorway, part of which is on a concession section of the motorway. We did not make any payments to that concession company. It is built and is now open. The Secretary General said we all agreed there should be service areas on the network and it is a question of getting the funding to enable us to deliver them.

To return to the earlier policy and when we started to build the motorway network, there is a mixed practice abroad in terms of the provision of service areas. Some jurisdictions try to put them on line while other jurisdictions like to see them at junctions. When we started to build our motorway network a large number of private sector developers said they develop facilities at various junctions which would provide those services. When they did not materialise we revised our policy in 2007 to develop on-line service areas.

Why did they not materialise?

Mr. Hugh Creegan

That is a matter for them. In service areas by themselves ——

Presumably it was because the NRA objected to An Bord Pleanála using the State investment of a good motorway network not to clog up the traffic backing into private centres. I am sure the Department objected to many of them.

Mr. Hugh Creegan

No. Some got permission and did not proceed.

Mr. Hugh Creegan

I think it is a question of the commercial viability.

I have made the point on that topic. I just want to ask——

As one who uses the Cork-Dublin motorway all the time, there is not one point where one can stop to use toilet facilities. It was a massive error by the National Roads Authority that in building motorways it did not provide for such facilities.

Mr. Hugh Creegan

It was our intention to put these in and to have them there now, but the funding has not been available to do it.

When they were being built funding was available. You cannot use the funding excuse.

Mr. Hugh Creegan

It would not be normal to build them as part of the road. If one is building such a commercial shop or retail operation, it is more usual to build it after the road or tie it in to the opening of the road. That was our intention but we have not had the funding available to do it. We would love to have facilities on the Cork route and hope to have them at some point in the future.

Did the NRA acquire land to incorporate these services on the motorways?

Mr. Hugh Creegan

No. We have several schemes through An Bord Pleanála and a number of schemes ready to go through An Bord Pleanála. Those schemes would involve acquiring the land at that point.

In all the complicated compulsory purchase order, CPO, procedures and the public inquiries down through the years the NRA omitted or forgot to acquire land to provide basic services. That is a massive cock-up.

Mr. Hugh Creegan

That is not correct. When we planned this motorway network we were told by the private sector that it would deliver services at the various junctions. Clearly, in that scenario it would not make sense for us to develop on-line facilities. That has not happened. We recognised several years ago that it was not happening and we put a policy in place in 2007. We have managed to deliver three of them and would like to deliver more. It is a question of when the funding is available.

Even in the agreements the NRA made in the public private partnerships for the toll roads, did it not insert a clause that would require those developers to install service areas?

Mr. Hugh Creegan

We did not insert such a clause. It would have been quite difficult to sign those contracts with something that did not have approval in place, given the nature of statutory approvals in Ireland. There is nothing preventing us from putting the facilities in place on any of those concession roads at any point.

It is incredible. The NRA was grievously negligent in not doing this. Again, nobody pays the price. A motorway without services is like a car without an engine. Deputy Fleming is right to raise this issue this morning.

Mr. Hugh Creegan

When we started building these motorways we were told that there would be services developments at the junctions. They did not materialise. We reacted. We have built what we have been able to get funding for——

That is what I call wishful thinking.

Mr. Hugh Creegan

I accept that you would call it that, Chairman, but that is what much of the private sector told us and, second, it is the practice in a number of jurisdictions abroad. Services areas are not a major commercial money-spinning exercise. Many jurisdictions abroad look to the private sector to develop them at junctions. We have been unfortunate here that it has not happened. We have only managed to deliver the current three but we hope over the longer term to deliver more as funding is available.

My experience of the National Roads Authority is that it gets its nose into many local issues. Cork is an example, where it is stymieing private enterprise instead of doing its basic job in providing the services the public requires. I question its role with regard to local planning and development plans. It is getting into all sorts of issues at local level but it cannot do the job it was established to do.

Mr. Hugh Creegan

Our only issue in terms of development plans and local plans is protecting the investment we have made in these roads.

It is protecting its own interests at the cost of local authorities and private enterprise in those areas, but is losing sight of the big picture.

Mr. Hugh Creegan

We do not agree. We are not trying to prevent development but simply saying that the development must be planned and delivered in a manner consistent with the major investment the State has made in the motorways.

In some cases the NRA is telling people to hold off for six, eight and ten years while it puts its plans in place, and in some cases it does not even have plans. It is sanitising areas in case it decides to go ahead with projects in the future. Dunkettle in Cork is an example which we raised here previously.

Mr. Hugh Creegan

Yes, and we are very familiar with the Dunkettle junction. That junction will require a major upgrade in the future. We, not the local authority, produced the plans for that upgrade in a way that satisfied the national road needs and the local road needs. We must ensure we can deliver that at some point in the future. Otherwise, you will be able to make the point you made earlier, that we would be negligent in not being able to deliver that. At the moment we are seeking to protect that ability——

I beg to differ with the NRA on this issue. There is an issue I wish to raise with Mr. Brett——

Chairman, I wish to conclude with the NRA. Something occurred to me when the Chairman was speaking on this topic. Will Mr. Creegan look into putting some form of identification on these motorways and come back to the committee with an observation on it? This point has been raised with me by senior people in the ambulance control centre. Let us say there is a crash or a problem on a motorway. The person rings on their mobile phone and is asked where they are. All they can say is that they left Cork an hour previously. If they are asked if they are in Tipperary, they do not know. They do not know where they are other than to say, for example, that there has been a concrete barrier on their right hand side for the past 20 miles. People do not know in what part of the country they are. It might sound absurd but somebody might give their location as being 30 miles further away from where they thought. When they call an ambulance they find it difficult to explain their location. Has Mr. Creegan heard of such incidents?

Mr. Hugh Creegan

I have not but it is certainly something we can examine.

The ambulance people have told me they are concerned about some stretches of the motorways. I live in the midlands and the M7 and M8 go through my area. They are getting calls from people who do not know whether they are near Portlaoise or past Urlingford. They see no town and no signs for the name of the county through which they are passing. There are big blue signs but people just drive past them. There must be some way of helping people to know their location.

Mr. Hugh Creegan


I have a few questions for Mr. Brett of the Road Safety Authority. I appreciate his presence today. We acknowledge and appreciate the major reduction in fatalities on the roads. I presume that is matched by a reduction in the number of car crashes and injuries. Will he comment on that? Fatalities are the headline figure but the others are important as well. Is there a serious reduction in the number of crashes and injuries?

Mr. Noel Brett

Yes. Every year the Garda attend just over 29,000 collisions and we receive the reports from each one. We analyse them in our research unit so we can develop our education based on that. Any one of those collisions has the potential to be fatal. As of 9 a.m. today, there were 27 fewer fatal collisions than on the same day last year and there are 20 fewer people dead. We have been unfortunate in that over the summer there were three multi-fatality collisions at a level we have not experienced for years. In general, the collision rate is going down. There are a number of reasons for that, including the investment the committee has just been discussing, segregating vulnerable road users, education and enforcement. It is mainly due to Irish people's changed attitudes. People have got their heads around this and are taking responsibility. For every fatality there are at least ten serious injuries requiring hospitalisation. There will be new data shortly from the HSE showing the number of bed days being lost as a result of road traffic collisions. It is significant.

I am sure the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire is substantially occupied by people who have been involved in such accidents.

The waiting time for driving tests was 8.6 weeks in 2008 and is essentially the same now. There is no improvement. The test fee is €75. Is the re-test fee the same?

Mr. Noel Brett

It is.

It is not like the NCT, where the re-test is half price.

Mr. Noel Brett

No, it is not. With regard to a waiting time of 8.6 or 8.4 weeks, most people who apply for a test would not be ready if we called them in less than five weeks and they would cancel. People like to get their date and do some intensive revision before it. When it goes below eight weeks it becomes difficult to fill slots. What is happening now is that when people book a test and we reply immediately with a date, they panic and cancel

It is too soon. With regard to the learner driver permits, is there a system in place whereby one cannot renew one's permit indefinitely without doing a test? Are people continually failing? What is the highest number of failures by one person? The system must know when somebody has failed.

Mr. Noel Brett

There is no preclusion in law from getting another learner permit when one fails a test. It is a permit to learn. It is like taking an examination. One can take it as many times as one wishes. Clearly, we must try to get people up to the required standard and through the test. I do not know if there is somebody who has done the test 30 times, for example, but I can find out. It is an interesting point. However, there are people in their 80s who have passed their test recently on their first attempt. People are changing their attitudes to learning to drive and taking a test.

What percentage of tests involve night time driving?

Mr. Noel Brett

None of the current driving tests involves night time driving.

I find this extraordinary. I suspect most of the multiple accidents to which Mr. Brett referred occurred at night. I suspect also that Mr. Brett has information on the times of the day when most accidents occur. How many accidents occur between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.? We now hear one cannot do a driving test at night time, the time when most people are killed on the road.

It would be better if some people were forced to do their driving tests at night because that is when most of the accidents occur with dazzling lights, with people pulling in and pulling out and with people not knowing the width of the road. Many people are more nervous of night time driving than of day time driving.

Does Mr. Brett have information on the number of crashes and fatalities? There is a big gap in the system and we should encourage people to do night time tests. There are cost and staff implications but that is the time of the day when people are killed.

Mr. Noel Brett

In terms of the times of the day when collisions happen, this year, for example, the most dangerous time has been between 10 p.m. and midnight with 21 people, or 13.5%, dying. The next most dangerous time slot is between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. — bearing in mind we have not come into the winter — with 19 people, or 12.3%, dying. The next most dangerous time is between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. Again, that is the time when our most vulnerable road users are out. The Deputy is quite right——

Does Mr. Brett accept my point? My point was well made.

Mr. Noel Brett

Absolutely. On 1 September we announced the new graduated driver licensing and the compulsory lessons and part of that syllabus will include compulsory night time lessons. It is more important that people are actually taught to drive at night time than assessed on their driving at night time.

How does Mr. Brett make that rather corny distinction? Mr. Brett acknowledged that it is important that one is taught how to drive at night time but he said he will not put the staff in place to test people. He wants driving instructors to give people lessons at night time but he wants to stand back from the system. I suggest he should look at coming into the system.

Mr. Noel Brett

I fully accept what the Deputy said. What I am saying is that we want people to be taught to drive in a range of conditions — for example, on the open road as opposed to in an urban setting. Currently, people take lessons to pass the test. They learn off a test route and that is all they do. They do not do open road driving, night time driving or otherwise. What we are saying in the structured lessons is that one must do modules in each scenario, so one is actually taught to drive in those conditions.

To test people at night time would mean closing the day time service and turning it into a night time service. We would get dark conditions but we would not get traffic volumes, interactions with pedestrians, school children and buses, so we would lose some of the other bits.

Is Mr. Brett saying we need a mix?

Mr. Noel Brett

Absolutely. Every driver in the next generation of drivers needs to be trained for all the things they encounter. Deputy Fleming touched on it in terms of the fabulous new motorway network. However, for many people, the first time they know anything about it is when they find themselves on a motorway. We will have to come back to motorway driving in terms of post-test training.

In regard to the use of roundabouts, we have huge issues, in particular with older drivers who arrive at a roundabout and do not know what to do. Some 29 people have got penalty points for going the wrong way around a roundabout. They were all Irish licence holders. We have a huge issue in terms of getting our existing licence holders to understand the new road network.

I fully accept the Deputy's point about night time driving but it is more important that people are shown how and trained to drive at night time and that we do not lose the other bits of the driving test.

Obviously, the Road Safety Authority has a good automated system. Will Mr. Brett indicate the number of cancellations? The testers' sheets must show the reasons people fail their tests. What are the two or three most common reasons people fail their driving tests? Given that the Road Safety Authority has this information, how is it trying to educate people on those two or three issues?

Mr. Noel Brett

The most common faults would be lack of courtesy to other road users, not being able to maintain reasonable progress throughout one's test and not carrying out detailed appropriate observations. What we have done to help driving instructors and members of the public — again, it is something to which the Comptroller and Auditor General alluded — is that we have published fault guidelines so that everybody taking a test knows exactly how and on what he or she will be marked. The instructors can teach them about that.

We have also published the actual procedures so that anybody taking a test, anybody teaching a learner or anybody conducting a test knows exactly how a test will be conducted and how it will be marked. The marking sheets are given to all candidates. It is about trying to ensure people know exactly what the test will be and that they are able to prepare for it properly.

Where are the locations for lorry and bus testing? I am sure there are not too many of them.

Mr. Noel Brett

There are 52 driving test centres throughout the country.

How many are for commercial vehicles?

Mr. Noel Brett

The smaller test centres, such as Buncrana and Clifden, only test cars and smaller vehicles. Truck, bus and coach tests are available in most of the big urban centres but there will be new requirements in 2013. They will require some elements of the truck test to be done in a compound, or off road, such as coupling and decoupling one's trailer. One will have to be tested at full load. One will also have to be able to manage a chicane and do some breaking exercises which one cannot do on a public road.

We have conducted a review of our estate and we are in discussion with the Department of Transport about the locations we should be in. If one looks at the Dublin area for example, all the test centres are in Dublin despite all the satellite towns which have built up around it, such as Clonee. We ask people to come all the way in to Finglas, Rathgar and Churchtown and battle the Dublin traffic to practice and to take a test. We need to find ways to maintain those centres but to bring testing to where people live, both for commercial tests for trucks, buses and coaches and for motorbikes and cars. That will be a big challenge for us in the next five years.

A significant compound of a couple of hectares would be required for articulated trucks to turn, reverse, decouple and so on. That will mean the overwhelming majority of centres which currently conduct truck tests will not be suitable. Commercial vehicle testing will probably be taken away from the majority of test centres. Is that right?

In most places, even in the large provincial towns, the test centre is a little office with four car parking spaces outside. It would be nonsense to put a compound everywhere. Am I right in saying there will be a major reduction in testing in some areas? Has the Road Safety Authority identified any areas so far?

Mr. Noel Brett

Currently, 80% of tests take place in 20% of the test centres. Deputy O'Brien asked me about productivity. The reason the Comptroller and Auditor General showed that our productivity dropped in 2008 and 2009 was that we had to send testers all around the country. For example, right now, I do not have enough work for testers for trucks, buses and cars in the north west. I have deployed those people to Dublin. They have to travel on our time, so they do fewer tests. However, I must deploy them to where the work is. We are moving people around the country.

In terms of new centres, we will ensure every region has access to a test centre, within a reasonable commute. The locations we have currently are very much accidents of history. They are located where there was a Government building or an opportunity. We must look at where the demand for the various types of tests is so that people can get to them. One cannot say to somebody in Donegal that he or she must drive to Athlone for a truck test. We must find the right locations and make them available to people.

A truck instructor must give his or her truck to a candidate for a test but then he or she is idle for two hours. We have much work to do to smarten up how we deliver truck and bus tests so that it is better for employers, instructors and candidates and that we can do tests in blocks. Those are the challenges. We are very much engaged in trying to map historical demand and likely future demand because there are parts of the country in which there is little demand for truck tests but we must have tests available.

Mr. Brett mentioned earlier that sometimes an instructor will decline to carry out a test if he or she believes a car is not roadworthy. I have heard of cases where the authority's testers will not carry out a test if there is a smell of smoke in the car due to the smoking regulations.

Mr. Noel Brett

I have heard that too. That is not the case. I have heard it reported, but that is not a standard operating procedure. It is possible to ventilate a car. Obviously, they would not do a test if the driver is smoking, for example. They will not carry out a test if the car is not roadworthy, not taxed or not insured. Unfortunately, sometimes people turn up with cars, for example, with warning lights on due to defective brakes or whatever and in those instances the test simply cannot be conducted.

Believe it or not, a number of incidents happen on tests. I have three testers off work at present following collisions and, unfortunately, one poor lady had a heart attack and died out on the road during her test a few months ago. It is important that the vehicle is fit and, obviously, the driver is fit, and the tester must make that health and safety call, but we do everything in our power to make sure we test as many people as we can.

My final topic is the main subject of the Comptroller and Auditor General's report, the variation between testers. What does the authority need to do to bring that up to scratch? Mr. Brett explained the 80%-20% split. In the regions the authority has some busy centres and some that are quite scattered, and perhaps the variations happen in some of the latter. What kind of regional management structure does the authority have in place to oversee that? He dealt with it in response to Deputy Clune and I will not ask him to enter into an IR discussion with the Department here. However, solely from Mr. Brett's perspective, what does he need to do that?

Mr. Noel Brett

At the time the audit was done, we had inherited the legacy surveys and we were putting in place the various systems. I think the Comptroller and Auditor General's audit acknowledged, for example, the IT system that we had gone to tender for and put in, and they were identifying where it would give us improvements. We now have that IT system in place and we are able now, in pretty sharp order, to know test rates by centre and by driver. Deputy Fleming can see in the report the type of information we now have. When this audit was done, we did not have that information. It was paper-based in the main. We now have that type of detail. We undertook a European procurement process and gave the contract to Fujitsu for the IT system. It is now there and fully working and done on time. That gives us a lot more information. In January, for the first time ever, every single tester was written to and shown their past fail rates and number of tests for the year.

How many testers are there in the authority?

Mr. Noel Brett

There are 123 testing posts, eight of which are vacant. My complement is 123.

How many supervisors or regional managers are there?

Mr. Noel Brett

I have seven supervisors and a chief driving tester, and I also have a training officer.

Is that enough?

Mr. Noel Brett

The new IT system allows us to spend less time crunching paper and more time on supervision. We have gone through the issue previously, in terms of what the Comptroller and Auditor General said and what we said in response.

The other thing we are doing, as I said, is getting external accreditation. That is massively important, that somebody outside of the RSA is accrediting the processes and we are able to stand over them. As I said, every tester has had two full weeks of training with an assessment. That, again, affected productivity in 2009 because they were taken out to do that training, but it is critical that they are trained to do the job.

We are engaged with the trade unions under the Croke Park agreement on formal quality assurance procedures and where we identify a difference, we intervene at that centre. We examine the centre and the testers, and offer additional supervision and training. If that does not effect the change, we remove that tester from front-line testing. We have done that on a number of occasions in the past six months and we will continue to do that. It is not popular, but one has to do that if the person requires additional training. However, in general, they are a body of staff that really rose to the challenge that was put to them in 2007. There has been fantastic engagement, particularly with IMPACT at national level, and we are making good progress.

Is Mr. Brett saying there will be a major improvement in the variations? He would expect that.

Mr. Noel Brett

Continuous improvement. I would also say, as in my submission, that Ireland compares very well in driving test services across the country in terms of the band for pass rates. Of all those who appeal their leaving certificate results, for example, a significant number will have their results amended. That is a system where someone has a script and rules to correct it, and there can be differences. The driver testing system is somebody observing a practical task and if one is looking at the person's feet to see how they are using the controls, he or she is not going to see some of the road signs that the driver might not comply with. It is very difficult. That is why in the submission I included the examples from elsewhere, to try to give some understanding as to why there are variations. The task for the RSA is to make sure that we can stand over them, that they are to the minimum and, where there is somebody slipping from the acceptable band, that we intervene.

Mr. Brett stated that the system is almost self-financing. Is he not in a position to fill those vacancies, if they are self-financing, in view of the authority's own resources?

Mr. Noel Brett

Following the Government decision, there is a public service recruitment embargo. Certainly, that is the discussion we need to have with the Department of Transport.

Mr. Brett mentioned the chart in his submission on the test outcome data which Fujitsu is contracted to analyse for the authority. Everything else such as the financial reports and the absence reports are produced on a daily or weekly basis, but the test outcome data, which are very important, seem to be produced by the authority once a quarter only. As a result, it is produced months and months after the fact. Should the authority not be doing that on a monthly basis?

Mr. Noel Brett

Fujitsu are the people who designed and put in our IT system for us. These are the standard reports that would be produced, but we can go in and interrogate the system in real time. When one is looking at test outcomes, one must have a statistically relevant volume of tests. We would have testers in Buncrana, for example, who might be doing very small numbers of tests per annum, and it is important that one has a statistical relevance.

Did Mr. Brett give me the figure for the number of no-shows? I called into my own office one day and the tester was sitting there so I asked him why that was so. He told that the applicant never showed up. The guy was just sitting there twiddling his thumbs. Is there much of that?

Mr. Noel Brett

We were losing one in five due to applicants not showing up. People were literally applying for a driving test so that they could get another provisional licence and continue. That number is down significantly. It is approximately 12% now, but we could get it a lot lower.

That is one in eight. Mr. Brett has touched on something interesting. He stated that, historically, for a permit holder to renew his or her permit, he or she would have to show that he or she had applied for a test. Is that currently the situation? Mr. Brett is saying that some people were applying for the test, getting the test date, not showing up and getting their permit renewed, and the test application was something of a phoney process to renew a permit, in some cases with no intention of doing the test.

Mr. Noel Brett

That was part of the rationale for increasing the test fee. When the test fee was down at €38 at the height of the boom,——

People were willing to do that.

Mr. Noel Brett

Absolutely. We were also finding a situation where people would make multiple applications. Candidates might make three or four applications because they knew they had to wait 30 or 40 weeks for a test. They would make multiple applications to hedge their bets and if they did not pass, they knew they would get another test and would not have to wait another 40 weeks. Thankfully, those days are gone and it is much different for customers.

I thank Mr. Brett and apologise for taking so long.

I have two final questions before I ask Mr. Buckley to come in. One relates to figure 3.2 in the report, which shows that there was a drop in the number of tests carried out between 2006 and 2008, and the authority is more dependent on overtime to carry out the tests. Is that a worrying trend for the authority or can Mr. Brett explain it?

Mr. Noel Brett

It is not one that was particularly worrying at the time. In that period, 2007 and 2008, we were addressing the backlog. We were moving testers all around the country. We had removed a number of testers from front-line testing and they were doing the supervision and the training. We had taken surplus civil servants, for example, from the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and trained them as testers. We had to take front-line testers out to train those people, and it takes nearly six weeks to train a tester. Where we had surplus testers, for example, in the north west, we would move them from the north west down, for example, into Finglas, Cork or other areas where we had pressure. They would be travelling down on a Monday in work time and not testing, which resulted in the loss of capacity, and the same would arise on their way back on a Friday. The whole process brought down output because people were deployed on quality assurance work, supervision and training. What we are at now is trying to make sure that every single slot is filled. The service has to be self-funding and if we do not fill the slots, we lose money.

I thank Mr. Brett. I have one final question for Mr. O'Mahony. Following the snow event, is the Department happy that the national infrastructure can withstand a one-day event or a prolonged cold snap? Does it have the co-ordination and organisation in place to avoid what happened last year?

Mr. Tom O’Mahony

Yes. As the Chairman knows, there was an interdepartmental working group in place over the course of the emergency trying to co-ordinate the activities of the various agencies. When the emergency was over, the Government asked the interdepartmental working group to remain in place and pull together the recommendations from the various Departments on the issues that had arisen in order to discover what could be done, in the first instance, to prevent a recurrence of the problems that were experienced. The working group was also charged with learning whatever lessons could be learned regarding best response. That process has resulted in a timetable that has been agreed across a number of issues.

A circular has been issued to all city and county managers requesting local authorities to put the various recommendations in place. The NRA is proceeding to ensure that it has adequate rock salt stocks on hand. All of the transport agencies — the DAA, Luas, Irish Rail, Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann — are all liaising with local authorities in order to agree what are the priority routes which must be kept open. The NRA is also to complete its winter maintenance guidelines — these would include material relating to severe weather requirements — for launch in the middle of October at a seminar with the local authorities. One tries to learn from experience and that is what has been done.

I thank Mr. O'Mahony and call on the Comptroller and Auditor General to comment.

Mr. John Buckley

The consistency of driver testing is an important badge of the effectiveness of the RSA. Based on the evidence, I welcome the moves to try to track the pass rates by centre and tester. The challenge from here on is to build on this management information to ensure that the divergences in results between centres are validated and are appropriate. As stated at the outset, it will then be possible, within the centres, to isolate the factors that caused the decisions to vary significantly from the average.

I wish to point out for clarity that our work on productivity took account of absences when calculating output. It also took account of cancellations and non-attendance. The challenge is to identify the factors that have given rise to the gap we have highlighted in figure 3.4 and to discover the extent to which these can be addressed. We have touched on some of them, including travel time. It is important the organisation moves on to calculating its productivity levels and isolating those gaps in order that it can understand the processes and factors that have given rise to the divergence.

In the case of the NRA, while the buy-out cost is an unavoidable annual outflow, it will be important to continue to monitor and track the extent to which the improved infrastructure that was described in the evidence provided will allow the yield to the State to approach the pre buy-out levels. It would also be useful if the NRA could consider providing more detail in respect of the financial results relating to tolling in its annual accounts in the future. I refer not only to the tolling revenue from the M50, but to tolling revenue in general.

I thank Mr. Buckley. Is it agreed that the committee note Vote 32 and dispose of chapter 28 and Special Report 71 of the Comptroller and Auditor General? Agreed. I thank our witnesses for attending and for, in all instances, providing very clear answers. A number of them will be forwarding additional information to the committee.

The agenda for our meeting on Thursday, 7 October will be Special Report 70: Health Service Executive, Emergency Departments, of the Comptroller and Auditor General, chapter 40: Dublin Ambulance Service, of the annual report of Comptroller and Auditor General for 2008 and chapter 37: SKILL Programme, of the annual report of the Comptroller and Auditor General for 2009.

The witnesses withdrew.

The committee adjourned at 12.35 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Thursday, 7 October 2010.