I am grateful for the invitation to appear before the committee today to discuss the National Transport Authority’s annual accounts for 2018. As requested by the committee’s secretariat, we have furnished some information in advance. To assist in answering the members' questions I am accompanied by three directors from the National Transport Authority: Mr. Hugh Creegan, deputy CEO, Tim Gaston, director of public transport services, and Philip L’Estrange, director of finance and corporate services.
Our remit is primarily concerned with the planning, development and funding of sustainable transport modes, that is to say, public transport, cycling and walking. At a national level, the authority has responsibility for securing the provision of bus and rail services. This includes the provision of subsidised services through directly awarded contracts with Bus Éireann, Dublin Bus and Irish Rail. The authority also tendered for the provision of bus services throughout the country, and our contracted operators include Go-Ahead Ireland Limited, JJ Kavanagh, Bernard Kavanagh, M&A Coaches and Wharton’s Travel. The authority is also responsible for light rail services, which we procure jointly with Transport Infrastructure Ireland.
The authority also regulates and licenses public bus passenger services that operate without subsidy from the State. We also manage the rural transport programme on behalf of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. Associated with the bus, rail and light rail services, a key role for the authority has been the integration of payment systems and information for public transport users. The authority has overseen the successful introduction of initiatives such as the Leap card, a real-time passenger information system for buses, and an intermodal journey planner that covers all services of private and public operators in the State.
The authority is also responsible at a national level for the licensing and the regulation of small public service vehicles, comprising taxis, hackneys and limousines, and the regulation of vehicle clamping. Within the greater Dublin area the authority has a greater depth of functions. The authority’s role covers not only public transport capital investment and provision of services but also securing greater integration between land use and transport planning. The authority’s statutory Transport Strategy for the Greater Dublin Area 2016-2035 sets out the key transport projects that are required to be delivered to provide for the growth in travel demand by sustainable modes.
The authority manages the capital investment programme for public transport, cycling and walking in the greater Dublin area and funds the transport operators and local authorities for approved projects. The authority also manages a similar capital investment programme for the regional cities of Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford on behalf of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, and we manage the national accessibility programme. The strong growth in demand for public transport we have experienced in recent years continued during 2018, at 6.5% across all PSO services.
The number of passengers using bus and rail services was at an all-time high and those services received a 93% satisfaction rating among users.
In Dublin, surveys showed that more than half of all commuters travelling into the city centre at the peak morning travel time used public transport. This is positive from the perspective of increasing transport efficiency and sustainability, but because of the low level of investment in public transport infrastructure in the aftermath of the economic downturn, services can be very crowded at peak travel times. This trend seems set to continue and underscores the need to further expand and develop public transport infrastructure, particularly in our major urban areas. The Government has published a long-term investment strategy, the National Development Plan 2018 – 2027, which includes significant developments such as the BusConnects programme, the MetroLink and a DART expansion programme, as well as other important public transport projects that will assist in meeting the demand for sustainable transport, as well as our obligations to reduce carbon emissions. This allowed the authority to commence public consultations on the emerging proposals in respect of MetroLink and BusConnects. The feedback from the public from these consultations is an essential and helpful input into the design of these schemes, which are expected to be submitted to An Bord Pleanála for statutory approvals in 2020.
The authority formally entered into a contract with Go-Ahead Ireland for the operation of a number of local and orbital bus routes in Dublin last year and, in September of that year, the new operator commenced the phased implementation of services in Dublin. While some teething issues were experienced initially, they were quickly overcome and Go-Ahead Ireland is now successfully operating a significant proportion of Dublin’s bus services. The introduction of competition into the PSO bus market will enable the authority to evaluate in more depth the value for money of the directly awarded contracts. As a result of the transfer of routes to Go-Ahead Ireland, we were able to re-deploy the Dublin Bus resources in areas to provide additional capacity at peak times across the Dublin Bus network. In December Bus Éireann, which successfully tendered for the operation of bus services in Waterford city, commenced the roll-out of a much enhanced timetable of services using a new fleet of buses.
In the short term, the commuter rail system will experience capacity issues at peak travel times due to the improvement in the economy. There is an urgent need for additional rail fleet to meet the increase in passenger numbers. While preparations for the procurement of new electric and battery electric rail fleet are under way, the process of having rail fleet built is a lengthy one. Accordingly, the authority, together with Iarnród Éireann, has prepared a business case for the purchase of an additional 41 intercity rail cars which, if given Government approval, could be put into service in about 24 months.
The cancellation of ferry services operated by Irish Ferries due to delays in the delivery of a new car ferry resulted in the first significant case for the authority in its capacity as the national enforcement body for EU regulations on passenger rights in the maritime and land transport areas. There was intensive engagement between the authority and the operator, and the authority’s decision in the matter was finally announced early in 2019, a decision which is now the subject of High Court proceedings.
The success of the Transport for Ireland, TFI, Leap card scheme continued unabated during 2018. In May, the 3 millionth TFI Leap card was sold, which has exceeded our expectations. Once again we offered TFI child Leap card holders the opportunity to travel free on bus and rail services for a period over the summer. Advances in technology are adding new options for fare payments. Accordingly, the authority is actively engaged on the next evolution of the TFI Leap card scheme.
Local Link services in rural areas continue to develop and grow. At the request of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, the authority developed a pilot scheme for the operation of Local Link evening and night-time services to provide an alternative to car travel for social activities. The pilot ran until the end of the year when it was decided to extend the pilot for a further period.
The transition to a wheelchair-accessible taxi fleet continued. This was again assisted by the provision of grant funding to assist operators to purchase suitable vehicles. During the year, 679 wheelchair accessible licences were added to the fleet, bringing the overall number to 2,220. We also launched a major publicity programme to encourage more people to join the taxi sector.
Since its establishment, the authority has been significantly under-resourced. Our staffing complement, in particular, has been well below what we require to effectively undertake our statutory and non-statutory functions. A great deal of work was undertaken during the year on the development of a strategic resourcing plan to identify the needs in that regard and in consultations with our parent Department and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. I am pleased that this culminated in approval for the filling of a significant number of key posts in 2019, which will assist greatly in building our capacity to deliver our mandate. In terms of our funding and expenditure, the authority has been strongly focused from the outset on ensuring that we have robust financial and audit controls, bearing in mind the scale and range of the authority’s financial activities.
This concludes my opening remarks and I welcome any questions that members of the committee may have.