Committee on Finance. - Adjournment Debate—Dublin Bus Fares.

Mr. A. Byrne

During the past few weeks various Deputies have had questions on the Order Paper regarding the transport system of the country, especially in its application to the City of Dublin. Regardless of their Party affiliations, the Dublin Deputies were very much alarmed when they read in the newspapers that the Minister for Industry and Commerce was about to give consent to a proposal to increase the tram and bus fares in Dublin. To-day the Minister for Industry and Commerce paid us the compliment of receiving 18 Dublin Deputies and, as much as we were alarmed within the past few weeks with what we read in the newspapers about the transport system, its failures, and its almost complete collapse, we were more alarmed than ever by what we heard from the Minister this evening. In fact I feel a little bit handicapped to-night after having heard from him a couple of hours ago a statement of the facts so far as they apply to the railway system and especially in their application to the City of Dublin.

All of us pressed him to retain the 1d. fare for bus users, especially in the City of Dublin. I had in mind in particular the activities of the Corporation Housing Committee on which there are some members of all Parties in this House. We have taken many thousands of our people from the very heart of the city and housed them on the outskirts three or four miles away. In most cases the shopping centres are at least a half-a-mile to three-quarters of a mile away from the furthest house in the building scheme. Having left the deplorable housing conditions in the centre of the city, the housewives living in these houses had to pay an increased rent after going out such a distance. We in the corporation had to have regard to the bus fares they would be compelled to pay as well as the increased rent. The Dublin Corporation Housing Department were creating a large number of good customers for the transport system in this way. These people had to include in their family budget the bus fares they were compelled to pay. For many families they run into 10/-a week on top of the increased rent.

We thought that the Minister and the Government would continue at least to give a half-mile journey for 1d. so as to give the housewife an opportunity of going from her home to the shopping centre to pack her basket. The 1d. journey, say, from Ventry Park, West Cabra, to Phibsboro' Corner is a considerable distance for anyone who has to carry a full basket. There are other houses in areas such as Crumlin, Donnycarney, Whitehall. Kimmage in which the shops are at least half-a-mile to three-quarters of a mile away. People could travel that distance perhaps without very much trouble, but a housewife with a full basket would find it very difficult. The 1d. fare, therefore, was very useful to her.

I hope it is not too late to ask the Minister to change his mind and give us back the 1d. fare, even if he shortens the distance, and try to arrange the other fares in such a way that the finances he expected to get from the increases will accrue, but perhaps not to the extent he had hoped for. I ask him not to abolish the 1d. fare and leave these people in the position of having to pay 100 per cent. increase. It must be remembered that the 1d. fare each way amounts to 2d., which will mean that these people will have to pay 4d. for the journey there and back.

Four years ago we were promised by the then Government a most elaborate passenger service. Most of the trams were taken off against the will of the people. The Dublin Corporation had some little control over the tram system. We had the right to be heard and our recommendations were always carefully considered before any changes were made. Some 20 years ago, when an effort was made to make some changes, these changes were successfully opposed by the then Commissioners, Mr. Murphy, Mr. Hernon and Dr. O'Dwyer. Four years ago the Government, in their wisdom, merged the transport systems and they promised great things. On the 9th May, 1944, the then Taoiseach, Deputy de Valera, stated in the debate on the Transport Bill:—

"Everybody must admit that, for very many years, our transport services have been in an altogether unsatisfactory position and that the sooner we improve that position the better."

Further on he said:—

"The reorganisation of the capital of the company is designed to reduce expenses and there is a saving of about £70,000 per year, I think, in respect of debenture interest and so on, but the total saving is much more."

Further on, Deputy de Valera, then Taoiseach, said:—

"A saving of £70,000 in respect of an immediate reduction of interest charges. What the State is doing is giving a guarantee. That guarantee, I think, is not likely ever to be required."

Deputy McGilligan interjected and said:—

"Not?"

I remember that: I was here on the occasion. When the Taoiseach said the guarantee would not be required, Deputy McGilligan said "Not?" with emphasis, and the Taoiseach, Deputy de Valera, said:—

"I do not think so."

The Minister for Industry and Commerce to-day told us that, not alone were the guarantees required, but he has to find a very large sum of money— but let him announce that himself. I sympathise with him and quite appreciate his duty, but I do implore him, in his effort to build up the transport services, to have consideration for the class of the community that I and other Deputies speak for, especially those Deputies in Dublin who represent areas to which the corporation has sent people from the centre of the city. If he can do something to meet us and see that the 1d. fare is restored, or at any rate not doubled, we will all be grateful to him.

Will this debate finish at 10.30, despite the fact that it started only at 10.10? I do not want to take up the Minister's time, if it must finish at 10.30.

Acting-Chairman

It may go on to 10.40.

I would like to add my voice to that of Deputy Byrne in appealing to the Minister, even at this late hour, to reconsider, if at all possible, the decision to abolish entirely the 1d. bus fare. I state quite frankly—and I know it is no breach of confidence to do so, as all Parties were represented at the interview with the Minister this afternoon—that I am ready to admit now, having heard what the Minister had to say to the Deputies of all Parties when he met us, that the case I had intended putting here this evening and the case which I and other Deputies had intended pressing on the Minister simply cannot be made, in the light of the facts which the Minister put before us. Even so, I would ask the Minister, who had indicated his intention of endeavouring to meet us on this, if it is possible to make the increase from 1d. to 1½d. rather than from 1d. to 2d. If possible, that should be done in some of the areas to which Deputy Byrne referred. Deputy Byrne himself, and other Deputies on each side of the House, are particularly interested in some of the large built-up areas in Dublin, such as Crumlin, Kimmage, Cabra and Donnycarney, where the bus users and the population generally almost entirely consist of working-class people. The interview we had with the Minister to-day to a great extent has cut the ground from under our feet. I believe it is of vital importance to the ordinary travelling public that the Minister should make the facts public. I make my appeal to him now, in conclusion, that he should let the travelling public fully understand the reasons why these increases are being allowed by making public all the facts in relation to the increases.

I want to repeat what Deputy Byrne and Deputy O'Higgins have said. We were undoubtedly astonished to-day by the information the Minister gave us in regard to the position. I would request the Minister, as Deputy O'Higgins has done, to make those facts known to the public as soon as possible. None of us quite realised the state of bankruptcy into which that concern has been allowed to drift. I think that, when the Minister gives the information the public will be absolutely shocked. However, I renew the request made to him this evening to consider, in so far as he can, how he can meet the wishes of the Dublin City Deputies and of the Dublin people, by not increasing the penny fares by 100 per cent. to 2d. I think the Minister will agree that the city Deputies met him in a spirit of common-sense and responsibility and that we were anxious to co-operate and assist. We have, however, a big responsibility to our constituents and we would ask the Minister to endeavor to meet us, in so far as he can, in regard to these 1d. fares.

Perhaps I should first make it clear, in case it might appear that this affects only the City of Dublin, that these increases will apply also to the other cities and to the provincial services and to both rail and bus services. I am not surprised that Deputies and the public are concerned about the proposed increases. This is not a time for putting any further burdens on the community if that can be avoided. However, here is the position, as briefly as I can put it. The House is aware that in 1947 Córas Iompair Éireann lost something over £900,000; in 1948 that loss grew to £1,400,000. The position was so alarming to the board—they appeared suddenly, I think, to get alarmed—about last March, that I was approached, first by the chairman and subsequently by the other directors. The first proposal which was put to me was that all fares should be increased—more or less the same proposals as it is proposed to bring into operation now. But they said then that that alone would not meet the situation. I was asked to close down branch railway lines, to an extent that would enable them to dismiss 1,000 men; to cut back on general maintenance to a point that would enable them to dismiss a further 2,500 men; and, further, that we should also agree to restrict private transport.

I, on behalf of the Government, refused to agree to those proposals. I stated that I thought the proposals were too drastic and that I did not believe they would solve the problem or settle the transport position. I explained that the Government had come to the conclusion that a very searching inquiry by the best qualified transport experts we could get was absolutely essential before the Government could take the necessary steps to put the national transport system on a sound foundation. The financial position of Córas Iompair Éireann was so bad that neither in July nor in December of 1948 were they able to meet even the interest on the debentures which had been guaranteed by the State. As a consequence, my colleague, the Minister for Finance, had to provide from central funds a sum of £360,000 to meet the interest on those debentures which had been guaranteed by the State. The position continued to get worse, and about November, I think, it became so serious that I was informed that unless the Government guaranteed further debentures and allowed debentures to be used for a purpose for which they were never intended to be used — because debentures, as is known, are properly used only for capital expenditure and met from capital charges— they would not be able to pay the wages of the staff, although, at the same time, they had decided to proceed with the project at the Broadstone which was to cost an estimated sum of £970,000.

Another white elephant.

It is not an exaggeration to say that a month ago, when the new chairman went to take up his duties, he had to step across the shadow of the bailiff to get into Kingsbridge. He found that the position was so serious that there were cheques for over £500,000 written but they could not be issued because there was no money to meet them. The situation had become so serious that some of the firms to whom money had been due for a considerable time, and who had made repeated applications for payment but were unable to secure it, had threatened to cut off supplies from the company. The financial situation was so serious that within the past ten days I had to ask the Government, at the request of the company, to guarantee a further £1,800,000 worth of debentures to enable them to carry on to the 31st May next which is only two months away. £1,000,000 of that is to meet charges other than capital charges. That is the position—a position that could not be more serious. The position was that the receiver, so to speak, could have been put in at any time. When we remember that not only is this the principal transport service of the country but that there are over 20,000 people employed there—and I think it would not be an exaggeration to say that there are probably 80,000 persons in this country depending on this company for their livelihood—one can appreciate the gravity and the seriousness of the matter. When I tell the House that the wages' and salaries' bill of the company is £6,500,000 a year Deputies will get some idea of our concern in connection with it. May I say, in that connection, to Dublin Deputies that approximately 50 per cent. of that £6,500,000 paid out in wages and salaries is paid out in Dublin. That was the position. I want to make clear that if the company realises to the last penny the amount which they hope to get from the increases which have been suggested that will be sufficient only to meet about half the loss. It will only, so to speak, bridge half the gap. My concern is, and the company's concern will be to know where the other £750,000 is going to be got. Whatever economies we make, we cannot make economies that are going to lead to the dismissal of men.

Could the Minister say if there should have been economy in the amount of compensation paid to the chairman?

Let me make this clear. Nobody wants to impose those increases if they can be avoided. They cannot be avoided. The alternative to increasing the minimum fare to 2d. is to increase the 2d. fare to 4d. which would mean that most of the workers in all the built-up areas and whom Deputy Byrne has mentioned would be paying not 3d., which is the maximum fixed under the new proposed increases, but 4d. or 5d. It is in order to save this that we have to insist upon increasing the minimum fare. Let me also make this quite clear. The fares in operation to-day are approximately the same as those in operation in 1914 but there is a big difference in the charges which have to be met by the company. The fares in operation to-day are approximately the same as those in operation in 1914, but let me give an example in wages—because I know that materials have increased in proportion, and maybe more so. A tram driver's top wages in 1914, when the fares were the same as they are to-day, were 31/- a week. His wages to-day, or the wages of his successor, the driver of a double-decker bus, are exactly four times that sum—£6 4s. 6d. a week. There is quite a considerable amount of further information that I could give on this matter but time does not permit me. In any case I think I have given the House and the Deputies enough information to show how really grave the situation is. Let me emphasise that were it not for the debentures that have been guaranteed this week the company not only would not be able to pay the people who are clamouring for payment, but they would not be able to pay the wages of the staff this week. I want to make it perfectly clear here that the people to whom money is owed, the people for whom the cheques are written but to whom they cannot be issued, can rest quite easy. Those accounts will be paid.

What about the outstanding accounts?

I am talking about them. Those will be paid.

I mean the accounts which are due to the company.

That is another matter. If those can be got in that is all the better. The more accounts that are due to the company that are got in the fewer debentures we shall have to guarantee.

It takes about 12 months to collect them——

I know. When the deputation was with me this afternoon I promised I would make a further inquiry as to whether there was any alternative to doubling the minimum fare and as to whether a 1½d. fare and a 1½d. stage, so to speak, could be thought out which would give the same return in cash or something near it. I took the opportunity of asking the chairman of the company to come to see me before this debate to-night. I asked him about that matter. He had gone fully into it. Those suggestions had occurred to himself and he had had them examined and every conceivable aspect, including the shortening of the 1d. stages and so forth, was gone into. He said that it simply could not be done. I should, perhaps, make it clear that, so far as children's fares are concerned, there will be no increase. The 1d. fares for children will remain.

I should like to emphasise, particularly here in Dublin, that our desire is to fit this burden to the shoulders that are able to bear it. We want, and it is our desire to give the lowest possible fare to the built-up areas— the people, as mentioned by Deputy Byrne, who live four or five miles out on the outskirts of the city in the new housing schemes. If we do not double the minimum fare we shall have to proceed along the lines recommended by Sir James Milne, with the result that some of these people would be paying 4d. or 5d. instead of 3d.

I think I have said enough to indicate to the House that there is no alternative, and that the Government has had to sanction what the company put up to them. I can assure Deputies that neither myself nor the Government were anxious to do this. We agreed to it only with extreme reluctance—only because it has to be done, because the service must be maintained, because 20,000 people must be kept in employment and because those to whom the money is owed must be paid.

The Dáil adjourned at 10.40 p.m. until 3 p.m. on Thursday, 24th March, 1949.