Before the debate was adjourned I was making a comparison between the failure of CIE to adapt, modernise, change and reschedule their whole programme of services with the development of the country over the years. The private bus operators stepped into this vacuum and filled it admirably. Consequently, CIE must now compete. Of course competition is the life of trade, it is good for the consumer and for an efficient and effective service. I have every confidence in the expertise and ability of CIE to adapt to this challenge and to give a good service to the people.
The school bus transport scheme needs a major overhaul. My party's position is very clear in that regard. With the advent of free education in the late sixties Fianna Fáil give a commitment and made a contribution to equality of opportunity for all the people, especially the young. We also made a school transport service available which ensured that the children in the remotest areas would have the same opportunities as those in vast centres of population. Our policy has not changed and we are and will remain committed to that service. There has been much talk over the past few years of a change in that area. Charges for school transport were introduced which put pressure on many families who could not afford them. CIE inspectors should be given greater discretion in regard to day-to-day decisions. We are fortunate that in my area we have excellent officers fronting the scheme. Unfortunately, all matters must be referred to Dublin for a decision as they are operating the system for the Minister for Education and, therefore, are subject to the criteria laid down by the Minister and the Department. However, the people in the areas involved have a better knowledge of the problems than the Department.
In certain cases people are prepared to pay for the school transport system but, on many occasions, there is a great delay in issuing travel passes to the pupils involved. Indeed, sometimes they are not accepted. The regional provincial staff know what is required in any given location and how to get the best value for money. The school transport fleet is rundown and there is an urgent need for major capital investment to ensure that it is updated and modernised to meet the demands of a growing population. Many buses have become obsolete and are not used any more. Instead of providing new buses. CIE provide the same service with fewer buses, leading to more runs being down by individual buses and drivers. The Government have not made funds available for new buses. There is now an inequitable demand on the people who have to use these services. Many children are picked up at 7.30 a.m. to be taken to school and they must wait in its environs for maybe the best part of an hour until it opens. They are not covered by insurance until the school is officially opened. All this creates problems which would be solved by expanding and modernising the fleet.
Catchment areas need to be examined as they were drafted fairly quickly in the late sixties to meet the demand. In many cases no cognisance was taken of the fact that parishes were divided and that sections were added to other areas. The social and geographical structure, the traditional, business, economic development and the direction in which people went to do their business were not taken into account. Pupils from the same parish could go to three different second level schools or to two different national schools because of the way the system operates. This does not suit many families who have gone to the same school for generations. There is not enough flexibility in the scheme in that regard. My constituency in East Galway is long and sprawling and a number of areras around Kiltormer, Menlough, Ballybane, Monivea and Woodford experience these difficulties. These are big parishes and, in some instances, are fairly close to national schools in the next parish. However, they have traditionally gone to their own national schools and transport is not available to them although, in some cases, they are prepared to pay for it.
Compassion is not shown to people who have medical problems. I know of a case where one parent is seriously ill and who cannot provide a service for the children who have to walk a mile or so to be taken to school by bus. This problem could be solved by diverting the bus to an alternative stop to pick up nine or ten children who live on that road.
The top management in Dublin who make the decisions have always looked on the west as a drag on the rail services. The goods station in Athenry has been closed. Tuam, Claremorris, Loughrea, Gort and several other smaller stations have also been closed. The thinking seems to be that Athlone should become the distribution centre for the west. I would like to say that so far as we in the west are concerned. Athlone is in the midlands and we do not want any further downgrading of the services available to the people of the west.
I would like to remind CIE that Galway city is almost 70 miles from the furthest point west in our county. The Aran Islands are still further out. They, too, have to do business. They need a service. We do not want the freight services terminated at Athlone. Should that happen we would find ourselves having to take our goods from there on in by road. There is an excellent railway station in Ballinasloe where there is tremendous potential for expansion and development. Athenry is a very good railway station on a junction. A line which is now seldom used is the Limerick-Sligo line. There is no reason why along with the excellent facilities of Galway railway station we cannot do better business and ensure that the west receives its fair share of opportunities and services from the State. We must ensure that investment in the national transport services is distributed evenly right across the country. The growing towns and cities in the west which is a disadvantaged area will, with assistance and incentives respond and create their own economic development. If the level of State service and investment is any way reasonable and positive we will respond to the challenge. We will help to build our own economy and create opportunities for our people. We have done that over the years and we have survived, but we do not want any further impositions or cutbacks in our efforts to improve our own environment and economy.
There seems to be an attitude in CIE to close down some services that were available heretofore. I am talking about services in the twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties and into the seventies. The company gave various commitments that alternative services would be made available but those alternative services were either not adequate or failed to attract a demand from the consumer in particular areas because they were not programmed and were not up to the level of service which was available previously. For example, the Sligo-Limerick line and the Loughrea branch line closed down. Attymon station was a very important junction in the heart of County Galway. It serviced Loughrea which had its own line and which is still an excellent business and commercial town despite the ravages of the present economic climate and despite the fact that many factories and firms have closed down, in particular Tynagh mines. Given any reasonable effort the town will expand and develop. When that branch line was closed down various commitments were given regarding bus services and alternative road transport services but at the first opportunity those services were taken away.
Loughrea was left in a vacuum. It was left without adequate road transport from CIE. Into that vacuum has come the private bus operator. As I said earlier, CIE failed to acknowledge the demand and then failed to preserve and sustain the alternative services to which they were committed when they closed down the original services. As a result of those decisions they lost the goodwill of the consumer and because of bad scheduling and programming did not hold the consumer. Consequently, when another option became available the consumer took it. One cannot blame the consumer for that and one cannot blame enterprising business people if they avail of an opportunity to provide an adequate service.
CIE must re-examine their position and commitment and ensure that where they provide a service they can sustain, expand and retain it but if they take away one service the alternative must be good enough to satisfy the consumer and sustain and preserve the goodwill and the business of consumers in the area concerned. Attymon Junction, which is my local station, was a very busy junction over the years but very few trains stop there now. Since I entered this House in 1982 I have been trying to persuade CIE to provide a better service in that area. I am concerned that the plans CIE have for that area may denude the people of mid-Galway of services in the future. Attymon Junction serviced south, mid east and mid north Galway.
I want to say to CIE that if they have plans in that direction we do not want to see them progress. Instead we want to see an acknowledgement of the level of support which was given to them over the years in that area. We want practical stopping times geared to getting the maximum number of people in that area to use CIE's services, westwards towards Galway city and eastwards towards Ballinasloe, Athlone and Dublin at the proper times.
CIE have a major role to play in the industrial area. CIE through DART provide a very good service in Dublin, as I have acknowledged earlier in my contribution. The CIE rail service have a good opportunity to carry passengers from Athlone westwards to Galway. Athlone is a very important pivotal point for CIE. It is an area from which they could start to provide a service, passing through Ballinasloe and picking up many of the industrial workers and public servants from Woodlawn, Attymon and Athenry who work in Galway city. CIE should consider this type of service.
The time has come to use smaller trains in areas such as this, smaller buses in country areas and to provide a faster, more efficient and practical service. If we examine this area the demand is there. If the prices are right, CIE will attract the consumer and provide services in areas in which there are no services now. The rail lines run from one area of high population to another. They run through sparsely populated areas in which the private companies may not be operating so there would be a major opportunity for CIE to provide a service to those areas. That would be to CIE's commercial benefit. I would appeal to the management of CIE to consider that type of service in the future. CIE have a role to play in getting such people quickly and safely to their work. The company should direct their energies to providing services in rural areas.
It is time that the company considered using smaller vehicles on rural routes. The bus schedules should be reorganised to ensure that workers in rural areas can avail of public transport to and from work. I am aware that buses leave Galway city at 4.30 p.m. and 5 p.m. with very few passengers but if they waited for another hour they would be able to take people home from work. It is important that the company make every effort to attract more passengers. An early morning service would also be used by workers going to Galway city. We must acknowledge, however, that the private operator has stepped into the vacuum and it would be unfair of CIE to deprive them of the routes they have built up. CIE should not have a monopoly. We must have private development with public service expansion.
The Government pay a lot of money to private operators to provide a school bus service in rural areas and it is only right that it should be a good one. CIE do not have suitable buses for such routes. I note that in 1983 the Department paid £12.5 million to private operators for the school transport service and I presume that figure will rise to about £20 million this year. Some of those operators have expanded and are now competing with CIE on ordinary routes. It was unfair of the company to take some school runs from those private operators in an effort to put pressure on them to abandon profitable routes. I do not welcome that development.
The Department of Education should review the operation of the school bus service and arrange for all buses to stop at the schools the children are attending. At present the buses stop at centres in the towns but some children may have to travel a further mile to the school. Children are refused the use of that service because they are less than three miles from the centre although they may live more than three miles from the school. The maximum number of children should be permitted to avail of the school bus service. I appreciate that those living within one mile of a school should not be taken on the buses but those living any further away should be accommodated. It is possible that the centres used by the buses were chosen because of the amount of parking available but it would be better if the buses were directed to travel to all schools. The children in Loughrea should be brought to the school gates and not let off at the centre. Those children have to walk up to half a mile from the centre to the school. There are two excellent coeducational second level schools in that town and they are well attended. The children using the school bus service to those schools should be let off at the school gate so that they can start their classes warm and dry. I hope the Minister will review the school bus service.
The school bus fleet should be modernised. I was disappointed to learn that work at GAC at Shannon, formerly Bombardier, who were building the CIE buses, is almost at a standstill. That has had a drastic effect on the economic life of my area because many local firms supplied materials to that company. There is a need to replace many buses in the school fleet and there is no reason why the company cannot be asked to build more buses. We have the expertise to build better buses and the Government should provide the money for them.
It would be remiss of me if I did not acknowledge, on behalf of the people in my area, the tremendous co-operation I got when dealing with the general manager of CIE, Mr. Higgins. Since I was elected to the House. I have been trying to have the rail service in my area improved. I was the only public representative who sought an improvement in the east Galway area and I was happy when the threat that hung over the Woodlawn station was removed. The service to that station is very good. The decision by CIE in May to have the 6.25 p.m. train from Galway to Heuston stop at Woodlawn was a good one and we are grateful to the company for that. I am sure a survey in the area will show that the service is being availed of. I hope a similar arrangement can be made in regard to Attymon station on the Galway side. That busy junction station was closed when it lost the Loughrea branchline. However, I am sure the many people who work in local industries would avail of the rail service if that station was reopened. The population figures have been stable for many years and I am sure there is a demand for the service.
I have heard it said that before CIE make drastic decisions such as the closure of stations or lines they invest a lot of capital. These decisions are based on a high capital investment and low demand for service. It is suggested that stations are upgraded, updated and modernised, often to be closed down in subsequent years. I hope that never has been and never will be the situation. I hope capital investment is put into the service and that the company will continue to upgrade and modernise their stations, having them looking attractive, which makes a contribution to the development of tourism and of the whole environment. They are a national company, a semi-State body. Over the years CIE station masters and many of their staff have made a personal contribution to tourism and the development of the country by the way in which stations have been maintained and the high level of services given.
Finally, CIE have the capacity and capability to establish themselves as the national State transport company. Two companies are adequate in order to reorganise CIE into the transport service they should be for the nation, that is, all rail and rural buses should be in one company and the Dublin metropolitan bus services in another. They have the expertise and knowledge and given a positive, practical, vigorous approach and the necessary capital investment, with Government security and initiative, collectively as a semi-State body with State support there is no reason why CIE cannot continue to be the premier transport company in our land.