Priority Questions

Public Transport

Timmy Dooley

Question:

1. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport how he intends to address the increasing cost of public transport here; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47216/13]

Dessie Ellis

Question:

2. Deputy Dessie Ellis asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport in view of a further increase in fares recently, his plans to help increase passenger numbers on public transport services; his views on whether fare hikes damage public transport viability; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47411/13]

On Wednesday, 23 October, the National Transport Authority, NTA, approved yet again a fare increase for the CIE group of companies. This is creating an unnecessary and unbearable burden on commuters throughout the country at a time of considerable financial pressure. What does the Minister intend to do to address the situation in which the CIE group of companies finds its only resort is to go back to the consumer as costs increase and as its inability to meet day-to-day costs continues? Will the Minister outline what he intends to do to address the matter?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.

My apologies to the House for being a little bit late. I was stuck in traffic in Blanchardstown this morning.

I do not set public transport fares. Just as in the telecommunications and energy sectors, it is the responsibility of the regulator - in this case, the National Transport Authority - to adjudicate on applications from the CIE companies and the Railway Procurement Agency for fare increases or changes. In our dealings with all companies, we have consistently emphasised that they must reduce costs ahead of future fare increases or service cuts. However, in the current environment, fare increases will be inevitable if costs cannot be reduced sufficiently to maintain a reasonable level of service provision and protect our network. The NTA recently approved a range of fare increases.  Significant savings can be made by passengers who choose to avail of the integrated ticket, the Leap card. In many cases, passengers will be paying fares that are below 2011 cash fares if they use the Leap card.

Notwithstanding the NTA's statutory responsibilities, the Government recognises the need for the CIE companies to respond to the challenge of reduced PSO subvention funding, reduced fares income arising from reductions in passenger numbers, and increased costs, such as fuel costs, which are outside their control. The country does not have the money it used to. We all know this. The board of CIE is pursuing a range of measures to address the financial position, including cost reductions across the three operating companies. Improved bank facilities have been agreed, which will ensure that the company has sufficient funding into the future.

The Government continues to provide substantial Exchequer investment in the public transport network despite the significant financial challenges. Over the three years from 2011 to 2013, the total Exchequer allocation to the three CIE companies, in respect of PSO services, free travel, school transport and capital expenditure, has been more then of €1.5 billion. The priority must be to get a better return from the public transport system through targeted investment and better use of existing resources and by using technology to make public transport more responsive and user-friendly.

My Department has also provided funds in Dublin and the regional cities to promote sustainable travel, including the further development of bus lanes, improvement of rail and bus stations, bus stops and shelters and improvements in accessibility. Through the NTA, my Department is also funding the use of smart technology to make public transport easier to access and more reliable for the user. Significant progress has been made with the Leap card, real time passenger information, and the national journey planner that maps all public transport services across the country. The provision of Wi-Fi wireless networks on trains and buses has also improved the transport experience. The NTA will continue to advance these consumer-friendly initiatives which make using public transport more attractive. The public transport experience has improved significantly and that is where we must target our efforts in future.

I thank the Minister, but he is missing the point. He suggests that if consumers purchase Leap cards they will make savings. If all consumers were to do so, the CIE group of companies would have a bigger financial difficulty. The price increase is necessitated by the 7.4% decrease in the Government subvention under the public service obligation subvention to the companies this year. In addition to the increase in the cost of fuel, this is placing a significant burden on the group of companies providing the service. The Minister and the Government must decide what kind of public transport network they want in this country. They must decide whether they intend to fund it from the central Exchequer in a manner that meets the needs and expectations of the consumers. It seems that much of what the Minister hints at as a solution is that he expects the group of companies to reduce the service and cut costs to the point at which the service that is delivered will not meet the needs of consumers. Ultimately, this will force people away from public transport.

A huge effort has been made over recent decades to bring the level of service to the point at which a modal shift takes place. People left their cars and moved towards public transport. The Minister is dismantling this step by step.

It is always important to remember that public transport remains heavily subsidised, with the exception of Luas and the private bus services. While someone who cycles, walks or uses the car to get to work pays the full cost, people who use public transport are subsidised by the State. It is important to bear that in mind. If people had to bear the full cost, fares would be much higher than they are. The reason fares are going up is due to the decrease in passenger numbers as a result of the economic situation, an increase in fuel costs and a reduction in the public service obligation. Also, we have not been successful in bringing about the required cost savings quickly enough. We are making good progress in those areas. Passenger numbers have stabilised as the economy is recovering. Fuel costs are not rising. In my submission to the next comprehensive expenditure review, which kicks in from 2015, I will ask for no further cuts to the PSO. We are now seeing progress, with cost savings yesterday in Dublin Bus, and that will be required in Irish Rail in the coming months.

I am not sure how the format works. I thought both Members would share the question. Many issues have been addressed.

It does not work that way. Only the first Deputy in the group will introduce the question. I ask Deputy Ellis to put his question.

We all know we have an economic crisis and everyone must cut their cloth according to their measure. Increasing Dublin Bus fares by between 15% and 25% and the price of prepaid tickets by 9% will discourage many people from using public transport. Increasingly, public transport is being hit. The subvention has been decreased year-on-year and we have one of the lowest subventions in Europe. This is having a major impact. In the cost-cutting exercise undertaken by Dublin Bus, we have seen a number of routes being cut or changed. This inevitably leads to passenger losses.

A question, please.

We have had major increases in fuel costs and there is also inflation. What will the Minister do to address the passenger losses?

The average cash fare increase approved for Dublin Bus is 8.9%, but the Leap fare increase is substantially lower. I encourage people to move to the Leap card or Leap card products. Dublin Bus passenger numbers are stabilising and have stopped falling. This is a positive sign of the economy beginning to recover. In the next couple of weeks the cost savings which eluded us in the past 16 months will be achieved because of the decision by SIPTU yesterday not to engage in industrial action. It has been quite a struggle, frankly, for the past two years to put things in order, but the situation is looking better in the case of Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann. At the time of the next comprehensive review I will be proposing to the Government that there not be further reductions in the PSO subvention from 2015 onwards. I agree with the Deputy that the fare increases of recent years are not sustainable in the long term. There may need to be increases every year or two but certainly not of the scale seen in recent years. I take the Deputy's point in that regard.

On the same point, the big difficulty is that a point will be reached at which the fares will be at such a level that it will not be possible for people to continue to pay them and I predict they will revert to using cars and move away from using public transport. The Government must be prepared to carry out a comprehensive review of the public transport system and try to understand what level of State investment will be needed to ensure it remains intact and continues to meet the needs of consumers. Will an impact analysis of the recent price increases and the reduction in the PSO subvention be carried out?

The Minister has stated there will not be further reductions in the PSO subvention from 2015 onwards. However, this does not account for what will happen in 2014. Further cuts will have a significant impact. The fare increase of 8.9% will amount to a couple of hundred euro a year for most regular commuters who cannot afford cars in many cases. The vast majority of those who use public transport use it because it has been the cheapest method of getting around. The regulator seems to set the fares, but I ask the Minister if he has any input. Does the regulator decide on the fares and the Minister is not informed? I accept that the regulator is independent. To be honest, I find it very difficult when we are trying to encourage the use of public transport that the regulator sets the fares and that we kick to touch by saying we have no input or no way of influencing the process.

The Oireachtas transferred the power to make these decisions from the Minister to the regulator. I have conversations with the regulator, with whom the legal power rests. The impact analysis is made every year by the National Transport Authority as part of the fare determination process. To clarify the matter, I will be proposing to the Government that there be no further cuts in subvention from 2015 onwards. I am not saying that is a Government decision yet; it is a proposal I will make as part of the next comprehensive spending review which will be under way in the next couple of months.

Deputy Timmy Dooley's question relates to what economists like to call the elasticity of demand; if the price is set too high, the numbers using the service will fall. Of course, they can, but so far this has not happened. Dublin Bus passenger numbers have stabilised, while Luas passenger numbers are increasing. There is a slightly trickier picture with regard to Bus Éireann and Irish Rail, particularly on intercity services. If we continue to increase fares at the current rate, we will see a fall-off in passenger numbers. That is why I am restating my view that in the coming years it is not sustainable for fares to be increased at the rate they have been increasing in recent years.

National Transport Authority

Maureen O'Sullivan

Question:

3. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport the position regarding the Dublin city centre study being undertaken by the National Transport Authority in relation to the development of the Royal Canal-CIE lifting bridge on the North Strand, Dublin 1, and the Scherzer Bridge, Sheriff Street, Dublin 1; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47410/13]

The city centre transport assessment study is being carried out by the National Transport Authority and Dublin City Council. It is examining the management and movement of goods and people to, from and within Dublin city. My question relates to the navigational potential of the canal which includes the bridge question and why this has not been included in the study.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. As Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I have responsibility for policy and the overall funding of public transport.  Following the establishment of the National Transport Authority in December 2009, the implementation and development of infrastructural projects in the greater Dublin area come within the remit of the authority.

The city centre transport assessment study is being undertaken by the NTA in conjunction with Dublin City Council. The purpose of the study is to examine in detail the issues relating to the management and movement of people and goods to, from and within Dublin city centre and propose potential solutions. The NTA and Dublin City Council are carrying out a joint assessment. They are analysing initial proposals and initiatives and working towards producing a joint report which will go through a public consultation process.  It is anticipated that the joint report will be published for consultation early next year. 

The study will identify traffic management proposals, public transport infrastructure improvements and specific measures to encourage walking and cycling to, from and within the city centre. Furthermore, as the Deputy is aware, the NTA has recently completed a public consultation exercise on its draft greater Dublin area cycle network plan. While neither the study nor the draft GDA cycle network plan deals explicitly with canal navigation or the rehabilitation of bridges over the canals, it is the intention of the NTA to pursue a cycling and walking green way along the Royal Canal close to the locations in question. With regard to the bridges in question, the Scherzer Bridge or Rusty Bridge on Sheriff Street is not the subject of a specific proposal from the NTA, nor is the lifting bridge on the North Strand included in a current NTA proposal. It is understood the latter is on a lightly used shunting line serving Connolly Station. It is operable and can be used to allow canal traffic to traverse underneath. This is a matter for Waterways Ireland and Irish Rail and beyond the remit of the city centre transport assessment study and the GDA cycle network plan.

Given the NTA's responsibility in this matter, I have referred the Deputy's question to the authority for a further reply.  I will be happy to arrange for the Deputy to meet the NTA team personally should she so wish.

I thank the Minister. Part of the difficulty is that the area falls between the Minister's Department and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. Many other organisations are also involved, including Waterways Ireland, Irish Rail, Dublin City Council and the National Transport Authority. The Dublin Docklands Development Authority also had a role and it is not clear if its role will be transferred to Dublin City Council. Everyone welcomes the green way project and the development of walking and cycle ways. As the walking and cycling ways run along the canal, it does not make sense not to include the canal to examine its navigational potential. All that is being asked is that it be included in the study in order that at some point when funding may be available plans could be in place and ready to be used. I ask that the canal be considered as part of the study.

I am not familiar with the exact details of this issue or the bridge in question, but I will put the Deputy's proposal to the NTA. It is intended to run a green way and a cycling and walking way all along the Royal Canal. I run along the canal from time to time and know it is possible to get from Clonsilla as far as one of the bridges in the Sheriff Street and Seán MacDermott street area-----

Perhaps the Minister might start running in the future.

It would be nice to be able to get all the way into town or to the sea. I am not familiar with the details of the bridge, but I will ask the NTA to see whether it would be appropriate to include it in the study. As the Deputy noted, a large number of agencies are involved, which sometimes makes it difficult to get things done. That is not an excuse but perhaps a comment.

I suggest the canal route might be a potentially quicker way for the Minister to travel into work in the morning. I acknowledge the work of the voluntary organisations along the canal such as the Royal Canal Amenity Group, the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland, the Heritage Boat Association, Canal Watch and the various individuals who have been doing an amazing job. If the Minister is using the canal way in his area, he will see this work. The bridges are a problem. Part of the problem is that each bridge is the responsibility of a different authority.

Road Improvement Schemes

Timmy Dooley

Question:

4. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport the impact on the National Roads Authority and local authorities' road maintenance programmes of the reduction in revenue allocated in budget 2014; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47217/13]

The ongoing reduction in capital spend by the Government, particularly in the Minister's Department with regard to the road network, is affecting road safety. Will the Minister outline the discussions he has had with the National Roads Authority, NRA, and his ministerial colleague in the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government on the impact of this reduction in capital spending on the road network? Has he considered the impact on road safety in particular?

One might get sick of saying some of this stuff. As Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport I have responsibility for overall policy and funding for the national roads programme. The implementation of individual national road projects is a matter for the National Roads Authority, NRA, under the Roads Acts 1993 to 2007, in conjunction with the local authorities concerned. The improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads is the statutory responsibility of each local authority in accordance with the provisions of section 13 of the Roads Act 1993. Works on those roads are funded from local authorities from their own resources, supplemented by State road grants.

The amount of public funding available for the road network has reduced significantly over the last number of years and the amount of money available does not match the work that needs to be done. In these circumstances the NRA and local authorities have to focus primarily on the maintenance and rehabilitation of roads and to try to use available resources as effectively as possible. It is worth noting, however, that an additional €50 million under a mini-stimulus plan was provided to local authorities in June this year for works on regional and local roads, and much good work was done over the summer and autumn with that money. A further €50 million has been announced for next year. This funding for next year means that the intended cut of €116 million under the roads capital budget for 2014 will now be a smaller adjustment of €66 million. All this will not come from the maintenance side as the specific and strategic improvement grants have been suspended, although there will be a further cut to maintenance of local and regional roads next year. This remains a very challenging reduction but every effort will be made to make the most out of the very limited resources.

Funding for the NRA will increase next year, with capital funding increasing from €278 million to €308 million and current funding increasing from €40.4 million to €41 million. That amounts to more than €20 million of an increase for the NRA next year, taking account of the fact that work is under way at the Newlands Cross and N11 sites. It is hoped that work will start on the Gort to Tuam project in the new year.

I thank the Minister for clarifying the numbers, and as he indicated, that takes account of the fact that a number of new projects are coming on board. It is greenfield development. I am concerned about the existing road network, including the sections which are the responsibility of local authorities. The Minister has outlined his position on that delineation of duties. Ultimately, the Exchequer is responsible for the collection of taxes and the allocation of moneys to local authorities and the NRA. It is not adequate to take a hands-off approach and indicate it is the business of these bodies alone, as we know times are tough and they must get on with it.

Has the Minister sought an impact analysis of the reduction in spending and the capacity of bodies to maintain roads? Has he considered whether the deterioration in road infrastructure could possibly be leading to an increase in deaths on the road? I do not want to make a political point about this but the Minister does not need me to tell him that year on year there has been a significant increase in the number of people killed on the roads this year. It is a worrying trend and we must consider all the potential causes for same.

I can guarantee that I have an ongoing battle to find money to repair roads and I am of the view that it is more important to maintain existing infrastructure than build new infrastructure. The Minister of State, Deputy Ring, is very active in that space as well, and particularly with regard to county roads. There has been some success: the State grants for regional and local roads last year amounted to just over €400 million and the previous year the funding was €377 million. I do not wish to be boastful but there are not many Ministers who can say that budgets are being increased. Local authorities have got the message on own resource expenditure and have put their own money into roads, as last year they put €151 million into such projects as opposed to €136 million the previous year. That allowed much work to be done last summer and autumn to improve roads.

With regard to road safety, we had a meeting on Monday of the high-level ministerial committee on road safety, which involves me and the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, as well as gardaí and other parties. We examined the increases in road deaths this year and there is no clear reason to explain it, although we have many statistics. Interestingly, although road deaths have increased in every region in Ireland, there is one exception in the west, where there has been a significant reduction in road deaths. People tell me that is where the roads are the worst nonetheless.

There is nobody left there.

Air Services Provision

Mattie McGrath

Question:

5. Deputy Mattie McGrath asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport his plans for the State's stake in Aer Lingus; if he considers it is of any strategic value to the State; the role the State gains from its stake; the financial benefit it is returning to the State; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47289/13]

What is the current position of the State's share in Aer Lingus and the Minister's views on the strategic airline, especially in view of attempts by rivals to buy out shares? Will the Minister make a statement on the matter, as the airline is of strategic importance to the country?

In 2006 the State retained a minority stake of 25.1% in Aer Lingus when the initial public offering of shares in the company took place. The minority stake was retained to protect the State's interests at that time. Since that time, the trend towards consolidation in the airline industry has accelerated and competition for short-haul and, in particular, long-haul air services in the Irish market has increased. In 2012 the Government included the Aer Lingus stake among the possible assets to be sold under the State asset disposal programme but agreed that the stake would only be sold when market conditions were favourable and if acceptable terms and an acceptable price could be secured for the stake. It remains the case that the Government is willing to sell its stake but I stated recently that I find it unlikely that a buyer willing to offer the right price and accept appropriate conditions will emerge in the near term. The ongoing pension deficit issue and legal challenges to the EU and UK regulatory authority decisions on Ryanair’s stake creates major uncertainties for any potential buyer.

The 25% stake has proved helpful in protecting the State's interests in the past. It made the Government a key stakeholder in the three takeover attempts, which successive Governments have opposed. It also gives the Government  an important say in any proposal to dispose of Aer Lingus's valuable slot portfolio at London Heathrow Airport and gives the Government the right to nominate up to three directors on the board. The Government will continue to manage its shareholding actively, with the aim of maximising the value of the shareholding, securing dividends and encouraging new routes and additional capacity where commercially viable. Since 2012 the company has paid two dividends to the Exchequer totalling in the region of €9.4 million in respect of financial years 2011 and 2012.

The Minister has quoted many facts and figures but he has not really answered the core question of what appreciation the Government has for the stake in the airline and its strategic importance to the nation. The Government is speaking a lot about getting back our sovereignty but we need our national airline. We are aware the Government has held a 25% share since 2006, as mentioned by the Minister, but a sale is nonetheless possible. He has indicated it is not being sold because he cannot get the right price but if there is a good offer, will it be sold? This is creating much uncertainty for staff, shareholders and everybody who wants to use the airline. He has not really answered the question of what value is placed on the airline by the Government and what gains are being made by the Government through the current operation of the airline. It is our national carrier and brings in traffic to the country.

To be clear, Aer Lingus is not our national airline and we do not have a national airline per se. It is a public limited company traded on the stock market and the Government owns a share of that company. The Government's position is as it has been for quite some time and we are willing to sell the stake but only at the right price and only to the right buyer. It should be under the right terms and conditions.

I must correct what I said. People have an affection for the airline and they regard it as part of Irish culture. I accept that when the outcome of the Ryanair case is handed down by the EU Commission, it will have a major impact. There is a value to the State in having a stake in the airline as it is returning dividends, but it has more than a financial value. The question is how we feel about Aer Lingus and its value to the country.

The value is evident in a number of ways, including the value of the stake itself and the dividends the company can pay every year. Value is also evident in the employment Aer Lingus provides and the connectivity it provides to the rest of the world. We are an island nation and that is more important to us than to most nations. We cannot rule out the possibility that there could be a buyer in the future who would be willing to retain the brand and expand the airline rather than breaking it up and who would be willing to pay a very good price. The Government has not ruled out the sale of the remaining stake. We will do it if it is in the interests of the country as a whole and not just to raise a bit of money in one particular year.