Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Transport Infrastructure Provision

John Lahart

Question:

6. Deputy John Lahart asked the Minister for Transport his plans to improve micromobility infrastructure in Dublin; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35771/20]

I acknowledge the huge investment this week in cycling infrastructure throughout the country. It is the largest ever investment in this area on behalf of the State and there is more to come. There has never been a greater opportunity to move ahead with the provision of cycling infrastructure in terms of public goodwill and support and, more specifically, the public appetite for such initiatives demonstrated throughout the first lockdown and necessitated by the impact of Covid on public transport capacity.

What are the Minister's plans in respect of cycling infrastructure in Dublin?

Did the Deputy mention cycling infrastructure at the end?

My understanding was that the question was on-----

I am asking about micromobility infrastructure.

I would include e-scooters and e-bikes in that, along with cycling. I know the Deputy has had an interest in promoting legislation on e-scooters. We intend to regulate e-scooters. In that regard, a road traffic (miscellaneous provisions) Bill is being developed in my Department in conjunction with the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel. That is due before the Dáil shortly. I hope to introduce an amendment on Committee Stage which would allow for secondary legislation to regulate e-scooters. I believe their use should be encouraged.

The Deputy has spoken about a whole new direction in transport, under which e-mobility will be promoted in a variety of different ways. First and foremost in any discussion of micromobility must be pedestrianisation. We have to create safe conditions for pedestrians. This will involve better footpaths, easier zebra crossings and a whole range of different measures. Micromobility also includes cycling and these new e-bikes. These are fantastic because they extend the range people can travel and make cycling easier for people with less ability or in different age groups. The technology is improving dramatically and the cost is coming down. I am, however, speaking about ordinary bikes as well.

There is a revolution taking place in transport which leads towards this type of transport system. We need to start shaping the rest of the transport system around it so that the safety of pedestrians, cyclists and students going to college on an e-scooter is prioritised. The heavier actors in transport have to take care if we are to create a safe environment for those mobile modes. I very much support the Deputy's comments. I give notice of our intention to regulate for e-scooters, an intention mentioned in the programme for Government.

I thank the Minister. I acknowledge that I am pushing an open door. The directly-elected mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham, introduced and appointed a cycling commissioner, Chris Boardman, the first UK Olympian to win a medal for cycling, which he did at the Barcelona Olympics. The Minister could do worse than to consider the appointment of a micromobility commissioner for Dublin. Such a person could really drive the agenda across the four Dublin local authorities, which have shown mixed responses to the need for micromobility. The Minister will be familiar with Dublin City Council's approach, which has been really proactive, as has that of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council. My county council, South Dublin County Council, has been behind in this regard. The Minister could consider such an appointment.

I agree wholeheartedly with, and strongly welcome, the Minister's comments on the need for a hierarchy of responsibility on our roads, as is legislated for on the Continent. The Minister might outline if he has any plans to back up such a hierarchy with legislation.

I believe we have the correct structure in Dublin. The National Transport Authority, NTA, is the lead authority in designing and implementing the city transport strategy. An example of this is the BusConnects project. Its implementation will not be without difficulties. I was speaking to Deputy Lahart's constituency colleague, Deputy Duffy, last night in Rathfarnham. The Deputy will be aware of the granular detail but, in general, this scheme, although it is called BusConnects, will completely transform the city for the better as regards cycling. We are in the third round of consultation now and, during the process, the scheme changed from one which was very traditional and heavily orientated towards traffic to one which promotes pedestrian, cyclist and e-mobility safety structures. It is critical that this scheme be introduced, although it may need further amendment in respect of very local specific issues. The broad outline of the plan seems right to me. The authority has done good work in the consultation. We do not need a tsar; we need to implement what we have.

Perhaps we will come back to that issue another day. Returning to the legislation, pedestrians give out about cyclists, cyclists give out about car drivers and car drivers give out about heavy goods vehicles. We should legislate for a hierarchy of responsibility so that truck and bus drivers would be responsible for smaller motor vehicles, cars would be responsible for smaller vehicles such as bikes and e-scooters, and everyone would be responsible for pedestrians. Legislation of this kind exists in other countries.

I know the Minister will appreciate the concept of cyclovia, which has been introduced in other capitals and which began in Colombia. It involves cities holding car-free days. In Dublin, this might include those areas within the canal cordon. It would be held once a month. This is a small request to make and there should not be any obstacles in the way. We shut the area down for the marathon once a year. Can the Minister imagine the activity that would be generated in the capital, particularly during the period of Covid restrictions, with regard to pedestrian movements if we implemented cyclovia in Dublin once a month?

Finally, with regard to the Phoenix Park, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. There has been great public movement with regard to bikes and pedestrians. Can we return to pedestrian movement only in the Phoenix Park, even if only on weekends? If we could do so even just for Sundays, it would be a gesture towards those who support micromobility.

The Deputy mentioned Colombia. One of my heroes is a former mayor in Colombia, Enrique Peñalosa, who transformed the city of Bogotá into a cycling and walking city. He is like something out of a Mario Vargas Llosa novel, a romantic. He has said that pavements are for kissing and that man and woman are to walking what fish are to swimming. He had a romantic vision of how cities and streets should be designed. It is a social project because it is a project for everyone.

On the matter of the hierarchy approach, every tier must be designed around people with disabilities. This is the case for public transport, pavements and other infrastructure. When one designs for people with disabilities, one also designs for parents with a buggy and two or three kids, for older people and for people like poor old Deputy Chambers, who currently has a broken foot. When one designs in that way, one gets better transport systems that work better in every way. They are more efficient and more effective. That is the metric. One starts with disability and works from the pedestrian and the cyclist up, just as Deputy Lahart has said.

I hate to interrupt but I must ensure that everyone gets a turn.

Transport Infrastructure Provision

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire

Question:

7. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Transport the status of the development of the Cork metropolitan area transport strategy, CMATS, and the need for a bus rapid transit system in Cork. [29627/20]

During the term of the previous Dáil, I was very anxious to push the Cork metropolitan area transport strategy, particularly the light rail element. I was glad that it was included in the strategy in the end. We are all very aware that it will not happen overnight, although I would like it to happen sooner than is scheduled. In the meantime, is there scope for bus rapid transit along those corridors? I think of the Glider system in Belfast. This is a very eye-catching and attractive system which could potentially be very suitable for Cork.

I thank Deputy Ó Laoghaire. I absolutely agree with him. We mentioned Dublin earlier, but Cork also needs a sustainable transport system. The Cork metropolitan area transport strategy, CMATS, takes the right approach. It adopts a multi-modal approach to transport planning, provides the necessary evidence-based and plan-led framework and is an example of good long-term planning.

Now that we have the strategy, we have to move on to implementation. I am glad to say that a number of important steps are already under way in that regard, while the review of the national development plan will also have an important role to play. The CMATS was published earlier this year and includes a number of significant public transport proposals across bus, commuter rail and light rail as well as a proposed transformation of active travel infrastructure in the city region.

The Deputy specifically referred to bus rapid transit. He will be aware that the approach adopted for buses in the CMATS is similar to that proposed in Dublin, namely, the delivery of a BusConnects Cork programme of improved bus and active travel infrastructure. BusConnects is not only about making the bus system better, it is about completely transforming Cork's potential. Complementing that investment, it is also proposed to develop a light rail service running on an east to west corridor across the city and, in advance of its introduction, BusConnects Cork will deliver a high-capacity, high-frequency bus corridor along the route.

I will go into the detail of that proposal, if I may. We would hope that the route from Ballincollig would take in Cork Institute of Technology, Cork University Hospital, University College Cork and would go right through the centre, the business district and out towards Blackrock and Mahon via the docks. This would connect a great many key areas and desired lines.

We should accelerate and look to advance this good CMATS. It would be the councillors who have to decide this but I do not see why we could not introduce this high quality bus rapid transport route along that corridor in advance of the light rail going in. We could build up the demand and give the signal to developers that this is where to go. The council has to row in behind this. I had a good meeting last week with Cork city councillors and I think they are ready for it.

There is significant appetite for this. There is a widespread acceptance in the city and the surrounding areas that to achieve the population growth we want in the city and the region, we cannot just keep piling more cars into the south link road and into the city centre. It will not work and it will not be able to develop in the way we want it to. Bus rapid transit is not an immediate overnight win but it is potentially a quicker win than the light rail and it can happen along the same corridors.

One point I would make on the corridors is that a lot of the main services and industries are along that east-west corridor, as well as facilities such as the hospitals and universities, but an awful lot of the population spreads north-south. The failure to look at a north-south link connecting the north side and the south side, which is a desirable objective in any event, but potentially connecting that line to populations north and south of it, is something that should have been explored in CMATS and should continue to be explored because otherwise, people in Blackpool, Douglas, Mayfield or Togher will not benefit from the advantages of this corridor.

I agree with what the Deputy is saying about that route. There is the other main spine on the north side. Introducing a suburban rail service from Midleton right the way through to Mallow with eight stations also needs to be accelerated. It was in the plan but it was further out. These projects might need to come first and one of the benefits of coming first is that we get transport-led development of Cork. Cork has been hollowed out as everyone moved to Carrigaline, Ballincollig or further afield. We need to bring life back into the centre of Cork and I mention the Mahon to Ballincollig route and the Mallow to Midleton route. There is potential for huge development in the docklands on one side of the Lee on the old Dunlop site and on the Tivoli docks on the other side. That would be dramatic. I would put a cycling and foot bridge across the river there. We have to hold back on getting more road connections but some of those connections would provide a strong development to Cork right on the river and close to the centre. It would be a spectacular place to live.

I agree with the point the Minister makes on the north side and on the more traditional rail connections that will exist but none of that takes into account the fact that not as far out as Carrigaline, Passage or some of the commuter areas, there is a significant population that cannot walk to that or easily reach that corridor in Douglas, Togher, Ballyphehane and Greenmount. I have to say I am impressed with the Minister's knowledge of Cork geography. He is able to rhyme off place names but if he can visualise the chunk of the city I am talking about, it will not benefit from that corridor.

It is positive to see a delivery office set up for the docklands. That will be a crucial area to CMATS and the transport links. Cork Chamber of Commerce has been asking for a delivery office for CMATS. That is logical but so far it has not been delivered. Would the Minister be willing to agree to a delivery office for CMATS based in Cork?

Yes. My father grew up on Victoria Road. I know Cork well. The Deputy is right about Togher, Douglas and that whole area. That is on the BusConnects route too. It is not just that east-west corridor that needs to be built. There are north-south corridors. It is central to the BusConnects plan in CMATS so it is not just that one route. North-South public transport corridors are needed and BusConnects can do it. We can see it in Dublin. It provides the capacity and it will really serve the city well. The National Transport Authority, NTA, has been involved with the city council in setting up that office. The Deputy mentioned that both the city council and the NTA have been saying they need to work together so they could probably house that office together. It is ready to go. In my mind it needs additional funding and we will look at that.

We need a delivery office in Cork.

I would like to see one that involves the NTA and not just the city council. I would like to see them working together. It is a good idea.

Ferry Services

Paul Murphy

Question:

8. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Minister for Transport the plans in place to ensure access for foot passengers on ferry services to France. [35795/20]

There are plans in place from January to expand the number of ferries to France in light of Brexit. It will go from a few times a week to a daily service but it seems from media reports that there will not be access for foot passengers on these services, which would be a huge missed opportunity in getting people who want to go to mainland Europe out of planes and onto a much more sustainable mode of travel, namely ferries.

Foot passengers are currently able to travel to France on ferry services, with the exception of one operator over the winter months due to operational constraints. I understand that the Deputy's question was prompted by the announcement last Thursday regarding increased service frequencies on roll-on roll-off passenger, RoPax, ferry services from Ireland to France from January 2021 and by the publication of the Irish Maritime Development Office, IMDO, report regarding capacity on continental services.

With the Brexit transition period coming to an end on 31 December and the resultant delays that are expected on the UK land bridge, I welcomed the IMDO report which found that there was more than sufficient spare capacity to accommodate any displaced land bridge traffic on direct routes to the continent. I also welcome the decision by both Irish Ferries and Stena Line to increase the frequency of their services to France in January 2021, providing more capacity and options to both business and passengers.

Ferry operators providing services on Ireland to France routes are private companies and any decision to restrict access to vehicle traffic only is a commercial decision made by the companies. While one operator does restrict access to foot passengers over the winter months, there are and will continue to be alternative foot passenger options to France available all year round. These options easily cover the demand there is for foot passengers on this route which is reported as negligible at present. Covid-19 did lead to additional foot passenger capacity restrictions on some services in 2020. This was based on operators having significantly reduced capacity to meet health protocols and facilitate social distancing onboard ships, which reduced the cabin numbers available for sale. These operators report that they expect to be back to normal capacity in 2021, when they will welcome foot passengers on their French services as normal.

The answer illustrates another problem with the privatisation of Irish Ferries, whereby Irish Ferries is not obliged to provide a public transport service or access to foot passengers. It is free not to do it and it does not do it in circumstances where it does not think it is profitable. A consequence of that is increased CO2 emissions but from the point of view of capitalism, that is just another externality and not something it is concerned with.

My understanding is that the Irish Ferries Dublin to Cherbourg sailings on the MS Epsilon ferry generally do not accept foot passengers both ways. Sometimes, one may be able to get to France as a foot passenger but one might not be able come back via the same route. It is the Dublin to Cherbourg route that is being touted for expansion to a daily service. Unfortunately the Minister of State is not able to tell me that foot passengers will be able to access daily services to France and that is what is necessary.

Irish Ferries and Stena Line operate services on the Dublin to Cherbourg and Rosslare to Cherbourg routes, respectively. Brittany Ferries is expected to provide services from Rosslare to Cherbourg and from Cork to Roscoff from March to October of next year. Both Irish Ferris and Stena Line carry foot passengers during the peak period every year. However, Stena Line carries foot passengers all year around. As the Deputy has outlined, Irish Ferries does not carry foot passengers over the winter period only, when it has an alternative vessel on the route which is more suitable to carry freight. It is understood that is for health and safety reasons.

On the programme for Government, there is a commitment in place that we will work to ensure that ferry companies provide access for foot passengers without cars and the Department will shortly start engagement with Dublin Port, Rosslare Europort, the Port of Cork and the relevant shipping companies to ascertain the situation with regard to facilitating foot passengers.

In many circumstances, providing access for foot passengers is a simple matter. It means putting on a minibus to bring people from the boat to the ferry terminal or just providing a safe route for people to walk. Especially in the context of subsidies being provided for private companies to encourage them to put on ferries to avoid the so-called British land bridge, it would be crazy not to insist that there is access for foot passengers on these ferries.

There is a stark contrast between the amount of CO2 generated per passenger in respect of a foot passenger on a ferry, with CO2 emissions of 8 g/km, and a passenger on a long-haul flight, who uses more than ten times that amount, with CO2 emissions of 102 g/km. It makes all the sense in the world to do that. That also underlines the need for Irish Ferries to be brought back into public ownership and that can be part of a plan.

Bus and rail services are available for foot passengers travelling to Rosslare to avail of the Stena Line services that run all year. I reiterate that the situation referred to by the Deputy relates just to Irish Ferries during the winter period and to the MS Epsilon vessel, because of health and safety reasons regarding the ramps on board. The Government is, however, looking at how we can encourage and enhance the passenger experience as part of the Department's work in that area.

Regional Airports

Rose Conway-Walsh

Question:

9. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Transport the status of his response to the planned one-month suspension of flights from Knock airport; the way in which he will protect jobs and ensure the viability of the airport throughout the Covid-19 pandemic; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35805/20]

I welcome the €6 million in funding that was announced for regional airports. Why, however, has a derogation not being sought from the EU for this funding, as was done in respect of the €22 million funding allocated to Shannon and Cork airports? Has the Department checked that this funding meets the EU state aid rules under the temporary framework and can we get a breakdown of that funding for the airports and the associated timeline?

The impacts of Covid-19 on the aviation industry continue to be devastating, with knock-on effects for our domestic tourism and regional economies, particularly in the west. This has been further compounded by Ryanair’s most recent decision to cut its winter capacity at Ireland West Airport Knock and to cancel all services for four weeks, from the end of next week until mid-December. Ryanair made this decision on a commercial basis in light of poor forward bookings for the period in question. It also forms part of a wider move by the airline to cut its capacity on flights right across Europe. That does not detract, however, from the impacts that this is having on Knock as well as Cork, Kerry and Shannon airports. However, I assure the Deputy that the continued viability of these airports is very important to this Government. Ireland West Airport Knock will continue to receive ongoing Exchequer support as part of the regional airports programme. This year, the airport has received capital support of more than €1 million and is also eligible to apply for operational supports from an available budget of €3.5 million.

In keeping with this Government’s priorities for regional development, I expect to publish a new regional airports programme for 2021 to 2025 in the coming weeks. This will give funding certainty to Knock airport over a five-year timeframe, helping the airport to remain viable as it transitions through the various phases of recovery from Covid. The Government has confirmed its commitment to the continuation of the programme in budget 2021 by securing more than €21 million for airports such as this. I am also pleased to refer to the additional supports agreed by Government this week as part of the revised €80 million funding package for Irish aviation. As part of this package, in addition to the €21 million secured for next year under the regional airports programme, Government intends to make a further €6 million available to Ireland's smallest airports, including Knock. The funding package will also include a €20 million airport charges rebate scheme for January to March 2021, which will support the retention of core connectivity. I will return to the Deputy's other questions.

I welcome the Minister of State's commitment and her outlining of the plan, and I look forward to seeing it. She did not answer my question regarding why the EU derogation was not sought for the regional airports and if it has been checked that the €6 million in funding comes within the temporary framework. It is important that this be done. Although the money has been allocated, we do not have certainty concerning the temporary framework, or in respect of the breakdown of the funding and when the airports can expect to get that money. Can some of the funding to which the Minister of State just referred be used for testing? Testing is now an integral part of the survival of regional airports. The costs being mentioned are of concern to many passengers. Is funding available within the allocation she mentioned to subsidise testing?

The €6 million announced this week for our regional airports will be administered by the Department of Transport, which has begun the process of engaging with the European Commission regarding state aid rules. Ireland is an island nation and I do not have to explain to the Deputy or anyone here the importance of core connectivity. I am very hopeful that will be successful. It will then be up to the regional airports to apply for that funding through the Department.

Turning to the question of testing, as I outlined earlier, the DAA will be opening drive-through testing facilities at Dublin, Cork and Shannon airports. That will done through the private sector, and the private sector will also facilitate that testing across the country for airports such as Knock. The testing will be for anyone requiring such a test in advance of flying to another country or for those coming here from red or orange-listed countries who need to take a test within five days of arrival.

I would appreciate if the Minster of State would give me a written answer regarding the derogation and why that was not done. It is important that we understand that. I would also like her to give me a written update regarding the correspondence on the temporary framework and if it meets the criteria. Making announcements without having that information just causes uncertainty, and God knows we have enough uncertainty at this time with everything that is happening. That is particularly the case for regional airports.

Regarding testing, I am concerned because Kerry Airport has mentioned a cost of €70 and Ireland West Airport Knock has referred to €140. I am concerned about the procurement processes in respect of private providers and the costs, and the differentiation in those costs. I ask that another look be given to those regional airports, in case there might be a line of funding somewhere that could be used to subsidise the testing. I do not want passengers to be in a situation where they cannot afford to come home because the cost of testing is prohibitive.

There is eligibility in respect of state aid rules where airports have suffered damages due to the impact of Covid-19. It is clear and obvious to us that regional airports, such as Knock, have been severely impacted by Covid-19. It is in the context that we are engaging with the European Commission. The Deputy can be assured of the certainty around that and the importance of maintaining our core connectivity. That is the reason that the Government this week provided €6 million, in addition to the €21.3 million allocated, to our regional airports.

Turning to testing, again, that will be provided by the private sector. The polymerase chain reaction, PCR, test is the gold standard in this regard. It will be rolled out by the private sector. As more capacity and technology comes online and as the uptake increases, that will reduce the cost. The cost of the PCR test is considerable now, however. As the Deputy may be aware, the National Virus Reference Laboratory, NVRL, is also looking at other testing technologies, such as loop-mediated isothermal amplification, LAMP, tests, which may be significantly cheaper than the PCR test. If those types of test are validated and become available, they could also be options for passengers.

Driver Test

Mick Barry

Question:

10. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Minister for Transport the steps he will take to ensure that all driving instructors will be given access to shelter and handwashing and toilet facilities at RSA driving test centres in the course of the Covid-19 pandemic; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35520/20]

This question is to ask the Minister the steps that will be taken to ensure that all driving instructors will be given access to shelter and handwashing and toilet facilities at RSA driving test centres during the Covid-19 pandemic

My Department and the RSA are aware that some driving instructors disagree with the decision by the RSA to close washing facilities and waiting rooms at driver test centres, to ensure compliance with public and occupational health requirements during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. I understand from the RSA that prior to the current pandemic some test centres across the country offered toilet facilities, and in some cases indoor waiting rooms, where instructors could choose to wait while their students were out undergoing their test. To be clear, some test centres around the country are very small and do not have, and have never had, large waiting rooms or toilet facilities available for instructors.

As the Deputy will be aware, driver testing is continuing under level 5 restrictions, but only for candidates involved in the provision of essential services or essential retail outlets. The RSA has thus been presented with the challenge of facilitating these essential tests while at the same time safeguarding the safety of its staff and the public by minimising the risk of spreading the virus.

I understand that, at present, toilet facilities at test centres are only available to the learner driver who is undertaking his or her driving test. There are no waiting area facilities available in any of the centres for either the learner or the instructor. The learner is contacted by phone while he or she is outside the centre and is then invited inside by the driver tester. The decision to temporarily close public toilet and waiting facilities has been taken by the Road Safety Authority in the interests of public safety and as part of its overall Covid-19 resumption of services protocol in line with health and safety risk assessment procedures, which had to be adopted as part of the RSA's resumption plans. I assure the Deputy that this is not a decision that has been taken lightly. I am sure he will agree that the health and safety of the workers and those in driving test centres need to be our priority.

To be clear, the Minister of State indicated that some driving instructors are opposed to this. There are 2,000 driving instructors in the State. I am not in a position to say that every single one of them is opposed to this, but I am aware that the broad mass of those 2,000 driving instructors oppose what is going on here. It is not just some driving instructors - the Minister of State gives the impression that it might be three or four - but the broad mass of the 2,000 driving instructors. Many of them were forced to stand in lashing rain yesterday sheltering under umbrellas while waiting for the test drivers to come back to the centre. I challenge the idea that health and safety is being protected here. Health and safety is being endangered. The broad mass of the 2,000 driving instructors cannot access the centres to use toilet facilities or wash their hands. If the concern is with Covid safety, why are instructors still having to pass log books back and forth with test drivers, instead of doing it online? Let us put health and safety first but that means letting instructors into the centres and ending the lockout.

I thank the Deputy and I hear his concerns on this. As I said, this is an operational matter for the RSA. The learner driver who is doing the test can go into the driver test centre to use the facilities. The reason behind the measure is to try to minimise the through traffic inside test centres to protect public health. I hear the Deputy's concerns. It is not only about the driving instructors but also about those who bring the learner driver to the test centre, be it a parent or other accompanying driver. In normal times, such persons would have been facilitated in the test centres but we are not in normal times. I will re-engage with the RSA to see if something can be done for drivers accompanying those who are doing their test. I emphasise that all of these measures were put in place to minimise risk and safeguard the health and safety of the learner drivers taking the test and the staff of the RSA driving test centres.

We are not asking that parents be allowed in to test centres to use the facilities. We are asking that instructors be allowed in. That is the issue here. The Minister of State indicated this is an operational matter for the RSA. The drivers have chosen to join a union. Whatever about wanting to talk to the RSA, the union wants to talk to the Minister of State. It has written to her on more than one occasion and has not received anything back. The Minister of State said that she wants to hear my concerns. She should cut out the middleman and listens to the instructors' concerns directly. She should write back to them and do the decent thing by arranging to have a discussion with the instructors and the union of their choice. Why will she not agree to do that? The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is not replying in this debate but does the Green Party support this position of locking out a union and refusing to even talk to it? How can the Minister stand over that position?

These protocols were put in place to minimise the likelihood of the transmission of Covid-19 within the centres and to minimise the throughput of people in them. People doing the driving test must be brought to the centres by an accompanying driver because they are learners who have not yet passed the test. Those accompanying drivers may be parents. I am not detracting from what Deputy Barry said but the context in which these protocols were put in place was to try to keep everybody safe. I hear the Deputy's concerns. This is an operational matter for the RSA, which has sought the best medical advice for putting in place these protocols. I will engage with it to see if anything else can be done to keep everybody safe and ensure we suppress this virus. That is the reasoning behind all of these protocols. It is not a perfect situation. We are in an unprecedented global pandemic and we are all trying to grapple with it to keep everyone as safe as possible, while working with everyone.

Bus Services

Bríd Smith

Question:

11. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Minister for Transport his plans to increase both the Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann fleet numbers in the coming years; the expected extra capacity that will result from this in both companies in order to increase public transport use; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35773/20]

Cormac Devlin

Question:

42. Deputy Cormac Devlin asked the Minister for Transport his plans to support an increased bus fleet in 2021; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35639/20]

What are the Minister's plans to increase the services in Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann? I am aware that he was to give me good news and talk about increased services, which are welcome, but it is worth highlighting that even before Covid, we had a national crisis in our bus transport system. There was a significant increase in the numbers using public transport in 2019. We are now running to stand still and only recovering from the austerity years. Added to this is the need for capacity at peak hours, particularly for essential workers. Will the Minister address the issue in that context, please?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 11 and 42 together. As the Deputy said, there are ambitious plans to expand bus services in all our cities through implementation of BusConnects, which will see improved services, better infrastructure and larger bus fleets. This type of transformative change is needed and if we are serious about improving public transport, we need to be serious about our support for BusConnects and the benefits it will deliver.

The Government’s ongoing support can be seen in the expanded bus fleet operating our PSO services now as compared with a few years ago. The PSO bus fleet has grown by around 15% over the last three years and will continue to expand this year and beyond. Next year alone, for example, the National Transport Authority will purchase more than 240 new buses for the PSO fleets. These buses will replace older buses with newer and cleaner buses, add capacity through replacing single-deck with double-deck buses and will also expand the fleet through additional buses beyond existing fleets.

BusConnects Dublin will see the PSO bus fleet in the Dublin region expand by more than 200 vehicles between 2021 and 2024, while the service improvements planned under the network redesign will increase services by around 23% as compared with today. I want to see that level of ambition replicated in other cities also. In the regional cities capacity is being added through replacing single-deck buses with double-deck vehicles, which can expand capacity by around 25% per bus.

On the regional services, capacity increases are also being addressed through the purchase of double-deck coaches to replace single-deck coach vehicles on various routes, which can increase capacity by between 40% and 50%. In 2021, it is expected that an additional 48 double-deck coach vehicles will be brought into operation which will add capacity to the system across the country.

With regard to buses, I also note the NTA’s ongoing work on Connecting Ireland. This is an initiative to provide better public transport connections between villages and towns by linking them with an enhanced regional network nationwide. The NTA is commencing a two-phase consultation, beginning with local authority officials and other key stakeholders on the main concepts of Connecting Ireland, which will be followed by a wider public consultation on the proposals in the second quarter of 2021.

I thank the Minister. On the ambitious plans to increase the network across the country, it is pretty shameful for the Minister to describe them as such given that the NTA has actively encouraged private competition and run down Bus Éireann as a company. The Minister's lack of concern about the recent announcement that Bus Éireann will cancel three Expressway routes was astonishing. He does not seem to understand the importance of that decision for the company's future.

We need to look at what the NTA is doing with its neoliberal experiment, as I describe it, under which it is bringing privately operated bus services to 10% of routes in Dublin in the name of competition. The only area that is competitive is the wages and conditions of workers. Everything else, including the routes, the number of buses, fares and timetables are decided by the NTA. It is only the workers' pay and conditions that are subject to competition. This is true also of the Expressway routes being taken over by private companies.

I thank the Minister for taking this question. Last year, passenger numbers rose in Dublin by 7.5%, going from 141 million passengers in 2018 to 151 million in 2019. I ask the Minister to provide an update on his plans to increase the bus fleet for 2021.

I set out the numbers in my earlier answer. There will be an additional 240 new buses, and 200 additional buses are planned for the Dublin region in the next three years.

As regards Bus Éireann, those Expressway services are not yet due to be removed but that decision was made at the same time as additional drivers were being taken on by Bus Éireann. The company is expanding and I want to see it expand further. It is making provision for new services in counties Meath and Louth where there is unmet need. That decision was not an expression of a lack of confidence in Bus Éireann - far from it. The company told us it wanted to expand in these areas and that deploying its resources in this way was the best way to proceed. For the towns that could potentially lose out, for example, Cahir and Mitchelstown, we gave a very clear commitment that public service obligation, PSO, services would be put in place in any such instance. I believe in public transport and PSO services and if any such gap appears, it will be met and closed.

It is not a question of drivers. I am aware that Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann are recruiting. It is about the number of physical buses we need. Nothing in the Minister's response indicates the sort of radical forward thinking we need, given the Covid crisis and the climate crisis. We do not have to argue with our population about using public transport. They want to use it. The question is whether they can get on it. At the moment, healthcare workers cannot get home from work or travel to work because of the lower capacity. I understand that this is a particular situation but this will be a problem in the future. Before Covid, people had difficulty accessing bus services on time with the same frequency. There is also the question of cost. Bus fares are excessive and have gone up hugely in the last few years. We are only now returning to the fleet numbers we had before the fleet was cut in 2009. The Minister's response is not good enough and does not deal with the issue, the climate crisis in particular.

As I said, passenger numbers increased by 7.5% in Dublin and 138 million journeys took place on Dublin Bus services in 2019. Dublin Bus has significantly increased efficiency, brought in new timetables and improved frequencies on the network, which has enabled it to continue growing its passenger numbers, hopefully into 2021. It is clear that there is a demand for improved and increased services across Dublin and Dubliners want to see more improvements on public transport. That is only right. If we want people to leave their cars at home, we are going to have to improve public transport services. I note what the Minister said about the BusConnects plans. That project is important and while the majority of it is welcome, some new routes will also benefit the network. On new proposed routes, I note that there was a discussion around 24-hour bus services. If the Minister has any information on that, particularly routes southbound from Dublin city to Bray, I ask him to elaborate on it.

I do not have the detail on that matter but I will ask the Department to furnish it to the Deputy directly. We will provide additional buses but the key here is the BusConnects project because if we can deliver that, not just in Dublin but also in Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford, it will radically improve the service, as well as the conditions and lived experience of the drivers working on the service. That is the most important step and we have to get it right at this time to make our bus system the cornerstone of our public transport system.

I was looking in detail at the Kimmage route the other day, which Deputy Smith and I share in our bordering constituencies. I will take that as an example, although it is one of many I could take along the 16 corridors being built. After consultation with the community, we have ended up with a very different design from the one that was originally proposed. It will be very radical and will take a lot of political courage for us to get this through because it will very much advantage cycling, buses and pedestrians over other modes of transport. That is what we have to do now because the city will not work unless we make a bus system that works. We will provide the buses. A shortage of buses will not be the problem in any instance. The key now is getting the BusConnects project into planning. We hope to get that done in March after this final consultation. If there are changes, the NTA should be open to looking at them but by and large the network proposed and the design solutions it has come up with are the right ones. More than anything else, that will increase bus numbers by making it easier for drivers and passengers to use the buses we have. That is the key measure we need to get right in the next few years.

Rural Transport Services

Paul Murphy

Question:

12. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Minister for Transport if he will consider the expansion of the Local Link and Rural Link bus services to reduce isolation for persons living in rural areas. [33153/20]

Will the Minister agree to expand the Local Link bus services, which are essential for getting people out of private cars in rural areas? That means developing an integrated national transport service in which routes and timetables are integrated with other public bus and train services. At the moment these services are quite successful but there is only one Local Link office for every two counties so we need a massive expansion.

The NTA has statutory responsibility for securing the provision of public transport services nationally. The NTA also has national responsibility for integrated local and rural transport, including management of the rural transport programme, which operates under the Local Link brand. From a policy perspective, there is a need for a fundamental change in the nature of transport in Ireland and the Programme for Government: Our Shared Future commits to making public transport and active travel better and more accessible.

The Deputy will probably be aware that my Department has already been undertaking a review of sustainable mobility policy, which incorporates a review of public transport in rural areas. In this context, the Department held a public consultation process between November 2019 and February 2020, and included a stakeholder event in the course of that consultation. Over 250 submissions were received as part of this consultation process and I published a report on it last week. I intend to develop a new policy framework for the next ten years that can provide a strategic backdrop to the increased investment planned by this Government across the sustainable mobility programme. The new policy statement will be informed by the review of the previous policy framework, known as Smarter Travel, and submissions received during my Department's consultation process. Other stakeholders' views will also be taken into account. This will provide a platform to advance the ambitions of the programme for Government in the area of sustainable travel, and will replace the previous Smarter Travel policy from 2009. Our programme for Government commitments on public transport in rural areas will be progressed in the context of that new policy statement.

Among the measures we will prioritise are a sustainable rural mobility plan to ensure settlements over a certain size can connect to the national public transport system, expanding the Local Link rural transport service and prioritising public transport projects that enhance regional and rural connectivity. Meanwhile, the NTA has undertaken a nationwide study to inform its approach to rolling out improved public transport across the country in areas, excluding the greater Dublin area, regional cities and large towns, by providing better connections between villages and towns and linking them with an enhanced regional network connecting cities and regional centres. Arising from this study, I am advised that the NTA is starting on a two-phase consultation on its proposals, entitled Connecting Ireland. This will begin with local authority officials and other key stakeholders engaging on the main concepts of Connecting Ireland, and will then be followed by a wider public consultation on the proposals in the second quarter of 2021.

These services are vital as they connect people who live in relatively isolated areas to the main public transport links. They are absolutely essential. They are, by definition, low-volume services and therefore are not particularly profitable. That is a problem with the entire model of how the NTA is doing this, by contracting services for which private operators like Go-Ahead Ireland can bid. That model means these services, which we need in order to get people out of cars and to counteract isolation, are not necessarily provided.

An integrated public transport system, which is genuinely public, will develop these low-volume rural services in a context in which the revenue from the high-volume routes can be used to cross-subsidise the low-volume routes. Does the Minister agree there is a problem with this model of private contracting out of the routes?

During the previous Priority Questions, I raised the issue of a route the NTA part-funded and also provided school bus transport. There is a solution on the table that will serve the rural communities of Skreen, Walterstown and Kentstown and will also provide for those schoolchildren left without school bus transport since September. Will the Minister support the proposal from Flexibus? It will serve a rural community and those schoolchildren left without a service.

I raised that issue with officials who came back to me that there is an issue. While I do not have a final resolution, I will commit to come back again on this as a solution has to be found for the students in question.

I agree with Deputy Paul Murphy on the importance of Local Link. I also believe in public transport and public service companies delivering it. However, that does not have to be to the complete exclusion of other operators. From my experience as a passenger using a range of different public transport coach operators, they provide a good service. They are local and often good community businesses. I agree it has to be a public system designed for the public good. We cannot allow transfer pricing along the way, as the Deputy suggested, where people cherry-pick routes. That can be done in a way that does not exclude the many good companies involved in providing public transport.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.