Skip to main content
Normal View

Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 22 Sep 2022

Vol. 1026 No. 5

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Transport Policy

Catherine Connolly

Question:

6. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Transport further to Parliamentary Question No. 299 of 26 July 2022, the composition of the promised specialist team which will assist the National Transport Authority in conjunction with Galway City and County Councils, in undertaking the work to update the Galway Transport Strategy; the details of the process for the appointment of members of the specialist team; the status of the appointment process for the members of the specialist team; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46314/22]

I am following up on the Galway transport strategy and seeking an update on it. I am specifically asking about the composition of the promised specialist team. There are many aspects to the updating of the strategy, including everything from BusConnects, corridors, park and ride to light rail. I ask the Minister to update me on that.

I understand that the NTA expects to commence the review of the 2016 Galway transport strategy and the development of a new Galway metropolitan area transport strategy by the end of this year. The NTA will appoint a specialist team through an open tender process to assist it, in conjunction with Galway city and county councils, in undertaking work on developing the strategy. The tendering process for the specialist team has yet to commence formally but will be advertised through the appropriate channels. The ambition is that the team will be appointed and work will commence before the end of this year. The programme of works will contain a comprehensive review of all transport options. This will look at walking, cycling, bus, rail, park and ride and traffic management, including the management of goods movement. It will specifically include a feasibility assessment for light rail in Galway city. The NTA will undertake a comprehensive public consultation exercise on a draft strategy as part of the development process. This is likely to be in the summer of next year with an expected publication of a final strategy in quarter three of next year. The development of the new Galway transport strategy will not impede the current investment in transport infrastructure in Galway. A significant amount of planning and design has already taken place which will enable construction activity in the coming years across active travel and bus and rail-related projects, including BusConnects. I am sure the Deputy joins me in welcoming Galway City Council's application this month to An Bord Pleanála for the BusConnects cross-city link. I look forward to the development of the new Galway metropolitan area transport strategy and will continue to provide support in delivering key elements of the existing strategy, pending its development.

I thank the Minister for the update. I have a copy of the Minister's reply, which is one of the perks of sitting in the Chair. The reply states that the programme of works: "will look at walking, cycling, bus, rail, park and ride" but light rail is not mentioned. The Minister has mentioned light rail and I welcome that but it is not printed in the answer that he is reading out; only rail is mentioned. I would like the Minister to clarify that because light rail is a different concept to rail. It is important that rail is included but the same is true for light rail, which is what the Gluas committee in Galway has repeatedly asked for. While I welcome any progress, I am frustrated because it is being done in a vacuum. There is no updated strategy; the strategy that was there in 2016 was already dated and three years later we declared a climate emergency. At that point we needed an updated strategy and park and ride was to be unveiled in September. The NTA went ahead looking at one side of the city. I put most of the blame for this on the city council because before it went to the NTA it only looked at one side of the city. City councillors objected and asked for stronger wording to go in the plan but the manager said the wording was strong enough.

However, we still have no park and ride in Galway since 2005.

The strategy will include a feasibility study on light rail in Galway. I mentioned that specifically in my response. I would not read anything into the lines where it was not mentioned. The process in Galway will be similar to Cork. I would like Galway City and County Council to put in high-quality bus corridors, the likes of this cross-city routes such as the Dublin Road, which will go into planning next year. As the Deputy said, the disconnect in the city is because people live on one side of it and often travel to work on the other side. If we can show, which I am sure we can with high quality bus transport systems, that there is a demand for such public sector routes, they will be upgraded with light rail. This is how I see it being developed, but it is important to first get those BusConnects routes right. There are many controversies as I understand regarding the specific routes in the city centre. We need to bring the public with us on that. We need the council to be clear on where it is going on transport in Galway city. As it is doing that, it will undergo a tendering process for this specialist team that will look over the strategy.

I realise that the Minister is trying to do his best. However, the officials are operating in a vacuum. There is no updated strategy. We declared a climate emergency in 2019 and we still have no updated strategy. Light rail was not mentioned in the Minister’s reply. If he is putting on the record now that a light rail feasibility study is part of the review, I welcome that, but I do not see it.

The lack of a park and ride is inexplicable and scandalous. The councillors did their job in 2005. They continue to do their job and they demand a park and ride for both sides of the city. The NTA did not follow that, having taken on the mantle from Galway City Council, but the council should have done its job in the first place. The NTA is now delaying the matter. In fact, it was even delaying in replying to a parliamentary question I tabled in July. I am not here to personalise; I am here to say the people of Galway are way ahead of us. The Minister knows that they signed a petition many years ago, which I had the privilege of leading. A total of 24,000 people were simply looking for a feasibility study for light rail. Finally, the composition of the review is essential to give confidence to us that that the number of experts there will examine these different aspects. The NTA has already said "No" to light rail.

The strategy has to start before the end of the year so this is not in some distant future. This has to start in the next number of months-----

Yes, and the work on the whole new strategy that we have to start straightaway. Specifically and very pointedly in my response, I said that that must include a feasibility study for light rail in Galway city. There are other elements such as park and ride, active travel, where we have had such difficulty in Galway and BusConnects. There are also ongoing upgrades to the rail system around Oranmore and a number of other projects. The work cannot await the conclusion of the strategy. We have to start building and providing better services in Galway straightaway. The strategy has to continue, but the things that we know that we need to do - there is a whole list as long as your arm - need to proceed straight away.

We will skip Questions Nos. 7 and 8 and proceed to Question No. 11. I thank Deputies Lawless and Tóibín for facilitating Deputy Brendan Smith. We will revert to her questions.

Questions Nos. 7 and 8 taken with Written Answers.
Questions Nos. 9 and 10 taken after Question No. 11.

Departmental Expenditure

Brendan Smith

Question:

11. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Transport the total capital funding provided for his Department in 2022; the expenditure profile at the end of August 2022; if there is likely to be an underspend in any particular area, if so, if additional funding will be provided for the non-national road network; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46316/22]

Brendan Smith

Question:

23. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Transport the total funding provided in 2022 for the non-national road network; if he will ensure that increased funding will be provided for this road network in 2023 due to the need for an increased investment in these roads in areas such as counties Cavan and Monaghan; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46315/22]

I thank my colleagues for assisting me because I have a meeting at 10 a.m. I hope that there is not an underspend on the capital side of the departmental budget at this particular time. If there is, I would like a reallocation of funding for the non-national road network. Our regional and county roads need more investment. Thankfully, there is an increasing in population in rural Ireland. If funding is available, I sincerely hope that it would be devoted to the non-national road network programme.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 11 and 23 together. In response to the Deputy’s query, the total capital funding allocated to the Department for investment in 2022 is €2.547 billion. As of the end of August 2022, €926.116 million in capital was profiled for expenditure and €707 million was issued. The variance was €219.110 million. In addition, €155.043 million of unspent capital was carried over from last year, of which €151.238 million was issued.

I will briefly summarise the expenditure profile for each programme. Under programme A, sustainable mobility, active travel and greenways, expenditure is €86.572 million compared to profile of €62.856 million, or 38% ahead of profile. Under programme B, sustainable mobility, carbon reduction and public transport, taking electric vehicle, EV, and EV infrastructure grants first, expenditure is €50.425 million, compared to profile of €63.034 million, or 12% behind profile. Expenditure is €165.856 million for heavy rail and public transport investment compared to profile of €271.148 million, or 39% behind profile. Under programme C, road safety and road networks, expenditure is €402.068 million compared to profile of €526.617 million, or 24% behind profile. Under programme D, civil aviation, expenditure is on profile, with no expenditure scheduled to take place prior to the fourth quarter. Under programme E, maritime transport and safety, expenditure is €1.311 million, compared to profile of €1.647 million, or 20% behind profile.

For subheads with underspends, the reasons for variations between expenditure and profile are as follows: in grants and infrastructure, the LEV grants provide funding towards several EV purchase grants, which are demand led. In general, demand was lower than expected at this point in the year due to global supply chain issues impacting on the availability and delivery of new vehicles into the Irish market. The drawdown of funding for infrastructure is also being impacted by global supply chains. In addition, the launch of a scheme for apartment charging had been delayed and was launched with Zero Emissions Vehicles Ireland, ZEVI, on 21 July. Under heavy rail safety and development, the underspend is predominantly due to the reduction in spend on DART+ fleet because of a renegotiation of the timing of milestone payments, with a significant down payment made to Alstom in December last year, which had originally been scheduled for this year. There is also a reduction in expenditure on new Intercity railcars due to an updated delivery schedule of 2023 for the majority of railcars.

In the area of public transport infrastructure, the underspend is predominantly due to a reduction in spend on ticketing, technology and integration, support and the bus programme. In the case of BusConnects Dublin, there have been delays to the delivery of new fleet. In construction and development of national roads, some of the underspend relates to the timing of payments. Regarding significant project delay, as Roadbridge Ltd. went into receivership in March, leading to the N5 Ballaghaderreen to Scramoge project being suspended.

Finally, in the area of regional roads, expenditure to end August on protection and renewal of regional and local roads was close to profile while expenditure on road improvement projects was behind profile. The shortfall in expenditure for road improvement projects is due largely to the impact of the Roadbridge receivership on the Coonagh to Knockalisheen distribution road project.

I will not read out the rest of this reply, but I would make the point that those underspends at this present time will be clawed back. We will not have a significant underspend at the end of the year. There are a number of additional rail and public transport projects that we expect to deliver and spend on in this year, which will mean that those underspends will not accrue at the end of the year.

I thank the Minister for his detailed reply. He negotiated very well in his Estimates campaign last year. There is a substantial spend under each heading. I sincerely hope that he will secure increased funding for the regional and local roads and the non-national road network for the coming year. As I mentioned earlier, thankfully there is a growth in population in rural areas. My own county is very rural and there is few national roads because of our Border situation. We are heavily dependent on the non-national network for the siting of people’s homes and enterprise and business. There is a lot of heavy traffic and we need to ensure that for the roads, which are at a reasonable standard at the moment, there is investment in those to protect the investment that was made over the years. Many roads in both counties are crying out for investment and upgrading. In this day and age, people are entitled to a proper standard of road to their home and to their place of work. I urge the Minister, if there is any leeway under any of the subheads, to consider allocating to the local authorities that have the capacity to spend more money before the end of this year and ensure there is increased funding for 2023.

I agree with the Deputy.

One of the key investments we need to make is in the protection and renewal of existing assets. As they Deputy will be aware, if we let a road go it costs far more to bring it back when there is structural damage, potholes and so on. It is far better to invest now in maintaining the road surface, the network and the drains. That saves money in the long run. We must ensure that is protected, which it has been in recent budgets.

The reality is that there are so many different asks, as we heard earlier, particularly in respect of new services connecting Ireland, including new rail services. We still have a significant shift to make. We are heading, as a Government, towards a ratio of 2:1 expenditure on public transport compared to roads. We are not anywhere near that yet. The significant increases in transport spending to come are going to be on public transport to make sure that we have options. Deputies Tóibín, O'Rourke and others said earlier that critical public transport projects need funding. Any underspend that we have this year is going to be used to invest in some of those projects for rail and other solutions that will give us the capacity we need to also help the roads by taking some of that traffic off them. Deputy Tóibín mentioned that it took him two hours to get in this morning. The solution to that is investing in public transport to help those who have to be on the roads.

A project that I have discussed with the Minister previously is the proposed east-west route from Sligo to Dundalk, via counties Fermanagh, Cavan and Monaghan. Parts of that road have been upgraded. It carries a large volume of traffic. It is an important artery in the Border region and the northern half of our country. I sincerely hope that dedicated funding can be provided in 2023 to ensure further planning, upgrading and the commencement of some works along that route, which is particularly important for towns such as Cootehill, Shercock, Carrickmacross and into Dundalk..

I recall the Deputy and I having several conversations on that. The prioritising of roads is something that TII has a central role in. It does all work in this entire capital budget. There is not too much negotiation with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform on the capital side, because the figures are set out in the national development plan. The approach to take in investment priorities within that is also set out in the plan. However, we have to take into account local specifics and areas, particularly where there is a lot of heavy haulage traffic and urban towns and villages that are getting that as through traffic. They are areas where we do have a specific problem. The route mentioned by the Deputy has some of the characteristics of that.

Bus Services

James Lawless

Question:

9. Deputy James Lawless asked the Minister for Transport his plans to tackle reliability issues on bus routes (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [45999/22]

My question relates to the reliability of bus services in County Kildare. However, before I get onto the issue of buses, I should just share with Members present that ironically, I almost missed my question because my train service was delayed on the way in this morning. The 8.20 a.m. from Sallins is repeatedly late. Not only does it delay that train, but that connects to the Hazelhatch train, which does the inner shuttle. It means that a trainload of commuters can be left stranded when it is late. I would appreciate attention being given to that issue.

My question today concerns the Go-Ahead bus routes, primarily the 120 bus, which serves Clane and Edenderry, the 115 on the Kilcock side and the 126 on the Naas side. That route was recently re-tendered. It should have improved when it was given to a new operator, not go backwards. There are issues with reliability, no-shows and punctuality. It is dogged.

I am sorry to hear that the Deputy's train was late this morning and that he, like Deputy Tóibín, had difficulty getting to the Dáil, which may account for some of the reordering of questions we have had to do.

First, as I have mentioned, the performance of all public transport operators is monitored by the NTA as part of the contractual arrangements in place between it and the operators. These contractual arrangements allow for not just the monitoring of performance by the authority and the publication by it of annual performance reports, but importantly, the contracts also allow for the imposition of financial penalties where performance does not meet the required standard. It is the case that operators in the public transport sector are experiencing difficulties with staffing both as a result of Covid-related absences and also difficulties in recruiting new drivers. However, it is also the case that Go-Ahead Ireland is experiencing higher than normal levels of Covid-related staff absences at present resulting in a knock-on effect on service delivery, with some services not operating as scheduled. In addition, last week the company notified the NTA of a cybersecurity alert that resulted in major difficulties in communicating rosters to drivers across the Go-Ahead group internationally, including Ireland, causing a number of additional service cancellations across the Go-Ahead Ireland network, over and above those associated with general driver shortages.

As part of the NTA’s performance monitoring system, poor reliability and punctuality performance results in financial penalties. I am informed that these matters will be discussed between the NTA and Go-Ahead Ireland at their forthcoming quarterly review meeting. As I said in reply to Deputy O'Rourke earlier, the Deputy may wish to be aware that penalties were previously applied to Go-Ahead Ireland for quarter 4 of 2021 and quarter 1 of 2022, amounting to €266,968 and €209,188, respectively. The NTA formally meets Go-Ahead Ireland on a weekly basis to review performance, associated customer feedback and driver recovery plans, and will continue to monitor and engage closely with the operator.

The difficulty here is that there were issues with services, and the 120 in particular, pre-Covid and pre-Go-Ahead. In fact, it was considered by the regular commuters on the bus that the service would improve and there was a bit of excitement about it. I replied to some representations at the time saying that there was light at the end of the tunnel because a new operator was coming on board and the service would improve. That was the assumption. There is great frustration and disappointment that rather than improving, it has gone backwards. I am aware that the NTA had imposed penalties. Perhaps it will consider further penalties. I welcome that. If a carrot-and-stick approach needs to be applied, so be it. That is all well and good. However, it is almost a year on now. I appreciate that coming out of Covid there were difficulties with recruitment and all the rest of it, but we have been hearing about staff and driver issues for 12 months now. Surely, a properly organised, managed and regulated company can get to grips with such issues within 12 months, rather than having them persistently drag on. Perhaps, in my reply, I will give some examples of how people are affected. I appreciate that the NTA is in talks, but perhaps those talks need to be escalated and expedited, because it really needs to get this moving, in every sense.

I agree with the Deputy. As I said earlier, if companies are not delivering on the terms of the contract and the service level agreements, there have to be consequences. The NTA has that stick with which to impose fines. The operators that cannot meet service standards cannot expect that they will retain and continue to provide services on particular routes. It is a problem. There is an issue right across all public transport companies and the various sectors of the economy. We know about the issues with getting full employment and the real difficulty in getting trained staff in. It is a real problem. However, that cannot just be allowed to continue. We have to examine it and intervene. I mentioned earlier that Go-Ahead Ireland is taking driver applications at present. One of the key issues that we have to examine is the training apprenticeship model. As I understand it, Dublin Bus has a more traditional apprenticeship-type system, where candidates are taken in and right through. I will say to the NTA that we must look at the apprenticeship and other training models to ensure we have the drivers we need, and not just accept the shortage as an ongoing reality.

That is a very good idea. It makes perfect sense to do that, rather than having some casual labour being brought in for a route here or there and being let go again. Having an apprenticeship model as a career path is the way to go. Perhaps the Minister can point the NTA towards that because the driver shortage is across the board. I will share a few examples with the Minister. I have had multiple representations to my office over the past year. One example concerns a local business that has taken on a Ukrainian refugee, who has been placed in local accommodation with a family. The refugee is cycling to the nearest bus stop and then getting a bus to the beauty salon in which she has been employed. Unfortunately, the business is in the position of almost having to let her go because she cannot get to work on time. The business is doing its best to accommodate her. She is great and everything else is working, but she cannot get there on time. Another lady told me that she commutes home in the evening from Dublin. She feels very vulnerable standing at bus stops late at night in Dublin city centre. She cannot guarantee that the bus will arrive on time. She is waiting for the bus on the quays, sometimes for long periods. Indeed, she told me that she waited four hours one night for a bus to turn up. This is not a safe or sustainable situation. On a practical level, the real-time app that should tell people when the bus is late only flags it when the bus is already late. I experienced that myself this morning on the train. The real-time app only updates at the end. If the real-time bus app told passengers that it was late half an hour or an hour beforehand, they could stay in work or go for a coffee, rather than waiting and finding out what they already know.

I call Deputy Mark Ward.

Does the Minister not have a response?

Deputy Donnelly has a related question.

The use of public transport depends on the confidence of its users in the delivery of a reliable service. I would like to raise the issue of the 70 bus service, which runs between Littlepace and Dunboyne and has been withdrawn by the NTA. This is going to leave passengers without a direct service when BusConnects eventually comes in in 2024. More than 4,000 people have signed a petition against the removal of this bus service.

Will the Minister use his office to connect with the NTA and the BusConnects team to have a good look at this service? It is a good service and people are using it. People were all over Facebook today talking about Dunboyne and Clonee, towns which are packed with traffic. We need that service. Many young people attending school travel from Clonee to Dunboyne because no school places were available in Clonee. I ask the Minister to ask those organisations to look again at that service.

We will look at the various options. I will make a general point. There is bad weather today, the schools are back and offices are busier midweek than they otherwise might be. Many people will have seen that the traffic this morning was very heavy. The problem is that we do not have enough public transport. The solution to these problems is increased public transport and providing the priority for public transport. What should give us encouragement in that regard is that the public transport numbers are shooting up. There are difficulties on particular routes, and we will look at them, but the public is responding. Where we have started to introduce the BusConnects routes in Dublin, including the H-spine and the Lucan spine, the evidence is that it is working. The numbers are shooting up. It is a virtuous process we can get into. Some services in Dublin, including the Luas, are not back to the numbers they carried previously. However, around the country, metropolitan public transport is shooting up. Where we are starting to provide BusConnects routes, it is working. We will look at a problem on any route but we should not distract from what is happening, that is, a big increase in public transport.

Will the Minister ask the NTA to look at that? If people know it is coming, they will wait.

Greenways Provision

Peadar Tóibín

Question:

10. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Minister for Transport the status of the development of the Boyne greenway; and when the greenway will be built. [46284/22]

The Boyne greenway has the ability to become the most important greenway in Ireland. It is internationally recognised for having a large concentration of very important heritage sites. The Boyne Valley has Brú na Bóinne, which is a UNESCO world heritage site. It has Trim Castle, the Hill of Tara and the site of the Battle of the Boyne. There are dozens of smaller important historical and heritage sites there. What is the progress in the development of the greenway? This has been going on for years.

It is a sightly complicated greenway. It is different from some of the others. I understand that Meath County Council is progressing the greenway as a joint greenway and river navigation restoration project. We are only responsible for the greenway part. However, the council put the schemes together, which makes it slightly complicated and different from other greenway projects. My Department and TII have no role in respect of the river navigation aspect. Questions on that issue will have to be directed to Meath County Council.

That said, we need to start looking at greenway projects as the significant infrastructure projects that they are. They must follow the same public spending code and project management guidelines as roads and hospital projects and, therefore, progress can, unfortunately, seem slower than anticipated. However, progress is being made on this important project. The Boyne Valley greenway was granted funding by my Department in July 2020 under the carbon tax funding and received the highest allocation from the €4.5 million fund. It received €750,000 towards this project. TII has allocated €100,000 towards progressing this project in 2022. The total spend to date since this project was initially funded is €739,559.

TII is now responsible for the management of greenway projects and I understand that Meath County Council issued a draft phase 2 options selection report to TII in May this year. TII has, as normal, carried out a peer review of this report and raised several queries with the local authority. I am informed that a response is being prepared by the local authority and will be issued to TII shortly. TII expects that the emerging preferred option for the greenway will be published by the local authority in quarter 4 this year. It is likely that the phase 2 gate review process will not be completed until early 2023.

At this stage it is not possible to give an indication of when the greenway will complete construction, given the steps needed to be taken and the uncertain timeline for planning approval.

Sometimes I feel that there are two understandings of the word "time". There is how citizens understand it in their normal lives.

I can tell the Deputy there are approximately 20 such understandings.

There is a different understanding of time in the context of how the administration of this country works. I passed a motion almost 14 years ago at council level for this particular project and it still has not come into being in any real way. It is amazing. The tourism potential of this project is massive. The Minister knows that cycling and walking tourism are taking off around the world. Walks in northern Spain and Ireland are drawing down tourists. Meath is ideally located. It has a high concentration of important heritage sites. The Boyne Valley is also a beautiful location. Is there any way we can decouple the greenway project from the river navigation element if that is holding up the process? Will the Minister put his energy into the development of the greenway to ensure it happens in our lifetimes?

I mentioned the river navigation aspect because my officials said to me that it slightly complicates matters. That is an issue that Meath County Council must consider. However, that should not stop us. I agree with the Deputy that the time it takes us to deliver transport projects is too long and deeply frustrating. We often engage in public consultation and then it is only years later that something materially happens. We also have real problems in our planning system that lead to delays and projects being held up. That is not to say we do not need proper planning but it sometimes makes things very expensive. That is not in the interests of citizens.

I agree that the greenway route has considerable potential. It was given that funding of €750,000 in recognition of that. It is certainly a tourist route but all these routes are also for local use. The greenway would connect Navan and Drogheda.

Trim and Drogheda.

That is an important link. With e-bikes and so on, people would be able to use that as a real connection. I agree that we need to speed things up. The Deputy should address with Meath County Council why it is dealing with the project in that way.

Unfortunately, tourism in Meath at the moment consists of a coach tour from a Dublin hotel to visit Newgrange and Trim Castle,before returning to a Dublin hotel for dinner. There is little left for Meath in terms of income. Walking tourism allows for people to stay within a location for five, six, seven or eight days. Their visits can include bed and breakfast accommodation, hotels and restaurants. That would allow for value to be left in the locality where those facilities are. I agree entirely with the Minister about the transportation benefits. Ideally, this route would be brought down to the source of the River Boyne, which would cross over and connect with the Royal Canal greenway. Another greenway is being built from Navan to Kingscourt. That would allow for a network of transportation links in that part of Ireland, allowing people to travel to the whole country from this particular region.

I have previously raised this matter with the Minister. There is considerable potential in this project. The Minister has put his finger on the issues. I and the Mayor of Navan, Councillor Eddie Fennessy, have met Meath County Council about this matter. It a Gordian knot of complexity because of how the greenway is linked with the navigation project. The environmental piece and the reinstatement of the old navigation way make the situation complex. Those aspects need to be separated.

I commend the activism of the Navan Cycling Initiative. I encourage the Minister to meet its representatives. They are championing these projects. The two aspects of the project need to be decoupled. The Department has a role to intervene to move the project along. It needs to be kick-started and delivered. It also needs to be extended to Trim.

TII has a key role here. It is very good at delivering infrastructure. It has been doing it for several decades. It has delivered motorways and other programmes. It is systematic in its approach. Deputy Tóibín is correct that we should extend the route from Trim to the Royal Canal greenway, which would result in mesh networks. Many people will go for a 60 km, 70 km, 80 km or 100 km spin on a Saturday or Sunday morning. Those longer routes where greenways join up will be used. We must think strategically about a national cycling network as well as ensuring good local use. As the Deputy said, the Boyne greenway could connect to the Kingscourt greenway.

Each one that connects up benefits the others. My Department is very aware of the complication in this particular project relating to the navigation piece being joined up, which is why it was part of my response. I am interested that the Deputies seem to have a similar view. We will push to try to get it built as quickly as we can.

Public Transport

Emer Higgins

Question:

12. Deputy Emer Higgins asked the Minister for Transport if he will adjust the eligibility for the 19 to 24-year-old Leap card to include third-level students who are 18 years old given that many private operators now charge more for a child ticket than a young adult ticket under the newly introduced scheme, resulting in 18-year-old college students who use private operators not being eligible to avail of the intended saving for third level students; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46187/22]

Ruairí Ó Murchú

Question:

76. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Minister for Transport if consideration will be given to including 17- and 18-year-olds on the youth travel card scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [45718/22]

Michael McNamara

Question:

187. Deputy Michael McNamara asked the Minister for Transport the reason that 17 and 18-year-old students have been left out of the young adult card and student Leap card initiative announced on 5 September 2022; if he will include this age group in the initiative as a matter of urgency; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46403/22]

Will the Minister consider adjusting the eligibility for the Leap card for 19- to 24-year-olds to include third level students who are 18? There is an unforeseen knock-on effect here where, ironically, private operators now charge more for a child ticket than a young adult ticket under the new scheme the Minister introduced, which has been a huge success throughout the country. This means that 18-year-old college students who use private bus operators cannot avail of the intended savings for third level students and, in some cases, are paying double the fee.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 12, 76 and 187 together.

I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity to clarify this important issue. As Deputies are aware, as part of budget 2022, I secured €25 million in funding for the introduction of a young adult card. It is my firm view that the young adult card will be of great benefit to young adults and will not only promote modal shift among that cohort of the population, but also contribute towards a reduced reliance on private transport with the associated benefit of transport emission savings.

The young adult card was initially introduced on public service obligation services in May. Since then there has been extensive engagement between my Department, the National Transport Authority, NTA, and representatives from the commercial bus sector to agree upon extending the initiative to commercial bus operators as well. That extension has now been agreed and has been in place since 4 September, so the 50% fare discount for holders of a young adult - those aged 19 to 23 - or student Leap card is now available on bus services provided by participating commercial bus operators.

On the Deputy's question on the eligibility requirements for the young adult card, I am happy to clarify that the NTA is widening the age rules of the scheme to allow 16-, 17-, and 18-year-old students in third level education to apply for the student leap card so that they can also avail of the discount. This is in line with the approach that has been taken with mature students who are in full-time third level education.

I am pleased to advise that the NTA has already commenced the technical work on this matter, which is scheduled to be completed in the coming weeks, at which point those third level students aged 16, 17, and 18 will be able to order a student Leap card and avail of the discount.

That is fantastic news. I am very pleased to hear that. I thank the Minister for that positive response. I agree with him that this has been a very positive scheme. It is fantastic that it is being improved, expanded and extended all the time. Right now, 18-year-old students are not eligible for either the Leap card for 19- to 24-year-olds or the student Leap card. Therefore, they have to get a child ticket. If they are, for example, travelling from Drogheda to Dublin to attend college, then they are paying double the fee of their 19-year-old classmate because a child's single fare on that route is €10 versus €5 under the new discounted Leap card for 19- to 24-year-olds. That is double the price. It is an anomaly, it is not fair and it is not in the spirit of what the Minister introduced in order to reduce the dependency on cars, to change people's behaviours and to help students deal with the cost of living.

I welcome the Minister's answer that this is an anomaly he and the NTA are committed to fixing. Can the Minister give any more clarity on the timeframe and what the next steps are? That would be very helpful.

Everybody was in support of this particular move. We all see that it is an action related to the cost of living but it is also to make sure that more people use public transport. It continues the conversation we had earlier.

We had got a response from the NTA previously on this. Again, we would like it to move as quickly as possible on 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds being able to avail of the Leap card. Does this mean they will get the exact same as a 19-year-old would get, from a financial point of view, from the young adult card? Beyond that, there is an anomaly here in that this Leap card is only available to people in third level education. I assume people aged 16, 17 and 18 who are working or in apprenticeships cannot avail of it. Is that something we will also look at?

We will look at that as well. In response to Deputy Higgins's question on the timeframe, it will be within weeks. This has to be done quickly. It took a lot of work to get this done, especially to incorporate private bus operators. That was not a small project because of all the management and co-ordination involved. To have the ability to regulate, in effect, or monitor fares in a way we previously did not took time. I do not expect this to take a similar length of time because much of that work has already been done.

There is one slight complication relating to the matter raised by Deputy Ó Murchú. My understanding is that an under-18-year-old on public transport services is entitled to a child fare. The concern about those fares does not apply. There are a limited number of other services where those fares would not apply, if young people are working and are not students, but those are very limited and specific circumstances. I will look at those to see if there are other ways of closing that final gap, but the vast majority of those aged under 18 on the vast majority of public transport services are entitled to a child fare.

I commend the Minister and his Department on all the work that has been done to make public transport more affordable and accessible. It is just so important at present when we consider the two crises we are in, namely, the cost-of-living crisis and the climate crisis. We know both these issues are having a massive effect on our young people and that they are very passionate about them. That is why it is so important to ensure that all young people availing of public and private transport alike can avail of these intended savings. I am very pleased that this will be done so quickly. I thank the Minister for that. This issue was raised with me by a constituent who works in the Students' Union office in University College Dublin, UCD. I will let those students know about this because it is something that comes up time and time again. I very much thank the Minister for being a step ahead on this one.

If we ensure this happens as quickly as possible, we will all be happy, particularly those students who have made contact with all of us.

I have a question in respect of the commercial bus operators. Are there a significant number of them that will operate this scheme? Does the Minister have any information on that? Will the approximate fare reduction of 20% be continued post budget?

I will announce that on budget day, but I will be very much arguing for it because it is a very direct way of addressing the cost of living, especially for many students and younger people who face very high rents and difficulties in that sort of area. It is important we give them options around public transport. As I said, this measure can and will be introduced quickly. I am very glad it will assist the Students' Union in UCD, with which I am very familiar, in addition to other colleges throughout the country.

To answer Deputy Ó Murchú's question, I expect the involvement of commercial bus operators to be very significant. Looking at the budget implications, it is a very significant funding commitment. It is not cheap but it is appropriate and right for us to extend the scheme to them. That has been a very positive development.

School Transport

Richard Bruton

Question:

13. Deputy Richard Bruton asked the Minister for Transport the progress to date with the safe-routes-to-school initiative, the best exemplars which have emerged; and if there shall be a new call for participation. [45647/22]

Darren O'Rourke

Question:

15. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for Transport his plans to increase funding to the safe-routes-to-school programme to improve cycling infrastructure on the approach to schools; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46321/22]

As people recount their woes in getting here on a wet morning, and I cycled in, which was grand, spare a thought for commuters on the north side of Dublin who are experiencing the growth pangs of BusConnects and the cycle network, which is of course welcome. It will, however, take a year and a half and will be a challenge.

Last week, the Taoiseach told me, and it was very welcome, that the Minister is working on a national energy resilience plan. That is the context in which I ask this question about the roll-out of safe routes to school. As I understand it, the present scheme accounts for approximately 5% of schools. We need every school in the country looking at not just how it can safely bring children to school, but do so in a way that is more sustainable from an energy and climate perspective. I would like to hear what the plans are for expanding this scheme.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 13 and 15 together.

In March 2021, the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Naughton, and I launched the safe routes to school, SRTS, programme, which aims to support walking, scooting and cycling to primary and post-primary schools and to create safer walking and cycling routes within communities, through the provision of infrastructure interventions.

This should help alleviate congestion at school gates and increase the number of students who walk or cycle to school. Some 931 applications were received from schools across every county in Ireland. On 21 June 2022, 170 schools were notified that they had been selected for inclusion in the first round of the programme. Subsequently, two schools have deferred their applications and one school has withdrawn, leaving 167 schools in the first round. It should be noted that all schools that applied to the original call for applications were accepted into the programme and, if not selected in the first round, will be selected for forthcoming rounds. Some €15 million has been allocated for projects in this round.

In terms of progress to date, 16 schools have had front-of-school measures completed under the programme,13 schools are in the detailed design phase and three are under construction. Some 128 projects are under development or design and seven are involved in statutory processes or are out for public consultation. Separately, 243 schools have also had cycle parking installed under another branch of the safe routes to school, SRTS, programme. Since its launch, approximately €3 million has been spent to date on projects, cycle parking and programme staffing costs.

While all projects so far are great improvements for the schools involved, some exemplars include: An Mhodhscoil in Limerick, which will launch its school street this Friday; Waterford's first school street at Glór na Mara in Tramore; and Bunscoil Rinn an Chabhlaigh in Cobh, whose front-of-school works will be completed at the end of this month and have already resulted in traffic calming.

All schools were eligible to apply to the programme and information was circulated from the Departments of Education and Transport to schools nationwide. As I stated, almost one quarter of schools in Ireland applied and those that have not been included in the first round of funding will not be required to reapply as they will come into the programme on a rolling basis. Due to the overwhelming response, there are no plans for an additional call for schools to join the programme at this time.

While I highly commend this programme and believe it is a great move, there is now a mood among the three quarters of schools that have not applied and the 95% of schools not currently in the programme to look seriously at how they can become safer and more sustainable. Could a lighter scheme be brought in as an immediate measure to capitalise on the fact that people are much more conscious of this matter? Shared safe walking networks and small-scale shelters for bicycles could be introduced. Things could be done that do not require a lot of money or a great deal of designing but which could result in significant changes in behaviour around our schools, both psychologically and in real terms.

There is a great opportunity here, as can be seen from the demand. A great many schools are putting up their hands, eager to lead by example and to address the congestion and chaos outside our primary and secondary schools. It is a positive scheme but greatly oversubscribed. There is a real need to unlock that potential and opportunity. This will require additional funding and a different approach to speed up the process. I appreciate that the process is bottom-up and involved but it will take far too long to deliver at the current rate. There is a need to look at that.

I agree with both Deputies. There is nothing restricting us from carrying out projects outside of this scheme. I think of examples in my constituency of Dublin Bay South. There was a brilliant scheme, presented, as it happens, by a Fine Gael councillor with the support of my Green Party colleagues, to develop a quiet route to link up most of the schools in the suburbs around Ranelagh, Rathmines, Rathgar and down to Sandymount. Unfortunately, it died. It would not have incurred very significant costs. It mainly just involved designating certain roads as quiet roads. It would have been transformative but there was not the political will required in the council to get it over the line. It would not have cost much but it would have been of great benefit as a safe routes to school project.

Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan has put down a question about a similar issue regarding a school in Leap in County Cork that is on a national road. There is an immediate issue there and we cannot wait on a safe routes to school programme to address it. I agree with both Deputies. I have a certain sense of frustration. Only 170 schools out of more than 4,000 are included in the scheme. We need to look at ways to progress through other budgets, including those for the roads programme and local authorities. It is very much an issue for local authorities to consider, as part of their cycling and active transport networks, BusConnects routes and so on, how they can benefit safe routes to school. This should not be the only programme involved because the scale of it is not sufficient to address the urgent need presented on its own.

I welcome what the Minister has said but he needs to move this forward in some way. As Rahm Emanuel said, do not waste a crisis; it is a time to do great things. This is such an opportunity. For example, if there was a simple design manual with low-hanging fruit for schools to consider in their own contexts, that would be a step forward that would cost virtually nothing. Another option is looking to the councils to identify, for example, 50 schools in their areas in which to run seminars. Small things can be done. I was disappointed to learn that the coach service that one of the schools in my area has been running for children is proving not to be viable as a result of rising costs and that there is nowhere it can turn to for assistance. That is a safer option. Another measure could be a simple way to run networks among parents for sharing vehicles. There is a lot of low-hanging fruit but a bit of a kick-start from the Minister's Department and others is required.

There is a very significant opportunity here. Much of what we discuss with regard to climate action is contentious and difficult but here there is a perfect alignment between the wishes, needs and frustrations of people and the solutions that are available. On the solutions, the Government needs to look at the opportunity presented here and to treat our education centres, our primary and secondary schools, as catalysts for climate action as regards going to and from school, school transport, safe routes to school and in the school itself. We need an expansive solar scheme such as that which Sinn Féin will propose in our alternative budget. Our schools should be learning centres and catalysts for climate action. There is a perfect alignment between the needs and wishes of people. If we can properly resource these schemes, that can be delivered on.

I was tickled to hear my own school, Glór na Mara in Tramore, listed among the Minister's exemplars. It is the school I taught in and the one my children attend. The programme has been very successful although it has received pushback. I am delighted to hear Deputy O'Rourke's enthusiasm for school street projects. I very much hope that he is communicating that enthusiasm to his party's local representatives on the ground. However, while the front of schools is becoming much safer with school street projects and the safe routes to school programme, we have to think about schools as active transport nodes and make sure that the routes that radiate from them are safe to travel. The area in front of Glór na Mara National School is exceptionally safe at school drop-off and pick-up times but the approaches on Priest's Road and the Ring Road are not necessarily as safe. We need to broaden our conception of what it means to get kids to our schools using active transport.

I am very glad to hear that Glór na Mara National School in Tramore is leading the way. I agree with the Deputy. It is not just about the area around the local school but also about the routes used to get to that school. The prize here is a freeing up of parents' time if they do not have to drive but also great independence and freedom for children. Whether travelling by bus, on foot or on a bicycle, there is great learning and independence associated with that. It is also about making the traffic system work for everyone.

In Dublin on weeks or days like this, school traffic makes up about 30% of the traffic during morning rush hour. If that 30% is taken out, it frees the roads up for everyone. Everyone knows this as traffic is much lower in the summer. There are so many benefits to this. It is good for traffic management and children's health and it is great for parents. I agree with Deputy O'Rourke that this is one of the ways we should not waste a good crisis, as Deputy Bruton said. There is a moment in time now as we rethink the school transport bus system. The study from the Department of Education must be imminent. We need to look for some of those other easier wins through design manuals and guides so we can change the school transport system in its entirety, not just the bus system.

Top
Share