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Joint Committee on Transport and Communications Networks debate -
Tuesday, 9 Feb 2021

National Development Plan: Discussion

Apologies have been received from Senator Craughwell. The purpose of the first part of the meeting is to examine the national development plan, NDP, with a view to making a submission to the review to renew public consultation on it. On behalf of the committee, I welcome Mr. Stephen Kent, chief executive officer of Bus Éireann. I thank him for participating in the meeting at such short notice.

All witnesses are again reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable, or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of that person or entity. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory in relation to an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that they comply with any such direction.

For witnesses attending remotely outside the Leinster House campus there are some limitations to parliamentary privilege. As such, they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a witness physically present does. Witnesses participating in this committee session from a jurisdiction outside the State are advised that they should also be mindful that domestic law could be applied to the evidence they give.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise, or make charges against a person outside the Houses of the Oireachtas or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I remind members that they are only allowed to participate in this meeting if they are physically located in the Leinster House complex. In this regard, I ask all members, prior to making their contribution to the meeting, to confirm that they are on the grounds of the Leinster House campus.

For those watching this meeting online, Oireachtas members and witnesses are accessing this meeting remotely. Only the Chairman and necessary staff essential to the running of the meeting are physically present in the committee room. Due to these unprecedented circumstances and the large number of people attending the meeting remotely, I ask everyone to bear with us should any technical issues arise.

I now call Mr. Kent to make his opening statement. He has five minutes as we are limited to an hour due to Covid restrictions.

Mr. Stephen Kent

I thank the Chair and members of the committee for today's invitation. Currently, Bus Éireann provides more than 220 State-supported, or public service obligation, PSO, routes nationwide. We also have a fully commercial intercity service, Expressway, and we operate the school transport scheme on behalf of the Department of Education. In the 2019-2020 school year more than 120,000 children, including over 14,200 children with special educational needs, were transported in over 5,000 vehicles on a daily basis to schools throughout the country as part of this scheme. This is unparalleled in its scale throughout Europe.

We are in our 35th year. While the last year has been one of the most challenging in our history because of the impact of Covid-19, we are delighted last year to have introduced the single most significant enhancement of public service obligation services, PSOs, with the support of funding from the National Transport Authority through the July stimulus. The link between investment, improved services, higher levels of customer satisfaction, which leads to increased usage is very clear. This type of initiative demonstrates a commitment to maintaining growth in public transport, notwithstanding the current challenges we face during Covid-19.

Our 2,700 employees have been at work throughout this pandemic. They have ensured that essential services continued to be delivered for those who depend on them most. I would like to pay tribute to the dedication of all the employees and many who deliver services on our behalf. These people were very steadfast right throughout the crisis in demonstrating a very strong public service ethos associated with Bus Éireann.

The board and management are very thankful for the ongoing support from the Department of Transport and the Department of Education, the National Transport Authority, NTA and CIÉ and for the very constructive engagements we have with the trade unions which represent many of our staff to ensure safety continues to be at the forefront of everything we do.

In 2019 Bus Éireann carried 89.4 million passenger journeys. It was our highest level since 2008. The company saw a return to profit for the first time in five years. However, in 2020, Covid-19 related drops in passenger demand and public transport capacity restrictions created financial challenges for Bus Éireann. It forced us to take some very difficult decisions on a number of our commercial services. We had to do that to protect the remaining network in the longer term and continue serving more than 150 communities which rely on our Expressway services.

Our commercial services are currently relying on temporary support for the next three months under the commercial bus operator direct award contract but every route needs to be sustainable in the longer term. If there are any issues of connectivity, we liaise very closely with the National Transport Authority, NTA, as it has the ultimate responsibility to assess demand and provide connectivity if it is needed.

We believe Bus Éireann has a central role to play in many of the ten strategic outcomes outlined in the national development plan, so for the convenience of committee members I will make my comments under some of the headings outlined in the plan. The first is compact growth, strengthening rural economies and communities and enhancing regional accessibility. What we would say in that regard is that while the National Transport Authority is responsible for overall connectivity nationwide, we work closely with it to ensure integration of services across our nationwide network. Bus Éireann has the reach and transport skills to participate in any plan which connects Ireland and to support sustainable urban and rural development, efficiently and effectively.

In recent years, we have experienced significant growth in regional cities and towns. In particular, when we have investment that goes in by way of additional fleet and increased frequency. Some examples I cite are that in 2019, we grew city passenger numbers by 50% in Waterford, by 70% on route 220 in Cork and by 60% in Drogheda with a doubling in frequency.

Having the right infrastructure in place for buses to operate efficiently and on time, such as bus priority measures, real time information and ongoing investment in regional roads and motorways is key to incentivising people to make the shift from car to bus. Where infrastructure is in place, the impact is clear. We look forward to planned BusConnects projects sitting under this plan. We see it as a key in transforming bus transport in our cities.

It is essential that sustainable funding is in place for all routes that have a public service obligation and that supply and demand is carefully considered and balanced for routes which require a commercial licence to ensure that these services can become sustainable again when the recovery begins.

We also provide services to more than 1 million people through our free travel scheme. As our population continues to age and grow more generally, demand for our services will increase again. The demand-led school transport scheme we operate on behalf of the Department of Education continues to grow.

We look forward to actively participating in the Department of Education review of the needs of the scheme, including the sustainable transport plans for schools for the future over the coming months.

Under the headings of sustainable mobility and a transition to a low-carbon and climate resilient society that are called out under the national development plan, this year we have confirmed orders for 204 new vehicles and we are making considerable improvements in the transition of our fleet to greener, cleaner, more accessible vehicles. We will not be introducing any diesel-only buses to our city and town fleets. We are beginning the process of switching to hybrid vehicles in our city and town services very soon and that will start in Galway over the next couple of months. For longer routes, we are exploring hydrogen fuel cell power and investing in Euro VI diesel vehicles.

In 2020, we were the first transport company to operate Ireland’s first hydrogen fuel cell vehicle in a unique trial between Dublin and Meath. That was led by Hydrogen Mobility Ireland and we plan to add three hydrogen buses on route 103 in Meath in quarter 2 of this year. We are also leading on a project to roll out the electrification of Athlone town services in partnership with the National Transport Authority, NTA, and our company car and van fleet will all be fully electric by 2025. By 2030, half of our fleet will be zero emissions and all diesel vehicles will be at least of Euro VI engine emission standard, which have up to 90% lower emissions than some of our current diesel fleet. We need multi-annual funding commitments to continue. We see them as being critical in ensuring we can deliver on these targets.

In summary, we believe bus and coach transport is highly flexible, safe and demand responsive. It produces much less carbon dioxide per passenger kilometre than the private car, and can increase passenger numbers more rapidly than any other public transport solution. It can do that within a year to 18 months of investment approval. The current national development plan includes very ambitious plans to grow and to green public transport nationally. Both will help to deliver economic recovery post Covid-19. Bus Éireann is looking forward to the opportunities presented by both the growth and the greening of public transport. I thank the committee for its time.

I thank Mr. Kent. We will now move on to members' questions. The first slot is the Fine Gael one. Deputy Carey has three minutes.

I confirm I am in the precincts of Leinster House today. I thank Mr. Kent for his presentation. I want to ask him a question on a proposed service for the town of Ennis. He will be aware that Bus Éireann has delivered new services to areas like Kilkenny. The NTA has been working on a proposal for a long time. Has Mr. Kent held discussions on the provision of a town bus service for Ennis? It is incorporated in a document called Ennis 2040, which will shortly be published by Clare County Council. Similar services are being rolled out in towns the size of Ennis. I would like to hear his views on that.

We have had different results over the last number of weeks in relation to some services being delivered by Bus Éireann in County Clare. I welcome the fact a service, around which there was a question mark and which delivered people from Broadford to Limerick city, has been reinstated. I received calls from people living along the estuary in a village called Labasheeda in west Clare. Basically, their service has been discontinued but the slack has been taken up by Local Link, which is very welcome. Funding has been provided to do that through the job stimulus and I welcome that.

This leads on to my next question. What other services has Bus Éireann discontinued in County Clare?

I ask him to expand on that. Perhaps Mr. Kent could respond to the issues I have raised.

Mr. Stephen Kent

In the first instance, we currently operate services on behalf of the National Transport Authority, NTA, for a number of towns around Ireland. We do not operate the Kilkenny town service. That service was put out to tender and is operated by another operator. The Navan town service, for example, is one that has been significantly enhanced most recently, in respect of frequency and buses that were added in to the service. I am not aware of any direct conversations with the NTA to date in respect of the town of Ennis. Obviously, much of what we have put into operation over the last number of weeks has resulted in a significant enhancement both for Limerick city and connections for west and east Clare. However, on the actual specifics of the town service, we would be very interested in discussing potential movements with the NTA, if it were to be considered. All activities and the plans going forward as part of this, typically go out to consultation.

The Deputy is correct to state that Local Link has been used very effectively as a service by the NTA to integrate with services that are included in the direct award contract that we have. We operate 220 routes within that. Typically, those routes are integrated for connectivity with other services that might include Local Link or, indeed, other operators, commercial or rail services. That is typically where it has happened. If demand is not currently at a certain level, or if it is more efficient for the State to deploy funding in a way to provide more of a feeder service onto the main arteries, that has been typically the approach that has been developed. Other than that, in respect of the development of the main arteries, all of the main issues can be seen in the national development plan to address capacity. If capacity is required, we deploy it. Speed of service and the ability to go from A to B are things Bus Éireann and the NTA are continuously trying to address, so that we can get the right levels of frequency and coverage in places like some of the towns.

As the Deputy said, particularly as the Covid pandemic unfolds, it is possible that many more people may decide not to live in Dublin and to settle elsewhere. We have watched the news like everybody else. That is going to be an interesting part of how things will develop in the future. The aspects of interchange, directness of service, having the right levels of capacity and deploying it efficiently, dictate the way things are happening. If there is demand for a service, then it will have to be considered in that context. If there is a possibility to provide that service, we will be very willing to engage in relation to that. That is all I would say. Typically, where services have been redeployed into Local Link, it is because it is more efficient to do so. On the main services that we are deploying, we are trying to make sure that we are deploying them with the right levels of capacity, speed and frequency, and to do that in unison with the other operators if they are involved. That is what is happening at this particular point. This has been the approach since 2019 and there is a broader project in relation to connecting Ireland under way. That is all I can say in response to the Deputy. If the question needs to go further, we can probably bring it to and discuss it directly with the NTA, because ultimately it has the responsibility for connectivity.

There is a route between Ennis and Shannon. Mr. Kent will be aware that there are a significant number of foreign direct investment companies based in Shannon. There are more than 10,000 jobs there. There is a bus service that connects both Ennis and Shannon, but I have received numerous complaints in respect of the frequency and the timing of the service. Looking at the service itself, it is not overly crowded. Certainly, Bus Éireann could up its game in relation to providing a better, more dependable and more frequent service, and one which operates in line with the opening hours of these companies.

Would Bus Éireann be open to consultation regarding delivering a better service and to talking to employers about improving that service between Ennis and Shannon?

Mr. Stephen Kent

We certainly would. In fact, I met members of Shannon Chamber of Commerce some time ago. Plans were probably in place for further improvements on the route directly serving Limerick, Shannon and Shannon Airport, and we knew all that information. While I was there, I went for a walk around the park and I saw that several new companies were coming in. I guess we were right, in advance of the onset of Covid-19, in giving some consideration to providing enhanced infrastructure, such as bus stops, and achieving a better understanding of some of the shift pattern movements. Some of those changes were certainly in train before Covid-19 struck.

I reiterate that those changes are still encompassed in many of the plans being considered. An example is route 343, in respect of enhancing that service with better buses and ensuring they will be more accessible. I can tell Deputy Carey that I would be very happy to engage in what he has just suggested. It would be subject to funding, however. Providing the additional frequency of services and redeploying the buses required is something we would depend on the NTA to do. To be fair, there is no lack of willingness on its side. We are all reliant to a great extent on funding coming through so we can provide that better service and bring in the improvements of which the Deputy spoke.

I thank Mr. Kent.

I thank Mr. Kent and all the staff of Bus Éireann for their hard work on the front line during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mr. Stephen Kent

I thank Deputy O'Rourke.

On the scale of State support needed during the period of the Covid-19 pandemic and in respect of the projected plans for Bus Éireann's future expansion, what level of investment is being sought from the Government?

Turning to the issue of unmet needs, many people would agree with the point made by Mr. Kent regarding investment leading to improved services and a higher level of customer satisfaction, and that those aspects are self-fulfilling. There are significant levels of unmet needs across the country. I am thinking of areas and new communities in my constituency which have no bus services. Some 4,000 people live in Stamullen and hundreds of people live in Kentstown. I could list all these areas. It is the same with the school bus transport scheme and the situation with concessionary and non-concessionary tickets. The unmet need this year was unprecedented. Is this a matter entirely for the NTA? I ask that because surely Bus Éireann's drivers know these areas and the communities which are growing very well. What upward pressure is coming from Bus Éireann in respect of the NTA and delivering services in those areas?

Mr. Stephen Kent

I will take the last question first. We have regular weekly interaction with the NTA regarding planning teams. We have a network planning team and the NTA has a similar team, which is looking at all those issues. The Deputy is right about small villages like Stamullen. There are many such towns and villages that, typically, we would be looking at. All these aspects again come back to the fact that within the direct award, as granted to us, there are still 220 routes. Several of those routes could possibly be changed and extended, as that is allowed under the direct award contract. Those changes allowed can involve alterations to scale and frequency and additional permeation. We know society is always changing, so the NTA addresses those aspects when it is possible to do so and it works on that process with us.

Turning to additional villages that may come on stream, the Deputy might be aware of an example of that happening just before Christmas when the small village of Portroe got a bus service for the first time and was connected to Limerick city.

That was certainly a part of the consultation with the NTA. However, it is the NTA that would make that decision and then we deploy the services to do that. Therefore, we are entirely reliant on funding being made available to pay for driver hours, to pay for the fuel, to pay for the maintenance and to pay for the vehicle. If that funding has been available, we have been providing it. As I said, we had a unique opportunity at Christmas. There were 112 jobs created in this business here and 26 additional vehicles deployed for a fleet, but that was all part of the Government stimulus that was created to connect all those additional frequency services in towns that went in. It came with an additional price tag. From the NTA's point of view, it was an investment by the State of an additional €10 million. That is what went in to deliver those levels of service. As I said, it is probably, certainly in my tenure here since 2013, the largest investment I have seen. We believe it is the largest, maybe, in 15 years. It was part of a Government stimulus package and I think that we will see the results of that. It is very encouraging if we can bring those in and connect them but, as I said, it still has to be the subject of an effectiveness and efficiency review. If a smaller village is not best suited by us, it may be addressed by Local Link or by another operator. That is typically the way it may end up happening because all of the PSO services are supplemented by commercial services.

Returning to Deputy O'Rourke's question on the State support, we have been very thankful during Covid because there has been a huge amount of additional funding provided for services, in particular, on the PSO side. We are currently recovering many of our costs, including lost revenue. During parts of Covid, we lost up to 80% of revenue and, in one extreme, 90%, which was at the very beginning. That, obviously, oscillated through the summer as reopenings occurred. The revenue deficit has been made good and the costs have effectively been recovered for the NTA during that period, including, as I would say here for the benefit of the public, a large amount of the additional investment in all of the sanitisation regimes and everything that we could deploy to make the service as safe as possible. I am glad to see, even at this point, that we have not had any Covid-related-----

I need Mr. Kent to conclude. I would ask him to be concise in his answers because I have another eight members to get in and we are very tight on time. Has Deputy O'Rourke concluded?

Senator Dooley, in the Fianna Fáil slot, has three minutes.

I welcome Mr. Kent and thank him for his presentation. Like my colleague, Deputy Carey, I want to impress upon Mr. Kent the necessity for him to engage with the NTA in the provision of that long-awaited service for the town of Ennis. It is something that has been in the offing for a long time and Mr. Kent's skills and understanding of what is involved would be helpful to the debate. Hopefully, Mr. Kent can address that.

I will also address the issue of the service that was discontinued from my own part of the county, from Whitegate, through Scarriff, Tulla, Broadford and onwards, to Limerick. I thank Mr. Kent for his engagement and for reversing that decision. Unfortunately, it should not have happened. When Bus Éireann is offering some good news, we all get the press release. It is important, too, that Bus Éireann engages with us when it intends to change a service. As others have said, it is appropriate that some of the routes are handled by Local Link rather than through Bus Éireann. Mr. Kent probably needs to engage the NTA and Local Link a little more to ensure that we do not have that drop in service as was talked about there.

Deputy Carey referred rightly to west Clare. That is being resolved through Local Link. There was a conversation with Local Link, probably, a month or six weeks in advance, which meant that there would be no discontinuation of a service. That is the way to go when Bus Éireann is changing its services and I recommend that.

I also want to recognise Bus Éireann's staff and Mr. Kent for what they have done for us through the pandemic. That has been really helpful to consumers.

I am glad Mr. Kent raised the issue of the Portroe to Limerick service. It is just across the water in County Tipperary but it has potential positive implications for County Clare. Mr. Kent may be familiar with the twin towns of Ballina and Killaloe and I would hope that he could see some possibility in that service taking in Killaloe. As the service transverses from Portroe to Limerick, a loop into Killaloe would enhance the service greatly, would give many more people an opportunity to avail of the service and would see greater passenger uptake.

Quite some time ago, Bus Éireann had a plan to introduce bus rapid transit in and around Limerick and onwards to Shannon. Has further consideration been given to this or are there any plans in Bus Éireann to consider rolling out bus rapid transit between Limerick city and Shannon Airport?

Mr. Stephen Kent

I thank the Senator for all his comments about the staff. Our collaboration with him in the past has been very productive and we continue to try to do what we can for the area. If there is an opportunity for Killaloe and Ballina - particularly as summer services and tourism comes back, where these services are critical - I would hope that they could be included. Again, it would be subject to the conversation with the NTA but now that we have a service and can see it bearing fruit, hopefully we will get to a point of talking about that. We will keep it under discussion.

Bus rapid transit will be part of the consultation that the Chair of this committee has been involved in and the Limerick consultation happening with the NTA. It will all be integrated into that. All the measures that were talked about in the past are hugely reliant on infrastructural investment to make them happen. There is no lack of willingness to participate positively in all those initiatives. What we will need to do, as I said earlier, is anything that gives us more directness, coverage and speed, all the things that customers usually need if they are going to make a choice to convert from the car to public transport. It is under consideration. I understand the consultation is back out and, from the NTA last week, that it may be back before people in May. We will be active participants in that and those ideas. We will participate in anything that can progress this.

I thank Mr. Kent. I have three questions. First, what is the policy of Bus Éireann, working with the NTA and local authorities, on bus shelters? Clare County Council recently had a big discussion on this. When Cork City Council did a great deal of work around the Broadale estate and up Maryborough Hill, it did not put in any bus shelters despite the work of Councillor Deirdre Forde, myself and others. What is the policy on the provision of bus shelters?

Second, on the strategy of additional growth and increasing connectivity, will Mr. Kent explain the rationale behind the cutting of some of Bus Éireann's Expressway routes?

Finally, some 1,758 students were unsuccessful in obtaining school transport. Deputy O'Rourke mentioned this earlier. Will Mr. Kent give some clarity on that?

I thank the Bus Éireann staff for their courtesy and work in this difficult time. I appreciate the work done by everyone in Mr. Kent's organisation.

Mr. Stephen Kent

I thank Senator Buttimer. That is very much appreciated.

The provision of bus stops and bus shelters is the responsibility of the NTA in conjunction with ourselves. Consultation is a part of that. Obviously, we have some liaison with councils. Typically, all of those inputs are made. There has been great progress in recent years, particularly with shelters and trying to ensure bus stops are made more accessible in cities. A lot of that work is continuing. That is a steady state investment plan that is rolled out. The NTA is at an advanced stage of procurement for bus stop infrastructure, which it has been trying to put in place for a number of years. We are on the other side - we serve just short of 10,000 bus stops around the country, some of which probably need reinvestment.

Where shelters are put in place, that is typically by way of consultation with the city council to make sure that can be provided for and that footways, clearance areas and so on are all there. I will take back the point the Senator has made. He mentioned Maryborough Hill so I will ask what our input has been to that. That might progress it on the Senator's side and if he keeps pushing on the council side, maybe it will come together.

The Senator asked about Expressway routes. It was a difficult decision. We are very reliant on Expressway, which is integrated in the business. We have a large number of drivers, mechanics and staff that continue to work and deliver those services. They are commercial in nature and, outside of what we have with Covid at the moment, they are completely reliant on the cost recovery that is happening. Most commercial services out there are low-margin businesses. That is just a fact. For every route we operate, that is important, particularly when we are not in receipt of State money. We do not get subvention for those routes other than what we are getting currently. We were not getting a subvention in the period until July, so we ran many of those routes at a loss. Revenue loss went to 90% and even at the height of it during the summer, we operated at about 50% of revenue. One cannot operate a low-margin service with such extreme revenue loss. In that period, we ended up having to look at the routes individually, which was done with detailed consultation with the Department and discussions with the NTA. We had to take a view on the projections as to whether some of these routes would come back. Our view on some of the routes was that their long-term viability could threaten the long-term viability of the other routes we are doing. We took a decision on the 18 routes we operate to effectively come out of four. As members saw last week, we came out on the Limerick route on 29 January, we came out on the Belfast route and, currently, in relation to the Senator's area of Cork, the X8 services and connectivity have been reduced but the long-term plan will be to come out of that. That will be in consultation with the NTA so connectivity solutions can be identified in advance of any further decision. It is pure economics. We have to make sure a route can generate money to pay wages, to pay for investment in a new fleet because one cannot continue running old fleet and to pay for maintenance. It is as simple as that.

How does Bus Éireann promote connectivity and how do people who have no access to a service get such access, if that is the model?

Mr. Stephen Kent

We operate services by licence. They are commercial licences that we hold and we have to try to operate. An issue we have at the moment is that when operating commercial services, we have to ensure they are sustainable. It is as simple as that. It is not that we do not want to operate connectivity. A huge amount of our purpose is to connect people to who and what matters to them. We say that openly as a company but there is only so far we can do it. To do that, we have been reliant on funding from the NTA. Where it is in place, we have stood up and been able to deliver and deploy that. However, on other routes, where there is no possibility of revenue covering our costs, we get to a place where, as a commercial semi-State company, we have to make sure we can keep it all operating and we did not want to endanger the other routes that have a greater chance of coming back. Those decisions, difficult as they may have been, have been taken so we can maintain connectivity for 150 other communities on the other 150 routes.

This was an existential crisis and we are not out of it. There is a way to go in this Covid piece so we have to monitor it. We have to make those decisions now and we will continue to do so. It will be a commercial decision. If routes come back in the future, we will look and if there is an opportunity to run them, we will try to run them. At the moment, there is no prospect and we are trying to make a decision for the rest of the network.

I thank Mr. Kent for joining us at this virtual meeting. I have a few points that my colleagues would like me to put to him, the first of which is in regard to the Expressway service. He explained with great regret that, due to economic circumstances, some routes have to be pulled. What is some of the reasoning behind that? He stated it was down to flat, baseline economics, but looking at the whole itinerary of Expressway services, it seems to be those that depart from the largest population centres that are under threat. Will Mr. Kent confirm that Bus Éireann will continue to operate Expressway route 51, a return service that operates frequently from Cork to Limerick, Shannon, Ennis and Galway?

Mr. Stephen Kent

I can confirm we will definitely operate that service. In fact, we hope in due course to deploy some new vehicles on that route so that we continue to enhance the service between Galway and Cork and to serve Shannon Airport.

That is welcome. Will it remain a linear route, straight up along the corridor, or will adjacent communities along that motorway corridor, such as Sixmilebridge and Newmarket on Fergus, benefit from it? Is Bus Éireann committing to using the same stops it has always used?

Mr. Stephen Kent

It is the same service and the licence still operates according to the current timetable. That is the service we will look to continue running. We have no immediate plans to change that.

My next point relates to concessionary passes for school buses. While I acknowledge that schools are not open at the moment, a large volume of students this year have not yet been able to reconcile the difficulties they have had with Bus Éireann with regard to school transport. It remains a big issue and I am glad a national review is under way, into which Bus Éireann will have significant input. Its staff have probably been pulled 100 ways by the public and public representatives.

As an example, Corofin in north Clare is a typical Irish village. Mr. Kent may or may not know it. It is quite close to the Burren. As one leaves the village, one can see the typical typography that is around any village, such as streams, dykes and ditches, and they form the parish boundaries. They are the very parish boundaries that become the hard cut-off point between a student qualifying or not for a ticket; it is totally illogical. This probably worked in the 1940s and 1950s, when buses started to be seen going down rural roads. They would pass people going to the local creamery and the parish boundary was a drain or a stream.

It is totally illogical in 2021. It forces some people to go three miles one way to a primary school, while the crèche or childminder might be six miles across the Burren, and then they have to drive to Ennistymon school afterwards. It is illogical that large numbers of people pass one another unnecessarily on the road each morning, and that is just one example, although it could probably be applied to every village in Ireland. The case of Corofin is replicated throughout Clare and Ireland. The new model for school bus transport has to be based on supply and demand. If there are five or six kids in a community, that should logically dictate that there be a stop. It should not come down to streams, drains and ditches; that does not work. I would like to hear Mr. Kent's views on that.

With regard to the overall bus service, I accept that Bus Éireann is constantly seeking to enhance its offering to villages and communities. I recently made a number of submissions to the company, particularly regarding the south Clare area, such as Parteen, Meelick, Ardnacrusha, Clonlara and Cratloe. They are in the south of the county, a stone's throw from Limerick city, but they do not enjoy the fabulous city bus service that operates into the north suburbs of the city. As Bus Éireann examines rolling out an improvement in the service, it might also factor in these villages. The two most recent censuses identified this corner of Clare as the largest population growth area.

I would like to hear the views of Mr. Kent in respect of the prospects for an orbital bus service around Ennis town, as raised by other members. It is the largest town in Munster that does not have city status and is home to 18,500 people. There is a significant hunger and demand for a bus service there. Just last week, Ms Anne Graham of the NTA gave some positive vibes when I asked her about this issue.

Mr. Stephen Kent

On the issue of school transport, while it is evident that the scheme has been expanding, the difficulty is that, as was stated, it has always been subject to iteration. In this particular case, eligibility criteria apply. We do not have any discretion in that regard, but we will participate in the process and we will look at the issues raised by the Deputy with regard to particular locations. More than €200 million has been spent by the State to try to deliver school transport services. In fact, coming into Covid, additional moneys were deployed so that we could do that in a socially distanced way for post-primary children. On the issue raised by the Deputy, there are definitely opportunities within the scheme but it is always subject to review. There has been massive growth in the scheme. As I stated, whatever about 2019 when there was demand for 120,000 seats and that was growing towards 125,000, even during Covid there was still demand in September for 114,000 seats. There was a very small fall-off in demand.

The Deputy referred to places such as Corofin. I understand that the school transport scheme is critical for rural villages around Ireland. That is absolutely intrinsic to the scheme. Bus Éireann understands that better than anybody at the moment. The company has been carrying out planning and making the effort currently being made in this area for more than 50 years. However, our planning and effort are subject to the eligibility criteria, which are specified and agreed by the Department and signed off by the Government. Whatever way it is done, it has to be all done as part of a wider review. From our perspective, we stand ready. We will do what we can do to deploy the services. That is all we wish to do at the moment.

Forgive me for interrupting. I thank Mr. Kent. Before time runs out, I ask him to briefly comment on potential enhanced services for Ennis and the villages that I mentioned.

Mr. Stephen Kent

My understanding is that the NTA has that issue under review. As things stand, we will certainly participate in the review. Ultimately, how the NTA decides to award the services is at its discretion. As members may be aware, in the case of Kilkenny, for instance, the NTA decided the services in question had to be tendered. As such, Bus Éireann would be like any other organisation and would have to participate in a process. I cannot prejudice anything that is in the thinking of the NTA in respect of those services other than to state that I understand the way the Deputy is thinking. There are several towns around Ireland of which I have been made aware that fall under the review of the NTA. Depending on how those are done and whether they are awarded under direct contract again or are tendered, we will certainly participate in that process, whether it is for Parteen or somewhere in Donegal. We know there are places that are being looked at in that context.

I thank Mr. Kent for appearing before the committee. I reiterate the remarks of my colleagues in terms of the thanks we wish to pass on to the staff of Bus Éireann for keeping services going, especially for those who depend on public transport and do not have access to a car to get them through these difficult times. It is much appreciated and acknowledged.

I wish to elaborate on the last point made by Mr. Kent. I believe we need to shift the focus a little from investment in roads to investment in public transport, both bus and rail. The national planning framework seeks to ensure balanced regional development. The NDP is up for review. I believe there has to be significantly higher investment in public transport to meet not just the objective of balanced development, but also to ensure that when we seek to build houses, it is transport-orientated development.

We cannot be building houses everywhere depending on car transport. When Mr. Kent looks at how Bus Éireann can deliver balanced development, and he said that he knows rural transport as well as anybody else having been at it for so long, is the organisation limited in its fleet numbers? Obviously it is limited in its fleet numbers to the service. Is there a service static steady State view of public transport so that if Bus Éireann had more fleet and higher ambition that was supported it could supply a lot more rural bus transport?

Mr. Stephen Kent

I thank the Deputy for his comments about staff.

To answer the question, there are two aspects. One aspect is the infrastructure that the Deputy has talked about. As he can see, under the consultations that we will have on the city, there is massive change required for a number of those cities. There is just 30 km of bus prioritisation available outside Dublin, which is a radically low number. If one looks at the consultation that is put in place for Limerick, for instance, where it proposes to get up to about 84 km in the city alone from its current 12 km. Places like that, and putting that level of prioritisation in, will ensure confidence in the service and reliability regarding all of those issues that the Deputy talked about. There is massive infrastructural development required in the regional cities to get bus prioritisation measures in place. They need to be supported, with all of the things that he mentioned, bus gateways and all of those things that would allow buses to come in to closures and to give them prioritisation. Nobody likes to be here, on my side of a table, ever having to apologise for the fact that the service has run late. In fact, everything that we are trying to do every single day is to work on punctuality and service improvements. So we are doing that in a measured way but to make the step change one needs the infrastructural change that the Deputy talked about and that investment needs to come.

The second part is vehicle investment. Currently, we operate with a fleet of 1,100 vehicles and a lot of those are mixed age vehicles. I am delighted to say that we had tranches of investment that came in in 2008 but then there was nothing until 2012 and another burst in 2015. One needs steady State investment for a fleet and all of those things will get addressed now. That is why I am delighted, under the national development plan, NDP, because it will provide capacity needs. I must say that in the last of couple of years there has been huge investment by the National Transport Authority, NTA, to move from single decks to double decks so one will see, in regional cities, that a lot of those have come in in the last couple of years. Now there are better energy efficient vehicles and everything is targeted at trying to move to having low to zero emissions. So having the investment for those reasons alone is worthwhile.

On schools, it has been a very difficult part because we operate less than 10% of the services directly, under school transport, and a lot of those are reliant on vehicles that are cascaded old to new. We have not secured investment at the levels required for school transport at this point and that is the subject of analysis with the Department. To answer the Deputy's question, we need investment for school transport because I do not believe that children should be treated any differently. In fact, a greener cleaner school fleet turning up at schools is such a positive message.

On the NTA, it has made great strides with investment in vehicles. The NTA has funded double decker hybrids and hydrogen buses. The only issue that we have, for instance on the Expressway routes, is that there is not currently anything outside of Euro 6 diesel engines for longer intercity routes but there are trials under way and we hope that things like hydrogen technology might come to bear to make them better. On investment, particularly in commercial, people want toileted buses. They want a relatively good standard of buses for their journeys and we need to be able to make sure that we give them that relative to the power. We used to promote Expressway with the line "like the car, only better", and that is exactly how I feel. It is what people get out of it. As members will know, three out of four journeys in this country are by car. That is a lot and we have to change that mindset. So what I see in the NDP is investment in infrastructure, quality of service and fleet, and all of those things combined will move us a long way on the green agenda.

I will be quick given that the time is approaching 11 a.m.

I refer to the good news on the fleet transferring to hybrid models. Who knows what the future will bring in terms of technology. Has any work been done by the company to quantify its carbon emissions now or even two years ago? What are the projections as the fleet modernises? This is a very forward-looking, progressive move. For a company the size of Bus Éireann to show some leadership on how carbon emissions can be reduced and to have that quantified would be very useful for other states and also private actors. I ask that the company have a look at doing that in the interests of furthering the good news story.

I echo the sentiments of others in thanking all the company's staff for their work during this pandemic, from those who are driving the buses to those preparing them and to everyone behind the scenes.

Mr. Stephen Kent

I thank the Deputy and appreciate those comments. On the carbon emissions, as I have said, the biggest contributor to energy emissions we have at the moment is fuel and diesel types. When one adds it all together, 97% of what we contributed goes out in fuel type. As I said, when we start transitioning to modes such as hybrid that will provide around a 30% fuel saving on the current level. Moving to electric will obviously have a huge additional benefit as we will effectively go to zero emissions at that point, and then there is hydrogen. I have mentioned some of the other developments, whereby even where we have to settle for a Euro 6 versus what we used to have back in 2006 or 2008, it will deliver major savings in emissions. We are tracking this. To give the Deputy more confidence, our board has set up a sustainability committee which will commence in the company in March. We are developing a full sustainability plan that will tie into many of the goals that will be set out across the whole business on everything we have to do to achieve the climate action plan. We have started a lot of energy and climate action projects. We will do that in consultation with the people who supply us with goods. While it is a small step, last week we even had a vendor coming in who planted trees on our behalf in and around some of the places.

All of these are small measures but, collectively, the big issue we must address is the transition into more energy-efficient fuel alternatives. That is the path we are taking. I have no problem providing the Deputy with information on our current carbon emissions. We can measure those and return with them. I am delighted to say we are making progress and setting ourselves up to align with the 2030 plan.

I thank Mr. Kent.

I want to focus on two issues. Mr. Kent will be aware that we wrote to him as a committee about the Limerick to Dublin Expressway service, specifically the X12 route. Can Bus Éireann see a way to restoring that route or is that a decision for the NTA?

On the Limerick-Shannon metropolitan area plan, Bus Éireann took part in a public consultation I held on that particular plan. Ms Anne Graham of the NTA was before the committee last week. The NTA has agreed to do a further round of public consultation with a revised draft plan. Has Bus Éireann had any interaction with the NTA on the further revised draft plan to go out to public consultation in Limerick in April? Furthermore, Mr. Kent spoke about increasing the footprint of routes around the urban area of Limerick from 12 km to 84 km. What is the status of that at the moment and how will it fit into the roll-out of BusConnects formally in Limerick?

Mr. Stephen Kent

On the Expressway route X12, we do not have a plan to restore that route at the minute. On most of the routes, when we analyse all the cohorts, we find they are made up of commuters, people who travel for retail, people travelling for the airport, tourism and so on. At the moment, the corridor is well served. There has been a lot of competition on that route which has been an essential element. From our perspective, it is supply versus demand and being able to make a sustainable return on the route is very challenging in our view. That is the difficult decision we have in that regard.

That is currently not there but anything related to connectivity issues and so on is absolutely a matter for the NTA. If we are asked to participate in a process, we will do that. Effectively, as we see it, the route at the moment is not viable and would ultimately require funding support if it was to be continued. That is just the pure, hard, commercial and economic call that we are forced to make.

Will Mr. Kent also address the greater metropolitan area, BusConnects and the routes in the Limerick area, matters which comprised the second part of my question?

Mr. Stephen Kent

We will definitely participate in that process within the NTA. We are still consulting every day and our network planning team are engaging in respect of that. On the infrastructure and the Chairman's point about routes around the urban area of Limerick from 12 km to 84 km, this is published in the consultation as it is planned to be. In the context of anything that is going to happen on that, I am aware that he is very supportive - as am I - of trying to see if we can move in that direction because I believe it is the right way to go. If one wants to connect across city and across the University of Limerick, with the current arteries and when the return of business gives rise to congestion, in order to be able to maintain headways and remain on time, there will be a need for prioritisation in respect of places like that. At the moment, the NTA will see all of the data relating to punctuality and to the service and reliability. The NTA will use all of that data in the broader plan that will be rolled out for Limerick. As I said earlier, we have been doing this for many years in Limerick and we want to continue doing it in order to continue offering better services to the people.

How long does Mr. Kent believe it will be before the full, formal plan will be rolled out for Limerick? I am referring to what people would regard as BusConnects.

Mr. Stephen Kent

I am hoping that it will be forthcoming. This year is going to be challenging. As the Chairman is aware, everybody is seeing how we will get through Covid. Obviously, there will be challenges but many of the plans are being developed. Nobody is sitting back. The committee will see that the work is being done on planning, such as for vehicles, getting our depots ready for electrification and so on. This work is happening. Where the seeds are being sown, they are sown. Ultimately, it will come down to the full funding being made available and on having agreement regarding what the consultation and final plan are going to be. We will be participating, as will a number of the committee members and some of the Chairman's constituents. I hope we can get that process off the ground quickly. In my interaction with the Minister and the Department, I picked up a great sense of haste to make sure that we can get bus services and public transport delivered efficiently and effectively. Ultimately, however, it will come down to Cabinet and the funding being made available. I am not on the receiving end of it but I will be first in the queue to say that we are ready to deliver.

I thank Mr. Kent for attending and for engaging with the committee.

Mr. Stephen Kent

I thank the Chairman.

We will suspend the meeting briefly to facilitate the technical set up for the next session.

Sitting suspended at 11.08 a.m. and resumed at 11.15 a.m.