In the first session of today's meeting, we will consider proposals for late-night rural bus services. I welcome the Minister, Deputy Shane Ross, and his officials, Mr. Kevin Doyle, Ms Eilish O'Connor, Mr. Dermot Murphy, Ms Maev Nic Lochlainn, Ms Denise Keoghan and Mr. Declan Hayes.
By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. 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 or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I invite the Minister, Deputy Ross, to make his opening statement.
Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport (Deputy Shane Ross): I thank the committee for inviting me to speak to it today about the recently announced new evening and night-time rural transport services.
I will very briefly go into the background of the new services and begin by setting out how services in rural areas, funded by my Department under the rural transport programme, have developed and expanded.
The rural transport programme was launched in 2007, following an earlier pilot that ran from 2002 to 2006, specifically to address social exclusion in rural areas arising from unmet public transport needs. At that time, 35 community transport groups around the country were funded under the programme to deliver the services. While services are open to the general public, older people and people with disabilities have traditionally formed the core customer base of the programme.
In 2012 the National Transport Authority, NTA, was assigned responsibility for management of the rural transport programme as part of new arrangements for integrated local and rural transport approved by Government that year. A restructuring of the programme was announced in 2013. The aim of the restructuring, which followed a value-for-money and policy review of the programme, was to ensure a more efficient and effective delivery structure that maximises integration with other State-funded transport services and to make the programme a sustainable part of the public transport system. As part of the restructuring the rural transport programme, which now operates under the LocalLink brand, 17 LocalLink offices were established from the 35 rural transport groups previously delivering the services under the programme. The NTA contracts the services and the 17 LocalLink offices manage the services in their respective areas on behalf of the NTA. The NTA, with its national remit to secure the provision of public passenger transport services, is best placed to ensure that LocalLink services are developed and integrated with other public transport services.
Since the organisational restructuring was completed in 2015, the focus has turned to optimising the services provided within the available funding. In 2016 the Local Link offices began a review of services in conjunction with the NTA. The review is looking to ensure that services are meeting the needs of communities in rural areas and identifying gaps in the provision of services across the country. Arising out of the review and with an increase in my Department’s funding for Local Link services since 2016, 50 new services have been introduced to the network. These include regular five, six or seven day per week bus services as well as demand responsive services. Key features of these services include greater integration with existing public transport services and better linkage of services between and within towns and villages. The review also identified the need for community transport services targeting the needs of specific service users from a social inclusion perspective. Accordingly, the NTA has provided funding to Local Link offices in 2016 and 2017 for once-off community transport services across a number of categories, including age-related, youth, integration and culture and education.
I am aware of how important the Local Link services are to people living in rural areas. The difficulties in accessing social activities in rural areas in the evening and night-time, has been a particular concern for me and the Government. I therefore set about bringing together key stakeholders to explore the issues involved and to try to come up with practical proposals. I hosted meetings in September and November last year, attended by representatives from the Vintners Federation of Ireland, Insurance Ireland, the Irish Countywomen's Association, the Irish Farmers' Association, Irish Rural Link and the NTA, among others. Arising from that dialogue, I tasked the NTA with examining the potential to extend existing LocalLink services and proposals I received in this regard from Deputy Martin Heydon. The NTA sought the views of the 17 LocalLink offices in terms of the various ways that the rural transport programme is seeking to address unmet transport needs in rural areas during evening and night time hours. Proposals were also sought in terms of addressing these unmet transport needs going forward. The NTA on 27 February 2018, issued a funding call for applications from all 17 LocalLink offices to deliver a range of trial evening and night time services. The deadline for receipt of applications was Friday, 16 March 2018. The NTA received proposals for 50 such services from 12 of the Local Link offices by the deadline. No applications were received from the five Local Link offices for Galway, Sligo-Leitrim-Roscommon, Mayo, Clare or Limerick.
Having appraised the applications received, the NTA approved funding for all 50 new services on a six-month trial basis. The services comprise 20 extensions to existing regular public transport services and 30 demand responsive services across 19 counties. They will add 188 new trips per week to the network of rural transport services nationally, and will run on average from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. typically on Friday and Saturday evenings.
While a public procurement process must be undertaken for the 30 new demand responsive services, the NTA plans to have all 50 services operational by mid-July 2018 running until December 2018 on a trial basis. The total cost of funding these services for the six-month period in 2018 is €450,000. The NTA will monitor usage patterns and trends on the services over the trial period. The results of the trial will be assessed and the continuation of these services will be considered in the light of those results and the availability of funding in 2019. That figure of €450,000 may rise because there were five that did not apply but may have applied since. In that case it will rise proportionately.
I should add that the NTA has engaged with the five Local Link offices which did not submit applications for funding and has invited them to submit applications with a revised closing date of Friday, 1 June 2018 on the same terms and conditions as applied previously.
I acknowledge the help I received from Deputy Heydon and from the Minister of State, Deputy Griffin, in getting this initiative off the ground. I also thank the NTA and the Local Link offices for their work in developing the new services. I am grateful for the general welcome for this scheme from large numbers of people, particularly in rural Ireland, as well as in these Houses. As members know, this is a pilot scheme and it should be given a chance. Of course, it is not a final scheme but is something on which we must build. We will have to make judgments on it at the end of the six-month period. At the moment, the general welcome it has received in rural Ireland is very gratifying. This is just the beginning of a recognition of and a solution to the problems experienced in rural society. We want to address those problems in a very serious way, not just now but also into the future.