I welcome the witnesses and thank them for their submissions. I will speak primarily to the NBRU submission. While I have an interest in taxis, I have a greater interest in public transport, specifically the rail and bus side of it.
I represent Kildare North, which is very much a commuter constituency. Pre-Covid, the bulk of the working population in north Kildare migrated into the greater Dublin area most mornings, returning again in the evening. I have been a commuter on public transport, primarily rail, for upwards of 20 years. I will make a couple of observations on that. The numbers using the system have started to increase again. The system was almost at breaking point pre-Covid. I discussed this in the past with Mr. O'Leary and others in the NBRU, as well as the NTA, Irish Rail and all the other stakeholders. We are dealing with the crisis as best we can around the table. It is important not to lose sight of the pressures on the system pre-Covid, for example, trains and buses running above capacity, a lack of park-and-ride facilities, parking and other supporting services needed to make the transition to public transport en masse. Unfortunately, this transition has been somewhat arrested but I hope we will be in a post-Covid era in the not too distant future, whether that is in six, 12 or 18 months. We cannot let this slide as we could find ourselves back to capacity again very quickly. It is important that we do not let the ball drop on some of the initiatives and projects that were up and running to address some of the issues in public transport.
Earlier this week, the Minister, Deputy Ryan, announced EU funding for the Kildare route project to bring the DART to Maynooth and Hazelhatch. Without being parochial, as someone who lives one station further, I believe this should extend much further to stations such as Sallins and Newbridge, as well as Kilcock on the Sligo line, and perhaps even Enfield. If we were being pedantic, we would describe the Kildare route project as the Dublin route project because it stops at Hazelhatch, which is in County Dublin. While the pressure and focus are elsewhere, it is important that we do not forget these issues. We need to keep them boiling away in the background as best we can.
I spoke about capacity in normal times and my hope that we return to some kind of normalcy soon. I have continued to travel on public transport on most days during the pandemic. Last Thursday, when we had a late session in the convention centre, I ran to get a later train home at 8 p.m. or 8.30 p.m. Even at that off-peak hour, social distancing was almost impossible to enforce because the seats were almost full. While there were signs and stickers on the seats, it was not possible to observe social distancing because the train was beginning to fill up. That is already an issue and we are only at the early stages of people returning to work. I do not know how that will be managed. I note there was some reduction on timetables. Perhaps it is time to start ramping up services again as people start taking the train again. This has probably gone under the radar but it will become an issue very soon.
The return of schools has been the subject of considerable concern, coverage, speculation and analysis in the media, the Government and these Houses. We have heard a lot about schools, but what about the school buses? I am not sure how the school bus system will cope when the schools return. There is always pressure to get places on school buses in August. Much depends on capacity on particular routes and whether the school bus seats 48 or 60, the number of discretionary places and so on. In a social distancing era, what kind of challenges will that pose?
It is something that has not been flagged or considered in the debate to date.
The next point I want to jump on to is one about which Mr. O'Leary had expressed concerns in the media a few weeks ago. I welcome the mandatory face coverings on public transport. That is important. It was a welcome decisive move made early in the new Government. It removed any awkwardness about it so that people, by and large, immediately began to don the face coverings. I saw not everyone on the Luas and train was doing it. There is voluntary compliance. I note Mr. O'Leary expressed concerns about drivers and inspectors being pressed into service, almost as policemen, trying to enforce that. How is that working out? I saw it on the Luas one day. Through no fault of the drivers, it was not working out well. They were doing their best. The Luas had to keep stopping and passengers were being ejected and maybe put in their place a little. The journey was slowed down and it became a little messy.
Jumping along to the details of Mr. O'Leary's submission, I might put all my points across and maybe they can respond in bulk. It might be the most efficient way. In the NBRU submission today, Mr. O'Leary talked about a 24-hour society as opposed to a 24-hour transport society, which many cities have. I often consider, especially when running for the last train home out of Heuston at 11.10 p.m., it would be great if there was another one an hour later but one would probably want one an hour later again and so on. Perhaps that kind of 24-hour public transport clock is what we need to aspire to. The NBRU touched on that in its submissions and statements in the past. Perhaps there is an angle there in terms of the recovery.
Mr. O'Leary mentioned spreading the peak as well. Irish Rail often talked of this. The NBRU and Irish Rail both talked about this idea whereby, rather than everybody trying to jump on a train at 7.30 a.m. or 8 a.m. and jumping back on the same train at 5.30 p.m. to get home in the evening, and similarly for bus and Luas, people could begin to examine how they might have staggered or different work patterns. Perhaps Covid can teach us something there. Perhaps there are learnings or changes in work practices to be drawn from that. In terms of the 24-hour economy, probably the NBRU has something that would be of interest to say about that.
Finally, I noted the stakeholder forum. Deputy Catherine Murphy and others might have touched on that. There is one question I would ask. Mr. O'Leary has already explained his vision of how that might work but I would ask, will there be a role for local commuter groups? The Sallins and Naas Rail User Group is the one I am happy to be involved with. There is a Drogheda user group as well. There is probably a Navan user group etc. They would play a useful role in stakeholder engagement as the users of the service. They already input in different, and perhaps inconsistent, ways to the system. Mr. O'Leary might talk about how that might operate.
I will leave it there. I have put a few questions and there is a few minutes left for the witnesses to respond.