Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Questions (46)

Richard Boyd Barrett


46. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport the measures he is planning to take to ensure equal access to public transport for disabled persons and those with mobility issues in view of the fact that the UNCRPD has been in effect since April 2018; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39942/19]

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Oral answers (11 contributions) (Question to Transport)

Eleven years after the Government promised to sign the UNCRPD it was finally signed in April 2018. However, signing a convention and ensuring equal participation in society for people with disabilities are two different matters. In the area of transport, we are a long way short of the mark. There are massive problems with the regular and frequent breakdown of lifts at the DART stations, stranding people, and denying them access to DART services. There are major problems of accessibility to buses and lack of accessible taxis. The Government needs to do a hell of a lot more. I will go through some of the problems in more detail later but I want to know what the Minister is going to do to make equal access for people with disabilities to public transport a reality.

I thank the Deputy for asking that question. The more he asks it the more welcome it becomes because it is quite right that he continuously makes us accountable for people with disabilities and report to him regularly.

As Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I have responsibility for policy and overall funding in relation to public transport. Under the Dublin Transport Authority Act 2008, the National Transport Authority, NTA, has statutory responsibility for promoting the development of an integrated, accessible public transport network.

Article 9 of the UNCRPD provides for equal access for people with disabilities to facilities and services, including transportation. Article 4.2 of the convention provides for the progressive realisation of accessibility rights which includes practical progress on public transport accessibility. This is the approach adopted in Ireland on public transport and is being progressed in the context of the National Disability Inclusion Strategy 2017-2021, my Department's sectoral plan under the Disability Act 2005 and other relevant Government strategies and plans.

Accessibility features, such as wheelchair access and audio and visual aids are built into all new public transport infrastructure and vehicles from the design stage. New systems, such as Luas, are fully accessible. The National Development Plan, NDP, 2018-2027 sets out the national vision and ambition for the delivery of key infrastructure over the lifetime of the plan, including for public transport infrastructure. Investment in public transport will be accelerated under the NDP to support the development of an integrated and sustainable national public transport system. A number of key new major public transport programmes are due to be delivered under the NDP over the period to 2027.

However, there are legacy issues in relation to older infrastructure and facilities, for example, our Victorian era railway stations. To address these infrastructural legacy issues, my Department funds the accessibility retrofit programme which is managed by the National Transport Authority, NTA. The four-year capital envelope for public transport announced in budget 2018 includes a multi-annual allocation of almost €28 million for the accessibility retrofit programme for the period 2018 to 2021. This funding is a trebling of the previous allocation for accessibility under the capital plan.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

This funding will facilitate the continued roll-out of the programmes to install accessible bus stops, upgrade train stations to make them accessible to wheelchair users and provide grant support for the introduction of more wheelchair accessible vehicles into the taxi fleet. There will also be a continued investment programme under the NDP to fund the retrofitting of older public transport facilities to enhance accessibility.

I can assure the Deputy that my Department and its agencies are committed to meeting our obligations under the UNCRPD on the progressive realisation of public transport accessibility.

The Government has had 11 years to progressively realise equality and it is still a long way short. I will give the Minister a glimpse of the reality on the DART. On 22 August, lifts were out of order in nine stations; on 6 September, they were out of order in eight; on 9 September, online information stated lifts were out of order in two stations when in fact the number was six; and on 23 September online information stated no lifts were out of order when in fact eight were. Seán O'Kelly, a wheelchair user and disability activist, who is in the Visitors Gallery today said that in August he was due to meet somebody in Pearse Street station. He came from Glenageary. On his return he decided to go to Blackrock where he understood the lift was functioning. When he got there he found that it was not. He then had to go on to Salthill and back to Blackrock on the other side, and then had to go to Booterstown in order to get to Glenageary. In other words, what should have been a three-stop journey became a six-stop journey because of the problems with lifts at DART stations.

I deeply regret Seán's experience. His was a dilemma that has probably happened to other people. The Deputy is right there have been problems in the lifts and that highlights the daily difficulties for people with disabilities. I met Seán last Friday and am aware of the situations that occur. I met one of the Deputy's local election candidates at the same time.

A concern for people with disabilities occurs when facilities such as lifts at train stations are out of service for long periods. Irish Rail has assured the Department that it is committed to providing all its customers, including those who are mobility and sensory impaired, with the highest level of accessibility on its rail network. When lifts get damaged and are out of service some specialised parts may be required which can take some time to be delivered. Irish Rail endeavours to return all out-of-service lifts to operational service as quickly as possible. The company's provider of lift maintenance services gives priority to lifts for repair and attention.

It is just not good enough and in order to highlight this, Bernard Mulvany, who the Minister mentioned, and Seán O’Kelly and others, have had to organise multiple protests about this. It is not acceptable and we need it sorted urgently.

The four hours' notice to access trains in Dublin and the 24 hours needed in the country is not equality. Some private bus companies which do not get state aid do not have to be accessible. There is a lack of accessible taxis. One taxi driver told me that there is a new purpose-built, all electric taxi in London that is fully accessible. If we redirected some of the grants for accessible taxis to purchase those and dropped the vehicle registration tax, VRT, we could have lots of accessible taxis in Dublin in short order. A lot more needs to be done. There needs to be a real focus on this. The situations that Seán and others find themselves in are absolutely unacceptable. Equality means equality.

Equality is where we are absolutely determined to head. I do not have time to list the number of initiatives we have taken on this, including the trebling of funding, and the appointment to every transport board of somebody with experience of disabilities in order to raise the realisation at every single stage. We have done a great deal but it is not enough. The Deputy is right; it will never be enough until everything he suggested is achieved.

We are determined to do these things. We are doing what is called progressive realisation. We will have to report on it in Geneva in 2020. We are aiming to produce a really good report. Not only do I think that it will be achieved, I am of the view that we will be on the way. That is the mark of our determination and our resolve.

Irish Rail has put a new system into operation at Howth Junction and Clongriffin stations which closes off the lift when it is called by customers. The call goes to a monitored CCTV room. This has reduced vandalism issues at both stations. Benefits include controlling access to the lifts with passengers who require the service most, remote fault and alarm status of lifts in service updated to Irish Rail's website, higher availability of lift services for customers with disabilities, and visual monitoring. A further 14 stations-----

I call Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan.

-----have been identified at a cost of €50,000 per station. Irish Rail is developing a proposal for the works-----

I call Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan. Before she comes in, I must be fair to everybody. I ask the Minister and Deputies not to take advantage as there are others waiting to ask questions. If the rules are to be changed and a minute is to be extended to two minutes that will have to be done in another forum.