Thursday, 24 September 2020

Questions (7)

Aindrias Moynihan

Question:

7. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Transport his plans to improve the frequency of bus services between mid-Cork villages and the city; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25671/20]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Transport)

The wider mid-Cork area is well recognised as an area of significant population growth. A range of bus services operate in the area but there are well recognised difficulties with the overall level of service. A number of places do not have a regular service, there are problems with the frequency of services and some villages have no service at all. We need an established plan to improve those services. Will the Minister outline how he proposes to improve bus access for people across mid-Cork? They need to have reasonable access to Cork city and Killarney for college and work.

I have to admit a slight bias in this matter in that my mother grew up in Macroom and I spent my childhood holidays on the banks of the River Sullane visiting my grandparents. As Minister, I have responsibility for policy and overall funding in regard to public transport. However, I am not involved in the day-to-day operations of public transport. That is the responsibility of the NTA in conjunction with public transport operators.

The NTA has statutory responsibility for securing the provision of public passenger transport services nationally and the development of an integrated, accessible public transport network. The authority also has national responsibility for integrated local and rural transport, including management of the rural transport programme, RTP, which now operates under the Local Link brand. Local Link public transport services comprise both demand-responsive transport, DRT, door-to-door services and conventional fixed services.

In this context, the authority seeks to deliver an efficient, accessible and integrated public transport system in both rural and urban Ireland. It funds public bus services in rural areas through its public service obligation, PSO, arrangements, mainly with Bus Éireann and through the Local Link service.

I understand that the Deputy's question relates to a number of PSO services in Cork that are operated by Bus Éireann, namely, the 233 Macroom to Cork route, the 235 Rylane to Cork route, the 236 Castletownbere to Cork route, the 239 Butlerstown to Cork route, and the 243 Newmarket to Cork route.

Having consulted the NTA in regard to future service plans, I can advise the Deputy that there are no specific plans at present to increase frequency on the routes in question. However, it is important to note that the authority keeps the network of bus services operated by Bus Éireann under regular review and consideration of increased services is part of that review process.

In regard to Macroom specifically, my understanding is that there were plans for the expansion of services in 2020. Unfortunately, those plans were put on hold, similar to many other projects, as a consequence of the Covid pandemic. My understanding is that the Macroom route will again be taken into consideration. Any development in that regard must fit within the policy approach being taken by the NTA and Local Link services in resect of all routes and the assessment of which will be put forward for prioritisation. I can see the good logic in the proposals for Macroom. Given the plans to proceed with the Macroom bypass project, it makes sense, at the same time, to take steps to deliver high-quality public transport services.

I thank the Minister for that overview. As he points out, the Macroom service was one of the services identified as being particularly problematic and as offering an opportunity for growth in serving villages such as Ballingeary, Inchigeela, Kilmurry, Crookstown, Cloughduv, Aherla and on down to Killumney and Coachford. If one wants to get in and out to Cork city from Coachford, for example, one can get a bus in the morning at 7.40, but to get back home again, one has to be out of the city before 1 p.m. It is not practical. For people living along the Bride Valley who want to get in and out to work, they can get a bus at 7.30 a.m. but they must be out on the Model Farm Road at 4.30 p.m to get home. That does not suit most people who are going in and out of Cork city.

There were plans to expand the service, as the Minister outlined, but plans do not get put into place immediately. It takes a bit of background work to take them forward. It should not be the case that we should park all such projects at this time. The coronavirus crisis should not mean that everything stops. Plans should continue in the meantime and there should be a readiness to switch projects back on. I understand that these cannot be advanced overnight but preparations can be made. The Minister referred to the 243 bus service that goes out to Grenagh and on up to Bweeng. Grenagh is 20 minutes from the city centre by car but it feels like a week by bus. Improved services need to be rolled out as soon as possible and the preparatory work must be going on in the background in the meantime.

One of the most significant things in the programme for Government is the towns first idea, which seeks to bring life back into the centres of towns. I am taking Macroom as an example because it is very familiar to me. It is very important that we have good, high-quality and high-frequency public transport services on services such as the Macroom to Cork route.

It is also important to integrate local transport services, including Local Link, that have been very successful in Cork. They need to be connected to ensure accessibility to Macroom. In this Covid-19 world, many people living and working in Macroom may have commuted previously or they may be staying in the town to work for three days a week rather than commuting into Cork for work. We need to get right the co-ordination of Local Link services and more regional bus services. We should use examples like Macroom to make sure the hinterland is connected in to that bus service, the timetable works and the system is seamless and integrated.

Even with the new bypass in Macroom, if we try to develop Ireland on a roads and car based transport system, and even if we restrict the numbers of people who commute, we will still reach bottlenecks when we get to the edge of the city and that will not work. The only way of managing our future development is active travel, local travel and Local Link bus services. We need this hierarchy with public transport services between large towns and cities, such as Macroom and Cork. That is the future development of public transport and transport in general in our towns and cities. This holds out the key prospect of restoring towns and bringing life back to the centre of towns. That towns will not be choked full of cars is one of the benefits of this whole process.

I very much agree with the Minister on supporting services in and out of Macroom. Ballingeary and Inchigeelah only have one bus to Macroom a day, which leaves people having to return home very early in the day. In the absence of bus options, we see huge tailbacks at the Ballincollig bypass near the EMC facility and at Leemount Cross. Macroom is being choked. Bus services to both those villages need to be improved. People also want to be able to get in and out to Cork and that bus service needs to be advanced. These needs have already been recognised. There are new sewerage schemes in Dripsey, Coachford and Ballyvourney, for example, which are advancing further housing development. There will be a need for bus services to Cork and Macroom. That will not happen instantly but the Minister needs to advance those plans. Background work has already been done on those plans, which should not be parked up. The Minister should be bringing along those plans and making bus service improvements available to people within months, rather than pushing them off into the never-never or for several years.

I agree with the Deputy. On Macroom specifically, I understand that plans are afoot and quite far advanced in terms of reviewing the frequency of the Cork-Macroom service. Once there has been a restoration of some normal services after the pandemic, I will be supportive should the National Transport Authority, in consultation with regional transport systems, decide that those plans are now ready for development. That would be a very positive development.