Thursday, 24 September 2020

Questions (9)

Denis Naughten


9. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Transport further to Parliamentary Question No. 229 of 8 September 2020, the specific supports to be provided for small coach operators in view of the severe financial pressure being placed on businesses; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25674/20]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Transport)

The Government has allocated €10 million to the coach industry which is very welcome. The fund is to be distributed via Fáilte Ireland. However, to date not one cent has been allocated. The private hire market has completely collapsed. There are 1,700 operators in the country employing 11,500 people. The aforementioned fund is equivalent to €870 for each of those employees. This is insufficient to deal with the specific problem that the industry faces, an industry that normally carries approximately 75 million passengers per year.

I assure the Deputy that the Government and the NTA are actively engaged in entering into contractual arrangements for new temporary funding supports with licensed bus operators who are providing necessary public transport services. Both the NTA and my Department have been engaging directly with commercial bus operators throughout the crisis to help inform policy decisions in relation to the public transport sector as we continue to deal with the impact of Covid-19. I am aware of the very difficult business environment that the commercial operators have been facing. Indeed, across Government we are acutely aware that the Covid-19 situation presents huge challenges for so many business sectors.

Public transport is a key facilitator of interaction in the economy and society. It is an efficient and sustainable way of getting people to work, education, shopping and other social engagements. The essential nature of these services has been acknowledged a number of times by the Government in recent months, most notably in the decision to provide additional funding for public service obligation, PSO, services and the introduction of temporary funding measures for the licensed bus sector. These temporary funding supports have been introduced to help ease the financial pressure on operators arising from the fall in passenger numbers and associated drop in fare revenue as a result of Covid-19. They are aimed at ensuring the continued operation of essential licensed bus services for a period of up to six months and are targeted at covering the gap between specified costs and the revenues generated on the services. The supports are targeted at those classes of bus services where a clear public interest justification supports such intervention, in line with relevant state aid considerations. The National Transport Authority is responsible for administering the funding support and is in the process of entering into contracts with the relevant operators.

These supports are in addition to the suite of other financial support measures that the Government has introduced to help mitigate the impact of Covid-19, including the pandemic unemployment payment which operators can avail of and which remains open to new applicants until the end of the year and a Covid-19 enterprise support grant which can be put towards the costs associated with reopening a business, including the purchase of cleaning materials and personal protective equipment. These measures are in addition to rates waivers, lending facilities, equity injection and business advisory supports, all of which will help to improve cash flow. The Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation has also set up on online tool to help support Irish start-ups and SMEs to navigate the range of Government supports and identify which support may be most relevant to their business.

To synopsise what the Minister has just said, if you are not a licensed bus operator providing a licensed service, if you are not contracted to Bus Éireann, then there is nothing for you. As the Minister knows, the NTA has washed its hands of the industry outside of the licensed sector.

I wrote to the Minister and the NTA in August regarding the private school bus operators who had not received even a single sheet of paper on how they should operate their services from 1 September in order to meet the Covid-19 criteria. The NTA came back and said that it was not its problem and I am still waiting for a response from the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport on that issue. The vast majority of coach operators are being ignored. The only fund that has been put in place is through Fáilte Ireland and not a single cent has been distributed to the operators.

I am very glad the Deputy mentioned the school transport service which is a key element in the jigsaw of coach and bus operators. The Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, and I met a wide spectrum of operators across tourism, school transport, PSO services and others. However, primary responsibility for managing the engagement with school bus transport providers lies with the Department of Education and Skills. One of the mechanisms being considered by the Government will hopefully be of benefit to a wide variety of coach operators. Given the public health advice, albeit issued at short notice, on restricting bus capacity, the Department of Education and Skills has been engaged in recent weeks with various operators on the provision of further services and the contracting of additional buses to meet the public health criteria in the provision of the school bus transport service. The Department of Education and Skills has indicated that this process will take some time to complete because it is not a small operation. It will involve a very large number of buses and drivers. It will require a range of systems changes in order to manage the process. I understand the Department of Education and Skills is currently engaged in that process and is in talks with the industry. That may provide one outlet for operators which are otherwise very quiet. There is very little in the way of bringing football teams to matches, there are no tourists and the myriad other vital services the coach and bus industry provides are not available at present. I hope the additional requirements for school bus transport will generate business for operators and help them through the crisis.

The reality is that the taxi, chauffeur-drive and private school bus operators have been completely ignored by the Government to date. Five weeks ago, I wrote to the Minister regarding the private school bus operators but he has yet to respond to me. These operators do not come under the remit of the Department of Education and Skills which is only interested in those that are contracted to Bus Éireann. In fact, private operators that are providing private services had to borrow copies of the documents that were circulated by Bus Éireann to find out what specifications they needed to meet. That is not good enough. The private hire market has completely collapsed at this stage.

I ask the Minister to intervene with regard to the second level school bus system. Will he explore the possibility of buses bringing half the number of students on a first run and then going back for a second run, to be rotated on a weekly basis? In that way, we could double the capacity of the bus fleet very quickly and help to address some of the problems at second level.

I would not rule anything out but I would point to one word in what the Deputy said, which is that these are “private” bus operations. I have myself asked the question as to whether we could look at options such as having two runs. However, to make that work, we would have to get into arrangements with the schools and we do not know if they would be happy to have staggered arrival of pupils or whether that gets in their way. Inexorably, we are brought back to the Department of Education and Skills because we would have to get agreement from the schools via the Department of Education and Skills as to how that would be done.

Believe me, all of these various options have been looked at. It has to be done in a co-ordinated way in order for solutions to be found. The ultimate solution, I would argue, is for us to be able to stabilise the level of Covid and not have to proceed with this 50%, which would then bring back into operation the system that had been set up through private arrangements. However, that is something we do not have full control over.

In the meantime, I will ask the Minister for Education and Skills to follow up on the Deputy’s proposal and on whether this is possible for those schools which have private bus service operations. The difficulty is that some children may come from a local town and some from a further town, and having different arrangements for different students could be very difficult. That may be one of the constraints in terms of a specific solution. However, I will follow up and I will come back to the Deputy if there is any possibility.