Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 10 Nov 2009

Vol. 694 No. 1

Public Transport Regulation Bill 2009 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

While I welcome the presence of the Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady, I am disappointed the Minister for Transport is not here this evening to deal with this very important Bill. However, I have no doubts about the capability of the Minister of State to listen and to bring to the Department the views of this side of the House and how we believe the Bill could be made substantially better.

Last week I referred to the proposals of an bord snip nua to save €11 million at a very large cost to the rural population and well beyond any possible gain to the Exchequer. To refer to saving €11 million is to overstate the case. The actual funding is €8.9 million for the 37 groups involved. However, in terms of value for money, it would be hard to outdo this scheme. Apart from providing a door-to-door transport initiative, the services act as a warning mechanism within communities. The drivers know all their passengers and are able to pass on details of elderly people who may have missed out on a journey into town, such that social services can check up on those people. It is a very important community service and has been omitted from the Bill. Bus drivers have a great rapport with their passengers, many of whom are starved of social interaction. As someone who comes from Galway, the Minister of State will be aware of rural isolation and the devastating effects it can have on elderly people throughout the country.

With my colleagues, Councillors Sean Farrell and Michael Carrigy, and my brother, Councillor Larry Bannon, I had the honour of travelling on both routes in Longford and Westmeath during the recent day of protest, during which I met drivers and passengers. In Westmeath I was very pleased to take the opportunity to introduce my party leader, Deputy Enda Kenny, to many users of the service——

We should be careful not to miss out on something like that.

——when he was canvassing during the Lisbon treaty referendum campaign. Everyone in the House should give credit to Deputy Kenny for the way in which he drove the Lisbon agenda forward and helped to get the treaty adopted. He has shown real leadership, not only in this country, but throughout Europe and we are all very proud of him for that.

Deputy Bannon made no mention of it before.

There is a popular misconception that the rural transport scheme is solely directed at the elderly. This is untrue, since the scheme is open to anyone living in a remote area who wishes to access local towns or villages. For those under the age of 65 years, the cost of the return journey is €4 and a one-way journey costs €2. There is currently a marked gender imbalance in the uptake of the service, with 80% of the passengers being female.

School busses sit idle between delivery and collection and they could be utilised to extend the rural transport fleet. This has been talked about for some time but nothing has taken place in this regard. As the buses in the scheme collect and return passengers to their homes, the fleet should be comprised of smaller buses which could carry between 14 and 22 passengers and better navigate country lanes. However an extension of the scheme could see larger buses being used to pick up those who are able to access collection points on main routes and so forth. It would be a major mistake to link the extension of the rural transport scheme to the new drink driving laws. This is happening in Fianna Fáil, particularly with promises made at parliamentary party meetings. Fianna Fáil cannot keep the proceedings of those meetings in complete secrecy. There are leaks.

Leaks are coming from Fine Gael Parliamentary Party meetings as well.

Drinking and socialising in country areas is an issue because it is becoming more and more restricted. The rural bus scheme is primarily a daytime scheme, providing access to banks, post offices, hospitals, chemists and retail outlets. It is obvious that Mr. McCarthy never lived in isolation in rural Ireland or he would not have threatened a vital lifeline for those who do. I hope he will have a change of thought on this matter and I hope the Government does not implement the McCarthy proposals in full. If it does, it will be to the detriment of rural Ireland.

The valuable work carried out by enthusiastic and hard-working Pobal staff, community resources centre staff and community transport co-ordinators has gone a long way to improving the situation of rural bus passengers. Rather than see the work stalled or restricted, the Government must prioritise rural transport in the forthcoming budget. On behalf of all those availing of the service who live in rural areas and do not have transport of their own, I plead with the Minister to ensure that it happens.

The midlands has been consistently overlooked in terms of infrastructure and vital transport links. The midlands was excluded from Transport 21 despite the great hullabaloo at the launch. It is becoming unbelievably repetitive to speak in this House about broken Government promises. The numbers of times I have addressed this is becoming legendary. The Minister should remember that reneging on promises, such as the retention and extension of the rural transport scheme, will leave many disgruntled communities and people.

The Public Transport Regulation Bill purports to put bus passengers' needs at the centre of bus route licensing. With the Dublin Transport Authority due to be renamed the national transport authority, the failure of the Minister to include rural areas is mystifying, but perhaps not. Despite its inclusive national title, the Bill has been described as good news for Dublin commuters because it prioritises the needs of bus passengers in the capital when issuing licences for bus routes. When will there be good news about public transport infrastructure for rural Ireland under this Government? Rural Ireland does not have the benefit of the Luas system. It does not have an equivalent of the DART. It is hard to say what transport it has.

On repeated occasions I have spoken on the Adjournment about the reopening of Killucan and Multyfarnham stations in County Westmeath. Studies have shown that hundreds of people would access these stations if they were up and running. With the rising costs of motoring, the large toll cost on the M4, the two-hour delay getting to Dublin by road and the need to cut back on carbon emissions, the people of Killucan, Kinnegad, Multyfarnham and surrounding areas have a right of access to a station in the immediate vicinity. Despite this logic and the lack of transport infrastructure in the midlands, the Minister failed to consider these options. They were not included in Transport 21.

The people of Longford are also victims of under-provision of rail transport, being at the mercy of the Dublin-Sligo train. This is a major health and safety hazard on Sunday evenings. I highlighted this last Thursday when the Minister for Transport attended the House during Question Time. People are packed like sardines and a seat is out of the question for most. This happens as far back as Edgeworthstown where the train becomes full. That is some 100 km from passengers' destination in the capital city. I would like the Minister to examine this because it is a major health and safety issue. After a catastrophe or a serious accident is not the time for the Department or the Minister to take action. I have flagged this matter this evening and I hope the Minister takes note.

The development of the rail link between Mullingar and Athlone was also shamefully omitted from the Transport 21 programme. This vital infrastructural provision is essential to the economic development of the midlands. In order to increase inward investment in the region, rail transport is an import link in the chain. The midlands has some of the most dangerous roads in the country. This was highlighted by an AA report some time ago. Some of the roads in the midlands are known as the roads to hell. It also has the worst rail provision. In order for a constituent of mine to get to Cork by train, he must either travel to Portlaoise or Dublin. It is the same case if one wants to get to Belfast from Longford, Mullingar or Athlone. One must travel to Dublin first. What incentive is this to foreign investment or business expansion in the midlands?

The Government must urgently consider the possibility of providing a central rail link. I have highlighted this matter over the years at regional authority meetings when I served on such bodies.

Deputy Bannon has one minute remaining.

I raised the possibility of providing a central rail link, linking towns in the midlands such as Athlone, Mullingar, Longford, Portlaoise, Roscommon, Cavan and Edgeworthstown. There could be spurs off this central line. It would improve the rail infrastructure for the entire midlands area. In addition to joining up Athlone to Mullingar, the central line would be of great benefit to schools and young people from the midlands accessing the Athlone Institute of technology. Longford and Westmeath have historically been poorly served in terms of rail links to the north of the country. I would like to see something happening to improve the lot of the people in the midlands.

While fully supporting the principle of one regulatory body for public transport in Ireland, Fine Gael opposes this Bill because it maintains a veil of protection around CIE. It does not offer any real competition in the Irish bus market. It does very little to look after the interests of people living in rural Ireland.

Deputy Bannon——

I will wind up now. The proposed new licensing system states that Dublin Bus, Bus Éireann and Irish Rail are not subject to the new system as they come under the direct award contract. The Bill also allows the new national transport authority to renew contracts under direct award without being subject to the tendering process. This is unfair and no matter where one goes in Europe, one sees better public transport systems than in Ireland. Some of the eastern European countries that joined the EU in recent times, such as Slovakia and Slovenia, have better links with towns and villages than Ireland. We could take a leaf out of their book if we travelled to these countries, examined the fine transport infrastructure and adopted it in Ireland. We should try to get a better system of transport running up and down this country. Any industry that seeks to set up business in this country will note that this is absent.

We have very poor transport infrastructure and I do not see any great hope for improvement under Fianna Fáil or the Green Party. Since coming into office, the Green Party has provided cycle lanes and filled the pot holes in the cycle lanes, but no major transport infrastructure is being developed under its watch.

Deputy Bannon is drifting, not to mention the infringement on speaking time.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for his patience.

I thank the Deputy.

I would like to have more time because I have much more to say on this subject.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute on Second Stage of the Public Transport Regulation Bill 2009. The primary purpose of the Bill is to provide a good quality cost-efficient public bus passenger transport service for the people of the country. To effect that vision, the Government believes there is a need to examine the licensing regime that exists and examining it clearly shows a necessity to reform it. The Bill sets out the framework to facilitate regulated competition in the public bus passenger service.

Despite what the previous speaker, Deputy James Bannon, stated, the Bill builds upon knowledge and experience gained from other jurisdictions which sought to liberalise the market. I was taken by the comments he made and by the position put forward by Fine Gael which seems to involve liberalisation or absolute deregulation in the bus market. Other jurisdictions have done that, believing that open competition in a full and open market would lead to better value and perhaps a better service for the consumer. My understanding from the research I have done is that this theory has been proved wrong. The approach taken by the Government will lead to a much better outcome than those achieved elsewhere.

Fine Gael has put forward proposals which seek to mirror the approach taken by the UK. Its experience of deregulation and tendering has generated very negative comments. I received material on a study undertaken by the Office of Fair Trading in the UK. The initial report outlined some worrying trends which undermine much of what Deputy Bannon said about deregulation or open tendering. It sounds good but the experience has not been to the benefit of the consumer.

The material I received seems to indicate that deregulation resulted in reduced or, in some cases, no competition resulting in lower quality services. It was found that in areas with only one operator fares are typically 9% higher. This would be worrying from a consumer's point of view. The term "gaming" was used in the report, and this was identified as a practice where an operator could cut rural or less profitable ends from a commercial route with the expectation that ultimately the UK local authority would have to tender that element of the route to an operator who could then operate it as part of a subsidised route. This means that what was all under a commercial licence initially would end up receiving further financial support from the state at a greater cost to the state.

I understand the initial report of the Office of Fair Trading refers to the Darlington case where a multinational company submitted a bid to buy a local municipal bus company, the Darlington Transport Company. It was unsuccessful in that effort and immediately flooded the market with free buses. The municipal bus company could not compete and went bust within a number of days. The local councils lost out because they had a facility and service with an inherent value of in excess of €1 million. Due to a deregulated environment, the financial resources available to a multinational company were able to put a company out of business. This shows that deregulation does not work. The predatory practices of large multinationals will wipe out any competition in a short period of time and ultimately control the market to suit themselves and make a profit. It requires greater thinking. I am somewhat concerned about elements of the Bill but, by and large, its structure and framework are right and some areas might be tightened up through amendment.

The Office of Fair Trading's study dealt with tendering, which happens outside London. There was a near doubling in the cost to the taxpayer over the past ten years with a cost today of £1 per kilometre. In half of all local areas outside of London, 20% of tenders receive just one bid. This sets out the basis for the information gleaned by the Minister and the Department which shows the importance of retaining to some extent a regulated environment for liberalisation in a regulated way. While the two words might seem somewhat confusing, it is important that we take that approach.

Bus Éireann provides a very good service throughout Ireland and there is a quality to that service. It provides value for money and its cost structures were recognised by Deloitte in its most recent report as being to a very high standard. That was based on independent research. To seem to undermine — as Deputy Bannon did perhaps inadvertently — what Bus Éireann does is wrong and unfair to the people who work in that service. They carry out their work in a very efficient way and that is down to the management of Bus Éireann, particularly people such as Tim Hayes, whom I believe to be an excellent public servant.

At present, there is much criticism of public and civil servants orchestrated by some elements of the media. When one makes an effort through research to understand what is going on in many State and semi-State companies, one meets people of the calibre of Tim Hayes, John Lynch and others on the board of CIE who give it their all; they have the common good of people at heart. These people are often undermined by the unnecessary commentary that goes on in this House in seeking to gain political advantage and outside the House by elements of the media. It is right that we recognise where public servants have put in place a service that has been to the benefit of all and, it is hoped, can be maintained, worked upon and built upon through the passage of this legislation.

The integrated nature of the Bus Éireann network is a vital component of the service provided. It offers a vital link throughout rural and more urbanised areas. The current service is not, and was never intended to be, a rural service. A recent development, whereby the Government put aside funding through the rural transport initiative, is a way of dealing with that. I will address this later if I have an opportunity to do so. It is important that we focus on the integrated nature of the service as it is constructed because it is open to larger multinationals to cherry pick commercial routes. The multinationals will exploit some point-to-point routes and generate as much business on them as they can and seek to generate profits for themselves. The existing service facilitates some PSO or subvented work as a part of or at the tail end of some routes. We need to examine this aspect.

As the Government rolls out the interurban routes, which will connect Cork, Limerick and Galway with Dublin, we must ensure that a service is maintained along what were the old routes. The new services will go point-to-point and carry the greatest number of passengers but it is important that those towns which are bypassed — some of them are quite large — still have an effective transport service. We must be careful in the issuing of licences by the transport authority at a later stage that, in an effort to offer a point-to-point service, we do not undermine the existing service. Deputy Bannon spoke much about Athlone and other places in his constituency. The simple reality is that if we were to deregulate the market, the bulk of people from Galway, Sligo and other locations would take the main routes and there would not be the business to allow a service provider to call to the villages and towns he discussed. What he is asking for would be to the detriment of many of the towns in his constituency. We must be very careful about this and it needs to be taken into account in the issuing of licences.

In an effort to address that, the State would have to provide more money for routes which would start to carry public service obligations after the removal of commercial services along interurban routes. I am aware that a large multinational company has begun to provide an unlicensed service on the Dublin-Galway route in an effort to put an indigenous provider out of business. The financial resources of this multinational allows it to offer €1 fares. Such companies will be able to push the indigenous operators off routes very easily. They have sought to undermine the existing regime because the 1932 Act fails to provide the sanctions required to deal with them. The framework set out in the Bill before us will, however, allow the State to act. I ask the Minister to ensure the issuance of a licence does not impact on the integrated network. The licensing of routes which have a commercial basis alongside PSO components by virtue of the way Bus Éireann has operated in the past should not be done in such a way as to require the State to pick up the cost of the PSO. I ask the Minister to consider strengthening the legislation to protect the network. Perhaps he could consider excluding those who have previously operated in an unlicensed or predatory manner from receiving future licences. I accept this would be difficult to achieve because companies can change names and directors but it is not beyond the Minister and his officials to come up with a method for excluding directors or operators. Some operators, including in particular the multinationals, recognise the landscape is changing and have sought to soften up the marketplace in advance. We need to get tough by ensuring they do not achieve their aims.

As somebody from a rural area, I am cognisant of the difficulties experienced by those who live in isolated areas. In areas with aging populations, there are people who do not have access to private transport or relatives. It is vital, therefore, that the State manages a rural transport service. While the Bill before us does not deal with that issue, I welcome the recent announcement by the Minister that funding will continue to be made available for the rural transport initiative. However, we will have to await the budget for the details of that funding. Although rural transport was identified in the McCarthy report as an area in which cuts could be made, I am delighted that the Government in its wisdom has decided to protect that service.

The Clare accessible transport project, which originated in the part of east Clare from which I come, has developed a great service for people in isolated rural areas. It has already been working on the pilot projects identified by the Minister which bring together the HSE, Bus Éireann and the rural transport initiative to develop a more comprehensive approach to the movement of people in rural areas. We owe the project our gratitude for targeting the most important groups, namely, the elderly, the young and the disabled. An inherent part of its work is ensuring that young and elderly people with disabilities can access bus services.

Rural transport needs to move beyond initiatives and pilot projects and into the mainstream public transport network. The outcome of the pilot projects and other research can facilitate the State in introducing a comprehensive rural transport network which is integrated into national bus and rail routes so that people living in Mountshannon, Killanena, Feakle or Corofin have the same access to transport as those in Athlone or Dundalk. The frequency of service may not be the same but at least people would have access to the outside world. Rural transport services would also contribute to decreasing carbon emissions by reducing the necessity for cars.

Rural transport becomes even more critical in the context of the Government's plans to reduce the blood-alcohol limit as part of its road safety agenda. While there are differing views on these plans, the Government intends to progress them. A proper bus network will be necessary if people who live in rural Ireland are to have the same social opportunities as those who live in larger towns and cities. To that end, I hope the rural transport initiative is put on a legislative footing.

I ask that further consideration be given to the issues I have raised. Strengthening the conditions on which licences are issued can protect the PSO components of the network from practices which could otherwise lead to the deterioration of services or require greater investment by the State. I also ask that the legislation be strengthened in respect of operators. I suggest that we investigate whether licence applicants have criminal records, particularly in regard to drug or child offences.

It is necessary that the financial stability and integrated network of the direct award contract of Bus Éireann's PSO services should be considered when granting all categories of licences. Licences should not be issued if they cut across PSO services. Otherwise, the State will bear the costs of supporting the services in question or will be forced to close them and, possibly, reinstate them at further cost to the State at a later date.

Those who have sought to undermine the current licensing regime should be dealt with appropriately and effectively. While this is not possible under current legislation, they could be dealt with when they seek a licence under the new regime. Their past practices should come back to haunt them because they have inflicted damage on the bus network.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the issue of transport. Deputy Dooley should note that Deputy Bannon did not seek to undermine Bus Éireann or CIE. Many transport-related issues provide a road to economic recovery. lreland is a small country and relatively new State. Rather than go abroad this year, I travelled the length and breadth of the country. During my travels, I observed the significant work done in improving the road network in the past ten or 15 years, particularly around the major towns. Irrespective of the contribution made by individual counties to the economy, whether in agriculture or through other activities, all of them have a transport infrastructure on which they can build.

The Government must show foresight by continuing to invest in transport to assist economic recovery. In recent weeks, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, expressed delight that Dublin's car parks were not full. Perhaps he believes this is the outcome of some Green Party initiative to persuade people to use bicycles or buses. As Deputies will have noted, however, buses are no longer full. Someone should inform the Minister that the reason our buses and car parks are not full is that 400,000 people are staying at home. We must address this issue.

As a rural Deputy, I am aware that members of the two main parties have played the rural isolation card in recent debates on drink driving. Isolation affects those living in towns as much as those in rural areas. I had the privilege of living in a town. If one has no contact with one's neighbours, there is no more lonely place to live than in a town. In the country people can ask a neighbour to give them a lift whereas people in towns will find themselves stuck for a lift.

Transport must be provided in every corner of the country but State money cannot be pumped into loss-making services. I have been a member of the Joint Committee on Transport for four or five years. The joint committee has had some good meetings with Bus Éireann, Iarnród Éireann, Aer Lingus and other transport companies. During the boom times, providers of bus services opened new bus routes. At our meetings, however, they told the joint committee that they would close them if they did not make money.

While Bus Éireann, like Aer Lingus, is an established Irish brand, this does not mean that one can continue to throw money at these companies. Earlier today, we met representatives of Aer Lingus pilots. A couple of weeks ago, when representatives of Aer Lingus outlined the company's plans at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Transport they failed to inform members of plans to establish a new company in England which will employ contract workers at the expense of Irish workers. As all the available figures show, Aer Lingus, Bus Éireann, Iarnród Éireann and other transport companies have a viable future.

The Minister must take responsibility for all aspects of transport. He cannot continue to pass the buck by arguing that the National Roads Authority, CIE and other bodies are not his responsibility. He must take responsibility for the money allocated to transport and ensure the best possible services are provided, regardless of whether one lives in a town or city or on Achill Island.

The population of the State is predicted to increase from approximately 4.25 million to 6.5 million in the next 30 or 40 years as a result of the baby boom. Figures also show that we do not have sufficient university or school places to accommodate the 10,000 additional students who will complete school annually over the next ten years.

Transport services must be able to pay for themselves. If we must create competition to achieve this, so be it. I am not a businessman but it is clear one cannot continue to throw borrowed money into a system that is not paying for itself. The companies involved, whether CIE companies or private bus firms, know this practice cannot continue.

The transport companies are responsible and helpful. They return one's calls and respond to queries, even if their responses are not to our liking. I do not have any complaints in that regard and Deputy Bannon did not try to undermine them in any respect.

Before the property boom, the economy was driven by exports. Companies considering locating in Ireland found that while the greater Dublin area had good transport infrastructure, road standards were not good in counties such as Leitrim and Mayo or even north County Meath. The position has since changed for the better. We must maintain the road infrastructure developed in recent years.

The M3 was a major issue when I was first elected four or five years ago. While the road will be built, I am not sure many people will use it because fewer people commute to Dublin. It is, nevertheless, a great investment. We must build new factories and create jobs for our young people, rather than export them to the United States, Australia and elsewhere. We must build factories near the major roads to Cork, Galway and Belfast and stop building up our cities. Whereas in the past, it could take four or five hours to travel from one of our airports to one's destination, we now have good road links from our airports. We must ensure some areas are not left isolated and stop driving investment to the east coast. With the island at peace, we must also develop greater links with the North and become more competitive.

I am the Fine Gael Party spokesperson on road safety. My county has experienced several serious accidents involving buses in recent years. In terms of introducing Bills, we have missed golden opportunities, particularly in regard to drink driving, to have safer roads. Some three or four years ago we had the second or third worst road safety record in Europe. It is an area in which I am lucky to be involved.

One can play politics with this area or with peoples' lives. Noel Brett and Gay Byrne were appointed four or five years ago to do something about the carnage which was taking place on our roads. A lot has happened and we have jumped from being second or third worst in Europe in terms of road fatalities to sixth worst. I have no doubt, if everything goes according to plan, that we will be near the top when new figures come out. However, many lives are still being lost on our roads and the introduction of the new drink driving measures, which is causing controversy in every party and which has resulted in lobbying from various groups, is worth it if one life is saved. We need to address some of the issues rural Deputies have referred to regarding transport.

On road safety, whereas we have risen to the top in regard to the number of deaths per head of population, we have slipped down to second worst in terms of road deaths suffered by those walking on our roads. Some 71% of all road deaths take place in rural Ireland, whereby many people walking on our roads have died because there are no facilities in place to transport people home safely at night. The taxi system in rural Ireland has broken down. One can only get a taxi from Saturday night until 6 p.m. on Sunday. There is little or no service outside those times.

The Minister, Deputy Dempsey, had a golden opportunity to address all the issues regarding road safety in his new Bill. In referring to it I am not going off the mark. Speed is a massive issue and some 40% of road deaths are due to speed. Some 30% of people are killed as a result of road conditions and 24% are killed due to drink and drug driving. If the new laws are introduced and gardaí receive new equipment that figure will probably rise to 26%.

Speed cameras were supposed to be introduced. I do not now what is the current position but, looking at what has happened in England and other countries, they will be outdated when they are introduced. The introduction of fixed speed cameras is not working in other countries. As road safety spokesperson I intend to examine that issue in my own county, which is no worse than anywhere else. All the fixed speed cameras in place in my county are burned out as a result of people dropping fire-bombs into them. This situation will continue because one cannot continue to police them.

Mobile speed units, the location of which people are unsure, are becoming more effective. The Minister is dallying in terms of addressing the speed camera issue. There is a problem between the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern, but more people will die on our roads because of a lack of prevention in consequence of gardaí not being given speed cameras or whatever. On the argument between the different parties in the Dáil over the last weeks and the lobbying which is taking place regarding the drink driving laws, there should be a full and open debate on what is happening in Ireland in regard to drink driving and whether the proposed law on reducing the limit from 80 mg to 50 mg will isolate people.

Those arguments are nonsense. Problems in rural Ireland in terms of pubs, shops and everything else are a result of prices and people not having money. A transport system in a parish or an area is the way forward. One hears people saying that a special VRT rate for a publican is a good idea but it is not. One cannot have a man standing behind a bar and then driving a bus home. One could examine the idea of having a carrier within each parish which could provide services throughout the day. Deputies Bannon and Dooley referred to the fact that people want to go to the post office, shop or pub. The same situation pertains in towns. One can now only get taxis at certain times of the day because taxi drivers cannot earn a living when they are all in the one place at the one time and there is no movement.

We have covered good ground and a lot of money was spent on our roads during the boom years. The different bus operators have tried new routes and are now beginning to realise money is not coming in and they have to stop the services. As Deputy Dooley correctly said, Bus Éireann has recognised routes which have been in place for years but there may only be two or three people on buses. One cannot continue to pump money into and protect such an industry. One cannot run a bus from Carrickmacross to Kingscourt, Nobber, Navan and Dublin with three or four people on it. It does not make sense, even though it might look good and one can say the service is there. We all know cuts are necessary and we cannot continue to put money into such a system. There is nothing wrong with the Fine Gael idea that there should be competition. We have to look at the possibility of opening up the industry and see what happens over time.

I come from a small village in Nobber and some 35 years ago two thirds of our football team came to Dublin. If we depended on a single Bus Éireann bus such people would never get to training or matches. One had different buses which ran at different times, a system which worked quite well. With costs such as insurance it is difficult to run any business, but one cannot have an industry where one half is supported while the other is not because the result will be similar to what happened to supermarkets, many of which have closed down. That is something for which the Government is responsible. We have ended up with a system where all the small shops, post offices and Garda stations in rural Ireland are closing down.

Many thousands of jobs can be created in the transport system, but only if a Minister does not give an answer when a question is asked regarding the NRA, CIE or Iarnród Éireann which states, "It is not my business". That day is gone. It is his business because when a new link is opened in Dunboyne or a new part of the M3 is opened the Minister is there to open it. One must have a Minister who takes responsibility for all the different avenues of transport. He has to take full responsibility for the moneys which go into it.

Every Deputy in this House gets the same representations. This country is at a complete standstill in regard to cash flow and not a cent is being given to any small business. We discuss child benefit, which is a lifeline to families. One cannot continue to tax people. In this context, 99% of the children's allowance will be spent.

We need responsibility rather than more tax cuts. We need Ministers to stand up and be responsible for their Departments. I did not like the meeting I had with Aer Lingus pilots today and we must make a stand on the issue. The State owns 25% of Aer Lingus and the workers have put €40,000 and €50,000 of their own money into it. Now we have brought in a few people who feel it is okay to form another company in England and put out to contract Irish people's jobs to those from abroad. That comes under the remit of the Department of Transport.

Every job involved with transport or even the building of our roads and railroads is one of the greatest possible investments for this country, along with education. The Government should no longer pump money into a black hole and should instead open the process. If the Government wants to borrow billions of euro to keep the banks running — I know we need them but they are getting too much — it should borrow an extra couple of billion to continue building roads and railways. In that way we will keep people employed and safe on our roads.

The next speaker is Deputy Michael Kitt, who has 20 minutes. I understand he wishes to share time.

With the permission of the House I would like to share with Deputy Nolan. I welcome the Minister's speech and in response to Deputy McEntee, I look forward to meeting the Aer Lingus pilots tomorrow. I have the same concerns as the Deputy about Aer Lingus staff in Shannon, as the proportion of proposed cuts to be imposed there is too high.

I am happy with this Bill, which deals with the licensing of the commercial public bus transport service. That is very important at a time when we see many people in this business who are unlicensed, and where there are insufficient penalties or deterrents for people going into it and putting legitimate operators out of business. I welcome the Minister's actions, particularly in section 10 of the Bill.

I was concerned when the Minister spoke of bringing in arrangements which already apply in the greater Dublin area, as it was the be all and end all and the answer to our problems. That is not the case and Dublin Bus has not always been a great example of the way we should be going. There is a need for a great shake-up in Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann, to which I will refer later.

The point made about introducing contracts for non-commercial services is very important. I come from a county with an excellent service if a person lives in Galway city or along the main routes, with buses on the hour and half-hour. There is great competition between the private operators and Bus Éireann. However, there is an area in north-east Galway where buses, especially those from Bus Éireann, operated in the past but that service is no longer available. That is a great pity and I would like those services to be replaced by a proper service. We now have services to Dublin Airport as well, which are very welcome.

I appeal to all the people in the bus transport business, be they Bus Éireann or private operators, to try always to be on time. There are complaints about buses not meeting their timetables, which leads to people not getting to the airport on time or missing hospital or business appointments. There is an obligation on a company when it gets a licence to apply all the conditions of that licence.

The primary purpose of the Bill is to replace the Road Transport Act 1932, which I welcome. The objectives of the legislation are to promote regulated competition in the provision of licensed public bus passenger services on a national basis in the public interest. We want this to be cost-efficient and functioning well because it is essential to a modern society. Other Deputies have referred to the question of competition, which is very important because we are investing much money under Transport 21. We must ensure that there is competition and that there is a level playing field. I would like to see that being stressed by the Minister and the Department.

We want a level playing field where both the private operators and Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann operate under the same rules. This has been sought for a long time by people who provide transport. The question of equity of access to the transport market was a commitment under the agreed programme for Government. I should also mention that under this programme there was a reference to the rural transport scheme, and I am glad it was included. It is now available in every county in Ireland, and I would like to see this very good service developed.

Some people have spoken about the use of rural transport as a means to visit public houses. There was an effort by the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív, to link that service to public houses and it was the subject of much ridicule. They were called "booze cruises" or some other derogatory term. There is probably another way of dealing with the issue and there may be a role for the people who own or run public houses. It is good to see that rural transport is in the programme and all credit is due to the two parties in Government for putting that together.

The bus is very important in rural Ireland. As I come from a rural area I know that we cannot speak about rail services in these areas. I was pleased to note that the agreed programme for Government included a reference to the way bus licences are given out and that we want a transparent, faster and more integrated system for granting them. The programme also seeks efficient and effective utilisation of the existing fleet. There has been some duplication of services and I would like to see some of this eliminated. I have already mentioned bus departures and the reliability of services, which are very important.

The Minister has shown his commitment to the question of the railways and we are very glad to see the western rail corridor extend from Limerick to Ennis. It will go to Athenry before the end of this year. I hope the Minister will be in Athenry in the next few weeks or before the end of the year to launch the next phase of the corridor officially. The service going from Athenry to Galway and Limerick will be particularly welcome, and the next phase will bring the service to Tuam, Mayo and the north west.

I have followed this commitment for over 30 years as I worked with Fr. McGrail and people like him on the western inter-county rail committee. I am glad that the Minister has shown his commitment in this regard. I also mention a former Minister, the late Séamus Brennan, who was so supportive in getting the rail corridor progressed along the western seaboard.

The Bill establishes a very clear structure and it will be the basis of applications for bus route licences. Section 10 is at the heart of this process and will help to give genuine people a licence to operate. It will also introduce realistic penalties for those who do not have a proper licence or are operating without one. This is a welcome and overdue provision. It is essential to ensure that participants in the market are protected from illegal operators who, in the past, took advantage of the lack of sufficient penalties to gain market advantage and put other operators out of business. Now that there will be increased financial penalties and clear powers for revoking licences when people do not meet the conditions under which licences are granted, we will be able to offer more protection to service providers and the public. If a service provider fails to continue to meet the basic requirements of the road transport operators licence, which sets the standards for access to the profession, his or her route licence under this legislation will be automatically revoked.

The Bill has been drafted to give the renamed National Transport Authority the maximum latitude in relation to bus licensing, through the making of guidelines. The section headings are indicative of the Bill's deliberately non-prescriptive nature, in the sense that their purpose is to establish a legislative framework against which applications will be considered. The bus licensing guidelines under section 23 will be pivotal in setting out the criteria the authority proposes to apply to the consideration of applications for the granting of licences. The guidelines may refer to matters relating to applications for the granting, renewal, transfer or amendment of licences, including the time taken by the authority to reach a decision on these matters. In light of the importance and impact of the guidelines, the authority will be required to consult the Minister for Transport and the Competition Authority and to publish a draft of its proposals before it finalises the guidelines.

I welcome these provisions because they will open the market for future public obligation services and facilitate contracts that will ensure the continuation of the provision of existing transport services to the travelling public. I hope this Bill, which I strongly support, is enacted speedily with the co-operation of the Members of this House.

It is timely that this legislation has been introduced after 77 years to bring greater clarity and fairness to the bus route licensing system. Deputies on all sides of the House will welcome the fact that we are bringing the public bus licensing regime up to date. Serious criticisms of the system that has been in place up to now have been made by the operators of private bus routes, in particular. I hope the Bill before the House, which will facilitate the much needed reform of the licensing system by establishing a National Transport Authority, will have a speedy passage through the Oireachtas.

I would like to comment on the history of transport in Ireland. It has been very difficult to put an integrated ticketing system in place in Dublin. I hope that the National Transport Authority will work far more quickly than some of its predecessors.

More thought has to be put into the use of our public transport fleet. Hundreds of school buses lie idle for the main part of the day. Many of the school bus operators that are contracted to Bus Éireann to provide school bus services are able to use a little imagination to organise two or three school runs each morning and evening. I do not understand why CIE, which has millions of euro tied up in its school bus fleet, cannot make better use of that fleet, particularly in rural areas where communities are crying out for a public transport system. It is not right that public buses wait in farmers' yards throughout the day before they are used again to collect school children in the evening. It would be welcome if the new National Transport Authority were to focus a little of its attention on seeing how better use can be made of our substantial investment in school buses.

Ireland was a different country when the Road Transport Act 1932 was originally drawn up. At that time, one could not travel from Sligo, Galway, Cork, Shannon or Waterford to Dublin other than by car or by rail. Nowadays, there are daily flights from such centres of population to Dublin. I commend the Government and its predecessors on the welcome investment of billions of euro in our road infrastructure, which has led to significant improvements in the country's road network. The public transport network has also improved, for example by means of the upgrading of buses to luxury coaches for the purpose of bringing people between our towns and cities. I hope the new National Transport Authority will examine the gap in the system that causes rural communities to feel left out of such investment. I encourage it to do so.

I listened to Opposition speakers talking about Aer Lingus. I agree that the Government will have to address a definite problem in that regard. As Aer Lingus is part-owned by the State, there is an onus on the Government to consider seriously the problems being encountered by our national airline. Although it has been privatised, we continue to have a serious responsibility to maintain our national flag carrier. We should be seen to be interested in ensuring that it continues to operate as such.

The Dublin Transport Authority Act 2008, which was passed by the Oireachtas last year, will be incorporated in the Bill before the House. Therefore, the new authority will be responsible for the regulation and control of all public passenger transport in the State.

We are aware that airline pilots assume significant responsibilities when they transport passengers across the skies. I may have missed a reference in this legislation to the similar responsibilities of bus drivers, who take charge of 45, 50 or 60 people on each bus. We are familiar with the health regulations that apply to pilots, who have to undergo stringent annual or biannual medical tests. The same criteria should apply to bus drivers, particularly in light of the questions that have been asked about the health and medical condition of bus drivers who have been involved in serious accidents. We have a responsibility to ensure that those who travel on coaches are in safe hands. I do not know much about the criteria that Iarnród Éireann applies to the medical examinations of train drivers, but I expect that they are serious.

The primary purpose of the Bill is to establish a system for the licensing of commercial public bus passenger services. We are familiar with the success of private bus operators. There has been a huge increase in the number of bus operators who are successfully serving the inter-city route between Waterford, Kilkenny, Carlow and Dublin. I know from my constituency that there is an hourly service from Carlow to Dublin and on to Dublin Airport. The Dublin Airport Authority has a lot to answer for because many people find it more cost-effective to travel to the airport by bus than to pay the exorbitant car parking prices charged by the authority.

We have to learn from the public transport experiences of other countries. I accept that population plays a large part in ensuring that certain routes need to be subvented. In Carlow town, we had a local service where a bus operator had a subvention for the provision of public transport in the town. Unfortunately it was not cost effective and even though the town council made a significant contribution towards its subvention, the use by the public was insufficient. This brings me back to the use of school transport.

I support the legislation. Given that we have infrastructure in place between rail, road and a fleet of buses in the ownership of the State, we should get better use of it. I hope the new authority will look seriously at getting better use for the resources we have put in place.

I am not opposed to the concept of having Údarás Náisiúnta Iompair. I do not agree with the concept or ideology behind much of what is contained in the Bill given that its intention is to allow for the privatisation of public transport networks and companies. Section 20(1) states:

Public bus passenger services being provided by Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus [which is the wrong title because the company's title is Bus Átha Cliath] on the day of the commencement of this section ... may continue to operate until such time, not being longer than 2 years after that day, as the Authority grants a licence.

Basically within two years all the services of Bus Éireann and Bus Átha Cliath will be open to competition and therefore open to privatisation. The concept of having a national transport authority is welcome given the way Ireland has grown and the need to have all the various public transport services integrated to ensure proper planning happens. We have heard from other Deputies about the failure of planning. We are still awaiting a proper public transport network to Navan. I heard Deputy McEntee speaking about County Meath. While much has been delivered, much has yet to be delivered and much is left to do to undo the drastic policies over the years of closing down many of the rural rail networks, for instance.

In this city we have only of late dealt with the closure of the Harcourt Street line with the opening of the quite successful Luas line, despite my objections to it being a private company. The success of Luas and also the success of the DART when it was introduced show that the public is willing to use an effective and efficient public transport network. While I was quite young at the time, I remember the naysayers when the DART was introduced and the arguments by many that it was a waste of public money because the public would not use the DART system. However, we are now discussing how to extend DART stations and the route itself to cater for the great desire by the public to use this public transport network.

The same can be said of the Luas. Again many people said it was an investment too far and that it would not be effective or able to deal with the road network. However, it has been quite successful and there is a demand that a Luas-type system be extended to many other areas in Dublin, including parts of my constituency. There is a proposal to extend it as far as Lucan. I have heard nobody object to the concept of extending it. There are only objections to its precise route. This proves the public is interested in public transport.

We have missed an opportunity in that we are now at a time when public resources are not as flúirseach as they were. Even in these stringent times investment needs to be put into public transport. I urge us to continue to look at the projects which were being discussed because they will cater in many cases for communities that cannot afford cars or the cost of car parking if they are travelling into and out of the city to work.

The other key requirement is that those services be integrated. The Luas, Arrow and bus services need to be integrated at the key crossing points. From discussions with representatives of Iarnród Éireann and the Luas, I know those plans were in place. However, that needs to be fast-tracked. That should be in line with what the junior partners in Government should be demanding. That public investment in laying the groundwork for the future should happen. However, one agency missing from the scope of the Bill, which would allow such development to happen in an integrated way because there would be a single authority, is the Railway Procurement Agency and the powers it has to confiscate or compulsorily purchase land depending on one's state of mind or whether one owns the house or not. That aspect should be transferred into this in order to give linked-in thinking. I will come back to the railway procurement plans at a later stage.

I have outlined some of my main concerns. While this would not be my area of expertise, as a Dubliner who has for many years depended on bus services, I have major concerns regarding the public service obligation that other public companies have. For instance An Post has a public service obligation to ensure that post is delivered to every house in the country. As far as I know there is no public service obligation — it would probably be unrealistic to demand it — that public transport be provided for every single house in the country. However, that needs to underpin anything we do on public transport. As much as possible an effective and efficient public transport network should be created which services as many communities as possible. I heard Deputy McEntee say that he and his party cannot justify one or two people on some of the rural bus services. One of the reasons only one or two people are on the buses is that for too many years the State has concentrated its investment on roads rather than on the public transport system. People have shied away from the buses because they cannot depend on them or they are not available at the key times when they are needed, which are at the various rush hours or at key points at the weekend.

By investing in public transport people will become dependent on it and rely on it if it is effective and efficient. It will move people away from the single occupancy car that drives up and down the country too regularly. It will help deal with one of the other aspects of which we are continually reminded, the carbon footprint. The more we invest in public transport and the more we encourage people to use public transport, the more likely we are to deliver on our commitments as a nation to reduce our carbon footprint.

I wish to return to the aspect of privatisation I mentioned earlier. This Bill is a remnant of the Progressive Democrats era, albeit that Fianna Fáil has embraced that party's policy of undermining the public sector and opting for privatisation wherever possible. The new bus licensing regulations contained in the Bill will have a serious impact on public transport services. Section 10 is entitled "General provisions for the consideration of applications for grant of licences". I commend the Oireachtas Library and research facility for producing the Bill digests which are informative and useful when Members do not have expertise in a certain field. While the explanatory memoranda can be quite technical, the digests provide a useful indication of the range of a Bill. However, the digest for this Bill indicates that the new regime of procurement of public transport services through contracts should eventually open the State bus companies up to competition. This should be set against the background of the continuing effects of the disastrous decision to privatise Aer Lingus which seems increasingly likely to become effectively a British company, with the greater number of its employees based in that country. Likewise, we continue to experience the consequences of the disastrous privatisation of Telecom Éireann, particularly in respect of broadband provision. Despite these warnings, it seems we are going down the same route in regard to bus services. I will not go back as far as Irish Ferries.

I am concerned that the Bill will lead to a situation where private operators will cherry pick profitable routes. It is imperative that there be substantial investment in public transport in order to ensure there are services for all communities. I spoke in recent months to trade union representatives at Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann who explained to me the dangers of the licensing regime as it currently exists, whereby Dublin Bus has been prevented from developing certain routes because the relevant licences have already issued to private operators who have failed to put the services in place on those routes. The Minister might give some consideration to their proposal for a use it or lose it clause whereby a licence will revert to the authority if the operator who was not granted that licence does not put the relevant service in place within a specified timeframe. That is something we can discuss on Committee Stage.

Public services belong to the people and the notion that they should be run on the basis of profit alone is a dangerous one which will leave individuals and communities isolated. Experience shows us that once public transport is privatised, the logic of profit overrides all other considerations. One need only look to the farcical rail services in operation in Britain since privatisation for proof of this. The ideology behind the Bill will lead to a reduction in services in those areas which cannot offer a frequency of usage acceptable to the profit-making needs of private operators. In practical terms, people will be left stranded at bus stops unless the operator is confident it can fill every bus. The danger is that it will be considered insufficient to run a service at anything less than full capacity. My party and I have always been opposed to the privatisation of our public transport system. There is no reason that an efficient and cost effective transport system cannot be provided by the public sector for the maximum benefit of communities and with the primary function of serving people rather than profit. This has been proven in cities such as Stockholm and Brussels where the excellent public transport systems put our own to shame.

The Bill also seeks to subsume the Commission for Taxi Regulation into the proposed national transport authority. However, the only significant change I can identify is an increase in the sanctions for unlicensed taxi operation. Much more is required in this section to tackle the debacle that is the taxi industry. The tenfold increase in the number of licences since deregulation in 2000 has led to a substantial deterioration in work standards and service standards for the public and a substantial reduction in driver earnings. We have an opportunity in the Bill, in dealing with the taxi regulator, to undo the damage that has been done in recent years. For example, the legislation should include proposals for a temporary moratorium on the issuing of licences, a provision whereby the commission be empowered to buy back licences and the introduction of a new regime where licences may only be issued in accordance with public demand. Measures must also be taken to end such abuses as the duplication of taxi plates, for example, where more than one person is driving the same car with a similar plate, thus undermining those who are genuinely seeking work as taxi drivers.

The millions of euro in licence fees collected by the commission must be invested rather than merely left sitting in the bank. The Minister referred to a figure of some €21 million earlier in the year. That money must be reinvested in order to help those drivers who are struggling. Nobody is proposing that we return to the ridiculous situation that pertained prior to 2000. However, there must be a degree of regulation of the industry such that there are sufficient taxis to serve the public's needs rather than allowing a flooded market. The latter obliges people to work 80 or 90 hours a week to earn a living. Many have no alternative employment and, being self-employed, would not be entitled to the jobseeker's allowance should they choose to give up their plate. That is the dilemma for many drivers.

I intend to introduce amendments on Committee Stage to give effect to the changes that are required in regard to public transport provision. Our transport system has taken hit after hit, with funding slashed in various areas and the abolition of the night-time rural transport service. Investment is essential even given our difficulties in terms of public finances. Years of underinvestment have left the service in its current state. Reckless decisions have been made regarding public transport without even a cursory consideration of how they will affect vulnerable people in rural communities. Given that the recession is likely to see increasing numbers becoming dependent on public transport, the Government and the transport companies must be careful in their proposals to cut back on routes and frequency of service. The McCarthy report recommends the selling off of the Bus Éireann expressway service as well as the complete abolition of the rural transport programme. Mr. McCarthy and his team clearly do not depend on public transport. Their recommendations show scant regard for the need for quality transport services now and for the future. The loss of rural services will have a severe effect on communities, where they are vital in allowing people to access employment and in ensuring that those most at risk of social exclusion have access to essential services. Years of investment in roads encouraged people to depend on cars rather than on public services. The benefits arising from better public transport provision in rural areas include reduced greenhouse gases, social inclusion and rural development opportunities.

The mayoral role needs to be fleshed out on Committee Stage. The Railway Procurement Agency is immersed in a debacle where it is foisting a portal on the community beside the CIE works in Inchicore rather than siting it in the CIE works proper where it would not impact on the community. We need to be careful that the RPA, which should come under the remit of the legislation, does not continue to have the carte blanche powers it currently has.

I will discuss a number of these proposals on Committee Stage and, hopefully, when it is passed, the Bill will not encourage the privatisation of our public transport system and will enhance investment and public involvement in it.

I am glad the Minister is present for my contribution and I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the debate.

The purpose of the Bill is to establish a modern system for the licensing of commercial public bus passenger services with the objective of promoting regulated competition in the provision of licensed public bus passenger services on a national basis and, more important, in the public interest. The Bill also promotes integrated, well functioning and cost efficient public passenger transport services and provides for the introduction of new contractual arrangements for the procurement of public land transport services on a national basis, which is modelled on the approach established in the Dublin Transport Authority Act 2008 in respect of the greater Dublin area. This legislation is critical and long overdue and I congratulate the Minister on taking a lead in this area. As he highlighted in introducing the Bill, it is 77 years since the Road Transport Act was implemented but there is no comparison between the transport network of 70 years ago and that of today. My grandfather closed most of the railway lines but there have been many changes since then. They say the sins of the father are visited on the son but that is not quite the case here.

A well functioning bus service is the backbone of any urban area. Unlike in the United States, where taking the bus is seen as something that should be avoided, people of all ages take the bus in Ireland. One can take it at any time of the day and one will see students, older people who may no longer wish to drive, parents with their schoolchildren and professionals as they make their way to work every day. The quality bus corridor that runs through Stillorgan has been hugely successful. Despite people at the time in RTE saying it would be an obstacle to commuters, it has been extremely successful. My colleague, Deputy Mansergh, referred to the free transport scheme introduced by Fianna Fáil, which was, and is, of huge benefit to older people. When people reach the age they are entitled to a free travel pass, they take it with great celebration and it reduces the sense of isolation they may feel. In some cases they travel for the first time in decades and the extension of the scheme to Northern Ireland is welcome.

A number of Members referred to the bus gate at College Green in Dublin. While in theory the bus gate is a good idea, the timing of its introduction was not correct. Retailers in the city centre are struggling with high rents and falling revenue and, while this is not all due to the bus gate, I favour suspending the scheme until the new bridges are in place next year. There has to be a compromise on this matter that will benefit transport users and that will ensure Dublin centre does not become a retail graveyard.

Public consultations were held earlier this year with older people around the country, who pointed out that access to mobility was critical to remaining connected with society. The same is true in Dublin and the Luas is a transport success story. One line runs right through Dublin South-East and it has made an impact on people living along the route. It is much preferable to use light rail rather than the car.

The Minister stated the objective of the legislation is the promotion of regulated competition on a national basis in the public interest, which is a critical issue. The needs of those who use public transport must be at the heart of our transport policy. As he said, commercial operators will always work to their own agenda, which is, unsurprisingly, to make a profit. While competition is healthy, commercial operators cannot be allowed to select and cherry pick the routes that are most profitable with no consideration of less profitable routes and the social consequences of such decisions.

The State has a responsibility to its citizens to provide a well functioning, cost effective and comprehensive transport system. The Minister has done a great deal of work to ensure this vision comes about and section 10 is critical in this regard. It sets out a range of matters in the application of bus licences and will ensure all applications must be considered in the context of potential demand for a proposed service having specific regard for the needs of customers. I alluded to private sector companies trying to protect their position but the State agencies also seek to protect their position in the market. While this reflects human nature, it is up to the State to regulate and that is why the Bill is important.

The formation of the new National Transport Authority is a also a sensible step. It makes sense to amalgamate agencies that deal with certain aspects of a particular system, in this case transport. I hope it will lead to greater efficiencies and a more joined up approach to our transport policy in the coming years. However there is no comparison between urban and rural transport systems and I warn against a one size fits all approach. The Minister is aware of this and the legislation ensures such an approach will not be adopted. I agree with the Minister that the Bill will bring greater clarity and fairness to the bus route licensing system and I welcome the fact that the needs of the people are at its core. Urban and rural transport are subject to different demands and, therefore, the criteria for licences will be different. I agree with Deputy Ó Snodaigh that the people want a good public transport system and the Bill will endeavour to provide that.

Debate adjourned.