That Dáil Éireann shall consider the Report of the Joint Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport entitled ‘Accessibility of Public Transport for People with Disabilities’, copies of which were laid before Dáil Éireann on 14th November, 2018.
I am delighted to introduce this debate on the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport report on the Accessibility of Public Transport for People with Disabilities. I thank the Acting Chairman and the Business Committee for selecting this very important policy report for debate.
The joint committee was delighted to launch this report coming as it did after a significant period of consultation where we listened to witnesses from disability groups and transport groups. More than 20 witnesses attended the committee's hearings last year, many of whom are in the Public Gallery this evening and we welcome them.
The joint committee heard some deeply moving evidence from many of those witnesses of their experiences around the inaccessibility of public transport and the challenges facing them, often on a daily basis, when trying successfully to complete bus, train and Luas journeys. These are journeys that most of us take for granted. I also thank the Minister, Deputy Ross, who appeared as a witness at our hearings, for accepting our committee’s report, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s remarks.
This policy report, which formed a major part of the committee’s work programme for 2018, sets out 16 key recommendations to pave the way towards equal access to public transport services for people with disabilities. An accessible public transport system is vital to ensure that people with disabilities have full access to all spheres of Irish society: economic, educational, civic, social and leisure.
In order to develop these recommendations the committee met with a broad range of stakeholders to identify potential policy solutions to improve access to public transport services for people with disabilities. These included disability activists and representatives including the Disability Federation of Ireland, the Irish Deaf Society, the Irish Wheelchair Association, the National Council for the Blind Ireland and Inclusion Ireland. Representatives from the various transport operators - Dublin Bus, Iarnród Éireann, Bus Éireann, Transdev Ireland and the Coach Tourism and Transport Council of Ireland — also appeared before the committee, as did the National Disability Authority, the National Transport Authority, and the Minister, Deputy Ross.
The committee very much appreciates the deeply personal and moving accounts shared by witnesses with disabilities of the difficulties they personally encounter in using public transport. Many of the witnesses described very concerning and completely unacceptable incidences of being stranded at a terminus at night, for example, with potentially no way of travelling home due to a lack of accessible buses. They also described occasions of being left stranded on a train service with no means to disembark. These stark experiences are evidence of the disadvantage, exclusion and unequal treatment that passengers with disabilities encounter while engaging with the public transport system.
The 16 recommendations contained in this report detail ways to increase the accessibility of Ireland’s transport services, the aim being to achieve equal access for all to this vital and necessary resource. First and foremost our committee calls on the Minister and the Government to fund adequately and to provide a clear policy plan to move towards full accessibility on all public transport. It is time for us, as a nation, to prioritise the transition to a fully accessible public transport system for all and to put in place the resources necessary to deliver this as soon as is practicably possible.
Accountability too needs to be embedded into the very core functioning of our public transport system to ensure, for example, that there is redress for passengers in the event of stranding or other instances of poor or inaccessible service.
Other key recommendations in the report include equal access. The committee calls on the Government to fund adequately and provide a clear policy plan to move towards full accessibility on all public transport, including details of funding breakdowns and project timelines.
Ultimately, a measure of achieving the policy ideal of equal access to public transport for all is the extent to which passengers with disabilities can undertake unplanned travel. We must remove barriers to spontaneous travel for people with disabilities, such as requiring passengers to give advance notice of travel, by ensuring that the necessary accessibility infrastructure and assistance is available without pre-booking.
Accessibility requirements of people with disabilities must be a core consideration in the decision-making process for all public transport planning, funding and development. Mobility for people with disabilities must be looked at on a whole of journey basis, meaning that the focus needs to be on ensuring accessibility from door to door rather than bus stop to bus stop.
To accomplish this, accessibility information on route linkages between public transport locations must be provided to passengers. Providing details of step-free routes on journey planners will enable wheelchair users and passengers with mobility impairments to plan their journeys in advance.
Our committee recommends the establishment of a single point of access hub to provide travel information and journey planning across transport modalities. Vital to this is a dedicated customer service contact point using phone, text messaging, email and live chat to address specific queries in relation to accessibility for passengers with disabilities. This information should be provided across a range of formats, including mobile apps, accessible leaflets, subtitled audiovisual content and Irish Sign Language videos. As part of this centralised hub, the committee recommends the establishment of a clear customer feedback pathway on barriers to accessing public transport across all modes. This contact hub should be responsive to passengers, with clear and transparent protocols for addressing the feedback or complaints received. In the interest of monitoring performance, our committee also recommends that data should be collected to track both the types of complaints received from passengers and the nature of the responses to these complaints, in particular in relation to any actions undertaken to address them.
A key concern for the committee is to ensure that accessible provision is in place in the event of service disruption, curtailment or cancellation. That means where a train or bus service is cancelled, any replacement service should be accessible. In the event that there are changes to the accessibility status of services, for example if an accessible bus service is replaced by an inaccessible service, these changes should be clearly communicated to all passengers. Moreover, if it is not possible for operational reasons to source an accessible replacement option in the event of disrupted train or bus journeys, wheelchair accessible taxis should be provided by the relevant operator to facilitate passengers to complete their journeys.
An important part of the process of achieving a fully accessible public transport system rests on developing performance measures to assess accessibility standards across transport modes, operators, infrastructure and facilities. By monitoring these performance metrics against a baseline audit of public transport accessibility, we will be able to track the extent to which accessible public transport is being delivered across transport modes, operators and locations. Ultimately, accountability must be embedded into the heart of public transport delivery. Transport operators must have a formal obligation to deliver an accessible service, with sanctions applicable if they fail to deliver an adequate service. For example, if an operator fails to provide an accessible service where a passenger has pre-booked a journey or if an operator fails to provide an adequate service thereby stranding passengers on trains with no means to embark, that operator must provide redress.
The committee takes this body of work and important policy report very seriously. I assure the House that the committee will not countenance the report gathering dust on a shelf, in particular within the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. Following the commitment he gave to us, we expect the Minister to come before the committee every six months to brief members in detail on the implementation measures initiated by his Department and other relevant Departments in respect of each of the committee's recommendations. Periodic review of the progress of the Department in implementing these measures will ensure that transparency and accountability are embedded at the heart of our transport policy. The Minister can expect an invitation from the committee to appear before us for the first update. We look forward enormously to that first progress report.
Before I conclude, I pay tribute to Senator Dolan on behalf of the joint committee for his input into this report. Senator Dolan, who is with us in the Chamber this evening, is a tireless advocate for the rights of people with disabilities in Ireland and when he raised this issue with the joint committee just over a year ago, we had no hesitation whatsoever in agreeing it was one the committee must prioritise.