Accessibility of Public Transport for People with Disabilities: Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport

I remind members and witnesses to turn off their mobile phones.

I welcome the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, and his officials, Ms Eilis O'Connor and Mr. Dermot Murphy.

By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to that effect, where possible. They should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

In November 2018, the Minister launched a key report, Accessibility of Public Transport for People with Disabilities. The committee and its Chairman invested a large amount of work into producing the report. Hearings were held with a broad range of stakeholders, including representatives from several disability organisations, disability advocates, the National Disability Authority, various transport operators, the National Transport Authority and the Minister.

In its report, the joint committee made 16 key policy recommendations and requested the Minister update the committee as to the implementation status of each of these recommendations within six months and every six months thereafter. Today, we look forward to hearing from the Minister in the first update on progress made by his Department toward the full implementation of those recommendations.

I invite the Minister to make his opening statement.

I thank the committee for the invitation to report on the implementation of the committee’s recommendations in its report, Accessibility of Public Transport for People with Disabilities. It is important to me that this report, informed in particular by the experiences shared by those with lived experience of disability, is not left to gather dust. The spotlight given to, along with the momentum created by, the committee’s hearings and launch of the report in November last to address the gaps that continue to exist in public transport for people with disabilities must not be lost but rather built on.

Funding is being provided by the National Transport Authority for the development by the National Council for the Blind Ireland, NCBI, of a national transport training centre which will provide training and familiarisation across all public transport modes. This will be a state-of-the-art indoor accessible transport training centre which will empower people with access needs when preparing for and during their journey using public transport. The NCBI developed the proposals for the construction of this centre, which will be the world’s largest and most extensive training centre, supporting not only individual and group training opportunities but additionally supporting user and design testing, increasing public awareness and informing standardisation and consistency in public transport accessibility.

The primary goal of the training centre is to provide short-term comprehensive instruction designed to teach people with disabilities how to travel safely and independently using public transportation. Full-size replicas of bus, train and tram vehicles will be used to familiarise users with how to safely and confidently use these modes every day. Examples of road junction crossings and on-street pedestrian facilities will also be available.

Training will also extend to transport agency staff and other key stakeholders. The NCBI expects to be in a position to announce the location of this exciting new training facility by the end of July. It is expected that the development work on the centre will be completed during next year.

The report’s recommendations cover a wide range of measures aimed at improving access to public transport by people with disabilities. There are many actors in the public transport sector who have a role to play in delivering on that. I want to ensure that this first six-month update to the committee covers not just those recommendations that come within my remit as Minister with responsibility for policy and overall funding for public transport, but also those for which the public transport companies under the aegis of my Department have the lead role in addressing. Accordingly, my Department received updates from the National Transport Authority, NTA, Bus Éireann, Dublin Bus, Irish Rail and Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, on their consideration of the recommendations appropriate to them and the steps being taken to address them.

Of the 16 main recommendations in the report, 13 in whole or in part come within the remit of my Department, the NTA or the transport operators or both. Work is under way on these recommendations, including new infrastructure which is being built to accessibility standards as part of the normal design. This includes key major public transport projects under the national development plan, NDP. For example, the specification being developed for the new DART fleet under the NDP will include accessibility requirements as a key element. The intention is that the tender scoring will award higher scores to carriage providers which provide the best platform interface solution. There is increased funding for the retrofit programme to address infrastructural legacy issues with a trebling of funding to 2021.

In rural and regional areas, the NTA aims to deliver 20 new wheelchair lift-accessible bus stops this year. The NTA is introducing new floor coaches on regional commuter routes which will facilitate access on to these services without pre-booking. Over 900 grant applications have been received in the first five months of 2019 under the grant scheme to increase the number of wheelchair-accessible vehicles in the taxi fleet. Over 90% of those applications have received provisional grant offers from the NTA. The NTA is developing a centralised customer contact centre, which will address issues covered by recommendations Nos. 4 and 7 of the committee’s report. The NTA has set up a working group to plan for the implementation of the JAM, just-a-minute, card scheme. The NTA will be publishing draft proposals for public consultation in respect of the accessibility requirements for licensed bus and coach services in the third quarter of this year.

My role relates to policy and overall funding for public transport. The committee in recommendations Nos. 1 and 2 of its report calls on the Government to adequately fund and provide a clear policy plan to move towards full accessibility on all public transport, as well as ensuring the requirements of people with disabilities are a core feature of all public transport planning, funding and development. I will set out the policy framework in place for accessible public transport and the funding underpinning that policy.

The Government ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD, in March of last year. It includes social and economic rights in areas such as education, healthcare, employment and transport. States which ratify the convention commit themselves to delivering civil and political rights to people with disabilities, as well as to the progressive realisation of social and economic rights, including in the area of transport. This is the approach adopted in Ireland on public transport. Sitting beneath the UNCRPD is a range of whole-of-Government national strategies and programmes to advance the implementation of the convention’s provisions. From a public transport accessibility perspective, the two key strategies are the National Disability Inclusion Strategy 2017-2021 and the Comprehensive Employment Strategy for People with Disabilities 2015-2024.

The national disability inclusion strategy sets the overall framework for the equal participation of people with disabilities in society. It is, therefore, the primary instrument to achieve the progressive realisation of the aims of the UNCRPD. The strategy contains six actions aimed at improving access to public transport for people with disabilities. It is a living document and the process to begin a mid-term review of it will be the primary focus of the strategy’s steering group meeting tomorrow. My colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for disability issues, Deputy Finian McGrath, who chairs the steering group, has rightly said it is vitally important that the review examines how the strategy aligns with the articles of the UNCRPD. My Department will be actively engaging with the mid-term review process.

The comprehensive employment strategy sets out a ten-year approach to ensuring people with disabilities, who are able to and want to work, are supported and enabled to do so. The strategy covers a range of employment drivers, including transport. The current action plan under the strategy contains 13 public transport specific actions, implementation for which the NTA has the lead role. A new action plan to cover the period 2019 to 2021 is currently being finalised by the comprehensive employment strategy implementation group, of which my Department is a member. It is due for publication by the Department of Justice and Equality shortly. The new action plan will again provide for a significant number of public transport actions.

The Department’s high-level policy goal for accessible public transport is embodied in the concept of transport access for all. This policy is based on the provisions of the UNCRPD, the Disability Act 2005 and the national strategies to which I have referred.

Transport access for all is the title of the Department's sectoral plan under the Disability Act and is premised on the principle of universal access to public transport, which does not distinguish between people with disabilities and other passengers. It promotes the concept of mainstreaming and states that accessibility must be an integral part of all policymaking and transport planning. It also promotes the provision of transport services in order that wherever possible, the needs of people with disabilities are met within mainstream services and facilities. This cascading policy framework provides the basis on which we move towards full accessibility on all public transport as soon as practicably possible.

Implementation of actions emanating from this policy framework is monitored by my Department’s accessibility consultative committee, which meets quarterly. Updates on the actions are published on my Department’s website.

In line with the commitment in A Programme for a Partnership Government to a review of public transport policy, I will be announcing shortly the commencement of a public consultation process as part of the review. The purpose of the public consultation will be to give stakeholders the opportunity to feed into the Department’s policy review in order that all contributions are fully considered in shaping the development of a public transport policy statement. I urge the committee and all those who have an interest in how our public transport is delivered to make submissions when the public consultation opens.

In light of today’s discussion, I would especially like to hear from those in the disability community on policy around accessible public transport and what they see as the priorities to improve public transport accessibility for people with disabilities, as well as any international best practice examples which could be applied in an Irish context.

Investment in public transport will be accelerated under the NDP to support the development of an integrated, accessible and sustainable national public transport system. Up to €8.6 billion of capital investment has been committed up to 2027 for key public transport projects. Several new major public transport programmes are planned under the NDP, including BusConnects for cities, MetroLink, priority elements of the DART expansion programme and sustainable transport projects including cycling and walking.

In line with recommendations in the committee’s report, as with all new and recently developed public transport projects, these programmes will be fully accessible as part of the normal design. However, the progressive realisation of the rights of people with disabilities under the UNCRPD requires us to continue to address our legacy public transport infrastructure. There are real challenges to doing this. The committee’s report acknowledges that achieving a fully accessible public transport system will require resources, including time and monetary investment. It was in recognition of the need for an increase in funding to address legacy infrastructure that I sought and secured a trebling of the funding provided for the accessibility retrofit programme as part of the four-year capital envelope for public transport announced in budget 2018. Almost €28 million is being made available, through the NTA, for accessibility upgrades for existing older infrastructure in the four-year period to 2021.

Funding under the programme in 2019 is €7 million, up from €4 million last year, and this level of investment will be maintained in 2020. There will be an increase to almost €10 million in 2021. There will also be a continued investment programme under the national development plan, NDP, to fund retrofitting of older existing public transport facilities to enhance accessibility.

While funding is central to providing accessible public transport infrastructure, to achieve full accessibility on all public transport requires a whole of journey approach and the active engagement of all the key stakeholders. The committee recognises the importance of the whole of journey approach in its report and makes recommendations on same. It involves not only the physical infrastructure but also measures such as ticketing and information systems, travel assistance schemes, disability awareness training for staff, and contact and complaints handling systems.

Crucially, it requires the early and ongoing involvement of people with lived experience of disabilities and their representative organisations in the planning and design of public transport infrastructure and services. In my role as Minister, I decided that no public transport company in my Department would in future function without a minimum of one board member with personal knowledge and experience of the needs and difficulties of people with disabilities using public transport. As members are aware, I have appointed such directors to the boards of CIÉ, Bus Éireann, Irish Rail, Dublin Bus and the National Transport Authority, NTA. These new directors can play and are playing a vital role in assisting the public transport companies to make practical and informed decisions on how best to make their infrastructure and services more accessible for people with disabilities.

The individual transport operators, both public and private, the NTA and local authorities, given their respective roles and responsibilities, must each play their part in delivering an accessible public transport system. This requires co-ordination and a joined-up approach. The NTA, with its functional responsibility for promoting the development of an integrated, accessible public transport network, has a key role to play.

A critical development in this regard is the new position of transport accessibility manager in the NTA. This will be a key position as the various public transport projects under the NDP are rolled out to ensure that accessibility is built into all new services and facilities from the design stage. The role and responsibilities of the post include establishing a formal engagement process with key disability representative organisations to ensure that the needs of those with a disability are considered in all major improvement plans, co-ordinating the accessibility programmes of transport operators, reviewing and auditing accessibility plans of transport operators, advising on the development of transport operator training programmes, and co-ordinating the access officers across all public transport operators. I am pleased to be able to announce that this is not just an aspiration and that the successful applicant for the position of transport accessibility manager took up duty in the NTA on Monday of this week.

I have sought to take actions that will have a meaningful effect on the lives of people with disabilities, including increasing funding for accessibility programmes, giving a voice at the highest level of decision-making to those with lived experience of disability, and ensuring that my Department has an active accessibility consultative committee to ensure that accessibility actions are monitored and advanced. There are some positive things happening, but I am fully aware that much more still needs to be done and always will. My Department will be working closely with the NTA’s newly appointed transport accessibility manager to progress the accessibility agenda, including the recommendations of the committee’s report. I look forward to reporting to the committee at future six monthly updates on further developments on its report.

It is when we see the fruits of this work on the ground that we will see that progress has been made. I have one major question for the Minister before I open it to the floor. Given the past week and a half we have had when the Cabinet met on climate action, climate change and the fast-tracking of public transport, can this programme be incorporated into those plans to keep pace with the demands for accessibility in public transport? Will the Department still have the money to play its part in ensuring people with disabilities have proper access to and use of public transport?

I have no reason to believe that any of the programmes, aspirations or actions I have outlined today will be in any way delayed and I have had no indications from anywhere else that they will be delayed either. They are too important to be delayed. Much of it is not to do with money but with changing public attitudes and other matters which are not necessarily costly but are very important. There will not be any pressure to reduce the programme I have outlined just now to increase accessibility, and I would resist any such pressure.

When we were doing this report on accessibility to public transport for people with disabilities, it was an eye-opener for the members of the committee. I thank the stakeholders who engaged with the committee. The witnesses appeared before the committee and they clearly and starkly articulated their experiences with disadvantage, exclusion and unequal treatment. I have only noticed it myself in recent years, and it is a much different experience, but it is only when one has a young child with a pram on public transport that one realises how difficult it is for people with disabilities to access public transport. That is just an aside.

The Minister is asking people to make submissions for the public consultation which is open. I welcome the fact that the investment in public transport will be accelerated under the national development plan. I also welcome the fact that the Minister said that, in future, no public transport company in the Department will function without a minimum of one board member who has knowledge and experience of the needs of people with disabilities. I am delighted that the Minister has appointed such directors to the boards of CIÉ, Bus Éireann, Irish Rail, Dublin Bus and the NTA because these directors can play a vital role in how to best deal with accessibility to infrastructure for people with disabilities.

The Minister also said he is pleased to announce that the successful applicant for the position of transport accessibility manager took up duty in the NTA on Monday of this week. I would like to know exactly the nature of that role. What powers does that manager have? How will he or she make a difference?

I welcome the fact that in rural and regional areas the NTA aims to deliver 20 new wheelchair lift-accessible bus stops this years. Where will these bus stops be located?

The NTA is developing a centralised customer contact centre, which will address the issue covered by recommendations 4 to 7, inclusive, of the committee's report. What exactly will that centralised customer contact centre do? I understand it is from door to door but what powers will it have? What is the chain of command for dealing with these important issues?

I thank the Senator for his remarks. Without appearing to flatter him or any other members of the committee too much, the role played by the committee is very helpful in increasing public awareness and in making others, including me, accountable for what is happening. The members are responsible for the fact that there has been a giant step forward, not just in funding but in public awareness and in the need to disability-proof public transport decisions in all their aspects.

The Senator referred to the board members whom I appointed. That is proving to be successful. I see a greater awareness among the operating companies of all the difficulties people with disabilities have while travelling. It puts pressure on the board members themselves to ensure these steps are taken on every occasion. They are responding to it well and the actions we have seen show they are responding well to it.

On the transport accessibility manager, the newly appointed person started on Monday. That is a really important appointment. It is not just important for what he or she does but because it recognises the importance this issue is now taking in the firmament of transport and how everything will have to pass muster with the transport accessibility manager. I can outline a fair summary of what he or she can do. The role is to establish a formal engagement process with key disability representative groups, to ensure that the needs of those with a disability are considered in all of the major improvement plans proposed by the NTA, which is a pretty wide brief and to me, it means that the job is to disability-proof all major decisions and improvement plans, to develop an improvement plan for existing services in consultation with key disability representative groups and identify priorities within that plan, to assist in the development of the authority's accessibility capital programme and ensure that accessibility is to the forefront of all new transport infrastructure and to monitor the delivery of improvements in the accessibility of public transport services and infrastructure. It is also to act as an internal spokesman within the NTA for the customer who has a disability and to monitor progress on actions under the Department's sectoral plan entitled Transport Access for All, the comprehensive employment strategy and the national disability inclusion strategy, which I said in my opening speech were the key strategies. Moreover, progress on those actions and that of the Department must be reported on by the transport accessibility manager. In addition, the role is to co-ordinate the accessibility programmes that are under way by transport operators for improving accessibility to public transport and to review and audit accessibility plans of transport operators contracted by the authority. As a result, the manager will look after the interest of the authority and follow through on various accessibility issues that have been contracted by the NTA. The manager's role also is to assist in the development of the appropriate policy and strategy to improve the accessibility features provided by licensed public bus transport operators; to facilitate the early involvement of relevant stakeholders in the next-generation ticketing programme; to advise on the development of transport operator training programmes; to draft and update accessibility policies for public transport customers; to ensure that a high standard universal access training is provided to the authority's employees; to undertake research in the area of public transport accessibility, particularly in the tools that are being developed to improve accessibility; to co-ordinate the access officers across all public transport service operators and to establish a contact system and complaints handling system for users of public transport who have a disability. In other words, the new transport accessibility manager will have a role in relaying and receiving the complaints of all those who feel they have been badly treated or omitted, whose cases have not been heard or whose difficulties have not been acknowledged. The role also is to establish a contact complaints system; to ensure that the authority's Transport for Ireland website conforms with the official accessibility guidelines and that any official published information supplied by the authority is available in accessible formats; and finally, to promote the improvements in accessible services to customers and key stakeholders. Those are the kind of duties and responsibilities that have been spelled out to the transport accessibility manager but the appointment is more than that. It is also a great link and recognition of the importance of this issue to public transport. It should be acknowledged that the NTA has seriously bought in to the need for a position of this sort and for the need to progress it fast and accelerate it.

I have been asked about bus stops. I have got the details here but I am afraid that I do not know them off by heart. The NTA has set a target of 86 wheelchair-accessible bus stops in 43 towns, each with a population of over 5,000 with one stop in each direction. That is 50% of main towns with a wheelchair bus stop with one in each direction by the end of 2021. The NTA is liaising with a number of local authorities nationwide, including Sligo, Clare, Cork, Wexford, Cavan, Limerick, Offaly and Meath to develop designs and agree accessible bus stop locations and scope of works. Surveys and designs are being developed for wheelchair-accessible stops at Ballyshannon and Sligo bus stations, which will be of interest to members. There are some logistical issues that impact on the upgrading of bus stops in regional, rural locations. In particular, most rural bus stops or towns do not have a footpath that spans 3 m. That is one of the difficulties that we have encountered nationwide but we are trying to overcome.

The final issue is the central customer centre, which is meant to provide a more efficient and integrated contact with customers and the public. The centre will provide information on a more integrated basis than is possible at present. It will utilise the various available communication channels and includes the phone, email, live chat and social media. As part of the programme to enhance availability, the NTA will produce transport information in a variety of formats. The scheme is customer driven and a proposal is currently being developed that will enable the provision of information.

I thank the Minister for his update. Even if one only looked back 20 years one would see that progress has been made. However, he is right that an awful lot still needs to be done. We must not go backwards either. I mean that when a new fleet is being purchased, it must be of the optimum standard. It is welcome that the specification is being developed for the DART fleet. I understood that that fleet was already on order. There was a big announcement of an order and I would have presumed that the specification would have been done in advance of an order being placed. Experience with the national children's hospital, for example, tells us that one must nail down the details or one will end up with add-ons and things like that. I am sure that the situation is exactly the same with transport. When is the fleet due to be delivered? I am sure it will arrive on an incremental basis rather than all at the one time because there is a degree of commissioning that is needed with trains.

What fleet is the Deputy talking about?

Earlier the Minister mentioned that this is "the best platform interface solution". When I read that phrase I had to re-read it because I did not know what it meant. I ask him to decipher the term so we know exactly what is being talked about. Is the DART fleet on order? Was the specification done in advance of the order being placed? Was the specification provided within that or how has this worked? What exactly is the Minister talking about? What will we physically see that will be different, better and will provide for people with disabilities? I appreciate that there is a range of disabilities, ranging from visual impairment, wheelchair usage and so on.

The Minister gave us a rundown on bus stops. I presume that local authorities will be aware of the desire to provide access that is as wide as possible and that where new bus stops are provided that access is thought about at that time. Often, and I know from being a member of a local authority, the location of a bus stop is an afterthought. Has guidance been provided to local authorities? If so, it would mean that local authorities would not have to redo this work in the future. I urge that bus stops have a suitable amount of space in terms of the width of the footpath or the pull in bay. A bus stop may not be located in the optimum location or whatever but I urge that consideration is given to this in advance. Is that type of work done by the Department or the NTA? Who is responsible for providing guidance to local authorities in this instance?

I have spoken to the Minister about wheelchair-accessible vehicles before. I had a look at where the vehicles are located and discovered that some counties do not even have one wheelchair-accessible vehicle. There are a lot of these vehicles in Dublin but very few in places like Tipperary.

I know that it is down to individuals who make an application, but at the time I asked whether there would be positive discrimination if areas were not provided for sufficiently if there was an inadequate amount of money available. Will the Minister address that issue? It is welcome that the NTA has an accessibility manager with this expertise. If there is not somebody embedded in an organisation whose daily job is to watch out and takes ownership of issues, I do not think they will get the attention they need. That is welcome. It would be useful for the committee to invite the person concerned to come before it, perhaps in six months time, to find out what the experience has been. We could receive very good feedback in that regard.

A criticism we have heard during the hearings and which I hear constantly concerns accessibility. Dublin Bus has vehicles with low floors and there have been serious improvements during the years, but I repeatedly receive complaints from people who are told at a bus stop that the space is being used and that they will have to wait for the next bus. Success invites people to use the service, but at the same time space may not be provided to the extent that it is needed. Therefore, there might be a need to look at existing standards. It is certainly an issue that comes up enough to suggest that while success is encouraging people to use the service, there is a question as to whether they can be accommodated.

It is welcome that a lot more money will be provided for the retrofit programme. Even if he cannot do so today, will the Minister outline how it is being done? What is the priority? Is it based on usage or the particular vehicle used? It would be useful to hear how the Minister is going about it in order that we can have some understanding of what we might see in reality.

The Deputy asked about the tender process for the DART fleet. It has not yet commenced, but it is in train. The specification is being developed. I do not know exactly what the start date is, but I can find out.

Will the Minister come back to us on the matter? It would be very useful to know.

I would also like to know when we will see trains on tracks.

Certainly. I understand what is meant by "platform interface" is the automatic ramp to ensure everything is at the same level.

The NTA is looking actively at how the issue of wheelchair accessible vehicles in rural areas can be addressed. It is under examination, but I will certainly make sure it is brought to its attention that the Deputy has raised it because it is probably one of the issues that will be addressed urgently, although it has not actually got down to doing it. It is one of the three things that it has not done.

The NTA is working with local authorities on bus stops. The new manager is taking a lead role in dealing with the matter. The NTA funds bus stops, while the local authorities engage in planning and construction. That is how it works.

The retrofit programme is divided into three - railway stations, taxis and bus stops. That has been the case so far. I have the amounts written down, but it might take me a minute or two to find out what was spent in the first year. The amount spent was €4 million in the first year, €7 million in the second, €7 million in the third and €10 million in the fourth. That is what the plan is. So far, it has been divided between wheelchair accessible taxis, bus stops in towns with a population of more than 5,000 and railway stations based on the report carried out by Irish Rail.

Did the Deputy ask a question about unplanned travel?

No, but it is one of the issues that has come up here repeatedly.

The Deputy raised a point about space.

The problem is people cannot get on buses. If the space available on a bus for a wheelchair is being used, another person in a wheelchair waiting at a bus stop may not be allowed on.

They have to wait.

If the space is being used, he or she may not be allowed on the bus.

I believe 50% of the Dublin Bus fleet has space for a wheelchair and a buggy. There is room for both. There is a retrofit programme in place, but obviously it is still a problem. Improvements have been made and there is space for a buggy and a wheelchair, but it has come to my attention that there are occasions on which people cannot get on board. I agree that it is something we have to address, as it has not yet been sorted. In 2018 funding was provided for 205 PSO buses - 141 for Dublin Bus and 64 for Go-Ahead - for use in the Dublin region. They will all have extra spaces. I am not trying to say everything has been sorted because it has not. What I am saying is the issue is being addressed and that real progress is being made, but the Deputy is right that problems remain.

I have suggested we invite the transport disability manager to come before the committee in six months time. I would like a note to be taken of this suggestion in order that we can place it in an appropriate place in the work programme.

That is agreed.

I apologise for being late; I was held up in the Dáil.

It is welcome that funding for the retrofit programme is to be trebled by 2021. What has the programme delivered to date? What is expected to be delivered under it by 2021?

A one-stop-shop to provide for centralised customer contact is something in which I have a particular interest. If there was a one-stop-shop, people could report delays and a lack of accessibility and make complaints. Is the NTA developing such a service? If so, at what stage is it? Will the Minister expand on the issue?

There is another massive issue which has transpired to be probably the most frustrating for transport users who come before the committee. It concerns the lack of accessibility and having to phone to give rail and coach service operators 24 or 48 hours notice of intention to travel. Has there been movement on this issue, given that it is one of people's key frustrations?

What is that movement? What stage have we reached with that?

I said, perhaps before the Deputy came in, the funding for the accessibility retrofit programme will increase from €4 million in 2018 to €7 million this year, €7 million next year and €10 million in the following year. That means the allocation between 2019 and 2021 will have trebled from €9 million to €27.8 million. That has been used for wheelchair-accessible taxis and for railway stations fairly successfully. I can get the details for the Deputy; they are in my brief somewhere. I do not have the details of the ones that have been done under me, but I can get them.

I ask the Minister to forward them on.

We can get information from the NTA, which manages the retrofit programme.

The legacy infrastructure relates to the many stations on the rail network that date from the 19th century and that were not accessible for people with disabilities. Under the accessibility retrofit programme these stations are progressively being made accessible. Some of them are Victorian and a fair amount is being spent on them. The lion's share of the allocation is going to railway stations to make them more accessible. My understanding is that the Irish Rail fleet is internally accessible. The main issue with accessibility for wheelchair uses is that a ramp is required between the train and the platform.

I can give some details about the retrofit in 2019: rail will be €3 million; stops, €1.5 million; and wheelchair-accessible vehicles, €2.5 million. Examples of the accessibility-related works are: the lifts in Carlow and Ennis stations are proceeding with works anticipated to start in September and November, respectively; construction of footbridges and lifts at Castleknock and Edgeworthstown are at the design tender stage; and minor works will be completed at Coolmine station.

On regional bus stations, Bus Éireann is undertaking accessibility enhancement works at Cavan, Monaghan and Drogheda bus stations. Drogheda means something to Deputy Munster, does it not? Perhaps that was the reason for the question.

The Minister must not have seen that; he would have crossed it out, I am sure.

The Deputy need not worry; next time.

The works are due to be completed at the end of June. Surveys and designs are being developed for wheelchair-accessible stops at Ballyshannon and Sligo bus stations.

Before I call-----

There were just two other questions. The one-stop shop, the centralised customer contact centre, was a big issue. What progress has been made on that? The Minister had said the NTA was developing it.

It is at proposal stage, as far as I know. Nothing is built there yet. It is not a building anyway.

No. It is a customer centre.

It is a centre; it will be nearly all kind of-----

Is it still at proposal stage?

The new manager will address that.

It is at proposal stage, but it is basically not a physical location.

I ask the Minister to press for progress on that so that people have-----

Yes. We will inform the new manager tomorrow and ask for the Deputy's request to be put on its agenda.

Has there been movement on people having to phone 24 or 48 hours in advance of using a train. Having to give prior notice of the wish to travel is one of people's key frustrations. They felt they were being discriminated against.

It is not satisfactory yet, but a fair amount of improvement has been made. Beginning this year, the NTA is introducing new low-floor coaches on regional commuter bus routes that will facilitate wheelchair access on to these services without pre-booking after sufficient vehicles have been introduced into the service. Progress is being made on that. There are more than two or three ways of tackling that problem. Elsewhere the advance notice to reserve a wheelchair space is 24 hours; it used to be 48 hours, so progress has been made. It is a difficult problem and it is being addressed in different ways

I know the Minister does not have the exact detail, but I ask that we be furnished with a progress update on those aspects of it.

Yes. I have given some details of some of the stations, but only one of them was of any great interest to the Deputy.

They are overall. I am not just talking about local matters. In general-----

The Deputy is very broad-minded.

-----it is one of the key frustrations.

She is a national politician.

That is right, unlike the Minister.

I was throwing plaudits at the Deputy. That is very ungracious.

Before I call Senator Dolan, I thank him and his assistant, Ciarán Delaney, for facilitating us in having this report compiled.

I thank the Vice Chairman. I gave Mr. Delaney the imprimatur and he did great work. The Vice Chairman is very gracious in specifically mentioning him. Many of people with disabilities and the associated organisations rowed in behind it and put considerable effort in.

This does not take one iota from the accelerated progress that has been made and the further progress to be made. Public transport is a daily grind and frustration for people with disabilities, as the Minister has frequently acknowledged. We keep talking about progress, which is excellent. It does not take from the fact that people regularly have problems. I note that and I am delighted that we have reached this stage and this report has been published.

The Minister mentioned that 13 of the 16 recommendations are his. As Minister, he is taking leadership in ensuring the other three things are kept moving. That is very important and I acknowledge it does not always happen across Departments. There is also a complementary leadership role for this committee. We have our blue bible and we have a way of monitoring every six months. Working in parallel, the Minister, the Department and the committee can keep the focus on this. It is human nature that as other issues come up, the ones that were there the previous week slip back. It is important not to let this slip irrespective of other challenges and issues that arise with transport or Government policies, etc.

Many of the necessary processes have now been put in place. Before starting to build, the site needs to be cleaned and the foundations laid. People might say that nothing is happening. These are things that are happening. The pipework is going in place. It is not sexy work but it is necessary.

That is really important and it gives us the foundations but we must start ticking off things on a six-monthly basis so we keep ourselves stretched in making progress. The Minister said there would not be any pressure to reduce funding, and if there is, he would resist it. I thank him for saying that and I have no doubt that it will be his attitude to the matter.

Senator Feighan spoke about the process being an eye-opener and about listening to people with disabilities. The more that people with disabilities are seen out and about in ordinary places doing ordinary things, the more movement there will be on the objective of people with disabilities having full lives. That person can be on a bus going somewhere but it is more than just the journey; it is also a statement to the rest of the people on the bus and other people that Ireland is intent on ensuring people with disabilities can be out and about. It is a very important cultural shift in the work. It is more than just delivering seats etc. and I stress this important element.

The Minister stated that the NTA has seriously bought into this process when referring to the accessibility manager post. I underline a possible risk that could be avoided. There is the risk that the accessibility manager could become the person responsible in the NTA for what happens or does not happen. If there is an accessibility issue, the officer might become the person to talk to. I invite the Minister to accept that the responsibility should be with the board, the chairman and the chief executive. If they have a problem with the accessibility manager not doing the work, it is an issue they have to solve. I have seen it time and again that an organisation might have somebody dealing with accessibility issues and this leads everyone else to wash their hands of those matters. The person will have a critical role but the buck should stop with the people who run the NTA.

I still have confidence issues with the NTA and I certainly hope there has been a change. We have seen a fiasco in how BusConnects dealt with - or rather did not deal with - accessibility needs for people with disabilities. Go-Ahead buses were bought, delivered and painted before Ms Elaine Howley at a national disability inclusion strategy meeting asked to look at them. The viewing was sorted out over a weekend but they had been painted the wrong colour and all the money had been spent. This is what happened in the past year or two. Our first encounter with the Minister was during the bus strike, when reassurances were given there would be no diminution in services on the routes where Bus Éireann buses were being removed. I am not letting go of those recent issues and disabled people - never mind me - need to see the changes in how that organisation operates. Through the Public Transport Regulation Act 2009, the authority has had the capacity to put conditions on private operators going on public service routes but it has not used it.

Let us move on. The Minister mentioned the increased funding for a retrofitting programme but we will want to see the expected outcomes for that. We will want to see how it will work out over next six or 12 months. What is the expectation of the Minister for the funding going into that? There was mention of grant applications for wheelchair-accessible vehicles and the taxi fleet. It is over 20 years ago, when I worked with the Irish Wheelchair Association, that some of the taxi trade unions came to us to seek support for their campaign to get VAT and vehicle registration tax removed from taxis if they are made wheelchair-accessible. My reaction was to ask why someone would buy a pup and then ask it to perform. Disabled people have told me they are basically given the two fingers by taxis at certain times. These are empty wheelchair-accessible taxis. Smacht must be put on that kind of behaviour. Disabled people have paid for it but they are being given the two fingers by drivers at times. If concessions are given upfront, we must make sure to get value for our buck. With technology the way it is, there should never be a case where a number of taxis are not available that are wheelchair-accessible. There all sorts of ways of co-ordinating them.

The national disability inclusion strategy was launched in July 2017 at Croke Park and, in fairness, the Minister attended. I do not have great confidence in that strategy having the horsepower, to use that term, to progress the work to implement the convention and disability strategy. It is a strategy spanning the four years from 2017 to 2020 but it was not launched until July 2017. There was a commitment to a mid-term review and the Minister has confirmed, with information he clearly got elsewhere, that there is a process to begin a mid-term review. This is halfway through the third of four years. This commitment did not have €20 million attached to it but it was a commitment for a number of public servants in Departments led by the Department of Justice and Equality to do a review by the middle of the four-year period, which would have been the end of last year. I remain sceptical that there is enough oomph in this. If more oomph had been put into this, the strategy could work, but I have not experienced it.

Perhaps the Minister might deal with those questions before the Senator asks others.

That is grand and suits me.

I agree with much of Senator Dolan's contribution and it is particularly telling that he said transport is a daily grind for people with disabilities. It is a very fair point and we should bear in mind the obstacles and difficulties that disabled people have to endure. They can be difficult to relate to unless they are repeated again and again, ensuring that the people who make decisions are aware of them. Whatever we achieve in trying to make transport accessibility equal for everybody, there will always be difficulties for people in wheelchairs and they will never have the same carefree attitude to travelling as others without disabilities. I take the Senator's point in that respect.

Senator Dolan mentioned the accountability of many of the bodies relevant to the strategy and the complementary role of this committee. It is fair to say the committee has played a very important role and it is a very good exercise in parliamentary accountability. Senator Dolan, Deputies Catherine Murphy, O'Keeffe and O'Dowd and everybody else involved with this exercise should set this as a template. It is difficult to fit in but it is a good idea that something as important as this should be reported on by a Minister every six months.

It is also good for the officials. It is good for Deputies and means that the gaps in areas where we would not want to have them are exposed every six months until they are closed. Whereas I think this is a good report and a big step change in the attitude to disabilities, there are things that still have to be done. They are in front of us. The good things are fantastic and tremendously important and I am not claiming any credit for them. Senator Dolan should take the credit. The Chairman referred to Ciarán Delaney. He is a phenomenal and relentless advocate for people with disabilities. The idea that we do this every six months is useful. It is a template for others and a useful parliamentary exercise.

The Senator is right about the problem associated with the livery. As far as I know, it was remedied. It should not have happened. It emphasises the fact that sometimes people do not think in a sympathetic way or are not as knowledgeable as they should be. It was changed because the disability groups were loud and had voices to express the difficulties encountered owing to an oversight by the National Transport Authority. I understand the Senator does not think it has bought into it.

Perhaps it has, but I still do not have confidence. The ice is too thin for me for a while, but I hope I am wrong.

I understand what the Senator is saying, but the evidence we have seen is that progress is being made in the implementation of the recommendations made by the committee. It is mainly up to the NTA, but on the whole I see real progress. Deputy Catherine Murphy has been good enough to say things are better now than they were 20 years ago. Many of us were probably slow to realise the importance of this issue or allocate funding to deal with it. When I see the acceleration in funding, I am surprised and somewhat shocked by how small it was before. I only woke up to how tiny it was when I became Minister. It is due to lots of lobbying and parties, including the Senator, the committee, the NTA and the Minister of State with special responsibility for people with disabilities, Deputy Finian McGrath. It is happening and can be nothing but good. We know that semi-State bodies are slow to move. What has happened is that they have moved to a point that probably could not have been envisaged 15, 20 or even ten years ago. The NTA will manage the retrofit programme. I will get details of projects and outcomes from it. I have said the figure is €28 million, broken down into sums of €4 million, €7 million, €7 million and €10 million. The three main grant areas are taxis, railway stations and bus stops.

I was interested in what the Senator had to say about the national disability insurance scheme, NDIS. We are in the third year of four and the review is only starting, something of which I was not aware. I will take up the matter.

It is indicative. It was specifically brought to its attention at the end of last year.

I will take up the matter with the Department of Justice and Equality to see what happens. Is it that Department's responsibility?

Yes, the equality section.

I will ask what the position is. If it is behind, it is not right.

That is not right. It should not be behind. I will find out why.

I am just making the point that it is indicative of the amount of effort and resources going into it. It was not a budgetary or financial issue but a question of no one saying there was a commitment to have it done by the end of 2018. If someone did say it, everybody else ignored it.

That is fine.

It is where it is, but it is being done.

However, it is a little behind. One of the big holes is that private sector operators do not have to meet the same criteria. That is being acted on and there is to be a public consultation process. The NTA is examining the matter, with a view to coming back with proposals. It is unacceptable that the private sector is operating in a regime that is cavalier.

To put it the other way around, the public sector has to provide for a higher level of accessibility.

The others should come up to that standard.

That is my view. It is a cavalier attitude. I know that there are difficulties, but it is not acceptable. However, there is movement. The public service obligation, PSO, buses which are serviced by the private sector are accessible, but the others are not. The NTA is moving towards a public consultation process on the matter, with a view to coming forward with proposals which will go some of the way towards remedying the problem. It is not something with which we can happily live. It may take some time, but they will be required to improve the position.

It struck me when listening to the Minister that the report will help the committee and the Department in their work to disability proof inclusion meaures in the context of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It enables both to state what is happening in dealing with the transport article in the convention. It is a great device to have. There is an Oireachtas disability group, while several disability organisations have met all of the Secretaries General and some of the Minister's colleagues recently. That is another way to spread responsibility for the work on various issues that fall beyond one Department. I compliment the Minister on putting folk with disabilities and lived experience on several boards. It is an initiative taken in his Department that could be sweetly followed by a host of other Departments. Fair play to him for doing so. The people with disabilities on those boards act as a conscience, a reminder to them that they are supposed to be providing a service for everybody. It is an important cultural element.

On point No.2, planning and decision-making, I understand the NTA is using a UN standard for accessibility in the acquisition of fleet vehicles which does not take into account powered wheelchairs.

The kind of powered, as opposed to push, wheelchairs that are available now are very different to what were available in the past. Many people can only get to the bus today because they have a powered wheelchair. If the bus is unable to accommodate that wheelchair, that may be an issue. I understand there is a European standard, EN 17161:2019, for accessibility for powered wheelchairs on buses.

As for priority seating in rail, I am getting reports and information that able-bodied people are reserving priority seating, which was and is intended for people who have mobility impairments. That seems a bit odd. How is that happening? Maybe that can be checked with Irish Rail.

I am glad to hear about the progress with the JAM card.

On orientation and wayfinding for people with visual impairments, I understand that Irish Rail has conducted a review of its signage and way guidance system and that it fully engaged with the disabled community in that regard. Funding, however, is a significant barrier to progressing this on a national basis. Can the Minister give a commitment on this matter or make a comment on how it can be sorted out? If funding is needed for it, will it be made available? It is a critical issue for people with visual impairments.

I refer to travel costs. The NTA is still permitting the charging of €5 per journey for people with disabilities to reserve seats on intercity services. These are people who have free travel. My understanding is that it is in breach of an EU regulation, which specifically states that people with disabilities should not pay a surcharge. That is something that needs to be looked at.

I have already mentioned the accessible taxi issue.

The 15th recommendation pertains to accountability. Has the NTA developed key performance indicators, KPIs, for the headings contained in this report? Does it have a template set out for how it will move on and measure progress? If it has done so, it would be good to see those KPIs and if it has not it is essential for it to do so to keep this matter moving.

Can the Senator repeat that question?

Has the NTA developed a set of key performance indicators for the 16 recommendations in the report? Otherwise, we will be coming back episodically asking about this matter and that matter. It would be a great reassurance if the NTA has done that.

All those questions are pretty detailed so if the Senator will allow it, I will revert to him. I will get the answers to the questions. I do not know about the €5 charge, I will check up with Irish Rail about that and the priority seating issue to see how that is happening.

On powered wheelchairs, the NTA says it is arranging an inspection of one of these single-deck bus types in the next few weeks with representatives from the Irish Wheelchair Association, IWA, and with representatives of the bus manufacturer to examine whether there is any modification to any of the hand poles that would improve the manoeuvrability of a wheelchair into the designated wheelchair space. However, as moving poles may not be possible due to the structural design of the bus, the NTA is not in a position to promise that it will be possible to make changes. It will, however, examine whether it is possible.

On the KPIs, the National Disability Authority is developing high-level indicators to monitor the accessibility of public transport and whether public transport service providers are compliant with the NDA's code of practice on the accessibility of public services and information provided by public bodies. My Department, the NTA and public transport operators have been engaging with the NDA on this work, including attending a workshop organised by the NDA. It is certainly on the agenda but we will probably have to keep up with it.

I will have to refer back to the Senator on each of the other questions he asked. I have a note of all of them. They are very detailed questions and I do not want to mislead the Senator in any way.

The Oireachtas disability group will be an ongoing engagement and it will be a useful group because it maintains awareness and is held at a high level.

It also gives the Department an opportunity to talk to its colleagues and to ensure that if the Department is carrying out a certain measure, its colleagues need to be carrying out the same measure in sync and vice versa.

The Secretaries General of all Departments attended, which is a high level. It included the Secretary General of my Department and that will continue and we will encourage it.

I thank the Senator for his remarks about the board. They are a conscience and a reminder. From what I have heard, it is working and it would be useful if other Departments followed this example. It is something which should have been done years ago.

I want to make a couple of brief points to follow up on that. I gave the example of Go-Ahead, how it has been bought and paid for and how it had to be retrofitted and have the colours changed. I am going from memory on this but one of the issues that was pointed out in that was the turning and manoeuvrability space in the buses. Some people were saying it was not quite as good as in buses they replaced. That is relevant to the motorised wheelchairs.

The Minister said the NDA is dealing with the KPIs. I presume then that it should automatically trickle down to the NTA and that it would have its own spreadsheets and KPIs to be able to deal with those issues.

Yes, the Senator can take that as a given.

I did not say so at the start but I am delighted to hear about the national transport training centre and the work taking place there with the National Council for the Blind Ireland. That is a really positive development that is happening with the NTA.

Yes, that is funded by the NTA.

Before I conclude, I thank the Minister for his presentation here this afternoon. We look forward to being back here again in six months for a progress report on the implementation of the accessibility to public transport for people with disabilities. Senator Dolan made a valid point about using the 16 recommendations as a measure for how we are progressing this. I thank the Minister for coming here today and I thank his departmental officials.

Before we conclude, I mention that I have an update on the recommendations the committee made. It is for my own use but it gives the status of those recommendations and outlines what has been achieved. I would be happy to make that available to the committee or to Senator Dolan. It goes through the recommendations in a thorough way and I see no reason why members should not have it as well. I will make that available, if that is all right.

We would welcome that and I thank the Minister.

The joint committee adjourned at 3.10 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 3 July 2019.