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.