Thursday, 21 November 2019

Ceisteanna (4)

Ruth Coppinger


4. Deputy Ruth Coppinger asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport if he has costed the introduction of fare-free public transport in view of the need to expand the use of public transport as part of actions against climate change; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48416/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (9 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Transport)

We all know the famous quote from the young climate activist, Greta Thunberg: "Act like your house is on fire". Instead, we seem to have a Government that is standing with its arms folded. The second biggest cause of carbon emissions, after agriculture, in Ireland is transport. Agriculture will be a longer-term project to shift, but there are immediate things that could be done, and one of them is the introduction of free public transport. It has been done in 100 cities and in the country of Luxembourg. Dublin is now the slowest moving city in Europe. This will benefit people's lives, as well as the environment.

I thank the Deputy for raising this subject, which is certainly worthy of debate. It will not surprise her that I am not going to announce free public transport in the House this morning, but it is a debate that is certainly worth having, and perhaps for longer than ten minutes.

The NTA has statutory responsibility for securing the provision of public transport services by way of public service obligation, PSO, contracts in respect of services that are socially necessary but commercially unviable. The NTA also has been given statutory responsibility for the regulation of fares in regard to public passenger transport services. The funding of those services comprises both the fares paid by passengers and the subvention payments from the Exchequer. The main purpose of the subvention payment is to meet the gap between the income from fares and the cost of operating services. In 2019, the Irish Exchequer will provide just over €300 million in subvention for PSO transport services and rural transport local link services. We are also investing almost €480 million this year in public transport and active travel infrastructure.

The Deputy is asking about the likely cost to the Exchequer if public transport fares were abolished. A key factor to bear in mind when considering such an idea is that approximately €600 million in fare revenue is collected annually. This effectively means that the rough cost to the taxpayer of eliminating fares would be in the region of €600 million more every year, in addition to the amounts already spent on PSO and on capital investment. It is important to keep in mind also that this amount would only enable continuation of the existing level of service and does not account for one extra passenger journey because it does not factor in the costs of catering for increased passenger travel demand, which would undoubtedly arise. The figures also do not factor in the cost of providing the additional fleet, depots, drivers, and so on that would be needed to meet the likely resultant substantial increase in passenger numbers if fares were eliminated.

In summary, introducing free public transport for all users would require substantial additional funding by the taxpayer or from other sources. The Deputy has not indicated how she proposes that this would be funded. We all know that our country is facing challenges on climate commitments and on congestion, which this Government is determined to address. As such, it is clear that inroads must be made into reducing the dominance of the private car in Ireland’s transport sector, and reducing the 52% of transport emissions that come from private car use is a key challenge, as the Deputy mentioned.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

The Deputy is correct that there is a need to reduce private car emissions within the State and that increased use of public transport can assist us in achieving our climate change goals. That is exactly the Government's objective as clearly set out in my Department's climate action plan, and that is why we are expanding our public transport fleet so that there are more buses, more trains and longer trams to carry more passengers. We are developing long-term solutions through metro and DART expansion. We are investing in well-planned integrated infrastructure and service improvements in all the main cities.

Our aim in expanding the carrying capacity and the attractiveness of our public transport and active travel networks is to provide a viable sustainable alternative to private car use for more people for more of their journeys. Under Project Ireland 2040, an indicative allocation of €8.6 billion is assigned to support sustainable mobility, ensuring that public transport and active travel become more available and attractive alternatives.

Our ambitions regarding modal shift are quite high, as are the costs associated with such a shift. However, our continued work on this front is essential if we want to reduce congestion and emissions. Promoting a continued move towards more sustainable forms of transport for a higher number of journeys will help reduce Ireland's climate change emissions.

Passenger fares are only one factor in meeting the costs associated with running the public transport system. The State and the taxpayer are the main funder. Any proposal to abolish passenger fares and the resulting shortfall in funding would have to be covered by an increase in PSO funding from the taxpayer via the Exchequer.

I got some of those answers in response to the written questions I have asked. Is it not shocking that 52% of transport emissions come from private car use when only 4% come from public transport? It would make a massive difference to tackling climate change if we could get people out of cars. People would be happy not to be stuck in cars if there was sufficient public transport as an alternative.

In regard to the cost, €300 million as a public subvention is extremely small when compared with most countries. Yes, €600 million would be the cost of immediately abolishing fares right now, but that is not a lot and could be paid, for example, from a very small financial transactions tax, something that has been called for even by the EU and is not a radical socialist demand. Tax the multinationals to get their workers to work. How about that as novel idea? It would mean Google, Facebook and all of the other large corporations would actually pay the level of corporation tax that is due.

In Dublin West, which I represent, we have huge industrial parks where tens of thousands of workers are driving in and out every day because they do not have public transport available. Unfortunately, BusConnects, which the Minister lauds, is planning to take away direct routes from some of those areas into the city.

The Deputy and I share a common belief that we want to reduce emissions, particularly from private cars. We probably part company after that. Like everybody else, I would love to see public transport free for everyone. It would undoubtedly produce, as the Deputy said, a big rush into public transport. The problem is that the €600 million only addresses the current issue. It would be an extraordinarily expensive operation suddenly to announce free public transport, which we could not do because we do not have the capacity. It would not work overnight. It would be a very long-term project which would cost vast sums of money in terms of extra vehicles, extra depots and extra drivers.

As the Deputy will know, we are determined to reduce emissions and to get people out of their private cars into buses, and there are very large-scale projects, such as the metro, BusConnects, the Luas expansion and the DART expansion. All of those projects are directed simply to getting people out of their private cars, which will, of course, reduce emissions, which are a common enemy.

I do not think anybody said this could happen overnight. However, in other countries, it has been planned within a year or two years to upgrade the public transport capacity to cater for it. Some of the positive benefits have included reduced numbers of road traffic accidents, cleaner air, less noise and faster emergency response times as traffic is not as clogged. There is also the abolition of ticket infrastructure, and we recall the queues at the toll booths on the M50. More people have started to use public transport, including the elderly, and more people go into cities and towns rather than being stuck in the suburbs, so isolation has decreased. For example, in Tallinn, Estonia, passenger numbers increased eightfold very quickly when free public transport was introduced.

Of course, there would have to be initial investment beyond the €600 million but we need that anyway. Let us not play the poor mouth. This is an extremely wealthy country. We had the highest number of net worth individuals recorded last year, so the money is there. However, this is also necessary in terms of climate change. By the way, there was a boon to those cities in terms of tourism because of free public transport. Luxembourg, as a country, has just introduced this. We could employ more workers on decent rates of pay, not in the privatised services the Minister lauds. This is vital and should be done, and people should campaign for it.

Again, I endorse the Deputy's ambition, although I do not necessarily endorse the path she wishes to take to it. We have laid out a strong, determined and clear path as to how we were going to do this and how we are going to get people out of their private cars.

BusConnects is not going to do it.

That is matter of opinion. I sympathise with what the Deputy says. It is not something I agree with but I can see her point of view. In the urban bus fleet, a clear path to low-emission buses has been outlined. Project Ireland 2040 contained a commitment that diesel-only buses will no longer be purchased for the urban public bus fleet from July, and that has been done. In preparation for both this immediate transition and the development of a longer-term low-carbon bus procurement strategy, my Department, together with the National Transport Authority, Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann, has undertaken a comprehensive series of low-emission bus trials, which are expected to conclude in the coming weeks. Under the BusConnects programme, which the Deputy disapproves of, it is expected that approximately half of the public urban bus fleet will have moved to lower emitting alternatives by 2023, with full conversion by 2030.

It is equally important to consider the potential contribution of electrified rail to the decarbonising objectives we are pursuing. A full metropolitan area DART network is planned for the greater Dublin area. This is part of the national rail network that carries over 75% of total rail passengers each year. We have high ambitions and we have laid out the targets and the paths in this regard. We will achieve them by providing low-emissions public transport.

I ask Members to keep an eye on the clock.