No rural communities will be left behind
Introductory Statement from Anne Graham, Chief Executive Officer, National Transport Authority to the Oireachtas Transport Committee 22nd February 2017
Chairperson and members of the committee, thank you for the invitation to attend. I understand that the Committee wishes to focus upon the financial situation in Bus Éireann and the rural transport programme. To assist me in dealing with your subsequent questions I am joined by Tim Gaston, Director of Public Transport Services with the Authority.
Before dealing with the specific areas of focus, I would like to set the context by providing a brief overview of the remit of the Authority in this provision of public transport services.
Remit of the Authority
The remit of the National Transport Authority is to regulate and develop the provision of integrated public transport services (bus, rail, light rail and taxi) by public and private operators in the State, to secure the development and implementation of an integrated transport system within the Greater Dublin Area, and to contribute to the effective integration of transport and land use planning across the State.
In addition to its statutory responsibilities, the Authority has various arrangements with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport to discharge functions on its behalf. This includes the assignment of responsibility to the Authority for integrated local and rural transport, including provision of the Rural Transport Programme.
Responsibilities of the Authority with regard to public bus services provision
The Authority is responsible for securing the provision of public bus services through two specified mechanisms:
- public service contracts, where services cannot be provided on a commercial basis, and
- the licensing of public bus services, which are operated on a commercial basis.
In licensing commercial bus services, it is important to note that the relevant legislation (the Public Transport Regulation Act 2009) requires the Authority to seek to achieve, in the public interest, regulated competition in the provision of such services.
I would like to now deal with the specific areas of focus raised by the committee.
Financial position of Bus Éireann
Bus Éireann finds itself in a very difficult position financially caused by losses related to its commercial Expressway business. It should be noted The NTA has fully renumerated Bus Éireann for the services that it operates under the Direct Award Contract with the Authority since December 2009.
The National Transport Authority (NTA) rejects the suggestions that the granting of commercial licences to bus operators has been solely to blame for the difficulties being experienced by Bus Éireann. The notion that there is saturation on the inter-city corridors served by Expressway services, and that the NTA grants licences to operators at the drop of a hat, also does not stand up to scrutiny. In fact since 2011, we have rejected almost as many applications for licences on these key routes, as we have granted.
Our primary responsibility in law is to the travelling public, and when we assess an application for a commercial licence, we do so with them in mind. It has consistently been the case that where new licences are issued in these markets, that overall passenger numbers have increased, in many cases, very significantly. For example, between 2012 and 2015, total bus passenger numbers on the Cork Dublin Corridor increased by 61 per cent, while on the Limerick Dublin Corridor, they increased by 50 per cent. In other words, rather than saturating the market, what we have actually done is increase public transport capacity, and in so doing enabled many more journeys to be undertaken on the bus network.
Bus Éireann commercial services like Expressway, account for only 19 per cent of all the company’s passengers. 81 per cent of Bus Éireann passengers are on routes subsidised under the Public Service Obligation (PSO) Contract that the company has entered with NTA. This will not change, and these services are under no threat. In fact they have been a huge success story in recent years, with passenger numbers continuing to increase. Last month the NTA published passenger figures for 2016, which indicated a 5.5 per cent increase in passengers on Bus Éireann subsidised services, jumping from 30.2m in 2015 to 32m last year. Subvention for these services by the NTA to Bus Éireann increased from €34m in 2014, to €40m in 2016. And that figure is likely to go up again in 2017.
Rural Transport Programme – “Local Link”
The objective of the Rural Transport Programme is to provide a good quality nationwide community based public transport system in rural Ireland which responds to local needs. In 2016, funding of €11.9 million was provided through the Authority for the programme with an additional €1.5m provided by the Department of Social Protection under the Free Travel Scheme.
Since assuming responsibility for the programme in 2012, we have focussed on restructuring the programme to provide greater efficiency and effectiveness in the service delivery. The restructuring programme included the establishment of 17 Locallink offices which replaced the 35 Rural Transport groups previously managing the programme. Local passenger services are managed by the relevant Locallink office in each area on behalf of the Authority. This restructuring has positioned the programme to better integrate with other public transport services, and provides a solid base to expand or adapt services to meet current and future identified needs.
Now that the organisational restructuring has been completed, we are focussed on optimising the services provided, within the funding envelope available. A review of services is currently in progress to ensure that they are meeting the needs of local families in rural areas.
Expansion of Rural Transport Services
It is very evident that there are gaps in the provision of rural transport services across the state. Locallink offices are working closely with local authorities and local communities on the assessment of local transport needs, including the needs of those that are socially excluded. Locallink offices are the NTA’s eyes and ears in rural Ireland, and working together, I believe we can make real progress in improving local public transport services.
Twenty-one new regular commuter bus services have been secured in the network in 2016. Regular 5/6/7 day per week bus services have been introduced following considerable development work by the Authority and the relevant offices in Counties Cavan-Monaghan, Meath, Kerry, Waterford, Wexford and Sligo-Leitrim-Roscommon.
In 2017 the Authority will continue to identify improvements in existing services and developing appropriate new routes based on the budget of €15.9m (includes €1.5m from Department of Social Protection). Over 40 new additional rural transport services are currently being examined by the Authority to be delivered across the State this year. Key features of the developments include greater integration with existing public transport services and better linkage of services between and within towns and villages.
Review of Direct Award Contracted services
The Authority is continually working with Bus Éireann to provide improvements on its contracted services and is now looking at expansion of those services now that the budget for public service obligations has increased since 2016. Kerry and Mayo are two of the counties that have seen service improvements. The Authority also promoted the improvements in the regional cities which have seen phenomenal growth in passenger numbers. Improved town services have also been delivered in Athlone following the success of the Sligo bus services enhancements.
Response to changes in Expressway services
If it is the case that some Expressway services are discontinued at local level, NTA will, as our track record proves, step in and ensure that local demands for public transport are met. When Expressway Route 5 was terminated and Expressway Route 7 was curtailed, the Authority put a number of services in place by extending some existing Bus Éireann PSO services and by tendering new PSO services and new Locallink services. If there are any changes to Expressway services, we will carry out a similar assessment and not leave any rural communities behind.
That concludes my introductory presentation. I trust that we can answer any queries that arise.