Thank you for the invitation to attend. I understand that the Committee wishes me address the topic “What it takes to sustain a viable rural community” and in my statement I focus in particular on public transport. To assist me in dealing with your subsequent questions I am joined by Tim Gaston who manages public transport services within 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.
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 transport services provision
Public transport in rural areas in Ireland is provided in the following ways:
- Iarnród Éireann provides rail services under contract with the National Transport Authority. Even though over 50% of Irish people live within the boundary of a settlement served by rail, the majority of rural Ireland would require a journey by another mode to access rail services. Therefore the existing rail network would not generally provide local rural services but would provide the onward connections to key towns and cities. Any changes to the rail services, requires the approval of the Authority.
- Bus Éireann provide a variety of services through its commercial Expressway services that are licensed by the NTA and through a network of subsidised public bus services under a Direct Award contract with the NTA. Both services serve many rural towns with frequencies varying from several times a day to a weekly service. Any changes to the subsidised services, requires the approval of the Authority. As you are all aware, while NTA subsidises public bus services under a Direct Award contract arrangement with Bus Éireann, we are precluded from providing any subvention whatsoever to commercial services such as Expressway.
- Other commercial operators provide a number of town to town services and intercity services across the state without any state subsidy. If Bus Éireann or any commercial operator is required to withdraw any of its commercial services, the Authority will work to ensure that communities are not left behind. We have demonstrated that we can respond to these situations in the services that we provided following the withdrawal of Expressway Route 5 and the curtailment of Route 7 in 2015.
- Bus services are provided under the Rural Transport Programme. These bus services are contracted by the NTA and are managed by seventeen Locallink offices throughout the state. The services are primarily demand-responsive services (80% of all services) but there are regular scheduled services between towns also provided under this programme.
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.
Realising our Rural Potential
The Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural & Gaeltacht Affairs has just launched her department’s Action Plan for Rural Development. The Authority is committed to delivering on the actions relating to rural transport in the plan which is a key element of the development plan.
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. With the benefit of this local collaboration, we expect to continue to make considerable progress, throughout 2017, on refining, and expanding where appropriate, the operation of local transport services, in addition to ensuring the optimal level of integration with the other public transport services. 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. These improvements cannot be sustained unless significant improvement work is carried out by the city authorities in providing bus priority measures particularly now as car traffic congestion is growing rapidly. Improved town services will also be delivered in Athlone following the success of the Sligo bus services enhancements.
Co-ordination of services
In exercising its functions the Authority seeks to achieve the provision of an integrated public transport system of services and networks for all users. Wherever appropriate, we seek to integrate and coordinate services to provide for seamless travel options where change of bus and/or mode is required. This includes the operation of rural transport services (“Local Link”), which can facilitate connecting to mainline inter-urban services, irrespective of the provider of those services. In fact the NTA is the only body that can bring modes and operators together in an integrated service pattern that provides the best service for rural communities.
Public Transport Infrastructure
There are a number of key infrastructural items that support public transport which are required to increase the attractiveness of public transport particularly in rural Ireland i.e. bus shelters, accessible bus stops and information at stops.
The provision of additional shelters has been very constrained in recent year by lack of funding. The contract for the provision and maintenance of bus shelters now rests with the NTA rather than each operator. Therefore we are now well placed to deliver a comprehensive shelter programme if additional funding was made available.
Information provision has improved – new bus stop poles and information was rolled out on a pilot basis in Cork city. Real-time information while not available on signs at every bus stop, is available on the TFI website and app and from an sms text messaging service.
However, our ambition to deliver in these areas is very constrained due to lack of funding. The Authority will continue to request additional funding for this infrastructure when the mid-term review of the capital plan takes place this year in order that we can deliver a better service for the people of rural Ireland.
International Experience of Rural Services
Ireland is not alone in having a highly dispersed rural population and a settlement pattern that is difficult to serve by public transport. In an appendix to this statement I have outlined the strategies suggested by the OECD to improve rural service delivery.
- The Authority continues to strive to ensure the delivery of effective and integrated rural transport that serves the needs of the rural communities, reduces social exclusion and facilitates those with disabilities.
- The Authority is following recognised best practice in the provision of demand-responsive services in rural areas and in developing technologies that will assist communities to access the services.
- The Authority has prioritised the integration of health-related transport services with rural transport services with the Locallink offices and the HSE.
- The Authority will continue to provide additional rural transport services under the programme up to the funding level provided by the Department of Transport Tourism and Sport and the Department of Social Protection.
- The Authority will seek additional funding in order to greatly improve bus shelter and bus stop information provision in rural Ireland.
- Good public transport offers so many benefits to local communities and is a key contributor to their economic and social wellbeing. It is just as important to offer social connectivity, access to jobs, education and services in rural areas which will allow rural communities to develop. The NTA will ensure that public transport plays its part in building sustainable rural communities.
That concludes my introductory presentation. I trust that we can answer any queries that arise.
In OECD countries, rural areas account for 75% of the land mass but support only 25% of the population. Service delivery in rural areas is challenged by the following factors:
- Long distances between residential and work places and service locations
- Low population and low density development patterns
- Ageing population
- Diminishing subsidies for the support of services
- Increasing diversity in the service requested
- Few service providers to meet the demand
The OECD suggests the following strategies to improve rural service delivery:
- Placing end users at the community level as an integral part of the process; this ensures that there are better odds of providing services that are useful in the community and of providing them in a cost-effective way. Locallink meets this criterion with their voluntary boards that include community representation.
- Consolidation of services – concentrating customers on a smaller number of service locations. The review of service provision is examining whether a number of locations can be served with the one public transport service.
- Co-location of services – basic overhead costs such as energy, security and administrative expenses, can be pooled, generating economies of scale. A lot of Locallink offices are based in local authority offices.
- Merging similar services – merge similar or substitute services and combines them into a single entity. This is being examined to see whether HSE and rural transport services can be merged.
- Alternative delivery options – where the demand for services is widely dispersed, it may be more efficient to bring the service to the user. e.g. mobile library services, dental clinics, and doctors. Not applicable in rural transport services.
- Community-based solutions for different types of providers – volunteer fire departments, community owned shops. Community car schemes are being piloted in a number of areas where voluntary drivers use their own cars to bring customers to service locations where the demand is not high enough for a bus.