Chairperson and members of the committee, thank you for the invitation to attend. I understand that the Committee wishes to focus upon the current situation pertaining to travel restrictions with specific reference to the use of public transport by those returning to work.
Public Transport Journeys
Prior to this crisis, the Authority had been recording a significant growth in the public transport usage in our cities, towns and in rural Ireland thanks to an increased investment by the Authority in new and enhanced services. Growth was 9% in 2019 and in the last four years was 24 % leading to very high levels of demand on our networks at peak times. The early periods of 2020 were showing an easement in that growth. However, the COVID 19 crisis and the Government’s response, including school closures from 13th March followed by the requirement to stay at home which applied from 23rd March, had a profound and ongoing impact on the demand for public transport. Daily demand is now typically between 10% and 20% of what it was prior to mid-March.
Weekly demand in early March (prior to pandemic related restrictions) was approximately 5.6 million passengers. By mid-April this had declined to 500,000 passengers (less than 9% of normal demand levels. Although demand remains very low, some recovery in passenger numbers have been apparent in recent weeks, increasing from 500,000 weekly passengers in mid-April to approximately 700,000 in mid-May prior to the easing of restrictions.
Throughout this crisis, the National Transport Authority (NTA) and the public transport operators have been closely following the public health advices. In line with those advices, we have implemented a number of measures across the public transport system for enhanced cleaning regimes and to facilitate appropriate social distancing.
Social distancing and service capacity
The need to maintain physical distancing on board services was recognised by operators and the Authority at the outset of the pandemic as important to protect both passengers and drivers insofar as possible. The Authority worked with PSO public transport operators to provide consistent signage on board all PSO bus, rail and Luas services, to encourage physical distancing by passengers and to reduce the risk of close passenger contact with drivers. These measures were rolled out in early April.
The impact of these measures has been to dramatically reduce the passenger carrying capacity of each vehicle – to around 20% of its former level in the case of bus with a larger reduction in the case of rail. However, the reduced demand for travel was such that this social distancing was easily achieved on all services.
Prior to COVID-19 each public transport vehicle was cleaned internally and externally each night before entering service the next morning. From early March onwards, this cleaning regime was progressively enhanced by more intensive night-time cleaning measures, focussing in particular on passenger touch points such as grab rails and seat handles. These cleaning measures were later supplemented by on-board cleaning of passenger touch points during the service day.
In the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis, the risk of operator staff availability and vehicle spare parts shortages was considered high. As a contingency measure, and to ensure that a more resilient timetable could be maintained, revised bus and rail timetables were introduced by the Authority in late March and early April. These “Saturday Plus” timetables reflected the huge decrease in travel demand that had taken place by then, but maintained sufficient services to meet residual demand by essential travellers at all times and particularly in the early morning when many healthcare staff require public transport services.
Coupled with the reductions in capacity due to social distancing, the revised timetables represented an overall reduction in capacity of approximately 85% compared to pre pandemic levels.
Both Luas and the rural regular services continued to maintain normal schedules. The demand responsive services provided by Locallink supported their local communities in delivering supplies, particularly to those that were cocooning.
Throughout the crisis, the dedication of operator staff, and drivers in particular, in continuing to provide public transport services to those who still need to travel has been remarkable and I would like to record that here today.
The collapse in passenger journeys has resulted in a very significant reduction in fare revenue which supports the provision of public transport services. This is putting acute pressure on the existing Public Service Obligation (PSO) budget. The NTA is working closely with the Department of Transport Tourism & Sport to quantify the additional funding requirements for the coming months, and they are engaging positively with relevant colleagues across Government in that respect.
The NTA is aware that both the commercial bus and small public service vehicle sector have like all businesses been very severely impacted during this crisis. The government has put in place a number of supports for all business and the NTA is continuing to work with these sectors and other stakeholders to do all within our powers to support them.
Planning for Reopening phases
The pattern of travel on public transport has changed radically and is likely not to immediately return to the same patterns as were in place prior to the Covid 19 pandemic. The planning of the public transport response to the Government’s roadmap is challenging as there are now new norms.
The Authority has made extensive contacts with employer, industry and retail bodies as well as larger third level institutions to ascertain the manner in which various sectors expect to phase their reopening in keeping with the Government’ Roadmap. These contacts will continue through the reopening phases. The Authority continues to liaise closely with PSO transport operators as we monitor passenger trends and emerging service capacity constraints, and identify actions which can be taken to address these constraints.
At a high level the response to the various re-opening phases is as follows:
Phase 1 (18th May): To maintain the reduced weekday timetable and lengthen trains where required and to provide additional services at peak times as required.
Phase 2 (8th June): Reintroduce normal Monday-Friday timetables for commuters on bus and DART.
Phase 3 to Phase 5 (29th June to 10th August and beyond): Continue to monitor travel demand and work with operators on providing additional services where needed, subject to availability of fleet, drivers and funding.
The resultant travel demand in response to Phase One of the easing of restrictions has been higher than expected. We believe that there is a large percentage of non-essential travel being made on public transport which is using up the capacity that we had planned for Phase Two.
Public transport capacity with social distancing will be significantly challenged without a number of other supporting measures. These include:
- Encouraging organisations to continue to facilitate working from home, remote learning, online shopping and online appointments where possible;
- Discouraging use of public transport at peak times except for essential travel; and
- Encouraging staggered start times and longer opening hours to spread demand out of peak.
The National Transport Authority is working with local authorities to:
- introduce mobility plans in cities (starting with Dublin city centre) to manage travel demand to urban centres, to protect space for public transport and provide additional space to meet increased cycling and walking demand;
- fund the emergency infrastructure identified by local authorities;
- encourage people to keep their journeys short and local wherever possible; and
- promote cycling and walking instead of public transport or car wherever possible, especially for shorter trips in towns and cities.
There is no doubt that there needs to be a radical shift in the use of active travel modes over the next few months in our towns and cities. In the recently published Mobility Plan for Dublin, it has been shown that we need to plan for a doubling of walking and a trebling of cycling journeys at peak time.
Future of Public Transport
The Authority is of the view that passenger demand will return for public transport as confidence in the safety of public transport grows post Covid 19. Therefore, we need to continue to plan for increased capacity in our public transport system. The Authority continues to work with our stakeholders to deliver BusConnects, DART Expansion, Metrolink and other key public transport in our cities, towns and in rural Ireland to support the growth in Ireland and a brighter and greener future for our country.
Thank you and I would be happy to take the committee members questions.