Wednesday, 23 January 1991
Seanad Éireann Debate
First, I welcome the Minister to the House. I thank you, Sir, for allowing me to raise this important matter of the availability of late night public transport particularly in the Dublin area and the availability and operation of taxis and the timing of the DART service and late night buses. I raise this issue as a result of quite a number of complaints from constituents and other people including  hoteliers and public house owners etc. in the city. The end of last year saw a most successful anti-drink driving campaign. All the people involved in that, the relevant Ministers, the Garda and the general public, responded in a most responsible manner to the question of not drinking and driving. The Minister knows the Garda have indicated that the campaign will continue. There must be a response from the various Departments connected with this. The Minister knows her Department are only partially responsible in this regard; other Departments are involved, including the Department of Justice and the Department of Transport. These Departments must consider the availability of public transport late at night particularly during holidays, special events, weekends and Christmas. The question needs careful attention and review and I ask the Minister and her colleagues in other Departments to review the situation.
Various aspects must be examined in regard to the availability and operation of taxis. I understand that in the Dublin area just over 1,800 plates are available. This number has obtained since 1979 and obviously, the population of Dublin has increased since then. Plates which cost a couple of thousand pounds about ten years ago are now realising about £47,000. Some of the people buying these may have received redundancy payments, have reached middle age and might not get another job elsewhere.
If one phones for a taxi, one has to wait sometimes for an hour or an hour-and-a-half. Some taxis do not have radios. Spare taxis may be available but because they have no radios the drivers do not know where people are seeking taxis and where the demand is. There have been many complaints about this. People have been left waiting hours or had to walk home late at night. This is intolerable. These are not just people who normally drive and are responding to the drink driving campaign. Many people in our cities and towns cannot afford to run a car. We are all aware of the enormous cost of running a car  between keeping it on the road, insurance, road tax, petrol, etc.
The question of operating the DART service and buses late at night also arises. The last DART train mid-week runs at about 11.25 p.m., certainly well before the last public house closes, particularly in summer time. While public houses should not necessarily be the guiding light, obviously they are a barometer. There have been problems in running late night buses due to drivers being attacked. There is a duty on the Minister here and the Minister for Transport to consider whether the DART and the bus service should be extended to run later at weekends, particularly at Christmas and times of special events. If there is a demand and a need, then I suggest the Minister here should direct that a full investigation be made into how the service is being provided at present and whether at weekends the DART and bus services should run later. There have been many complaints. I know of one unfortunate person who contracted pneumonia and is still quite seriously ill because he had to walk a couple of miles and got soaked to the skin after waiting several hours at a taxi rank and no taxi arrived.
The drink driving campaign was successful partly because of the responsible attitude of most motorists. Obviously, some did not heed the warning of the Minister and the Garda. That campaign must be maintained all the year round, not just for a couple of weeks prior to Christmas. Hand in hand with it, if it saves lives there is an onus on the Minister here and her colleagues to look at how the taxi service is run, whether plates and licences should be issued for a limited period at certain times, costs and so on. Taxis constitute a big industry valued at approximately £100 million. The last licences were issued in 1979 and if there is a demand for more licences Dublin Corporation should examine the possibility of issuing them. It is for the Minister to consider whether there should be different types of licences during special times. Much needed employment could be provided if the licences applied to operators for a given period of time for certain months of the year or for certain  hours of the day. For special events, holiday or party times we should provide a public transport service.
When replying I would ask the Minister to respond to the matters I have raised. I know she represents an area in which at times taxis have been difficult to hire. The anti-drink-driving campaign should be uppermost in our minds to eliminate further carnage. There may be many people, not necessarily those returning home at five o'clock in the morning who, if they miss a DART at 11.25 p.m. during the week or the last DART from Bray into town on a Sunday night at 11 o'clock may have to walk back part of the way either because they cannot avail of the DART service or have missed the last buses. CIE have got to be flexible in this respect. I condemn strongly any attacks on late night bus drivers and conductors particularly those perpetuated by drunken people. That is a worry for CIE. If necessary special squads should travel on buses. I would ask the Minister, when replying, to respond to the continuing problem. It would be my hope that she will institute an investigation into the difficulties that have evolved. That would be a positive response. CIE and the Taxi Federation must also investigate the difficulties being encountered. I am not saying there is a Utopian answer but a response is warranted and it is up to the Minister and her colleagues to do so.
Mr. Cullen: I thank Senator Cosgrave for allowing me some of his time to speak on this important matter. At the outset I might declare my involvement in this area as chief executive of the Federation of Transport Operators representing 1,100 private companies. The federation are widely known.
The matter that has been raised tonight is one of deep concern to all of us with an interest in public transport. Undoubtedly, it highlights the need for the Minister to introduce legislation on which I know he has been working for the past 12 months. More than that, it highlights the need here of an integrated public transport policy involving all the different elements involved therein. We tend to deal with matters in isolation, talking of the buses and coaches in the State sector,  then the private sector and lastly the taxi-hackney position as if they were all separate entities.
If we look at the experiences of many of our EC partners who have deregulated and liberalised their systems over recent years — we will perceive the key to their successful deregulation policies, recognising the interdependence of all of these services in the provision of an excellent public transport service. That is the point I want to make. That is what we should be about and its net result would be beneficial to fare-paying public. It is not a matter for the vested interests of any one group, be it State or private sector but rather the combination of all of those assets to devise a system that will benefit all. That is what we should be about.
There has been much discussion of this new licensing policy recently and the new bus competition Bill about which the Minister has been talking. I must make the point strongly that there has been a suggestion on the part of non-representative voices in the private sector and elsewhere that one could take the late night bus service problem and hand it over to the private sector who would solve it. That would be a disastrous way to approach this problem. Indeed, if that were to be the approach to the public transport system in general equally it would be a disaster.
The future direction of transport here is not reliant on the private sector only or on the State sector only because no one sector can provide the answers. Rather it should be done by a combination of the best assets and there are some excellent assets in the State sector as there are in the private sector. Recognition of that will bring about the type of system that we want to see evolve here.
I condemn out of hand the acts of vandalism perpetrated on personnel in Dublin Bus, in particular the attacks perpetrated over Christmas which have highlighted one other important fact, that is the need for flexibility within the public transport system. This problem is exacerbated at peak times, around Christmas, on bank holiday weekends or whenever there is an increased need for public transport particularly late in the evenings. I hope the campaign of the Minister for the Environment to stop  people drinking and driving will continue all-year round, this should be a permanment feature of Irish life. If that is to be the case what we need at such times is a public transport system that can respond to those needs. That is possible. It is here that the different arms of the private sector can make a contribution. Smaller, more flexible companies, of their nature, can respond to such needs. It is more difficult for any company in the State or private sector — extremely large and bureaucratic — to respond to sudden needs or have that flexible capacity.
What has happened in country after country throughout Europe bears out the contention that such is possible with the evaluation of a deregulated system that directly involves the private and State sectors. All the figures indicate that there has been a substantial growth in the number of members of the public using public transport. Those are the facts. I am not saying this purely because I am involved in the private sector operations. The combination of all of these resources will solve our problems.
I urge the Minister to introduce the Bill that he has clearly signalled over the past 12 months as quickly as possible. I expect that Bill to be quite detailed and I have no doubt but that it will necessitate much discussion. However, the implementation of its detailed provisions will be another matter. It is easy to set parameters but an assessment of how these resources will be deployed is infinitely more difficult.
The other point I would make is that there are too many Departments here involved in transport operations. It is ludicrous for an island nation so dependent on delivery of its transport system to expand into the haulage sector. We need a Department in full control. It is unfair that responsibilities are spread between the Departments of the Environment, Tourism and Transport and Education.
Referring to some recent reaction to the difficulties confronting late night transport in Dublin over the Christmas period it would be incorrect to suggest that the private sector is champing at the bit to operate exclusively late night services in Dublin. There have been some ludicrous suggestions such as a door-to-door  bus service. These are not possible and it is extremely unfair to raise the expectancy in the public mind that the private sector can deliver such service because it cannot. The private sector can deliver what it is allowed deliver within a cohesive transport policy but not only by way of some of the airy fairy suggestions advanced.
I want to knock these types of utterings on the head at this point because it does not benefit either the Department of Tourism and Transport, or the public to raise these expectations. It does a disservice to all of the bodies interested in developing a public transport system in this country. I would urge the Department of Tourism and Transport to consider those points and to bring forward the Bill as soon as possible to start a full debate on public transport policy.
Minister of State at the Department of the Environment (Miss Harney): I apologise for the absence of the Minister for Transport and Tourism, Deputy Brennan who, because of a pressing engagement, cannot be here this evening. He has asked me to deputise on his behalf.
I share the concern expressed by both Senators Cosgrave and Cullen about the need for improved transport facilities here particularly in the Dublin area and especially late at night. As the Senators are probably aware — and Senator Cullen referred to this — the Minister for Transport and Tourism said on many occasions that he is preparing legislation which I understand he is now finalising, to have a significant liberalisation of bus services in the country and to allow for greater competition between bus operators. Liberalisation of the transport system and the deregulation that will follow will have a significant impact on improving services generally throughout the country.
I want to compliment, as Senator Cosgrave and Senator Cullen did, the efforts of the Garda Síochána over the Christmas period in instilling in all of us, the need to be ever vigilant when taking drink, and not to drive with drink on board. It was an extremely successful campaign. It substantially reduced the number of deaths. It is unfortunate that the very bad weather after Christmas  almost cancelled out the number of lives saved before Christmas in that vigorous campaign which was so well put in place by the Garda. The campaign also had a significant effect on insurance companies, in that they had a significant take up of car insurance during the period in which that campaign was under way. Long may that continue. The public response was very responsible. Virtually everybody responded very well and people going out to drink left their cars at home.
It was that fantastic response, although not only that response that led to many of the problems to which Senators Cosgrave and Cullen have drawn attention and which they have succeeded in having raised here this evening. Certainly the long queues at taxi ranks during that period were extremely frustrating. I am not sure how one can deal with short term problems of that kind. Senator Cosgrave called for the issuing of temporary licences. I am not certain how that would work and how the people who would have such licences would be able to live for the rest of the year. There are possiblities for, perhaps, granting temporary licences during such periods, to hackney drivers and so on. I certainly want to be positive about the suggestions put forward.
As Senator Cosgrave said, responsibility for this rests in a number of different areas. Dublin Corporation are the responsible body for licensing taxis in the city. Despite that, the Minister for the Environment has said that he intends to carry out a comprehensive review of taxi and hackney services around the country including the Dublin area, and that any gaps, difficulties and temporary problems that exist will be rectified following that comprehensive review.
It is fair to say, and as a Dublin Deputy I am more than aware of this, that as the population of the city has moved out to the suburbs this has put increased pressure and increased expectation on the transport system. In the sixties about 150,000 to 160,000 people lived in Dublin's inner city. That figure has almost halved, to 80,000 people. Many of my constituents have told me it was not until they moved to Tallaght or Clondalkin  that they realised the gaps that existed in the public transport system.
I want to refer to and condemn the vandalism that has taken place on some of the Dublin buses and which has resulted in the curtailing of services to many parts of the suburbs. Such areas as Finglas and, in my own constituency, Clondalkin, Neilstown and other areas have had to have service curtailed from 7 p.m. because of the assaults and robberies on bus crews and the throwing of stones at buses. CIE tell me that, for example, 32 bus staff are currently out of work on sick leave because of attacks on them by vandals. The cost of this kind of vandalism according to the last figures available, in 1988, was £1.1 million. This is adding significantly to the problem of Dublin Bus in the Dublin area. I condemn the hooligans who get on buses, terrorise passengers and do a great disservice to the public transport system for the area in which they live or may be travelling through at any time.
Dublin Bus have 700 buses on 159 routes. The last bus leaves at about 23.30 hours in the evening. That is relatively early. There may not be a huge demand to have buses running all through the night, but there is a demand in the city to have a skeleton transport system available, certainly during peak periods like the Christmas period and so on. The review that is being carried out by the Minister for the Environment in relation to the taxi and hackney service and the proposals that are emanating from the Department of Transport by way of significant liberalisation of bus services should lead to a greatly improved service for the consumer and for the users of public transport, particularly in the city and county of Dublin, but in so far as it is possible and practicable, throughout the country also. As Senator Cullen said, it is a question of having an integrated approach, not just a question of having a State or a semi-State involvement. There is a significant role for the private sector in this whole area. What we need is an integrated approach that will allow an efficient and effective service to be available to the public when required.
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