Speech to Bus Éireann Symposium, Galway

31st August, 2015

I am delighted to be addressing this symposium today and I would like to thank the organisers for the invitation to provide some closing remarks. I would also like to thank all of the contributors for their very interesting and insightful presentations.


Today’s event is an ideal occasion to discuss the role of public transport in the development of balanced regional economies and how it can support economic development in a city like Galway.


The focus of transport policy and the issues we face have changed in recent times. After several years of lower transport demand and constrained funding due to the economic downturn, we must now support our growing economy with an efficient and effective transport system.



Ireland is now enjoying the strongest annual economic growth levels since 2007, with GDP growth of 4.8% in 2014 making us the fastest growing economy in Europe last year. We are expecting further strong growth this year – well above the European average.


Most importantly, unemployment has fallen from a high of 15.1% at the peak of the crisis to 9.6% in the second quarter of 2015. The Quarterly National Household Survey published last week by the CSO shows that over 126,000 jobs have now been created since the launch of the Action Plan for Jobs in early 2012.


Getting people back to work is the key priority of this Government. Recent figures also show continued strong growth in tourism with an increase of 12.2% in overseas visits to Ireland for the first seven months of 2015 compared to the same period of 2014.


With economic growth of 3.25% on average forecast for the remainder of the decade, an opportunity exists to replace all of the jobs lost during the downturn and to have more people at work in Ireland by the end of the decade than ever before.



So, the focus of transport policy and the issues we face are beginning to change. After a number of years of coping with the various impacts associated with an economic downturn, including lower transport demand and constrained funding, we are now moving in to a phase where our transport system must support a growing economy.


My Department recently carried out an exercise to define a new Strategic Framework for Investment in Land Transport, or the SFILT.

This work was overseen by an expert steering group and included a public consultation to take into account the views of the public and the relevant stakeholders across the country.


As an overall framework for guiding investment planning in this area, it set out firstly, to provide an evidence base for prioritising the constrained funding we have available for land transport. Secondly, the work examined current levels of investment spending when set against our historic average, our international competitors and our estimated minimum funding requirement.


Following on from our economic collapse, the level of funding where land transport is concerned has been dramatically reduced. Investment in this area fell from a peak of €3 billion, or 1.6% of GDP in 2008 to a historic low level of €850 million, or 0.5% of GDP in 2014.


As a result, a gap developed between what was available and what was needed to adequately maintain, manage and renew existing infrastructure. This Government has been working hard to return our public finances to order so that we can build a better future and provide the levels of investment we require to meet the economic and social needs of our people.


It is clear that issues are emerging as a consequence of the welcome growth of the economy, including congestion, meeting public transport demand and dealing with increased freight. It is also clear that there is historical underinvestment in transport with continued constraint on investment for the future.


More than ever, we need evidence-based decision making, creativity and innovation.  Difficult choices will have to be considered by all stakeholders in the transport sector.



I am glad to say that public transport demand is picking up significantly and is expected to continue an upward trend. For example, passenger journeys across the CIÉ companies increased by 9.6 million to 237.5 million in 2014; an increase of 4%, with Bus Éireann witnessing an additional 1.5 million journeys.


This welcome development presents challenges in terms of ensuring that the appropriate infrastructure is in place to deal with increased demand, as well as the funding of Public Service Obligation services. The economic downturn and consequent reduction in PSO funding saw the need to introduce cost efficiencies across all aspects of public transport.  While some of the impacts were difficult, many of the efficiencies introduced have yielded positive results.


For example, following the introduction of a revised Public Service Obligation network in Galway, the number of passengers using the PSO network grew by 18% between 2012 and 2014.


More people now travel to work and for leisure activities and while this is welcome this development presents challenges in terms of ensuring that the appropriate infrastructure is in place to deal with increased demand, as well as the need to sustain funding for PSO services.



I committed to avoiding further reductions in the PSO funding and ensured that in Budget 2015 PSO funding for bus and rail services was maintained at current levels.


This is the first time this has happened since 2008.


Having secured additional capital investment of €110 million for public transport as part of the 2014 Supplementary Estimate for my Department, I was also able to obtain further extra funding of €100m this year; €60m of which was allocated to public transport.


The additional funding in 2014 prioritised the renewal of aging bus fleets, which included 57 new coaches for Bus Éireann, as well as provision to allow for enhanced service reliability and safety for those who use Irish Rail services.


Of the €60m additional funding I recently announced for this year, €20 million will be used to renew the bus fleet to meet growing demand. I would also like to acknowledge the recent investment by Bus Éireann in the Expressway commercial fleet, which included a significant investment in 20 new coaches and a rebranding of the fleet.


Improved public transport, whether new services or increased frequencies of existing services, will require funding.  The commuter cannot be expected to pay for all of this.  I do acknowledge that very significant efficiencies have already been delivered in our public transport companies in their responses to the funding cuts of the past seven years. However we will continue to seek efficiency improvements.


There is, of course, another issue concerning bus services which has been topical of late.  The development of the motorway network has brought huge benefits for inter-urban bus commuters but with a trade-off in terms of the level of service that can be offered to some intermediate locations – bearing in mind that the inter-urban services operate in a competitive market without PSO subvention.


This has led to changes that have worried rural communities with proposed changes on a number of bus routes.


I would like to acknowledge the work of the NTA in developing reconfigurations of services, including PSO routes, to deal with this issue. I welcome the work carried out by the NTA in seeking to address the transportation needs of those impacted by the proposed changes to Bus Éireann’s Route Number 7 and the withdrawal of the Number 5 route.


By introducing new services and procuring additional ones, continuity of service will be secured for the locations affected. Despite the fact that resources are limited, I provided funding this year to the NTA for these new and reconfigured services, in recognition of the importance of providing services to rural towns and villages.


This reflects Government, and my Department’s, commitment to maintaining access within rural communities.



It is encouraging to note Galway City Council’s participation in this symposium, demonstrating that many factors, including my Department, the NTA and operators as well as local authorities, play an important role in improving the effectiveness of our public transport services.


While improved bus services can attract people away from the car to the bus, the bus must be able to deliver reliable and consistent journey times to retain those people.


Prioritisation of bus operations within the traffic environment is one area where the Council can play a vital role.


Strategic planning is fundamental for the development of balanced economic growth and I fully support the development of a Transport Plan for the City Centre of Galway.


This plan will provide an overall traffic management plan for the city centre, balancing the needs of the various modes of transport seeking to access the city centre. It is being prepared as part of a long-term transport plan for the overall city and environs.


That plan will guide investment in transport services and infrastructure over a 20-30 year period, and is being prepared jointly by NTA and Galway City Council staff.



Advances in technology have revolutionised the customer experience and increased the attractiveness of public transport. The NTA is engaged in the development and deployment of technologies to make it easier to use public transport.


Public transport service quality is also an important factor that influences passenger demand and the NTA has delivered a number of significant cross-operator initiatives such as real time information at bus stops, on Apps and online, the National Journey Planner, the Leap Card, investment in the bus fleet and on-board Wi-Fi, improved public transport maps and the reconfiguration of regional city bus services that, to date, includes Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford.


Finally, the shift towards sustainable transport is an on-going requirement placed in sharper focus by a growing economy. More sustainable modes of transportation recognise important health and social benefits as well as mitigating carbon emissions.


The Galway Bike Scheme was launched in November 2014. To date, 15 stations have been constructed and at the end of July 2015, the Scheme had 2,151 members and as many as 12,840 trips have been made using the scheme in Galway.


The NTA and Galway City Council have now agreed on the construction of eight additional stations, demonstrating the success of the scheme so far.



I turn now to future capital needs for public transport and specifically public bus companies.


As I have said, the level of funding available in recent years for road and rail projects had to be significantly reduced.  For the most part, funding allocated for land transport under the current capital plan to 2016 has been used to protect existing road and rail assets, maintain standards and deliver targeted new road projects.


Notwithstanding the reduced resources, some funding has been set aside for some essential projects which have a sound business case and add value to the existing network, such as LUAS Cross City.


Roads funding over the last few years has been mainly focused on the maintenance and rehabilitation of road pavements and bridges. Some minor works projects, including safety schemes have also been advanced.


Any additional funds in the immediate term will be prioritised to improve performance and increase capacity of bus services. This will include funding to increase bus fleets, for additional bus lanes and for other bus priority measures. I will also be seeking to increase funding for the regional cities to build on public transport, cycling and walking developments there over recent years.


For roads, the priority for additional capital funding will be on maintenance and renewal of the network.  Any additional investment will be focussed on addressing bottlenecks and safety issues, improving access to major ports and airports and addressing the needs of industry.


It will also be linked to public transport investment where required so as to ensure that transfers between different modes of travel are as seamless as possible.



One of the most important issues in transport policy is the need to plan properly for the long-term public transport needs and to ensure existing infrastructure is renewed before it requires even more costly reinstatement.  Investment decisions in the transport sector in future must have a much more rigorous evidence base than was the case in the past so that we prioritise the projects which will offer the greatest economic and social return for the resources we can provide.


In addition to this, we need to understand potential future demand levels and supply constraints and also to identify the most cost effective options for achieving our low carbon objectives.  Aligning investment levels with growth in demand will be vital to supporting modal shift and reducing overall dependence on the car, particularly in large urban areas.


Key strategic transport policy is evolving and our focus has shifted from dealing with economic decline to supporting growth. These developments present different challenges and opportunities which we must meet to ensure that economic growth is supported and maintained.


Thank you very much.