By Gráinne Ní Aodha, PA
Finding new bus drivers to hire is “the biggest constraint” on rolling out new services, Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan has said.
The Green Party leader was speaking at the National Transport Authority (NTA) launch of a plan for 67 new or “enhanced” rural bus routes in the year ahead.
Among the areas that will see attention paid to its bus routes are the Dingle-to-Dunquin, Longford-to-Roscommon, Dungarvan-to-Clonmel and Ring of Kerry routes.
Investment in rural bus services by the Department of Transport and NTA is set to double to 8.5 million euro this year, with routes operated by Bus Eireann and Transport for Ireland Local Link services.
Speaking in Co Offaly at the launch of the Connecting Ireland plan for 2023, Mr Ryan acknowledged that recruiting bus drivers was “the one restriction we have”.
“If we get the drivers, we’re going to provide the service,” he told reporters in Tullamore.
“That is the biggest constraint. Just talking to the Local Link company here, they’re saying ‘that’s what we need’ – particularly younger people to go into this profession. It’s a good job, you get thanked every day along the way.
“That’s the one restriction or the constraint that we have, we need more drivers.
“But as long as we get them, the funding is there, the organisation is there to make it happen.”
He said the new service was “good value” and is something everyone can use.
“The really good thing about them is they’re accessible – that’s good if you’re in a wheelchair, that’s good if you have a buggy, that’s good if you’re older.
“So it’s moving towards a really good quality service that is accessible, increasingly clean, but the key thing here is frequent, and good value for money.”
He said not all buses on the new rural routes would be electric, adding that the rollout was still at an early stage.
NTA chief executive Anne Graham said electric buses were being tested out in cities first.
“It will be moving to these Local Link routes as well, where we just need to test the battery serve, the distances that are travelled on Local Link services, and we need to get charging infrastructure in place as well.
“So there’s a bit of work to be done, but our ambition is to have all our subsidised public transport to be operated by zero-emission buses.”
When asked why investment in rural bus routes had not happened before now, Mr Ryan said that there was not the political will to do so – referring to the pledge in the programme for government to ensure a 2:1 spending ratio on public transport over road infrastructure.
He also said this approach was “working”, and referred to figures that indicate the use of public transport has exceeded pre-pandemic levels.
“We reduced fares last year by 20%. We’re an outlier now internationally, the numbers have come back in Ireland the way they haven’t elsewhere. So the people have responded, particularly with those lower fares and greater frequency.
“Maybe people thought ‘people would never use that’. But actually, when you provide good quality public transport, the Irish people flock to it. And that’s what’s happening at the moment.”
He said that the government’s first priority on roads would be “maintaining the safety and the quality of the existing network”, and the second would be bypasses “so our towns become really attractive places”.
When asked about the cost-of-living package expected to be unveiled next week, he said the government had seen research on certain cohorts of people who are struggling with high bills during the energy crisis.
“The likes of lone parents, the likes of their particular categories in society – we’ve always know this – that they find it particularly difficult.”
He said that “the exact balance, the exact mix” of the spring measures from the State would be unveiled next week.
When asked about some questioning of the high airmiles expected as part of Mr Ryan’s trip to China for St Patrick’s Day, he said: “I can understand the argument.
“But I don’t agree. I think sometimes we do need to travel. I do need to play our part in the world in terms of the diplomacy and in global politics. We’re a small country, but actually we have a significant voice.”