Rural transport becoming less responsive, say service providers

Services being centralised by the National Transport Authority

Brian Bonham, manager of Laois Trip: sanguine about central co-ordination of sevices. Photograph: James Flynn/APX

Brian Bonham, manager of Laois Trip: sanguine about central co-ordination of sevices. Photograph: James Flynn/APX

Mon, Aug 18, 2014, 01:00

If a person in Clonaslee in the foothills of the Slieve Bloom mountains in Co Laois is offered a job in Kinnitty, Co Offaly, a distance of just 15km, he or she cannot take it if they do not have private transport.

That is the view of Brian Bonham of not-for-profit transport company Laois Trip, which offers scheduled “collect and connect” services in Co Laois. Rural public transport, he said, is of vital importance to the lives of rural towns and villages.

Laois Trip runs 14 scheduled services bringing people shopping, taking the elderly to post offices and hairdressers, and schoolchildren to sports events. It is one of 35 companies in the Rural Transport Network that provide community- based public transport. The network is mostly organised on a county-by-county basis and responds to local needs.

In 2012 the network carried 1.7 million passenger journeys covering more than 11 million kilometres. Its supporters claim it is a crucial element in battling rural isolation.

Funding is provided by user charges, and in 2013 it received €9.13 million from the Department of Transport – with an additional €1.5 million from the Department of Social Protection and about €900,000 from the Community Support Programme.

Under plans announced by former minister for sustainable transport Alan Kelly the scheme is being brought into the family of public transport services procured and funded by the National Transport Authority (NTA).

Reduction sought

While the 35 member organisations currently procure their services largely from private bus operators, the authority is seeking to reduce this to 18, organised more regionally. Mr Kelly gave assurances services would not be cut.

But providers are worried about the local responsiveness of the service being lost. Ferdia Ó Liathain, local co-ordinator of co-operative Comharchumann Chléire, which provides transport on Cape Clear and Sherkin Island, said that under the rationalisation project, services on the islands would be run from Cork, which could, he said, make it unnecessarily complicated for users.

Maggie Flaherty of Bealach – Pairtneireacht Iompar in Carna, Co Galway, said services are a lifeline for people in an area where there is just one CIÉ bus each day to Galway, up to 100km away. She said the organisation caters for 2,000 passenger journeys on 16 services a month, and by reducing administration to voluntary work has avoided cutting services.

Flaherty does not see how rationalisation or centralisation could save on these administration costs. People in the community would lose their independence and be “devastated” if tinkering with the service made it unviable, she said.

Fiona O’Shea, Monaghan- based chairwoman of the network, acknowledges the concern but said negotiations are continuing with the NTA.

Brian Bonham is sanguine about central co-ordination, provided it is done correctly. He would like to see regional co-ordinators responsible for the optimum use of every State-funded bus in the region.

Anne Graham of the NTA said that under the reorganisation, procurement of services from private contractors would be undertaken by the authority but individual companies would continue to identify the need for services and interact with the local community.

She said the authority is currently working to bring Health Service Executive minibuses into the scheme. A pilot scheme in four locations using rural schoolbuses is working well, she said.