Free travel scheme under review


THE LONG-TERM future of the free travel scheme – which benefits more than 725,000 older people, carers and people with disabilities – is being reviewed by a Government working group, it has emerged.

The inter-departmental working group, which includes officials from the Department of Social Protection, Department of Transport and the National Transportation Authority – is examining whether it is sustainable to maintain the scheme.

It was formed in June and is due to report back to the Government ahead of the next budget.

The cost of free travel has risen substantially over the last decade, up from €46 million for just over 600,000 commuters in 2001 to €75 million for 726,000 commuters last year.

Sources familiar with the group’s discussions say the Department of Social Protection is seeking to reduce the amount it provides to transport companies such as Bus Éireann and Iarnród Éireann.

However, such a move is likely to put major pressure on transport providers who say State funding for free travel does not cover the cost of offering the service.

One well-placed source said a possible option for transport providers would be to introduce peak-hour travel restrictions, which could allow them to raise additional revenue.

These restrictions were first introduced in the 1960s and limited free travel on certain routes outside of morning and evening rush-hours. The last of these restrictions were removed in 2006.

In a statement, the Department of Social Protection confirmed that an inter-departmental group was established earlier this year, but said no decisions have been made.

“The purpose of this review is to examine and report on the current operation and future development of the free travel scheme. The review is in the early stages. The department appreciates the important role that free travel plays in promoting social inclusion and preventing the isolation of elderly people,” it said in a statement.

It said funding for the scheme has been frozen at 2010 levels of expenditure, as set by the previous government in the National Recovery Plan 2011-2014.

The department is not considering applications for new or extended routes or increased rates of payment from operators in order to maintain the cap on spending.

The Department of Social Protection is responsible for the free travel scheme. It is generally available to all people living in the State aged 66 years or over.

It is also available to carers and people with disabilities who are in receipt of certain social welfare payments.

There are currently in excess of 720,000 customers eligible for free travel. When companion passes are taken into account, there are more than 1.1 million customers with free travel eligibility.

Internal Department of Social Protection briefing material states that the new review will take account of the potential impact of any recommendations on the operation of cross-Border travel.

“In considering any changes, the group will ensure that its recommendations have regard to the likely impact on costs both immediate and into the future,” it says.

The group has been tasked with drawing up recommendations to address current difficulties in time for the forthcoming budget, as well as proposals regarding the long-term future of the free travel scheme.

Separately, the department is working on the introduction of a public services card, which will replace the existing travel pass. The card will include improved security features and reduce the potential for forgery or fraudulent use, according to officials.

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