Just shy of 50 million journeys were taken under Ireland’s free travel scheme in 2018, a 30 per cent increase in eight years. The scheme, which allows the over-66s, their spouses, and people on disability allowance or carer’s allowance, to travel free of charge on buses, trams, trains and some ferry services, has never been more popular.
But the publication of these figures has led to fears it may be becoming a victim of its own success.
One of the roughly five million passengers who will use their free travel pass to journey by train this year is Nell O’Neill. She is getting ready to board the 11am from Waterford to Heuston Station in Dublin, after a weekend in the city with her five sisters-in-law. “I don’t use it, I abuse it,” she jokes. “I get great value out of it.”
'I've a friend that lives on Valentia island, and she'd come over and meet me for lunch. Five hours in Killarney and I'm back that evening. And I'll sleep the next day.'
She doesn’t drive, so “I use it constantly in Dublin – the bus, the Dart, the Luas. And I travel up and down the country to see relations”.
Her sister-in-law, Bridget McCabe, lives in Cavan and relies on the hourly bus service to Dublin. “I would be lost without it,” she says. “It’s given us all a new lease on life,” adds O’Neill.
‘I paid my taxes’
The scheme was originally intended for older people with vision impairment and their carers, but in April 1967, then-taoiseach Charles Haughey extended it to everyone over 66.
A group of older people interviewed by The Irish Times at the time doubted that they would have much use for it. David Doyle (77) told the newspaper he was “too old to go anywhere by train. I would not feel a bit inclined to take off for a look at Killarney,” he said. “I was in it a couple of times as a young man, but I might go astray now.”
In the 52 years since, however, the scheme has proven the early sceptics wrong. In all, 49.08 million journeys were taken on it last year, up 1.5 million on the previous year, and a 30 per cent increase on 2010.
Anne Hayden, in her late 70s, is waiting in Waterford to board the train to Dublin. She uses her free travel card “a lot. I’m on the train twice a week. I go to Kildare, Newbridge, Dublin. Or I get the bus to Cork or Wexford”.
Sometimes, she says, she gets the train from Waterford to Killarney for lunch. “I’ve a friend that lives on Valentia island, and she’d come over and meet me for lunch. Five hours in Killarney and I’m back that evening. And I’ll sleep the next day.”
Like most of the users who spoke to The Irish Times about the scheme, she is opposed to any suggestion that it could be amended. “We’ve given a lot to the country. I paid all my taxes all my life.”
The scheme is “an extraordinary social programme, unique in its scale and universality” says Barry Kenny of Iarnród Eireann. “Everything from the midweek breaks that keep the hotels going to the centralisation of health services – they’re all things the free travel facilities.”
During the eight years up to 2018, the number of free travel journeys by Dublin Bus increased by 25 per cent. More than 35 per cent more trips were made using the pass on Bus Éireann. There was a 26 per cent increase in journeys taken through the scheme on Iarnród Éireann. Local Link trips went up by 16 per cent, and Luas journeys by 81 per cent.
The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection says that funding to the scheme has increased by one quarter over the past four years, bringing it up to €95 million.
According to some with an interest in this issue, those numbers just don’t add up. “Free travel is up there as one of the greatest social achievements in the history of this country,” says Mark Gleeson, a spokesperson for Rail Users Ireland, a group representing rail travellers.
'There was six per cent growth overall each year. So yes, there is more pressure on resources, and we have an urgent need to order new trains'
“The problem is that the Government doesn’t pay the transport operators a fair rate” for the services. “There’s the whole climate argument too. If you want people to use public transport, fund it properly.”
And as the population ages, “the numbers of people using the scheme will keep going up. The funding for the scheme doesn’t cover the cost of providing it, and that deficit will be made up somewhere. Either in higher fares, or in cutbacks. If the intention is to provide people with unlimited travel 24 hours a day, it needs to be funded on a commercial basis.”
As it stands, Gleeson says, “the passenger who pays for the monthly ticket, or the taxpayer generally, is paying for the deficit”.
Demand for rail services is “increasing across the board from all customers,” says Barry Kenny. “It’s not particular to free-travel-scheme users. We had the highest ever number of users in 2018 – there was six per cent growth overall each year. So yes, there is more pressure on resources, and we have an urgent need to order new trains.”
At various times since the recession, there have been suggestions that the cost of the scheme could be offset by limiting travel to off-peak hours, or by removing access to free travel for spouses or partners of the over-66s. The issue arose again recently, when Fianna Fáil transport spokesman Marc MacSharry told this newspaper that the funding of the scheme warranted close monitoring, to ensure an unfair burden was not being placed on transport companies or fare-paying passengers.
But he said he was opposed to any proposal that eligibility for the free travel pass should be means-tested.
The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the National Transport Authority (NTA) have rejected any suggestion that the scheme could be amended or restricted.
A spokesperson for Minister Regina Doherty says she is "committed to its full retention" and that "she believes that the free travel pass is an essential and valuable support for older people and people with disabilities ... There are no plans to make any changes to the free travel scheme at this time."
A spokesperson for the NTA said that “while funding has not kept pace with the cost of operating services and passenger numbers, as far as NTA is concerned there is no prospect of reducing access to public transport services to people who benefit from the scheme”.
In Heuston Station, Ronnie O’Shea is waiting to return home on the 4.30pm Galway train, after a trip to Tallaght Hospital for health treatment. “I think it’s a very good service. For older people and for people who are on social welfare, it’s very empowering. I’m fully in favour of it.”
Last year, Dublin Bus served 140 million transport journeys. Of those, approximately 20 per cent, or 28.39 million, were covered by the free travel scheme
He uses it infrequently – “just when I’m up and down for health treatment” – but, he says, “there’s people that use it every day, and they need it very badly. Working class people and older people who have worked all their life and paid taxes, they don’t want this taken away from them.”
Helen Ryan and her husband PJ are using their cards to return home by train to Kildare, after a day out in Dublin Zoo. They rarely avail of the service. “We wouldn’t go anywhere just because we have it. We never come up like this. We’re always saying we should use it more, before they take it off us.”
Sense of freedom
Dublin Bus users are similarly attached to the scheme. Up and down the busy thoroughfare of Rathmines Road, buses stop to let people on and off. It’s midweek and the neighbourhood is bustling with people running errands, attending the gym, and doing their weekly shops.
Older people in particular tend to gravitate towards Rathmines during the week as it’s more convenient and less busy than the city centre. Many get to and from here on the bus.
Last year, Dublin Bus served 140 million transport journeys. Of those, approximately 20 per cent, or 28.39 million, were covered by the free travel scheme.
Una Hogan is from Kimmage and regularly takes the bus to Rathmines to use the gym facilities in the Swan Leisure Centre. Hogan still drives and uses her car to get to and from bridge club, but says the free travel pass affords her a sense of freedom.
“It’s everything to me because it means you don’t think twice about getting out,” she says. “It gets you out of the house. If I had to pay to come down to Rathmines, I’d have to think twice about it. I have my pension and I can live comfortably on my pension with the situation as it is now.”
'If they tried to take it away, we'd fight it. The grey vote would come out in force again'
Hogan has two daughters in Dublin but says the pass ensures she isn’t heavily reliant on them to get around. “It keeps me independent.”
However, Hogan says she believes that the free travel pass should be means tested. “I think there are a lot of people using it that don’t need to use it and I think it’s there for the people who can’t afford to travel,” she says.
Sally Eustace lives in Dublin 2 and says she uses her free travel pass daily, for commuting around the city and visiting family. “I use it a lot getting around town,” she says. “I have a daughter in Galway and I can go down to her.”
She describes it as a “lifeline” and says it makes a “huge difference” to her ability to get around.
Asked about how she would feel if the scheme were to be curtailed or amended, she said she would be upset about it but suggested limiting the use of the travel pass to off-peak times.
“I do see the point [to limiting it] at a time when people are going to work or coming home from work and the buses are full anyway,” she says. “They could limit the hours before 4.30pm.”
Previously, holders of the free travel pass were restricted from travelling on Monday to Friday from 7am to 9am and from 4.30pm to 6.30pm. Exemptions were made for those with hospital appointments.
The policy was lifted in 2006 by the then-minister for social affairs Seamus Brennan. Since then, holders of the free travel pass have been able to travel without restriction. A 2014 report into the viability of the scheme stated that reintroducing this measure would likely prove "very unpopular".
However, Eustace says that she is opposed to the idea of means-testing. “I think that’s not fair because I have a house but I don’t have that big an income,” she says. “I just have a pension.”
Frank O’Donoghue from Rathmines uses his travel pass a few times a week, both for getting around town and travelling down the country by rail.
Asked how he would feel if the scheme were amended, he replies: “Not warm.”
“I suppose like anybody else who has actually paid their taxes over the years, it’s a very attractive benefit we have, and I quite like the idea of having it and the freedom it offers,” he says. “I would rather I continue I have it.”
O’Donoghue is also opposed to means-testing, but says off-peak restrictions could be worth considering.
Peter Aherne lives alone in Portobello. Like others, he uses his free travel pass to travel around the city nearly every day. “Just to keep myself mobile,” he says.
As someone who no longer drives, Aherne says he relies on Dublin Bus to get around and to attend Tallaght Hospital. “I have a lot of appointments in the hospital early in the morning for blood tests and things like that,” he says.
Similarly, he says it prevents older people from feeling isolated or socially excluded. “If it was ever taken away, people would just be stuck in their houses all the time by themselves,” he says. “They wouldn’t get out or anything like that. We can’t drive, bicycles are not a goer for us.”
“If they tried to take it away, we’d fight it. The grey vote would come out in force again.”