Reductions in fares – including the possibility of free tickets for children – are among measures being considered to encourage people back on to public transport now that Covid-19 restrictions have been lifted.
The Dáil's Public Accounts Committee heard on Thursday that the National Transport Authority's (NTA) biggest challenge in the area is to understand what the new pattern of commuting will be as people return to their offices, in many cases with hybrid arrangements involving remote work.
The NTA is said considering alternative flexible options for Taxsaver tickets to make it more attractive for workers who will be travelling to their offices less frequently due to new blended work arrangements.
Asked about possible fare reductions, the Department of Transport said Minister Eamon Ryan is not involved in decision making on fares as the NTA has responsibility for this.
It said the NTA is working on the new system of discounted fares for young people aged between 19 and 23 years old which was announced in the Budget.
The PAC heard that this is expected to be in place in the first half of 2022 for services that use the Leap Card system, though the roll-out will take longer for commercial transport operators that don’t.
The Department of Transport also said that the NTA is also “considering alternative flexible options to the Taxsaver Ticket in light of a reduction in a standard five-day commute and an increase in blended working.”
Currently tax-saver tickets for bus, rail and trams are only available in monthly or annual options.
The Department said: “Reimagining the Scheme could strengthen its attractiveness while still delivering the positive benefits associated with modal shift.”
NTA chief executive Anne Graham said that public transport services were cut by up to 75 per cent at various stages of the pandemic and there was a 50 per cent reduction in usage in 2020.
This situation continued in 2021 and while there was a recovery in passenger numbers at times, “it was still well below pre-pandemic levels.”
Services continued during lockdowns for essential workers.
Ms Graham said increased Government funding offset the fare revenue shortfall due to the pandemic and as a result public transport operators suffered no commercial loss.
The only remaining Covid-19 measure for public transport is the ongoing requirement of passengers to wear face masks.
Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy asked senior NTA officials what they are doing to rebuild use of public transport.
Ms Graham said that people being told not to use public transport during the pandemic “had a very significant impact on confidence” in terms of its safety.
Additional cleaning and other controls were put in place but she said the NTA is planning marketing campaigns to build passenger confidence again.
She also said: “We’re trying to see is there anything we can do – if we’re in a position to do it from a funding perspective – on fares reductions in order again to encourage people to use a particular [service].”
She gave the example of the NTA’s pre-pandemic “Kids Go Free” campaign in the summer of 2019 and suggested this could return to encourage use by young people and their parents.
Director of public transport at the NTA, Tim Gaston, said: "The biggest challenge that we face is understanding what the new pattern is going to be. What will be the new normal?"
He predicted that most “white-collar workers” won’t be back in the office five days per week and questioned if everybody will want to go to their workplaces on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. He said theses issues need “teasing out” and work is being done on this.
He also said suburbs are busier than the city centre and bus services may need to be rebalanced in terms of services and frequency. He said this will be delivered through the Bus Connects process.
Earlier Ms Murphy criticised the operation of BusConnects routes in west Dublin and north Kildare, claiming that some buses are empty, not turning up and not connecting to other services.
Ms Graham said she was disappointed to hear this but it is difficult to measure the success of the service due to the Covid-19 pandemic and that empty buses could be due to reduced passenger numbers.
Ms Murphy said she did not accept this. She said aspects of the service are working but some parts are “deplorable” and she warned that if the NTA don’t pick up on that the same mistakes will be made as BusConnects gets rolled out elsewhere.
Ms Graham said she takes the feedback seriously in terms of future rollout. “But I still do believe that there is an issue around the fact that the patterns are not back to their normal level.”
Separately, Hugh Creegan, the NTA's deputy chief executive, rejected a suggestion by Sinn Féin TD Brian Stanley that a combined €223 million that has already been spent on BusConnects, Metrolink and DART Plus planning is excessive.
Mr Cregan said they are "enormous projects" and such spending was needed to ensure value for money during the delivery phase.
The Irish Times asked the NTA if it could offer more detail on any plans to reduce fares. A statement said it is “not in a position to be any more definitive than we were today at PAC”.
The most recent ‘Kids Go Free’ initiative lasted for four weeks in the summer of 2019.It allowed Child Leap Card holders - children aged between five and 18 - to travel freely on Dublin Bus, Luas, DART and commuter rail services as well as Bus Éireann routes in cities and towns among other transport services