The Programme for Government agreed upon by the grand coalition has promised that the new Government will “make active travel and public transport better and more accessible” to arrive at a “fundamental change in the nature of transport in Ireland”. eolas explores its proposals.
In what has been touted as a major win for the Green Party during government formation negotiations, the Programme for Government (PfG) commits to a 2:1 ration in spending between new public transport infrastructure and new roads. There is also a commitment within the Programme to spend 10 per cent of the transport budget per year on pedestrian infrastructure, with another 10 per cent per year pledged to cycling infrastructure. Pooled together for the year 2020, this 20 per cent will amount to €360 million in public spending.
Most notable among the PfG’s public transport pledges are the commitment to review fare structures on these services “to ensure that public transport is as accessible as possible, supports the delivery of services and incentivises off-peak travel” and the commitment to conduct a review of the funding and operation of the Local Link service within 12 months as the Government seeks to address the public transport deficit faced by regional and rural communities.
The National Transport Agency (NTA) will be tasked with the development and implementation of a park and ride plan for the five cities of Dublin, Galway, Cork, Limerick and Waterford in order to reduce urban congestion and travel times. The development and implementation of a sustainable rural mobility plan is also pledged, which will see all settlements “over a certain size in terms of population, combined with employment or education places” will be serviced by a public transport service. However, the size requirement for these settlements has not been specified.
In line with the National Planning Framework, public transport projects that improve rural and regional connectivity will be prioritised in the lifetime of the National Development Plan. It is also said that the Government plans to “explore potential synergies between different forms of transport and transport-related services funded by the State”.
The provision of sustainable transport for schoolchildren is provided for with a pledge to “accelerate” plans concerned with such and to complete the review of the School Transport Scheme in order to reduce car journeys.
At the governance level, two actions are planned: the establishment of a Working Group to “utilise the modelling capacity of the NTA” as well as the travel data held by the CTE Group of Companies, the Central Statistics Office, NTA and others in order to identify potential and existing demand; and the establishment of a National Public Transport Forum involving the relevant stakeholders, along with the establishment of the Dublin Transport Advisory Council.
Lastly, the national integration of public transport, featuring an integrated national timetable, one tag-on ticketing system and co-ordination between all bus and rail operators, is promised.
Bus and rail
The Programme promises to protect existing rail servies by “continuing to ensure the level of payment require to operate the Public Service Obligation fleet is adequate to maintain and improve service capacity and frequency”.
In keeping with the National Planning Framework, rail projects serving Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford on existing and unused line will be prioritised. The funding of safety works and improvements to the network is guaranteed, something that is of particular note given the ongoing process of both the expansion of the Irish Rail fleet and the electrification of the rail network.
In terms of expansion, the commissioning of an economic evaluation of high speed rail links between cities and the consideration of the report on the future of the Western Rail Corridor, with “appropriate action” to follow, are promised, along with the enhancement of suburban and commuter rail across the country. Funding will also be ringfenced to ensure the quick repair and upgrade of train platforms, an issue that has drawn significant complaints in the past.
Promises made for bus network improvements echo those made for rail, placing an emphasis on improving rural and regional connectivity. These promises include a pledge to “protect and expand regional connectivity” although no details are given on what form this expansion will take. There is also a promise within to address “pinch points” for buses and expand priority signalling and Real Time Passenger Information. Lastly, greater priority for buses is promised through the expansion of the Quality Bus Corridors and the consideration of the introduction of Bus Rapid Transit Services.
Decarbonisation of road transport
As Ireland attempts to address its laggard status with regard to carbon emissions and meet its 2030 decarbonisation targets, the decarbonisation of road transport will be key. To achieve this, the PfG promises to “use a range of policy approaches to incentivise use of electric vehicles (EVs) and encourage a shift away from petrol/diesel vehicles”. Examples of such approaches include the commitment to ban the registration of fossil-fuelled cars and light vehicles from 2030 onwards, which had already been made by the previous government but has survived into the new Programme. The current motor tax system will also be reviewed to ensure that it adequately penalises the Nox and SOx emitted per vehicle.
Both an EV strategy for the provision of charging infrastructure around the country, and a public procurement framework for EVs are promised for publication. By 2025, the PfG pledges, public bodies will only be allowed to purchase low or no-emission cars and light goods vehicles. All urban buses will also be required to be either hybrid or electric.
E-scooters and e-bikes will also be legislated for, while a 10-year strategy to improve efficiencies and standards in the haulage industry in order to move it towards a low-carbon future has also been promised.
Criticism of the transport provisions within the PfG have largely mirrored the criticisms of the Programme in general: that they lack specifics, timetables and concrete goals. Commitments such as the querying of the cost of inter-city high speed rail, unquestionably needed regardless of cost, can seem like delaying tactics when interest rates are at zero and costs seem extremely unlikely to decrease in the near future. Promises to expand regional and rural connectivity are welcomed by all, but it is only when one realises that those promises are the only details offered that the amount of preparatory work is still required before the concrete work of actual expansion can commence and begin to impact the day-to-day lives of people in rural and regional communities.
The devil is in the detail, the maxim goes, and while the Programme commits the Government in spirit to measures that would be more than welcome in all quarters, it is only when these details emerge that we will be able to freely judge just what this PfG has done for transport in Ireland.