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Covid-19 puts brakes on expansion of 24-hour bus services in Dublin city

The National Transport Authority has said additional PSO funding will be needed this year to continue delivering the existing level of services.

Image: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

THE INTRODUCTION OF further 24-hour services on bus routes in Dublin is set to be stalled due to the impact of Covid-19, the National Transport Authority (NTA) has said. 

In response to a Dáil query from Social Democrat co-leader Catherine Murphy, NTA chief executive Anne Graham said that the loss of fare revenue during the crisis has “greatly increased the requirement for additional PSO subsidy to continue to deliver the existing level of service”. 

Graham said additional funding would be needed to provide more 24-hour services in Dublin and it’s unlikely that funding would be available this year, with a lack of clarity on funding for next year and beyond.

Rolling out more 24 hour services at a time when more people are staying at home and aren’t out socialising late in pubs and clubs “would not make sense” according to Murphy. 

As far back as 2018, the NTA was in talks with Dublin Bus to roll out a number of 24-hour services in the capital. 

Most of the normal bus services cease in the city after midnight, but there have been calls to go beyond this so that people had public transport options open to them at night into the early hours. 

In November last year, the city got its first two 24-hour bus routes with the 15 and 41 running all night

At the time, Graham said that the “manner in which Dublin functions as a city has shifted gradually but dramatically in recent years”.

“It is no longer the case that the city shuts down at 11 or 12 at night,” she said, while Dublin Bus CEO Ray Coyne said the routes would “help unlock the full potential of Dublin’s vibrant and growing night-time economy”. 

However, as the country largely shut down at the end of March and most of us were told to stay at home, public transport services were severely curtailed.

Revised timetables were brought in for most of the major public transport providers including Dublin Bus, Irish Rail, Go Ahead Ireland and Bus Éireann.

Services ran at approximately 20% of their normal levels for around two months, before the initial phases of re-opening saw services increased again.

Still, however, there is reduced capacity on Dublin Bus services due to the need to try to adhere to social distancing guidelines. 

Public transport providers are given funding through fulfilling public service obligation (PSO) contracts. 

This government funding supplements the revenue earned by the transport providers. 

As indicated by Graham in her letter to Murphy, the sharp fall in revenue brought about by Covid-19 means operators will need additional PSO funding just to continue services as they currently operate this year.

She said: “The NTA in conjunction with operators will closely monitor the demand for public transport services as restrictions are lifted. 

“Once new patterns of travel demand are established, the NTA will further review services and make any adjustments that may be required, including determining the potential implementation of any new services, including those operating on a 24-hour basis.

The loss of fare revenue due to Covid-19 has greatly increased the requirement for additional PSO subsidy to continue to deliver the existing level of service. Additional funding would have to be provided to provide more 24 hour services and it is likely that this funding will not be available in 2020.

Looking further ahead, it is not yet possible to provide clarity on 24-hour services into the future according to the head of the NTA. Furthermore, she said it was not yet known what impact Covid-19 would have on transport services going forward.

Graham said: “It is not possible to provide a definitive timescale for the implementation of any changes to services due to a lack of clarity on funding from 2021 onwards and in light of the current circumstances and future impact on public transport services of the Covid-19 emergency.”

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Murphy told TheJournal.ie that it’s clear our public transport system needs to adapt given how much has changed in recent months, with more people working from home and the social distancing requirements in place. 

She said: “It is understandable that increased PSO subsidy will be required in view of the collapse in revenues across the public transport network in 2020.

“This is about moving people, not cars. The public transport system can be diversified and become more flexible in order to serve commuters.

The way we work has changed as a result of Covid-19, shift patterns are different and working more from home has reduced the numbers using bus services. However, rolling out more 24 hours bus services at a time when public transport is not being fully utilised by commuters does not make sense.

Reacting to the comments from the NTA, the CEO of Dublin Town Richard Guiney told TheJournal.ie that Dublin is already “miles behind” compared to other major cities when it comes to public transport and night-time services is “certainly something we should be looking at as a modern city”. 

“I know there are demands on all budgets, and we accept that,” Guiney said. “But this is something we should be looking at.”

Guiney said there was a whole host of workers who work alternative 9-5s, with emergency services, hospitality workers and workers for multinationals that serve different markets among those who’d benefit from round-the-clock bus services. 

He also said that the night-time economy, worth over £60 billion in the UK each year but with no comparable figure in Ireland, would benefit from such services. 

“For people working close to the city centre, there’s a big difference in the cost of a taxi to Rialto and a taxi to Maynooth,” he said. “We do need a night-time transport service and we believe it should be a priority.

We need to invest in things that are going to give dividends in the longer term. Alongside the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions, this makes sense. We have to invest in it. Certainly the night time transport is something a modern city needs to be looking at. 

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Sean Murray

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