The impact of the closure of a bus service on the people of Dunmore, Portlaw and Passage East

The impact of the closure of a bus service on the people of Dunmore, Portlaw and Passage East

I spoke in the Dáil on the closure of Suirway Bus service and the impact it would have on the people of Dunmore, Portlaw and Passage East.

Full Transcript:

This Monday, commuters, public transport users and schoolkids in Dunmore East, Passage East and Portlaw heard the news that the operator they have relied upon for bus services for generations was withdrawing from the sector. The managing director, Brian Lynch, reached out to local Oireachtas Members and media outlets to let us know that Suirway Bus and Coach Services will be ceasing to operate its public transport services after 31 October and that it has informed the NTA that it will not be renewing its route licences.

I will discuss the implications for the community of Dunmore and Portlaw shortly but I would like first to acknowledge how difficult a decision this must have been for Brian and his family. Suirway has been a family business for three generations. It is hard to believe but Suirway has been in the public transport business since 1899, when it first offered public transport services consisting of high quality tyred traps. Its first bus did not arrive until 1928 and it is one of the earliest public transport services to operate in Ireland, predating the Road Transport Act 1932, which established the national public transport system.

The company has survived two world wars, the energy crisis of the 1970s and all the boom and lean times of the last 123 years. The impact of Covid-19, however, followed by the spike in energy prices precipitated by Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine and the future challenges of decarbonising our transport fleet, have left Mr. Lynch in a position where he does not see a future for his business. Suirway is rightly proud of its history and this decision has been taken with a heavy heart. I acknowledge the role the company has played in Waterford for a century and more.

The loss of Suirway means we have six weeks to solve a transport problem that will impact the almost 2,000 people who live in Portlaw and the nearly 2,000 people who live in Dunmore East, not to mention the people living in the hinterland of those towns and along those bus routes. Dunmore East is to the east of Waterford city and the existing bus service accesses the city via the Dunmore Road corridor, which I have discussed with the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, on many occasions. There is no secondary school in Dunmore East, so children have to travel to the Gaelcholáiste, Waterpark College, the Ursuline secondary school, the Newtown School and the De La Salle College, all of which are on or close to this route. The bus also passes University Hospital Waterford, UHW, and the likes of Ardkeen Stores, Lidl and Tesco, where people from Dunmore East pick up their grocery shopping. Most people living in Dunmore East work in Waterford city and significant traffic also moves in the other direction, with people from Waterford city travelling out to Dunmore East for a swim, a bite to eat, etc.

Portlaw is on the other side of Waterford city, to its west. The services there bring children into St. Paul’s College, my former secondary school, and the Presentation secondary school. The bus route also passes through Kilmeaden and Butlerstown, the UPMC Whitfield Hospital, the industrial estate and the main campus of South East Technological University, SETU, on the Cork Road. Portlaw has a high proportion of households experiencing transport deprivation, that is, they do not have a car or struggle with the cost of running a car.

This matter is a litmus test for our commitment to the Connecting Ireland strategy that seeks to improve public transport services in rural Ireland. We know the challenge we have ahead of us in respect of decarbonising our transport systems and ensuring that people living in small towns, such as Portlaw, Passage East and Dunmore East, have access to the services they need to reach our larger towns and cities. The people of Portlaw, Passage East and Dunmore East are worried, and rightly so. Has the Minister engaged with the National Transport Authority, NTA, on this issue? Will we be able to provide continuity of service on this route from 31 October onwards?

Deputy Hildegarde Naughton:

I thank Deputy Ó Cathasaigh for raising this important topic, which I am taking on behalf of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan. As the Deputy will be aware, while the majority of public transport in Ireland is provided by the publicly-subvented bus and rail services funded through NTA’s public service obligation, PSO, programme, the public transport system also includes non-subvented bus services provided on a commercial basis by bus and coach businesses of varying size. I understand the Deputy’s question concerns the impact on the people of Dunmore East, Portlaw and Passage East in County Waterford of the recent decision by one such commercial bus operator, Suirway, to cease operating its services in the area.

I advise the Deputy that the decision taken by Suirway to withdraw its commuter services in east Waterford, including in Dunmore East, Portlaw and Passage East, at the end of October, is a commercial decision for the company. The Deputy will appreciate that Suirway, like all other commercial businesses, is responsible for managing its own resources in respect of its commercial services. It is my understanding that Suirway has taken the decision to withdraw these services following a prolonged period of difficult trading. The Deputy eloquently outlined the history of the company in the area and the difficulties it has been facing. He will also be aware that the Covid-19 pandemic had a profound impact on the public transport sector. This impact has been mitigated by several Government decisions over the last two years. In particular, these include the decision to substantially increase the 2020, 2021 and 2022 budgets for the existing PSO system and to introduce new, temporary financial support for non-PSO licensed services provided by commercial bus operators in June 2020. In acknowledgment of the difficulties facing the sector, these supports for the commercial sector were extended several times over the past two years, most recently up to 30 June 2022.

Despite these and other wider Governmental supports, trading conditions remain challenging, with passenger numbers remaining below pre-pandemic levels in many areas and the associated fare revenue having yet to rebound fully. An unfortunate consequence of these challenging conditions is that some commercial operators, such as Suirway, are deciding to leave the market. I advise the Deputy that the NTA, which has statutory responsibility for securing the provision of public passenger transport services nationally by way of public transport services contracts and for the allocation of associated funding to the relevant transport operators, will assess whether Suirway’s decision to withdraw its services in Dunmore East, Portlaw and Passage East at the end of next month will give rise to any loss of connectivity in the area. The NTA will also consider whether there is a need to provide additional PSO services in the affected areas.

I reassure the Deputy that the NTA has advised that this matter is a high priority for it and that it will advise the Department of its findings as soon as its review process is complete. I also assure the Deputy that the Government is committed to ensuring essential transport services are protected and supported. Services providing vital regional and rural connections will continue to operate if a loss of connectivity is identified, and a replacement service will be put in place. A key Government objective is to provide all citizens with reliable and realistic sustainable mobility options and public transport plays a key role in the delivery of this goal.

Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh

I thank the Minister of State for her response, but I could nearly short-circuit the NTA process of assessing whether this impending situation will give rise to any loss of connectivity in the area. It will, because no other operator provides services from Dunmore East and Portlaw into Waterford city centre. I received word previously that this matter is a high priority for the NTA, but I would like a timeline in this regard. The clock is ticking. Six weeks remain in which to decide that a PSO route must be put in place or to see if Local Link operators in the area – and we have an exceptional such operator providing services from the west of the county – will be asked to take on this route or to determine how this problem is going to be solved. In any event, we have six weeks in which to provide continuity of service for all people in Dunmore East, Passage East and Portlaw who rely on it.

I reiterate that there certainly are instances of transport deprivation in these towns, especially Portlaw. There are people who rely on this service and without it, they will not, for example, be able to get their children to school, get to the doctor or be able to access groceries. There are no supermarkets in these towns and people rely on Waterford city for these types of services. There is, therefore, a need to accelerate this process.

We also need joined-up thinking in this regard. Portlaw is 5 km from Fiddown, which used to have a train station. Perhaps we should be considering reopening a station along that line and having more commuter trains, perhaps battery operated, running from Clonmel into Waterford. We need the different organs of the State’s transport system to talk to each other. Can we get an idea of the timeline on the process the Minister of State referred to because, as I said, the clock is ticking? People rely on this bus service as their mode of transport and they need certainty that there will be continuity of provision.

Deputy Hildegarde Naughton

I raised this issue regarding the timeline with the Minister to try to get clarity for the Deputy. Licensed bus and coach operators are an integral part of the overall public transport system, especially in areas not covered by existing public service bus and rail services. While it is regrettable that a family-owned bus operator like Suirway, which has been providing services in the east Waterford area for more than 100 years, is ceasing its operations, I reiterate that any decision concerning the continuation or cessation of specific routes or services by a commercial operator is, ultimately, a decision for the company itself. I again assure the Deputy that the NTA has prioritised carrying out a detailed assessment of whether Suirway’s decision to withdraw its services in Dunmore East, Portlaw and Passage East at the end of October will result in any loss of connectivity in the area. As part of this assessment process, the NTA will consider whether there is a need to provide additional or replacement PSO services in the area.

Regarding alternative transport options in the region, the NTA has also advised that passengers travelling from Kilmeaden to Waterford city will still be able to access Bus Éireann Expressway route 40, which runs six times daily each way along this route. I trust this clarifies the position regarding the impact of the closure of Suirway’s bus services on the people of Dunmore East, Portlaw and Passage East. I will raise the issue of the timeline in this regard directly with the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan.