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Statement by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Shane Ross, to Dáil Éireann on issues of Transport

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 I welcome the opportunity to address the House today to speak about the impact of COVID-19 on our transport system, and our plans to support the sector in recovering from this crisis. I have addressed the House on a number of occasions on the transport portfolio, but the circumstances in which the sector now finds itself are, it is fair to say, unprecedented.

 Of course the primary focus of Government must be the response to the public health crisis. Nevertheless, we must also do our utmost to help our economy to recover from what is the worst short-term economic shock in the history of the state.

 Transport, along with other sectors under the remit of my Department, has been impacted severely as a result of this current crisis. The importance of the transport sector to Ireland’s economy cannot be understated; situated on the western periphery of Europe, the sector connects us with the rest of the world.

The key message I want to deliver to you and to the Irish people at this time is that our transport network and services continue to operate safely and effectively, providing vital connectivity for essential workers and essential trade.

 Transport and travel up to now has been a means of physically connecting us to family and loved ones – while many of these longed-for trips cannot be made at present, one of my primary goals is ensuring that people can make these essential visits safely and easily, when restrictions are eased. In the meantime, it is heartening to see increased numbers of people walking and cycling, and I hope that this uptick in active travel is maintained, even as restrictions ease.

At home the public transport system is a critical part of the plan for reopening of the economy. It is inconceivable that public transport should not function properly in the present crisis. Therefore, I can confirm to the house that the government will provide the necessary additional funding to continue those services, despite the drop in fare income. My Department is working closely with the NTA and DPER to assess and quantify this additional funding requirement.

A priority of the government is to maintain our international transport connectivity, supporting the movement of essential goods, into, around and out of Ireland.

It has been more important than ever to maintain strong links with our European partners and our neighbours in the UK. I have worked with European Member States and the Commission over the past few difficult months seeking to minimise the impact of disruption to transport, and the movement of international transport workers, at borders.

A dialogue has been initiated between the governments of Ireland, UK and France to strengthen our partnerships, share best practices and support the movement of essential goods during this crisis.

My Department is also working with partners inside and outside government to maintain continuity of supply chains. We have had ongoing and frequent engagement with airlines, airports, shipping companies, ports and hauliers. I acknowledge and recognize the vital role that they all play in bringing essential supplies to Ireland.

The Road Safety Authority has implemented a number of measures to support the continued functioning of the road haulage sector, including a temporary derogation from EU driving and rest hours rules.

Port and shipping services, albeit with some reductions in capacity, continue the vital movement of goods. The maritime sector is essential to the continued supply of goods in and out of the country, accounting for 90% of Ireland’s international trade in volume terms.

In response to a near collapse in ferry passenger numbers, my Department temporarily designated five strategic maritime routes as PSO routes for a period of three months. I allocated an emergency provision of up to €15m towards the costs involved in the continued operation of services on these routes.

My Department developed tailored guidance setting out risk mitigation measures for essential workers in the maritime supply chain; and introduced measures to ensure seafarers’ and vessel certification remains valid throughout the crisis.

Owing to our geographic location, Ireland is highly dependent on air connectivity, more so than most EU Member States. It is the lifeblood of our tourism sector and it is critical for our economy overall. In recent months, passenger numbers have fallen by up to 99%, and forward bookings have collapsed. The Government is working hard to protect air connectivity for the future.

Many of our airports have taken difficult decisions to temporarily lay-off staff to help constrain escalating losses. These staff can, and are, availing of the COVID-19 unemployment payment. Both daa and Shannon Group are availing of support under the Government’s COVID-19 Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme.

Our State airports continue to facilitate airline services for passengers, cargo operators and aviation business based at the airports.

Notwithstanding the challenges facing the aviation sector - I would like to acknowledge the support this sector has provided in the COVID pandemic: in particular the important role that Aer Lingus, the Irish Aircraft Leasing sector and other airlines are playing in securing PPE and essential medical supplies. I know that the country as a whole is so appreciative of their vital work to assist our health sector.

Since the beginning of the crisis, domestic travel has significantly reduced. Notwithstanding this, road deaths remain slightly above numbers for the same period last year. In particular, there has been a worrying increase in the number of pedestrian deaths. Figures for drink driving are as high as last year, and drug driving is significantly up.

At this time, when we are all concerned about the impact of COVID-19, I appeal to all road users to act responsibly and with care.

The Government has been clear that continued operation of the public transport sector is important, and it has been designated among the essential services that are to carry on. I would like to thank operators and staff for their continued dedication to providing this vital service in such challenging times.

A number of measures have been introduced across the system, guided by public health advice, to ensure the continued operation of services during the pandemic, including enhanced cleaning regimes and social distancing measures across the network.

Current capacity is significantly ahead of demand, which also ensures that social distancing can be easily maintained.

The Roadmap which was published last week clearly sets out a plan for returning to business as usual over the coming months.

My Department and the NTA are engaging with public transport operators to determine the practical implications for public transport provision as COVID19 restrictions are eased in Ireland and a public transport plan in response to the Government's roadmap for the easing of restrictions will be published shortly.

Te NTA advises that current levels of service will facilitate the expected increase in passenger numbers, principally in the construction sector, from the start of Phase 1. The operators are in a position to provide extra capacity, including a return to the normal Monday to Friday schedule and mobilisation of additional vehicles at any particular pinch points in the network, should more capacity be required in Phase 2.

In the short term, more people will wish to walk and cycle, to the shops, to work, or just to get some exercise.

I’m glad to say that my Department, through the NTA, is helping rethink how best our cities can support people switching to active travel modes and facilitate social distancing in urban centres.

The NTA is working with local authorities to develop COVID Mobility Frameworks which will set out specific plans to improve walking and cycling infrastructure.

The first Framework is being developed with Dublin City Council. I understand that the initial draft will be available in the coming days. It will set out measures to be put in place in the coming weeks and months to facilitate the safe resumption of social and business activity.

I intend that similar plans will be developed for Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford.

This emphasis on active travel isn’t just a short term measure, it has been a feature of the submissions we received during our consultation on our sustainable mobility policy in the last few months.

So along with these much needed temporary measures, we are continuing to fund the longer term projects like the Royal Canal Greenway in Dublin, the Parnell Street improvements in Limerick, and the extension of the Waterford Greenway into the city centre.

On 1st May the Government published the roadmap for easing of restrictions, phase one of which begins next Monday. The challenge for the transport sector is to deliver services safely as restrictions are eased. The sector has continuously engaged with public health advice and we will work to provide safe transport services, for our economy, for our people and for our country.