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Bus will be workhorse as NTA chief tackles congestion conundrum


Anne Graham, chief executive of the National Transport Authority, at the Green Luas Line. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Anne Graham, chief executive of the National Transport Authority, at the Green Luas Line. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Anne Graham, chief executive of the National Transport Authority, at the Green Luas Line. Photo: Gerry Mooney

It's hardly surprising that tackling congestion is focusing minds in the National Transport Authority (NTA).

With volumes in the Greater Dublin Area near boom-time levels, commuters are forced to endure longer journey times while pedestrians and cyclists grapple with fumes.

Appointed in January 2015, NTA chief executive Anne Graham is in no doubt about the measures needed to address the problem - improving bus access to the city centre.

The authority's 20-year €10bn strategy, published in 2015, aims to reduce car commuting from 62pc to 45pc of all journeys made, and increase walking and cycling rates from 16pc to 20pc. It hopes to achieve this by investing in roads and new rail services, including Metro North and Dart Underground.

Cycle lanes and a network of park-and-ride sites will also play a part, but the bus will remain the workhorse of the transport system.

"The big job we have to do now is improve bus priority measures and corridors," she says. "We want the rail projects, but they will take at least 10 years to deliver. Bus is going to deliver, and we have to make it more attractive and reliable."

Some 125 million journeys were made on Dublin Bus last year, up 4.5pc year-on-year. But the sheer volume of traffic is making it a less attractive option.

The NTA knows where the pinch-points are, and is utilising low-cost sensors to give priority on four routes from Rathfarnham, Clondalkin, Blanchardstown and Rathmines.

"We are funding Dublin City Council to look at junctions and see what they can do. Detectors on some junctions receive a signal from the bus. Monitors on the junctions give a green light to the oncoming bus. Clondalkin has 14 detectors, and between this and signage and road lining we saved eight minutes, two during busy times."

But this is only the beginning of a major project to improve services.

"The next stage we're looking at is taking each of the corridors (into the city) and seeing what level of investment is required to ensure as high a level of priority as possible.

"The bus gets full priority (where a bus lane is in place) on 30pc of journeys. That leads to issues when you have a congested road network.

"On some corridors, buses and cyclists share the same lane. Due to the volume of cyclists, they're impacting on buses as well, slowing them down. We also want to segregate cycle paths."

The changes could reduce the number of lanes for cars. Streets will be widened where possible, which may involve purchasing land. There will be issues with on-street parking, "but we need to address the travel demand", she says.

The works won't come cheap - five of the 16 radial bus corridors will be subsumed into Bus Rapid Transit, or high-capacity bus corridors with increased frequency.

Three are planned - between Blanchardstown and UCD, Clongriffin and Tallaght, and Swords to the city centre. They are costed at €750m, including fleet.

The remaining 11 corridors will all require works. The cost of one project, the Greenhills corridor, is estimated at €60m to €70m. The remainder will vary, but the final bill will run into hundreds of millions of euro.

While design work is under way, funding is needed. Unless it's forthcoming in the near future, the congestion problem is likely to worsen.

"Realistically, you wouldn't get the projects on the ground for at least two years. It would take about 12 months to do a corridor."

Ms Graham would like more children to walk, cycle, and use public transport to get to school, which would reduce traffic volumes. Real-time bus passenger information is helping to encourage a switch, but roll-out is subject to budgets.

A review of Dublin Bus services will get under way this year, which may include identification of new routes. Funding is in place to extend the Dublin Bikes scheme, not just in Dublin but in Galway.

While the 'Building on Recovery' capital investment plan projected spending of €3.6bn on public transport between 2016 and 2021, funding is somewhat short of the level required.

A review gets under way this year. The NTA will have some big asks - new buses, investment in the corridors, and account-based ticketing.

"The transport strategy had a €10bn price on it, it's €500m a year. That's the figure we need to get up to. We're at around €180m now," Ms Graham says.

Part of the debate will have to include choices about what fuel will power buses in the future, amid increasing concern over climate emissions and air quality.

"There is a number of options in terms of electric, hybrid, bio-diesel and hydrogen," Ms Graham says. "In recent years we've concentrated on getting the most buses for our money. There's no doubt we need to look at the next fleet to reduce our carbon footprint and reduce emissions, but there's a cost associated."

She points to the wider benefits of investing in congestion measures now, including economic, social and environmental.

But it all comes down to keeping the city moving.

"The main concern we have is congestion growing. It's the urgency of response that's needed. It's an urgent problem, and (needs) lead-in time. We need people to be thinking now."

Moves to outsource 10pc of services by summer

The National Transport Authority (NTA) plans to have outsourced 10pc of Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann services by the summer.

Chief executive Anne Graham said a shortlist of six companies had been prepared to operate services which are currently provided by Dublin Bus.

The tenders to operate the Bus Éireann services which serve the Dublin commuter belt and Waterford city would be issued in the coming weeks.

The move comes amid turmoil in Bus Éireann as the company faces the threat of an all-out strike due to cost-cutting plans to be rolled out from February 20 to prevent the company going out of business.

Unions are completely opposed to any outsourcing of routes, which they claim raises the prospect of increased privatisation and lower terms and working conditions.

But Ms Graham said that workers' terms and conditions would be protected if they moved to the private operators.

The move to outsource the services, which was decided by the previous government, was not a "race to the bottom".

"We will receive tenders for the Dublin Bus (services) next month," she said, adding that tenders for Bus Éireann services would be issued shortly.

The NTA expected to award the contracts before the summer.

"The unions are not in favour of it. We feel it's important to test the market. The transfer of undertakings would apply, if they [workers] decide to transfer across to another operator.

"Our understanding is there's a shortage of bus drivers across the State. At the time of a shortage, I couldn't see it being low-paid employment, and would see competition for skills. We would want to pay a reasonable price for the service we have been given, it's not to drive down wages."

Meanwhile, Ms Graham also said that alternative bus services would be put in place if Bus Éireann pulls out of some Expressway routes.

"Our concern is that services are kept running. Expressway are commercial services and they're important because they deliver 9pc of public transport numbers.

"If there are changes, we must ensure that people are not left behind."

Irish Independent