Public Transport Minister Alan Kelly recently announced the creation of 18 new transport co-ordination units (TCUs) across the country as part of a major overhaul of the rural transport programme (RTP).

The new units will be based where practical in local authorities, will co-ordinate the running of transport services within their area, and will be overseen by the National Transport Authority.

They will become a ‘go-to’ point for rural communities to address their transport needs and be staffed by personnel from the existing 35 rural transport programme companies currently in operation.

As part of the reform, each local authority will prepare annual rural transport plans which the units will have to work to. This will give local government a role in the planning of rural transport provision for the first time.

The news comes as part of a restructuring of the rural transport and the publication of a report entitled, ‘Strengthening Connections in Rural Ireland’.

“These reforms represent a new start for rural transport in Ireland will enhance the transport offering right across the country. The current programme is not achieving its potential and it needs a new structure to do this. We want the programme to become a permanent and lasting part of the public transport system in Ireland and these reforms will allow us to do this,” stated Minister Kelly.

“Access to transport is a major quality-of-life issue – especially for elderly people. This will give a lifeline to many communities in tackling the very serious problem of rural isolation and represents a major overhaul of the   programme but one that will lead to major improvements,” added the minister.

Additional roles will also be allocated to the units such as the maintaining databases of people in rural areas with specific transport needs and assisting the co-ordination of voluntary efforts to address these. Similarly they will also have a role in assessing the needs of isolated areas when it comes to the granting of a new category of hackney licence – such as ‘Local Area Hackney Licence’ by the transport authority. The new procurement arrangements of the units will be specifically designed to encourage and reward investment by bus companies in fully accessible buses for people with disability.

National Transport Authority CEO Gerry Murphy said the lead agency overseeing the programme, welcomed the changes saying:“The National Transport Authority is very pleased that there is now a clear path set out to protect and sustain rural transport services into the future. This plan will position rural transport within a national network of integrated public transport and will safeguard those vital transport services that the people of rural Ireland need. New structures will maintain the focus on social inclusion, with stronger links into local policy making by local authorities throughout the country. In summary, the implementation of these proposals will set up a robust structure from which integrated public transport services can develop and grow.”

The rural transport programme was formerly established in 2007 but evolved from local initiatives commissioned previous to this. Its remit was to provide public transport provision for rural areas where none existed. It carries out more than 1.3 million passenger journeys a year at an overall exchequer cost of approximately €10m

It is run by 35 independent companies, however a Value for Money review published in 2012 demonstrated that it had a very poor organisational structure with exceptionally high administration costs.

A process to allow the amalgamation of the existing 35 companies into the 18 units will now be put in place with the units to be up and running in 2014. All existing services will remain in place in the interim.

“Changes to the programme are absolutely necessary to ensure the survival of the programme. We want to leave a legacy that will ensure these services will survive and grow into the future. These proposals have been the result of widespread consultation with community groups and the rural transport network who provide the current services. This will be a positive step forward for transport in Ireland,” concluded Minister Kelly.

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