The N4 (library pic).

Motorways mean rural towns lose bus access, Leonard claims

A complaint that towns and villages which could benefit from bus access are losing out because the introduction of motorways has diverted bus services from main streets has been made by Labour councillor Denis Leonard.

At the January meeting of the Municipal District of Mullingar Kinnegad, Cllr Leonard called to have an audit undertaken of all the bus services serving the district, arguing that such an audit could then be used to prepare a list for the National Transport Authority and Bus Éireann of where essential services are required to connect the towns and villages in the region “from Finea/ Castlepollard/ Delvin to Killucan/ Raharney to Kinnegad/ Coralstown to Milltownpass/ Rochfortbridge – both to each other as well as to Dublin and to Mullingar and the west”.

The formal written response to Cllr Leonard’s motion stated that the district would liaise with Local Link to ascertain what services they provide. At that point, the executive would bring the information back to members.

Cllr Leonard countered that he did not mean just an audit of Local Link services: “I also meant Bus Éireann and private bus services and then buses transecting the county,” he said.

“We’re bang in the middle of Ireland. We have buses going across our county going to Galway or Sligo or to Castlebar; going to all kinds of places. There’s no reason they can’t stop at some of the major towns.

“When I came to Kinnegad, it had 500 people. The buses going west from Kinnegad to Castlebar went to Sligo; they went everywhere. Since then we have diminished the amount of bus travel.”

His idea, he explained, was that the audit would also look at bus shelter provision and bus infrastructure, as Westmeath – “bang in the middle of the country” – should have access to all these bus routes going by.

“Let’s look at the audit, at what’s available to us in terms of public transport, and look what was available 20 years ago and see why have we actually gone down in the amount of services.”

“The fact is a lot of these buses do not stop in our rural towns, so you have a place like Rochfortbridge or Milltownpass with very little bus service; you have Kinnegad with a bus service cut in half; a regular service from Killucan to Dublin that was there for years was cut back and it no longer goes via Summerhill and Dunboyne.”

The aim of the bus audit, he continued, would be to ensure that the maximum number of citizens have access to the maximum amount of public service.

Cllr Emily Wallace agreed, stating that the public travel infrastructure had been degraded over the years: “We possibly have worse facilities now for people using public transport than ever before,” she said, adding that Killucan station was an example of that.

“We seem to be taking it on the chin every time from the NTA and Bus Éireann that ‘we’re going to cut this’,” Cllr Wallace said, adding that she believed the two organisations should be invited in to the council chamber to justify what they are doing.

“The one question I would like them to ask is why people are not using public transport. And in that they will get their answer: it is because they are not providing services; they are not providing the facilities; they are not providing the infrastructure; they’re not providing the shelter and the security of service for [passengers] to be sure that they can get to work on time, that they can get home at a reasonable hour.”

The mayor, Cllr Hazel Smyth, said there is a lot of information online in terms of the different products or services available in Westmeath through apps such as that do provide good information, but she agreed that there had been a “failure for 40 years or more” to provide public transport in this country.

“But I think what we’ve seen since the term of this government, for the first time ever, is a real turnaround on that and the fact that for the first time ever, we’re seeing real investment in public transport, like we’ve never seen before,” she stated.

Mayor Smyth said there are many more buses going into rural villages now, but what is also required is “to shift the cultural mindset” so it wasn’t the case that there were lots of empty buses driving around, which would not be good for the environment.

“I’d love to see us concentrate on looking at the data as to who’s going where and when… so that we can we can meet the demands or the needs of the local people rather than just sending buses left, right and centre.”

Responding, director of services David Jones said the National Transport Authority is to make a presentation to the February meeting on the proposed Mullingar town bus service, and that might also be an opportunity to invite the authority to discuss the wider question of bus services around the county, and also the Local Link manager.

Responding to that, Cllr Leonard said €13m is spent on roads in Westmeath each year, and despite the fact that expenditure is meant to be two-to-one on public transport, he did not think that has happened.

“The fact is, if you live in Kinnegad, Milltownpass or Rochfortbridge, you will find far fewer buses than you did three years ago,” he stated, saying that there is “a lot of greenwashing” going on.

Mayor Smyth rejected that claim: “We will have to agree to disagree: I do think that there have been improvements in the last three years,” she said.