Any changes to the existing Rural Transport Programme operated throughout Longford will be vigorously opposed by the many rural users who avail of the service, if a meeting held in south Longford is an effective indicator. There was a large turnout at The Hill community hall in Newtowncashel to voice their concerns about the future of the Longford Rural Transport Programme.
Among the proposals being considered by Minister for State for Public and Commuter Transport, Alan Kelly, are the abolition of the 35 community-based companies that currently administer the scheme, the establishment of eight regional authorities and the consideration that the scheme be overseen by Local Authorities.
There is a suggestion that it will integrate school transport, non-acute HSE transport and some forms of voluntary transport.
The Minister is also considering that Longford be grouped with Westmeath, Offaly and Laois for an administrative area covering a population of 282,410. At the meeting on Thursday evening (April 4), members of the Board of Longford Rural Transport addressed the gathering.
The meeting was hosted by Seamus Lee, the Longford Community Resources Ltd (LCRL) Transport Coordinator, Adrian Greene (CEO of LCRL), Chairman of LCRL, Seamus Butler, and Chairman of the Longford County Rural Transport Steering Group, Sean Farrell.
Opening the meeting Adrian Greene explained that the purpose of the meeting was to gauge the feeling about the proposed changes to the Rural Transport Programme and to address and record the public concerns. Mr Greene explained that locally the Rural Transport Programme was established to assist the social, economic and cultural development of Longford and to combat social exclusion.
He said that it was set up as the North Longford Rural Transport Initiative to contribute to social development by widening transport options. The LCRL Chief Executive said that in 2012 nationally the programme had facilitated 220,000 trips, representing 1.7 million passenger journeys on a budget of €9.33 million.
Seamus Lee said that the programme, which celebrates 10 years of serving the public next month, was administered by LCRL with the aim of addressing the narrow travel choice available to rural communities in Longford. He went on to outlined the passenger service and highlighted the increase in the number of journeys year-on-year.
Mr Lee said that the service operated 23 door-to-door services and recalled that plans to scrap the scheme suggested by the McCarthy Report were shelved following a huge public outcry .
He said that the proposals being considered by the National Transport Authority (NTA) suggested the integration of the Rural Transport to replace the existing service.
Mr Lee said that the proposed new authority will have a staff of three to administer for the four counties and that this reduction in service was a concern to the service users.
Chairman of LCRL Seamus Butler said the Longford Rural Transport Programme was one of the best programmes that LCRL deliver and that it makes a palpable difference to every one of its users. He said that if the NTA proposals goes ahead the Programme will lose the voluntary aspect of the service and the passion that goes along with that.
Mr Butler said that rural Ireland has lost many services such as Garda Stations, Post Offices and National Schools and that if the changes are implemented it will be by someone who has no knowledge of their impact on the local community.
Chairman of the Longford County Rural Transport Steering Group, Cllr Sean Farrell, said that there was always a demand for the rural transport service. Mr Farrell said that the decision to change the structure was influenced by the fact that there are counties that are not as efficient as Longford. He said that in Longford the number of passengers using the services were well above the national average. Cllr Farrell said that he hoped to bring all the local concerns to Minister Alan Kelly and that he believed that the changes were not written in stone.
When the discussion was opened to the floor Longford football legend and former councillor, John Donlon, said that when the service started he did not realise how useful it would be. He said that he was dependant on and appreciated the service. He said that he hoped that there will be no changes to the service and that it will be left as it is. Mr Donlon said that generally there is not enough appreciation for what the service is.
Deputy James Bannon said that he was fully supportive of the very valuable work done by Longford Rural Transport Programme. He also pointed out that, as an administrator Seamus Lee is a role model for the rest of the country. The TD said that there are problems in some parts of the country that needed to be addressed. He concluded by saying: “No doubt common sense will prevail. There is no threat to Rural Transport in county.”
Local RTP volunteer Mary Sweeney said that the importance of the service is an invaluable.
She said that she wanted Seamus Lee to be left in his position as he made the service as user friendly as possible. Ms Sweeney said that it was important that people to make their opinion known as the changes will cause great difficulty for the passengers of the service.
Independent Councillor Mark Casey said that the the scheme as operated is a fabulous service. However, he said that he did not agree with Deputy Bannon that “everything is going to be okay”.
Cllr Casey said: “The spin put on this by government is ridiculous. Rural Ireland is getting hit with everything; water, septic tanks charges, household charges and now this attack on a rural service.”
Addressing the meeting Cllr Mae Sexton said that the door-to-door nature of the service was its strongest feature and that it should not be tampered with. Cllr Sexton said that Seamus Lee is the epitome of everything good about Ireland.
Cllr Peggy Nolan asked why anyone would tamper with the Rural Transport Programme as it has been so successful in Longford. Cllr Nolan said that the change should be made in areas where the service provider are falling down on their duties. Cllr Nolan said: “If it is regionalised they will be taking out a lot of what has made it a success.”
In his address, Cllr Denis Glennon said that the arguments should be made to the Minister that Longford should be the template for the provision of service. He asked: “Do they want rural people to disappear. Change is inevitable, but not change for its own sake, it must be change for the better otherwise it is a failure.”
Cllr Padraig Loughrey said that all the local representatives fully support the service.
He said that any cuts or changes in the service will have a huge impact on the lives of those whose use it not just as a means of transport, but also as a social outlet.
The organisers of the forum will now take the submissions made in Newtowncashel and at a previous one in Granard and present them to Minister Alan Kelly at a meeting on the future of the RTP.
If you wish to make a submission on the Rural Transport Program you can contact Longford Community Resources.