Photo by Caroline Brady

Minister for Transport Paschal Donohoe recently launched 90 new “high-tech” buses for Dublin, claiming that this investment of nearly €35 million “demonstrates the Government’s on-going commitment to providing enhanced public transport services” in the capital.

With Dublin Bus passenger-journey numbers up 700,000 (2 percent) in the first half of this year, compared to the same period in 2014, the new “state-of-the-art” double-deck buses are clearly needed to cater for demand from commuters, particularly during the morning and evening peaks.

The new buses are replacing older vehicles and “will result in a more efficient, reliable fleet, with an average age of seven years”, according to the Department of Transport. They have more cameras, more room for baby buggies and bilingual (Irish and English) information displays.

The new buses began entering service in January and are operating on routes 13, 15, 27 and 40. Dublin Bus Chief Executive Ray Coyne said their addition to the fleet along with a number of other recent improvements including real-time passenger information and free wi-fi on board the buses meant that “the customer experience is always improving”.

The department described the new buses as “environmentally friendly additions to the fleet that meet ‘Euro 6’ emission standards, consume less fuel and are quieter – meaning the whole community will benefit from their arrival on Dublin roads not just customers and drivers”.

The truth is that all new buses (as well as cars and trucks) are now required to comply with the Euro 6 emission standards – even though, as Volkswagen has just admitted, tests were rigged to show that its “clean diesel” cars complied with US limits on their tailpipe emissions.

Pollution from diesel engines has been blamed by the Environmental Protection Agency for the fact that Ireland breached EU standards for nitrogen oxide (NOx) pollution in 2013. Road transport is the largest source of NOx, accounting for 55 percent of total emissions of this pollutant.

High concentrations of NOx as well as microscopic “particulate matter”, commonly known as soot, are emitted by diesel engines and pose a threat to human health, particularly in heavily trafficked urban areas, among people suffering from asthma or other respiratory diseases.

According to EPA senior manager Dr Eimear Cotter (quoted in the Irish Times), the key to lower NOx emissions “lies in reducing travel and incentivising the purchase of cleaner vehicles with improved emission controls” – and that includes buses.

All 90 of Dublin’s new buses are diesel-powered, however. Proposals by Dublin Bus to acquire even a small number of diesel-electric hybrid buses were not entertained by the department, despite the fact that they use one-third less fuel and cause one-third less pollution.

London started introducing hybrid buses in 2007 and now has 1,200 of them running on the streets. According to Transport for London, the number of more fuel-efficient hybrid buses is expected to increase to 1,700 by 2016, when they’ll make up 20 percent of the city’s bus fleet.

“And this is just the start. In December 2013 we began our trial of electric-only buses. Electric buses are quieter than conventional models, have zero exhaust emissions and total CO2 emissions 40% lower over their entire lifespan than conventional diesel buses.”

London also has a fleet of eight hydrogen-fuel buses running on a route between Covent Garden and Tower Gateway. Hydrogen-fuel buses emit nothing but water into the air. Another environment-friendly solution would be to use compressed natural gas (CNG).

But our Department of Transport is still living in the dark ages. That was supposed to end when it produced the Smarter Travel strategy in 2008, with the aim of cutting car commuting by 20 percent nationwide by promoting alternatives such as walking, cycling and public transport.

The 68-page strategy pledged that an interdepartmental working group “will report on the progress of this policy”. Underlining serious intent, it went further by saying: “We will require a biennial report on progress with the first report submitted to Government in 2010”.

By now, we should have seen three such progress reports produced by the working group. In fact, there have been none at all – and the only conclusion one can draw from this extraordinary lapse is that Smarter Travel has been quietly binned by Donohoe’s department.

It would be very worthwhile if some TD like Catherine Murphy (independent) asked the minister what on earth is going on with this sensible strategy and whether he and Secretary General Tom O’Mahony are singing from the same hymn sheet – as they should be, after all.

Frank McDonald is the former environment editor of the Irish Times, and the author of several books, including The Destruction of Dublin (1985), Saving the City (1989), and The Construction of Dublin (2000)....

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