On Friday afternoon on Dame Street around rush hour, Ava Stapleton had been trying to get a bus to take her to Beaumont hospital to visit her brother.
But the promised bus didn’t show up. “It just didn’t come,” she says. “I got a different bus, because the 27 wasn’t coming.”
So now she’s trying to make connections across town, to try and catch the 27b to Beaumont from Eden Quay, she says, but the real-time information hasn’t been reliable. “It keeps changing.”
Stapleton’s osteoarthritis means she can’t walk between bus stops, so she is fully reliant on the bus taking her places. “That’s why I’m not walking over to the quays.”
But despite the hundreds of thousands who rely on it each month, the number 27 bus, which runs between Jobstown and Clare Hall, has become one of the least reliable Dublin Bus routes in the city, suggest figures released by the National Transport Authority.
Between 1 March and 19 June, the percentage of “lost kilometres” on the route, the measure that the authority uses to count scheduled services that didn’t run, rose from 6.1 percent to 9.9 percent, the figures show.
It’s just one of several bus routes to have seen a jump at the beginning of the summer in scheduled buses that didn’t run, with the H9, 15A and 15B also high on the leaderboard for least reliable service.
Transport experts say that if the service doesn’t improve, then people may move from using public transport to driving more, making climate-emissions targets even harder to reach.
The National Transport Authority and Dublin Bus have not yet responded to queries sent Thursday asking what has affected the reliability of routes this year, and what they are doing to fix it.
Overall, between 23 May and 19 June of this year, 4.8 percent of the kilometres that Dublin Bus were contracted to service buses along did not run, show the NTA figures.
This was an increase on previous months, up from 2.8 percent in the period from 1 to 28 March.
(Dublin Bus has been counting these lost kilometres differently since 28 February 2022, as before then it did not count lost bus services which could not be operated due to COVID-19 related staff illness or self-isolation.)
Dublin Bus is required to achieve a lost kilometre rate of 2 percent or less, otherwise it faces fines.
Between 23 May and 19 June, 69 of its bus routes missed the 2 percent mark for lost kilometres, while 44 bus routes were at 2 percent or below.
There’s a crisis in public transport in the city, says Feljin Jose, chairperson of Dublin Commuter Coalition, which represents public-transport users in the city.
On 1 November, Jose – and the chairpersons of the Galway and Cork commuter coalitions – wrote a letter to Kieran O’Donnell, a Fine Gael TD and chairperson of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications, to call for a meeting of the committee to resolve it.
Problems with delays, cancelled services and “ghost” buses have been ongoing for over a year, they wrote, and “sadly, the situation is not showing any signs of improving”.
BusConnects – the bus network redesign of the city, where new bus routes, called “spines”, are being rolled out bit-by-bit – has been affected, too, says Jose.
Jose says that the roll-out of every spine so far – meaning the C-spine, H-spine and G-spine, plus the additional northside orbital N services – has been delayed, he says. “We’ve been patient, because driver shortages take a while to fix.”
“It’s eroding trust in the public transport system,” he says, and could lead to knock-on effects on other transport projects, such as rerouting buses around College Green if it is pedestrianised.
A Wider Impact
The National Sustainability Mobility Policy, launched by the Department of Transport in April, aims to achieve a 10 percent reduction in the number of kilometres driven by fossil-fuelled cars by 2030.
In Dublin, there needs to be a 23 percent reduction in order to meet emissions targets, at least, of kilometres driven by fossil-fueled cars, says Codema, Dublin’s energy agency, in its Dublin Region Energy Master Plan.
But an unreliable bus service could undermine efforts to achieve that. That is a bigger issue on some routes and with some passengers than others, says Jose.
If people who rarely use public transport have a bad experience on a route, they may not opt to take it again, he says.
Particularly those who live on bus routes where there is just one service every 45 minutes to an hour, he says. “If one is cancelled, that’s a big difference.”
If commuters who rely on buses every day have to wait on late or cancelled services, or stand on overcrowded buses, they might look to other ways of getting to work or college, he says. “They may choose to drive,” he says.
“The goal is to increase public transport usage and reduce driver miles. But it’s battling against the backdrop of almost collapsing public transport service,” he says.
But Dermot Hanney, a transport planner based in London, also says that unreliability can be trigger people to switch from public transport to driving.
While more drivers on the road has a knock-on effect of making the public transport experience worse for those who do rely on it, he says.
“If people don’t respect the service, it’s more likely they’re going to justify using the bus lane,” he says. Without enforcement, drivers will get away with clogging the bus lanes.
Why the Drop?
The National Transport Authority and Dublin Bus have not yet responded to queries sent Thursday asking what has affected the reliability of routes this year.
But a note on the Dublin Bus reliability report does say that public transport operators are experiencing significant challenges in recruiting qualified staff following the economic and social constraints connected to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Operators are trying to return to pre-pandemic levels of activity and deliver improvements such as the BusConnects network redesign, it says.
Recruitment issues are exacerbated by the need for existing staff to self-isolate after getting COVID-19 or another illness, it says.
“The Authority and the operators have been working to try to ensure that such cancelations are minimised, that where possible consecutive services are not withdrawn and that first and last daily services on a route operate,” the note says.
Thomas O’Connor, spokesperson for the National Bus and Rail Union, which represents bus and train drivers, said that driver recruitment is behind since it was paused during Covid-19 lockdowns.
Recruitment needs to be ongoing to replace drivers who are retiring, he said. And the roll-out of BusConnects has meant that more drivers than usual are needed.
On 30 September, a Dublin Bus spokesperson said that 270 drivers have been hired so far this year, in a recruitment drive seeking 450 new drivers.
O’Connor says that the roll-out of BusConnects should be paused to allow the baseline of drivers to catch up. “We need to build up capacity before we bring in spines.”
Also, working conditions for drivers need to improve, because that affects how well bus companies retain existing drivers, he says.
The NTA needs to build toilets for drivers to use along their working routes, and there should be transport police to prevent anti-social behaviour and threats faced by drivers, he says.
Jose says driver shortages need to be looked at by the government. “If drivers are leaving these public transport companies, we need to look at why they’re leaving, why people aren’t taking jobs that are offered.”
Who Is Responsible?
Stapleton, still waiting on Dame Street, says she is fully reliant on buses to get around. Taxis are too expensive, and she doesn’t drive.
“I’d be left staying in. I’m the only one in my family on the south side. Everyone else is on the north side,” she says.
Today, the delays to the 27 might mean she won’t get to see her family after visiting her brother.
“I might end up just seeing my brother in hospital now, and catching the bus in the hospital grounds to go home again,” she says.
It’s particularly bad on Sundays, when buses she relies on run reduced services, says Stapleton.
“Which is when I might like to visit as well.” she says. “They are so few and far between. You could be three-quarters of an hour waiting on a bus.”
Jose says that Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan should appear in front of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications to explain what is happening.
“It’s gotten to a point where it is a crisis in his department,” Jose says. “We need him to tell us how this happened and what he’s going to do.”
Often, the Department of Transport passes these issues onto the National Transport Authority, says Jose.
“The National Transport Authority would be best placed to provide you with a response,” said a spokesperson for the Department of Transport on Thursday, in response to a query asking what needs to be done to improve Dublin Bus reliability.
Hanney says Dublin needs an overarching authority managing every aspect of transport in the city, like Transport for London. “There’s so many different arms that no one takes ownership.”
Hanney says there may be tensions when Dublin Bus has different priorities to the NTA. Their aims and strategies may not be fully aligned, he says. “The NTA might be asking them to achieve a level of service they physically cannot achieve.”
The contract Dublin Bus has with the NTA might be tight, and perhaps Dublin Bus needs more flexibility, with funding to hire more drivers, and reduce services when they can’t run them, he says.
Jose says that Dublin Bus needs to deliver the services it schedules. “If you’re promised once every ten minutes, and it doesn’t show up on time, that’s a bad sign.”
Dublin Bus should be more honest in communicating with people about what services they’re running, through their real-time information app, says Hanney.
“Take the hit. People will be angry, but they won’t be as angry as turning up for service that doesn’t actually come,” says Hanney.