Padhraic Dormer says he would call up the Accessibility Community Transport Southside (ACTS) somewhere between five and seven times a month before it wound up a couple of weeks back.
He would use it for trips from his home in Rathfarnham to the cinema, to Ballyfermot Gym, to sports events, or maybe to meet with friends in pubs like Baker’s Corner.
The drivers were friendly and reliable, he says. “They would bring you back to your house and even make sure you got in safely.”
“There’s no other company like ACTS that do door-to-door service,” he says. “If I’m going out for an evening, I ring other companies and they can’t accommodate me.”
ACTS had run its community bus service – serving people with disabilities, mobility and sensory issues – in the south side of the city for 20 years, said Geraldine Greydon, an ACTS board member.
The news on 9 September that it is winding up means a lot of people will be left without transport in that part of Dublin. On average, the company did around 550 trips per week, she says. Pre-Covid, it was 1,100 trips, says Greydon.
“It’s absolutely devastating,” she said. “It’s a service that was run for 21 years, and it was run very well.”
In its formal statement, the ACTS board of directors said they had tried to make the funding they had work. “But, unfortunately, time has now run out and the company finds itself currently unable to pay its debts.”
“Many of our travel club members, particularly those who are unable to use the public transport service, will be left with limited or, in some cases, no transport service for the foreseeable future,” it says.
The Department of Equality did not respond to queries sent Monday asking if it intends to increase funding for community transport services.
Covid had a big impact on ACTS’s business operations, but the company was having increasingly significant issues too, says Greydon.
“Our business model is out of date and we need to restructure it, but our service model is perfect. ACTS is on-demand door to door,” she said.
ACTS isn’t the only community transport service in Dublin that says it is in financial difficulty and in need of more state supports.
Lucan Disability Action Group (LDAG), which operates community transport service in the Lucan and west Dublin area, is struggling too, said Owen Collumb, a board member, on Friday.
Community transport services like ACTS and LDAG get funding from the Community Services Programme (CSP), which is managed by Pobal, a government body which provides support services to social inclusion groups, on behalf of the Department of Rural and Community Development.
But this isn’t enough to cover costs, says Collumb, so LDAG is always trying to cut its costs or find ways to make money.
LDAG runs disability support services like note-taking to bring in cash to subsidise its buses, but, since 2016, larger for-profit health organisations have started to offer those services too, says Collumb.
The solution isn’t to put up fares on the buses because passengers can’t afford it, he says.
At the moment, LDAG gets Pobal funding to pay its staff €17 or €18 an hour, says Collumb.
It struggles to recruit and keep staff because it can’t offer as much as other companies, he says.
“We require people to have a full driver’s licence with no penalty points. There’s not that many people out there looking for jobs at the moment really, not with our pay rates,” he says
LDAG used to run an evening bus service, to take passengers to concerts or events with friends, but they had to drop it because they weren’t getting enough bookings for it to be financially viable, Collumb says.
The evening service costs LDAG €200 for there to be a driver available for the whole evening, he says. “That’s not viable. We would have to subsidise that by making money in other areas.”
Greydon said that while it was operating, ACTS charged €10 for a journey between 0 km and 5 km, and €14 for a journey from 5 km to 8 km.
ACTS had been considering expanding its services to do lifts for over 65s and having wheelchair vans to rent out, she said.
“We’d need an injection of capital funding”, she says. They also need to upgrade their fleet of buses, as it was a big expense to keep repairing them.
Anne Rabbitte, the minister of state with responsibility for disability at the Department of Health said in the Dáil on 16 February that there is a working group looking at a plan for transport supports for people with disabilities to get to places of work and employment supports.
It was part of the National Disability Inclusion Strategy (NDIS) 2017-2021, which mentions plans to review transport supports and come up with a coordinated plan.
The Department of Equality, one of the agencies responsible for this, hasn’t responded to queries sent Monday as to the next steps for the NDIS and when the working group last met.
At the Dáil debate in February, Rabbitte praised ACTS: “We need to take a lesson from this group, based on Dublin’s southside. That is a model for integration.”
She also said, during the debate about seven months ago, that ACTS was not adequately funded.
“More investment is needed. That is a model of rural link in an urban setting that we need to consider in terms of how to create that level of engagement,” she said.
People need access to transport not just to go out during the day but also at night, she said, “I am very conscious of the massive impact of not having access to transport.”
During the same debate, Richard Boyd Barrett, a People Before Profit TD for Dún Laoghaire, said he had met with ACTS that same day.
ACTS needed €53,000 immediately or it would close down, he said. “I understand it met the Minister of State. The last I heard, which was today, was that it had not heard back.”
Greydon says ACTS never heard anything after that government debate. “Other things became priority. This group is very marginal.”
ACTS were fundraising at shopping centres to meet costs, he said.
Boyd Barrett said at the debate that the government should fund community services as part of the public transport network. It could do that under the free travel pass scheme, where people with disabilities get free access to public transport, he said.
“It is disgraceful that those who use the service cannot do so for free,” he said. “Nobody will take any responsibility for this. The Department of Transport does not want it and the Department of Health does not want it.”
Collumb says the closure of ACTS makes him worry that people who relied on the service will end up isolated.
Public transport is often difficult for people with disabilities to use, he says. Train lifts break frequently and wheelchair users have to phone 24 hours in advance to book a ramp. The ramps on Dublin Bus buses may not be working or the wheelchair space already taken, Collumb.
These days booking a taxi, especially in the evenings, can be difficult, says Collumb, but particularly difficult if you are limited to wheelchair-accessible taxis.
All of these things mean that people with disabilities experience a barrier, and they might be less likely to leave their homes for anything other than essential trips, says Collumb. “If it turns into a bad experience once or twice, you won’t go again.”
Urban community transport services should be fully funded, he says because without one, some people with disabilities might not get to leave their homes.
“You’re denied a service, denied going out, which typically raises other issues such as depression,” he says.
People become isolated and don’t want to go out after a while, he says. “It damages your health and everything like that.”