Funding for the Free Travel scheme is being increased by €3m, from €77m to €80m, to meet increased numbers eligible for the scheme and consequent increased claims from service providers. The increased funding is to meet expected increased demands on this scheme, as the customer cohort increases. There will be no change in eligibility to hold a pass, nor in the conditions for transport companies to enter the scheme.
The Government is committed to the full retention of the Free Travel Scheme, as outlined in its Statement of Priorities for 2014 – 2016. This commitment recognises the importance of the pass to pensioners, people with disabilities and carers. Since its introduction in the 1960s, it has been highly valued as it allows beneficiaries to participate and remain active in the community.
The scheme permits travel for free on most CIE public transport services, Luas and some 80 private operators. Free travel is also available on cross border journeys and within N. Ireland (if over 66). The Department provides annual funding of €1.5 million towards the Rural Transport Programme.
Funding for the free travel scheme was capped by the previous Government as outlined in the National Recovery Plan 2011-2014. To implement this funding cap during a time in which passenger numbers were increasing each year the Department imposed a freeze on the amounts paid to companies and placed a complete restriction on the admission of new companies or routes to the scheme. This had included new companies taking over previously extant routes. Over this period, a total of fourteen (14) companies fully withdrew from the scheme and a further eleven (11) withdrew from some of their routes, as they judged it was no longer financially viable for them to be involved, as the Department had not been in a position to increase payment to these operators despite the numbers of free travel customers having increased significantly. Free travel customers can displace fully paying customers on some routes, and depending on the circumstances this loss can exceed the scheme funding.
Where bus operators have withdrawn from routes, including those routes previously operated by CIÉ, and where the National Transport Authority has determined that there is a Public Service Obligation to continue the provision of bus services on a particular route, the Department makes a contribution towards the cost of free travel as otherwise concessionary fares are charged to free travel customers on these routes. The Department have agreed with the National Transport Authority as to the appropriate level of funding to be provided in these instances to ensure the continuing provision of free travel on those routes. This approach, however, will put an increasing pressure on the funding available for the free travel scheme.
Since November 2014 the Department began allowing new operators into the free travel scheme initially those who had taken over a route previously in the scheme. Since then, there have been requests for increases from approximately a quarter of the existing private operators. On the survey data submitted to date one operator would be entitled to an increase of 231% on his current payment and the other 241%. In addition, fares have increased for Luas, Dublin Bus, Irish Rail and Bus Éireann since 2011; however, the Department has held the cap on payment in place.