Changes to rural transport services in Republic of Ireland
Transport Minister Alan Kelly has announced changes to how transport services are operated in the Republic of Ireland.
The existing 35 rural transport programme companies currently in operation will be replaced with 18 new transport co-ordination units (TCUs).
The new TCUs will co-ordinate the running of transport services within local authority areas.
They will be overseen by the National Transport Authority (NTA).
The changes are part of a major overhaul of the Rural Transport Programme (RTP)
The TCUs will become a "go-to point" for rural communities to address their transport needs and will be staffed by personnel from the existing 35 rural transport programme companies.
As part of the reform, each local authority will prepare annual rural transport plans that the TCUs will have to work to.
The department of transport said the changes would give local government a role in the planning of rural transport provision for the first time.
"These reforms represent a new start for rural transport in Ireland and will enhance the transport offering right across the country," Mr Kelly said.
"The current RTP is not achieving its potential and it needs a new structure to do this. We want the RTP to become a permanent and lasting part of the public transport system in Ireland and these reforms will allow us to do this."
The minister said access to transport was a "major quality of life issue", especially for elderly people.
"This will give a lifeline to many communities in tackling the very serious problem of rural isolation and represents a major overhaul of the Rural Transport Programme but one that will lead to major improvements."
Additional roles will also be allocated to the TCUs such as maintaining databases of people in rural areas with specific transport needs and assisting the co-ordination of voluntary efforts to address these.
They will also have a role in assessing the needs of isolated areas when it comes to the granting of a new category of hackney licence - the local area hackney licence by the NTA.
Gerry Murphy, chief executive of the National Transport Authority, the lead agency overseeing the RTP, welcomed the changes: "The National Transport Authority is very pleased that there is now a clear path set out to protect and sustain rural transport services into the future.
"This plan will position rural transport within a national network of integrated public transport and will safeguard those vital transport services that the people of rural Ireland need.
"New structures will maintain the focus on social inclusion, with stronger links into local policymaking by local authorities throughout the country."
The RTP was formerly established in 2007 but evolved from local initiatives commissioned previous to this.
It was set up to provide public transport provision for rural areas where none existed.
It carries out over 1.3m passenger journeys a year at an overall cost to the Irish government of 10m euros (£8.5m).