I am committed to maintaining and developing our public transport network. That is a key priority for me, not only in supporting sustainable modes of transport, which is underpinned by my Department’s significant capital investment in our public transport network, but in contributing where I can to the health and prosperity of our community by encouraging modal shifts towards the widespread use of public transport by our citizens.
With that in mind, over the last year, I have engaged extensively with Executive colleagues to address the future financial stability of our public transport network. I have taken action throughout my time as Minister to underline my commitment, and I have instructed my officials to explore ways to ensure that my Department continues to meet its obligations to Translink’s financial viability under the current public service agreement. That work is ongoing and, to date, has resulted in over £100 million of COVID-19 mitigation funding being provided to support our public transport services and essential workers throughout the pandemic.
Our public transport and passenger numbers have been severely impacted by COVID-19. The recovery and resilience of our public transport network is a commitment that we all must share as we move through and beyond COVID to tackle the climate crisis. I will continue to work with the Department of Finance and Executive colleagues as 2021-22 unfolds.
I thank the Member for his question. As a Department, we have engaged with Translink to review the impact of COVID-19 and used that assessment to inform our projected requirements. In short, we have used the most up-to-date information that is available to underpin our projections. However, one lesson that COVID-19 has undoubtedly taught us all is that circumstances can change. While I have ensured that our public transport provider is in a stable position to meet the anticipated financial challenges in 2021-22, my Department will keep that under review and will liaise with the Department of Finance throughout the next financial year to ensure that our public transport services are adequately funded.
To assure the Member, I take the challenge of the recovery of our public transport system very seriously. I have engaged with colleagues across these islands and, this week, I will again engage with my ministerial counterparts in Scotland and Wales. We will put our heads together to ensure that we can see a resilient recovery for public transport networks across these islands.
Minister, in the future, post-COVID, what steps can you or Translink take to ensure that it is on a solid footing? I know that it received money in the January monitoring round and that it provides a vital public service, but what steps can you take to ensure that it is on a solid footing in the future?
I thank the Member for raising a very important issue. Translink is very much focused on the here and now and on ensuring that we can provide a secure and safe transport system for all our citizens, regardless of where they live. The Member will be aware of the number of actions that Translink has taken and continues to take, such as the deep cleansing of fleets and ensuring that we have additional capacity on standby to meet social-distancing requirements.
As I said in my response to Mr Blair, we are looking across these islands — I am looking across the world — to learn best practices and ensure that we take whatever steps we can to increase passenger confidence and ensure that, when we get to the right point, we can encourage people to use their public transport again. It is important to get us through COVID, but, as the Member will appreciate, it is also critical in addressing our climate emergency.
My concerns are on the regional imbalance and rural transport in particular. I recently had to engage with Translink in order to have some bus services put on at more appropriate times. In light of the review, what assurances can the Minister and the Executive give in relation to rural transport provision in future?
I thank the Member for her question. As she is aware, Translink delivers the majority of our public transport network, supported by private transport providers, which play an important role in improving our connectivity throughout the North. Our public transport network is defined in my Department's public service agreement with Translink, and my Department has an obligation under that agreement to fund the delivery of those services.
Given the level of support that I have secured in extensive engagement with my Executive colleagues in support of that obligation, our public transport provider is in a stable position to deliver those services, which, I can assure the Member, include a large number of rural services. As I have already outlined, I am committed to maintaining a public transport network that covers all of Northern Ireland, including our rural areas, for those who need it.