Strike action warning if bus routes go to private firms

BUS workers across the country will be forced to strike if a quarter of Dublin routes are given to private operators, a union leader warned yesterday.

Transport Minister Seamus Brennan said the Dublin plan to have one quarter of the bus routes open to private firms is to be implemented over the next two years. No definite plans were framed for areas outside the capital, but the minister indicated the same principle could be extended nationwide if the Dublin experiment succeeds.

But general secretary of the National Bus and Railworkers Union Liam Tobin said the proposal was most unjust to a State firm which was showing a profit but blocked from expanding its services. Mr Tobin said both Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann, which serves the rest of the country, were being denied the extra licences given to competing firms which were not giving workers the same wages and conditions.

"If the minister goes ahead with this I can see industrial action up and down the country," Mr Tobin said.

Mr Brennan said CIE will be granted a fares increase but not the 20% it has been looking for since last July.

He also confirmed the national transport holding company will be broken up, leaving its three constituent

companies to face private sector competition in the near future. Iarnród Éireann, Bus Éireann and Bus Átha Cliath will be separate State companies with a regulator to oversee their operation.

New private operators will also answer to the regulator, whose responsibilities will include granting licences and routes to private operators, fixing fares, overseeing safety, and monitoring compliance with regulations.

The regulator will also allocate State funding for particular projects, though Mr Brennan has not yet decided the full detail of the regulator's function.

Mr Brennan said he hoped private companies would enter the market by 2004 under franchises for routes in the Greater Dublin Area. A quarter of routes would be made available initially, with more being offered later.

Addressing the Dublin Public Transport Partnership Forum in Dublin, Mr Brennan said: "I recognise that market forces on their own may not always deliver the required level of public services, and that there is therefore a need to intervene in the market."

Mr Brennan later said the regulator would be empowered to offer financial help where licences were issued to

private operators for unprofitable routes. He said there were no specific plans for the introduction of private operators into long-distance bus and rail services but he said competition was intended in these areas.

The Transport Department will next week publish a consultants' report entitled Regulation of Bus Services Outside the Greater Dublin Area. The minister told staff at the CIE holding company there would be no job losses in the restructuring and unions would be consulted in determining any changes.

But unions greeted the minister's statement on private operators with dismay. "It is our belief that franchising of public transport in other European cities has been an unmitigated disaster," Liam Berney of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions said.

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