Ross must open his mind — and cheque book — to save our buses

Our future depends on our public transport service, which has been starved of public funding for decades by government ministers who wouldn’t recognise a bus if it ran them over, writes Victoria White

Ross must open his mind — and cheque book — to save our buses

(This column prompted a letter to the editor that can be read below)

SHANE ROSS, brought into emergency conclave with the Independent Alliance yesterday by the Garda whistleblower controversy, should have been in emergency mode for weeks.

The threat of all-out strike by Bus Éireann workers has been averted for now as the National Bus and Railworkers Union and Siptu have agreed to hold talks with the Workplace Relations Commission in the hope that we won’t have stoppages within days.

The situation now facing public transport users is as strong an indication of dysfunctionality within our government as the botched handling of the whistleblower revelations.

Ross’s position does not seem to go much beyond the statement that he’s not going to “open the cheque book”. You would think he was talking to an errant teenager who’d sat on a cigarette and wanted a new pair of designer jeans, not the public transport system of this country. Our future depends on our public transport service, which has been starved of public funding for decades by government ministers who wouldn’t recognise a bus if it ran them over.

Let’s be clear about one thing: if this man is truly a minister for transport is he going to have to “open the cheque book”. An independent report carried out for Bus Éireann in 2009 found the company to be revenue-funded by 12%. By comparison, Conexxion in the Netherlands is 49% funded, Post Auto in Switzerland is 51%, and TEC Belgium is 78%. Deloitte also found that there was limited scope for cost-saving from network and scheduling changes because they were “largely efficient”.

State funding for the company is still not even at the 2008 point, €48m, with the figure for 2017 promised to represent an increase of around 11% on last year’s €40m.

Meanwhile the National Transport Authority has continued to grant multiple licences to private operators to work the most commercially successful inter-city routes.

The Steer Davies Gleave report in 2002, which formed the background to the setting up of the National Transport Authority, stressed the importance of the regulator in managing a coherent system. The NTA has not delivered. The situation whereby a state-funded company makes losses to a state-registered private company should never have been allowed to arise.

But here’s the hard part: The bus has left the station. The private bus companies are exploiting the new motorway network to provide direct services and people are voting with their feet.

The NTA boasts that the use of buses on the Dublin-Cork route has gone up 61% between 2012 and 2015 and on the Limerick-Dublin route by 50% in the same time. They haven’t presented the maths to ensure these journeys aren’t switches from railway rather than from private cars, but they’re impressive statistics.

I travelled the Dublin-Galway route in the last few days and can only say that private bus operators have made bus travel smart in every sense of the word.

In Galway, bus users need no longer stand out in the rain as a punishment for not driving. They can lounge in the fabulous New Coach Station from where GoBus and Citylink offer a twice-hourly service to Dublin and frequent, direct services to Limerick and Cork.

Citylink got me from Dublin to Galway in two and a half hours, more quickly and with far less stress by car and, at €23, more cheaply. I just presented my pre-booked ticket, spread out stretched my legs and opened my book.

To characterise these services simply as inter-city shuttles is not correct, either. I travelled on to Clifden and then to Cleggan by Citylink, on buses packed mostly with older passengers travelling from the Novena in Galway Cathedral.

One of them told me she would have felt bad for not using Bus Éireann, except she was paying for her ticket and not costing the State the subsidy for a free journey on her bus pass.

It would be impossible now, if not illegal, to try to de-licence superb services such as these. We have fumbled into a licensed, private inter-city service with GoBe, a collaboration between the private GoBus and the public Bus Éireann, which offers an hourly service between Cork, Dublin and their airports for €23 return, offering an example of a third option: Public-private partnership.

Interaction between public and private is common on bus services internationally. In Turkey the state licenses private companies providing a superb bus service, which like smaller operators in rural Ireland, switches seamlessly to mini-buses to serve outlying areas.

In Finland, the national inter- regional network is provided by a grouping of over 30 private bus operators, while in Sweden innovative and popular bus transport is provided by private providers licensed, co-ordinated and regulated by the State.

It is time to face the music and accept that because of poor management by Government, the NTA and Bus Éireann itself, Expressway has been out-performed by private operators on intercity routes. It should be replaced by a well- regulated network of private buses, or public/private partnership buses, with the aim of maximising connectivity on these routes.

Expressway employs more than 500 people and government should count these highly-skilled and experienced staff as a resource to be deployed on sustainable routes.

Bus Éireann must develop an imaginative management plan for the continuance of its vital service to smaller centres of population and rural areas, as well as school buses, and this must be funded by much higher rates of subsidy, including higher rates of subsidy from the Department of Social Protection.

The NTA must ensure that this service fully integrates with the inter-city network. The pay and conditions gap between drivers on private buses and public buses is a difficult issue but not one which can be solved quickly for forcing one level of pay up, or the other down.

It is invidious of minister and management to suggest that workers on modest salaries should pay the price for decades of under-funding by governments who would not get on the bus.

The strikes that had been threatened are about much more than pay cuts, whether they represent 10% or 30% of pay, as the unions maintain.

It is about whether we want a connected, socially inclusive, environmentally sustainable future for our country or not.

Speak up, Mr Ross. Don’t just open your cheque book. Open your mind, too.

***

Dear Editor,

Victoria White’s article is a timely addition to the debate on bus services.

There seems however to be a fundamental misunderstanding of the NTA’s role and remit as set out in enabling legislation.

The Authority contracts Bus Éireann to deliver Public Service Obligation bus services for which the company is wholly remunerated. As services increase over the coming years, that subsidy is likely to increase to previous levels.

Bus Eireann Expressway on the other hand, is a wholly commercial entity and its activities are not subvented by the State through the Authority. The Authority does not manage Expressway either strategically or on a day-to-day basis.

As we have clarified previously, the Authority has granted a limited number of licences on the Cork, Limerick and Waterford corridors to private operators offering non-stop or limited stop services between Dublin and each city, which met a strong customer demand.

It’s worth pointing out that the Authority has issued no additional licences on the Galway corridor which already had express and limited stop services in place. Furthermore, Bus Éireann’s commercial Expressway division could equally have applied at any stage for licences to operate via the motorway system.

It is notable that since 2013 there has been significant growth in passenger journeys on the intercity bus services. In the same time period, rail passenger numbers on the Limerick and Waterford corridors remained steady, while passenger numbers on the Cork and Galway corridors actually grew by 7% and by 12 % respectively.

This is a clear indication that the size of that market has grown considerably and that the majority of passengers are new to public transport or are existing passengers making more interurban journeys.

The Authority has also been effective in reorganising and improving public transport in urban markets since 2012, and evidence of this is provided by the fact that between 2012 and 2016 passenger numbers on Bus Éireann PSO city services in Cork grew by 32.2% and in Galway by 20%.

Both these outcomes provide clear evidence of effective regulation of the interurban and urban markets and that the Authority is discharging its core remit of reducing car dependency and increasing the use of public transport in various markets across the State.

Leap ticketing systems, Journey planning and information in real time at stops and via phone apps have all been developed by the Authority to make public transport even easier and more convenient to use.

The Authority is well aware that further work remains to be done, and will continue to innovate to improve public transport services for the people of Ireland.

Yours sincerely,

Anne Graham

Chief Executive Officer

National Transport Authority

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