Irish Examiner View: Let’s reject failed ideas on markets for public services

We have to stop using the economics of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to fix our housing and health service problems
Irish Examiner View: Let’s reject failed ideas on markets for public services

This week, Bus Éireann announced that Expressway services linking Galway, Limerick, Cork, and Dublin will end next year. File photo: Sam Boal / RollingNews.ie

Two years ago this month the private bus company Greyhound ended its services in Canada’s western provinces. The bus links for dozens of remote, soon-to-be snow-bound towns were axed. 

Bus routes well-used for nearly a century are no more. A 41% fall in passenger numbers since 2010, driven by migration to cities, the rise of no-frills airlines, as well as increased car ownership made those closures inevitable. Just as those changes seem all too familiar, though Covid-19 homeworking may slow that ebbing tide, many Canadians see the decline of bus services as a metaphor for an ever-quieter rural Canada.

Those changes raise fundamental, ever-more pressing questions about how social services like a bus link can survive in a dog-eat-dog marketplace, especially if those services are delivered, as was the case in large tracts of Canada, by private, cherry-picking enterprises reliant on public subsidies. The chaos and eyewatering costs facing British commuters using privatised but subsidised railways make those questions even more pressing.  

This week, Bus Éireann announced that Expressway services linking Galway, Limerick, Cork, and Dublin will end next year. 

Most non-express services like the Limerick to Galway link will, however, continue. Some private operators, free of social obligations, quit those routes months ago when Covid-19 hit passenger numbers. 

Announcing the decision, Bus Éireann warned it faces losses of up to €20m over the next three years, a prospect made all the more likely by upgraded motorways. This situation is echoed at Irish Rail where, despite carrying record numbers of passengers, losses persist.

If seen only in the context of a spreadsheet then more and more bus and train routes will be cut, especially if gross, wilful underfunding continues. 

That underfunding has other consequences especially around the development of a modern, carbon-free, public transport infrastructure. 

It is a source of considerable national embarrassment that we are still dependent on diesel to power public transport, especially as just one year's looming emission fines - estimated at €700m - would go a long way to replacing our belching bus fleets. That underfunding also allows latitude around timetables on urgently needed projects. 

The suggestion that it might take at least a decade to deliver a commuter rail service for Cork is an example. By the time it is up and running it may well be the answer to yesterday's questions rather than the solution to tomorrow's challenges.

Many of today's problems, not just those in public transport, were created by an answer to a question alive half a century ago. 

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher convinced many ambitious people, more than a few self-serving individuals and institutions too, that smaller, less engaged government was a positive social project rather than an economic regression that would concentrate resources. 

They eviscerated the basic, life-enhancing services that any decent society would be proud to support. Our tottering public transport service is but one example.

That abandonment is seen at its cruellest in our housing crisis; "the market will provide," insisted the chorus from the infamous tent at the Galway Races. The 10,000 homeless people and the innumerable people living an indentured life to meet contrived housing costs would disagree. The vast number of Irish people whose families were given unprecedented opportunity because the State provided largely pain-free housing could hardly disagree. 

The same issue is alive in our two-tier health service. 

If you can pay you'll get quick access to the doctors and hospitals you need, if not you may as well be waiting for a bus in rural Saskatchewan. 

The pandemic has underlined another legacy of Reagan and Thatcher's the-market-is-best folly. Neither of them could have imagined how the internet and broadband would change our world. Not so long ago they were vague ideas tumbling around in scientists' heads but today they are as necessary as roads or electricity. 

Yet, we rely on private entities, once again hugely subsidised, to provide this heartbeat service. The provision of renewable energy is also entrusted to the market. So too is the connectivity airlines provide, or at least provided before Covid-19.  

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