Private sector cherry-picking of express bus routes threatens integrity of NI public transport

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Public transport facing ‘perfect storm’ of threats as Hannon Coach targets profit-making bus routes across Northern Ireland

License application will undermine cross-subsidisation model sustaining Northern Ireland’s public transport system

January 11th: Unite the union’s Regional Secretary, Jackie Pollock, called on the Department of Infrastructure reject an application from County Antrim-based private sector Hannon Coach for a license to operate express services to a number of regional centres:

“This application by Hannon Coach threatens to undermine public transport services across Northern Ireland and poses a direct threat to the terms and conditions of our members in Ulsterbus and throughout Translink. This private operator seeks to displace Translink on nine of its most profitable routes – including express services between Newcastle, Armagh, Cookstown, Dungannon, Enniskillen, Omagh and Coleraine.

“Privateers are not interested in the public service routes. It is notable that they are focussing their efforts on towns without a rail link – this is driven by a desire to make profit at the expense of Translink’s Goldliner service in the publicly-funded bus centres in Belfast and these regional centres. They have no interest in services dedicated to students or the infirm. Should they succeed with their cherry-picking, the cost from their greed will be the undermining of Northern Ireland’s underfunded public transport system”, Mr Pollock concluded.

Unite Regional Coordinating Officer, Davy Thompson, highlighted the benefits of an integrated public sector provider coordinating all public transport:

“Northern Ireland is lucky enough to retain a single, publicly-owned public transport provider, Translink. That allows a business model ensuring the cross-subsidisation of uneconomic routes by those routes which generate a surplus. It is only through cross-subsidisation that we can retain even the network coverage we have on the basis of years of chronic underfunding of public transport. Fifteen percent of routes, principally the Goldliner express services, subsidise the eighty-five percent which operate at a loss.

“If Hannon Coach is successful in targeting these income-generating Goldliner routes, the resulting revenue reduction will force the discontinuation of dozens of non-profit making routes which are vital to rural and deprived communities. In the context of a possible sharp reduction in public transport funding, the impact is likely to extend to the loss of regional transport hubs themselves.

“In the Republic of Ireland private operators have been allowed to cherry-pick the profitable express routes, the result is the insolvency of Bus Éireann and the loss of dozens of routes leaving villages and towns across the jurisdiction without any public transport whatsoever.

“Public transport in Northern Ireland faces a perfect storm right now – cuts to the support for free transport for school children and senior citizens are proposed which will undermine services, there are attempts to open up the dedicated bus lane central to the £100 million BRT project and now this attempt to cherry-pick the profitable bus routes. As a society we need to consider what sort of transport system we want – a sustainable one rooted on an integrated public transport system or ever greater dependence on the car and mounting congestion and air pollution.

“The Department of Infrastructure must reject these application and uphold the policies of the Northern Ireland Executive which sought to safeguard our public transport sector”, Mr Thompson finished.

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