Northern Ireland’s public transport faces a ‘perfect storm’ between private sector cherry-picking of profitable routes and chronic underfunding
Union seeks urgent meeting with Translink management and Department for Infrastructure officials to identify status of threat to bus routes
January 23rd: Davy Thompson, Regional Coordinating Officer for Unite the union in Northern Ireland warned that any threat to bus or rail service provision arising from underfunding would be met by whatever action is deemed necessary to protect public transport services, rural communities and the most vulnerable in our society.
“Today’s media coverage highlighting the threat posed to rural bus routes is highly concerning. Public transport here has been chronically underfunded since the removal of the fuel duty rebate by the Northern Ireland Executive in 2013. Since that time, Translink has been burning through its reserves – reserves that should have been used to invest and expand our public transport infrastructure – as well as providing working-capital to run this service. This situation is clearly unsustainable.
“In this context the only reason Translink has been able to sustain uneconomic services to towns and villages across Northern Ireland is that, as a single entity running Ulsterbus, Metro and NI Rail services, it is has been able to ‘cross-subsidise’ using profits from the 15% of routes to subsidise the 85% which are loss-making. But this model itself is now threatened by the prospect of private operator license applications which seek to cherry-pick the profit-making express routes. Meanwhile the success of the £100 million Belfast Rapid Transit initiative – the only major new investment in public transport in decades – is now threatened as vested interests seek to gain access to the dedicated bus lanes at the heart of that project.
“The government of Northern Ireland, whether that’s civil servants, direct-rule Ministers or a locally-accountable Executive, need to get real about funding public transport. Translink is one of the only public transport providers – public or private – anywhere in Western Europe which doesn’t receive a Bus Service Operators Grant or the equivalent. We have a rail system which is not much more than a couple of lines and no ambition to connect regional centres across the province or even to provide connections to either of our airports.
“Mass transit is the only sustainable path for the future. By investing in public transport we are investing in that future. We are also addressing the congestion problem which is costing our economy, our environment and our health today.
“Unite has written to Translink senior management to seek an urgent meeting to determine the status of plans to cut services. We will also be seeking meetings with the Departmental permanent secretaries responsible for this threat; we want to ask them how it is they claim to have no powers when it comes to investing in our NHS or delivering pay increases but they can threaten cuts to frontline public services. As we did successfully in 2014, our drivers and engineers stand ready to build a campaign, alongside affected communities, or take whatever action is deemed necessary to defend jobs, public transport services, rural communities and the most vulnerable in our society”, Mr Thompson said.