February 2017        

Expressway to privatisation

Jimmy Doran

It looks like the Government have their greedy sights on Bus Éireann and the rural public transport system. They have been doing a very good job in their media over the last couple of years, demonising Bus Éireann as a hopeless case and a huge financial burden on the taxpayer.
     They fail to point out that the financial problems are a direct result of policy decisions to starve Bus Éireann of the financial support needed to provide decent public transport to our citizens living in rural Ireland.
     The second part of this government policy is the unrestricted issuing of licences to private operators to operate on the lucrative inter-city motorway routes. These licences are not operated under the same conditions as Bus Éireann, in that they mostly run direct from city to city, with few if any stops, while Bus Éireann has to go through many towns and villages in between.
     Yes, there has been a growth in the number of passengers on inter-city buses—up to 60 per cent over the last couple of years—but the seat capacity has been increased by more than 120 per cent. This is unsustainable. The people who travel on these services are pensioners, students, and the sick, along with everyone else who makes up society. This is what public services are all about. They need financial support because they have a huge social value to the community.
     Bus Éireann receives only 40 per cent from the exchequer for people with a social welfare travel pass. If they were to receive the full amount it would add another €4½ million to its subvention annually, which would put it on a much better financial footing.
     The policy decision to starve public services of the necessary finances, coupled with a free-for-all in deregulated licence-issuing, and the demonising of public services in the media, has become the norm around the globe in the worldwide rush to privatise public services and sell off the people’s natural resources.
     The table shows clearly the impact of official policy and its implementation by the National Transport Authority.
Number of coach operatorsDepartures, 2010 (weekly average)Departures, 2016 (weekly average)Growth in seat capacityGrowth in passenger numbers*
N7/M7 (Dublin–Limerick)452100111%55%
M8 (Dublin–Cork)32864128%60%
M9 (Dublin–Waterford)3365655%?
*Source: NTA press statement, 11 January 2017.

     Having several operators competing for your custom with cheap fares will never lead to a better service on high-quality buses at more regular intervals to more destinations. Quite the opposite is what happens, very quickly: multiple operators are bought up by one or two large operators, creating a private monopoly or duopoly. Their only aim is maximum profit for the least investment.
     Once the field is cleared, the “inefficient” routes are quickly axed or “streamlined.” Next the workers come under attack. Unlike the public sector, these private operators are not too keen on recognising trade unions, so staffing levels are reduced, pay and conditions are slashed, and safety is set at the bare minimum. Large areas of rural Ireland will be left without a public service, and of course fares will rise.
     This has been seen time and time again wherever public transport is privatised.
     The Government will stop at nothing to support big business. They squandered more than €1 billion on Irish Water to create an income stream for the corporations; but Irish people are getting wise to their deals and their brown envelopes, and we stopped their plans for our water.
     Bus Éireann, just like Irish Water, is the scene of a struggle to sell off state assets and privatise our services. And once again the figures don’t add up. The latest set of figures from Grant Thornton (another one of the outrageously overpaid firms of consultants) states that Bus Éireann’s Expressway service will lose between €5 and €6 million per year and should be shut down immediately, with the loss of 500 jobs. Yet the cost to the exchequer of 500 extra people on the dole would be €5.8 million per year, and that’s just in social welfare payments.
     The company has now tried to impose cuts of up to 30 per cent on the workers’ earnings to make up for the underfunding by the state. This is a direct attack on the workers and their union, as in Dublin Bus and Luas recently.
     I don’t think the workers will roll over to this blatant attack on them and on the communities they serve. It is not up to the workers to subsidise public transport: that’s the duty of the Government.
     We were not fooled over water; we won’t be fooled over transport. We must stand with the people of rural Ireland and with the Bus Éireann workers and stop this Expressway to privatisation.

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