The Bus Éireann move is a significant step towards privatisation of the state bus company
Bus Éireann has just announced that it will be cutting Expressway services between Dublin and three other cities (Galway, Limerick and Cork) from early 2021, the service will cease when the emergency supports (COVID) for the routes expire which is expected to happen early next year. The company also said that the X51 Express Route from Galway to Limerick suspended due to COVID-19, is being permanently closed. The board of Bus Éireann has said it made the decision to close the routes, which it says are losing money, in order to protect core Public Service Obligation routes. The board informed staff that there are expected losses of up to €20 million over the next three years and asserted however, that there will be no redundancies as drivers are needed for other routes.
The CEO of Bus Éireann, Stephen Kent, stated the following:
· Bus Éireann cannot continue to run losses,
· There would be a cost to some communities,
· The company is trying to safeguard two hundred other communities within the Expressway network,
· It would be 2022 before some of the routes recover.
Dermot O'Leary, (General Secretary of the National Bus and Rail Workers Union, NBRU), urged politicians to "step up to the plate and protect the services". Bus Éireann was the only bus company operating during the pandemic on the routes that are being "culled". "Without Bus Éireann during the Covid crisis, there would have been no bus service, essential workers could not have gone into hospitals, doctor's surgeries, pharmacies," he said. "Bus Éireann was the last man standing" and all the companies that the licences were issued to by the NTA, they all disappeared during the Covid-19 crisis, because there was "no market there for them to make their profits".
The general Services Industrial Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU) Sector Organiser, John Murphy, stated that: "Our members are calling for an immediate intervention by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Eamon Ryan, to reverse this decision." In 2013, 14 Bus Éireann local and commuter routes were privatised under plans implemented by the National Transport Authority, with more than 20 Dublin Bus routes were opened up to competition from 2015 onwards. These routes were located in Waterford city with commuter services between Dublin and towns in County Kildare.
In 2018, the Fine Gael-led government and the Department of Transport fronted by Independent Alliance Minister Shane Ross privatised 10% of Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann routes. The new contractor, was the British transport firm, Go-Ahead. With regard to company efficiency, interestingly, one media report (the Herald) asserted that the COVID crisis had made no fundamental difference to the underlying issues affecting Bus Éireann, which it asserted are the following:
Private Contractors are Superior: "Siptu blames the Government's privatisation project. What this position ignores is the reason the private companies do well is that they provide a better service."
On Private vs Public Services: "Their buses are brand new, spotlessly clean and run on time. Bus Éireann has many old, filthy buses and most people have little trust in its reliability."
Also, Bus Éireann drivers milk sick leave pay: "In 2017, it was revealed that absenteeism in Bus Éireann was running at 7pc, with the average employee taking 10 sick days a year, at a cost of €3m to the firm. Not only that, but drivers were paid an extra €250 if they claimed fewer than seven sick days a year. In other words, they were paid extra for turning up. It's the archaic work practices championed by organisations such as Siptu that have played their part in Bus Éireann's problems."
Concerning the closure of the routes, SIPTU stated on 28th September last that the National Transport Authority (NTA) has, over the years, flooded the market with privately held operating licenses "and strangled the national carrier." Bus Éireann, unlike other operators, supplied much needed services during the Covid-19 crisis, the NTA needs to acknowledge this fact and provide funding so that these services can ‘continue to provide safe and accessible transport for all its passengers.’
The SIPTU statement went on to note the following:
· the NTA was responsible for ensuring connectivity of public transport across the country
· Some, but not all, of these routes were granted access to emergency funding during the Covid-19 pandemic.
· This funding will cease in 2020 and Bus Éireann cannot continue to operate these services on a loss making basis.
The Department of Transport statement (29th September), concerning the closures, listed the fact that temporary financial support for certain licensed services provided by commercial bus operators; and enhancements to certain PSO bus services announced under the July Stimulus package. There is no differentiation made between privately contracted operators and Bus Éireann, leaving the question open as to whether private operators can avail of Covid financial support.
Pre-Covid, Bus Éireann gained a 14% increase in passenger journey numbers recorded January 2020 last, interestingly, this was ignored by the Department of Transport in its September statement. It is therefore unclear from the Department of Transport statement, whether the Galway, capital and Galway, Limerick and Cork Bus Éireann routes received additional support. This Bus Éireann move is a significant step towards privatisation of the state bus company, as the routes will be granted by the National Transport Authority to private contractors from 2020 onwards. It is clear from the media rhetoric (Evening Herald) that this move is now already on the cards. Evidently the Government view the bus unions as too weak to interfere.