Bus and rail services once again under attack from Stormont austerity

Chris Conway, Translink

Chris Conway, the Chief Executive of Translink, Northern Ireland’s bus and rail provider, today testified on the state of public transport here. His evidence confirmed the criminal neglect of public transport by Stormont over many years.

Mr Conway exposed the fact that per capita funding for bus and rail services in NI is only 27% of the UK average. That is Stormont spends just a little bit more than a quarter of what Westminster, Holyrood and Cardiff spend on bus and rail services – for every man, woman and child.

Uncertain future

This situation is compounded by the fact that Northern Ireland is a rural region and the cost of operating public transport here is far higher due to our sparse population densities.

Mr Conway warned that the very future of Translink itself was uncertain and said that underfunding of public transport left it facing question marks over its financial viability.

1,000 bus and rail services under threat!

In a comment which highlights just how bad things are. The Translink Chief Executive warned that one thousand bus and rail services would be lost if the budget remained 10 percent below where it was. He further said that these would be primarily in rural areas.

This would mean Stormont presiding over the greatest calamity in public transport here since the railways were closed and the tracks lifted up in the late 1950s.

Places like Fermanagh and Tyrone already experience chronically poor public transport but losses of public transport on that scale would threaten to leave rural communities isolated and deprived inner city neighbourhoods without a functioning transport system.

Stormont’s Cinderella service

Mr Conway was withering in his assessment of Stormont’s attitude to public transport – he said they treated it like a ‘Cinderella’ service. Of course that’s the grim reality beneath all the strategies, plans and consultations talking about all-Ireland rail and environmental transition.

Services for working people – like public transport are underfunded.

Public sector economies versus private sector waste

85 percent of all bus and rail services in Northern Ireland are not profitable – that doesn’t mean they aren’t vital for members of the public however. They provide a vital public service to people who mightn’t have money for a car, who can’t drive or who have lost their license.

In England, Wales and Scotland, when Margaret Thatcher’s government privatised public transport, these types of services went to the wall. They weren’t profit making so the privatised bus companies slashed them to increase dividends to shareholders.

The result was entire swathes of Britain left without any public transport. In recent years, local councils were forced to re-establish publicly funded bus services – often delivered by private companies – all of which was paid for by public monies.
By comparison, despite the limitations of our service, Northern Ireland has actually retained more bus and rail routes than Britain. This is only possible because of ‘cross-subsidisation’ which is where the surpluses generated by lucrative ‘Goldliner’ routes go to keep loss-making routes running.
While there are major questions to be asked over the current management of Translink (including the colossal pay of Directors and Senior Executives) – our public ownership model has delivered huge benefits over a privatised alternative.

Private bus operators want a slice

Of course, private operators are always trying to take away these lucrative runs but so far union pressure and mobilisations by rural communities have fended them off. The reality is if they are allowed in – the loss of services that would result would be devastating.

For its size, Northern Ireland’s publicly-owned public transport provider maintains more services than anywhere in Britain – and it does it with only 27 percent of the support provided to the private sector. That shows the benefits of an integrated, publicly owned public sector provider.

If Stormont is serious about doing something for rural communities, lessening urban deprivation or aiding the transition from the car – they need to increase funding for public transport massively. They also need to end private sector competition for key routes.

Socialists would add that we require the direct empowerment of workers and service users in the management of Translink – replacing the functionaries and salaried bureaucrats. Only when the creative capacities of drivers and workers is tapped – will we see the huge potential that exists from a socialised, integrated and well-funded public transport service!

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