Translink today promised to drop cross-border rail prices in a bid to win back thousands of passengers who have abandoned the Enterprise service since a track collapse.
Ciaran Rogan of the public transport company defended the Belfast to Dublin train service after new figures showed a huge drop in passenger numbers since a viaduct carrying part of the track collapsed into the sea in August.
Bus transfers have been in place between Dublin and Drogheda since the bridge fell into the sea at Malahide. Commuters can only take the Enterprise as far as Drogheda where a bus takes them on the remaining 31 miles to Dublin.
Repairs on the 20-metre section of the collapsed bridge are expected to be completed by the end of next month.
According to initial figures released by Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy, in response to an Assembly question, numbers could be down around 60%.
Cross-border travellers have been opting for hourly bus services between the two cities in recent months, despite the longer journey time.
It is also estimated that between £1m and £2m could be lost in revenue because of the disruption.
Mr Murphy, who met with representatives of Translink, said: “They have informed me that patronage loss to date could be down by 60% on the Belfast to Dublin railway line,” he said.
“However, the passenger and revenue figures for the period immediately after the incident have not yet been finalised between Iarnrod Eireann and Northern Ireland Railways.”
Mr Rogan said the significant drop off in passengers was “disappointing but not surprising”.
“We’ll get over it,” he added, saying that Translink intended to entice passengers back with “some fairly headline grabbing fares”.
Despite revenue losses over the bridge collapse, Mr Rogan said the lower fares could initially be offered with “the long term view of getting bums back on seats”.
He said Translink had been told by Iarnrod Eireann that the line is expected to re-open on November 29.
Translink also defended criticism from Mark Gleeson of the Rail Users Ireland pressure group who said it was “somewhat convenient to blame the collapse on the fall off in numbers”.
“This service has been in severe difficulties for a number of years, the bridge collapse has just brought everything to a head,” he said.
Mr Gleeson said cross border rail travellers had faced bad punctuality and reliability — and a low frequency of service and higher prices when compared to the Belfast-Dublin bus service.
Mr Rogan agreed “frequency is something we have to improve on” but said there was a high level of reliability.
On the train, a standard adult return ticket from Belfast to Dublin costs £40 (a day return ticket costs £30).
An Ulsterbus/Bus Eireann day return ticket costs £19.15, while a return ticket on the Aircoach costs £19 although on this service passengers must transfer to a different bus at Dublin Airport.
Iarnrod Eireann has said the line collapse could have resulted in tragedy and an inquiry into why it happened is still ongoing. The damage was discovered when a train driver spotted subsidence on the line while crossing the viaduct.
He managed to reach Malahide Station and report the incident, but a section of the line collapsed into the water a short time later.