Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 28 August 2014

Threat of huge rail fare hike and end of free travel

Rail passengers could face up to a 30% rise in fares and concessionary schemes are under threat as Translink struggles to cover the cost of a multi-million pound budget shortfall, it can be revealed.

Hard-pressed travellers could be hit with the huge price rise as part of a cost-cutting exercise under consideration if the Department for Regional Development fails in its bid to secure additional funding to cover the cost of running Northern Ireland’s railway service.

It is the latest blow for a network which currently does not provide a rail service allowing people to travel from Londonderry to Belfast before 9am on weekdays.

It emerged earlier this week that late night and Sunday services could be axed — prompting Translink to release a statement saying there are no plans to remove Sunday and/or evening services across the network at this time.

However, the Belfast Telegraph has seen a DRD document dated October 2008 which outlines the amount of extra money required and the possible cost-cutting measures which could be put in place if the Department fails to get extra funds.

The popularity of concessionary fare schemes, including the recently launched Free Travel for 60 to 64s, means they are also under threat as part of the cutbacks being proposed.

According to the document, an extra £2.6m must be found to maintain existing levels of subsidy for the demand-led bus and rail concessionary fares scheme.

This is as a result of a 5% fare increase announced earlier this year to cover the rising cost of fuel and the increased take up by senior citizens and other vulnerable groups who now use public transport as a result of increased living costs.

The document says: “As this subsidy budget is required to reimburse operators, failure to meet this bid may lead to the Department capping the scheme.

“This would attract criticism as DRD has only recently introduced the Free Travel for 60 to 64s scheme.”

It goes on to state that if the Department does not receive a further £3.5m for cost increases on the Railway Public Service Obligation, services which run outside peak times could be shelved.

It says: “If this bid is not met, NIR has recently produced the following two likely options for service reductions: (i) the cessation of Sunday services; and (ii) the cessation of Sunday services and curtailment of Monday to Saturday operations after 10pm including two Enterprise trains.

“I would emphasise that such cuts in service are not anticipated as covering the projected PSO shortfall and it may be the case that NIR fare rises would also have to be considered.

“The scale of these rises when combined with the NILGOSC pension liability pressures referred to below could be in the order of 20 to 30%.”

It continues: “Reduction in passenger numbers from implementing these options is likely and this will have implications for the travelling public and on the Department’s ability to meet PSA target 13 of 77 million passenger journeys.”

SDLP spokesman on Regional Development John Dallat said if the proposals are put in place it would be tantamount to turning the clocks back by over 50 years.

“The possibility that the trains wouldn’t run on Sundays or in the evening would be similar to the conditions found during the Blitz,” he said.

“Like all government departments, the Department of Regional Development is facing difficulties, not helped by the fact that the Assembly Executive is not meeting and shows no signs of doing so.”

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