Belfast Telegraph

Translink hiked fares over fears of cash difficulties, but then did better than expected... So what was the response when an MLA asked if it would cancel the increases and give the money back to the public?

BY CLAIRE MCNEILLY

Translink has admitted that it hiked fares in anticipation of poorer financial results.

Boss Catherine Mason told a special meeting of Stormont's regional development committee yesterday the firm hadn't expected a cash balance of £60m to be available at the end of March.

The public service provider's bank account was enhanced by profits and from some exceptional income, including £4m generated from the sale of land at Belfast's Westlink.

Ticket prices increased by an average of 3% on Metro and local Ulsterbus routes and by on average 5% – and up to 8% – on NI Railways on May 6.

Ms Mason told the committee the decision to hike prices was made before Translink became aware there was a year-end £60m cash balance.

She said: "We did better than we thought. Nobody takes any joy in putting fares up. It's a last ditch measure."

Translink's chief operating officer indicated extra money was raised as a result of an extra 1.5 million fare-paying journeys during the course of the year.

Committee chair Jimmy Spratt – who claimed that there have been 10 ticket price hikes since 2007 – offered Ms Mason the opportunity to "make a gesture and take the fare increases off and give them back to the travelling public".

She declined, and said the firm had acted on the available information pertaining to its year-end forecasts.

She added: "We have a history of being able to review and minimise fare increases.

"Cash is a point in time. It's really important that we look to the future.

"We have to look over a period so we can see how we can manage the books into the future."

Deputy chairman Sean Lynch asked why the increases, which came into effect two months ago, couldn't be "put on ice".

Ms Mason replied that, following the rises on May 6, there were no price hikes "imminent", adding that if the firm's success continued "the pressure on fares will be diminished".

Translink's company accounts show that the profit for year ending March 2013 was £10.4m compared with £5.6m the previous year.

However, Ms Mason, who earns a salary of £199,000 per year, said it expected to make losses of £5.8m next year and £3m the following year, due to a decrease in public sector funding.

The regional development committee held a special meeting at Stormont yesterday to receive a briefing from Ms Mason and Translink's finance director Stephen Armstrong on the company's 2012/2013 accounts.

During a sometimes heated session, MLAs asked both officials to outline how the £60m balance would be invested.

Mr Armstrong replied that £15m would go towards the purchase of 100 new buses, which he said were required to maintain the fleet.

UK Independence Party committee member David McNarry said he believed Translink could "perform as a company without the Government subsidies and monies that you get".

Ms Mason replied that the firm's funding was being reduced by £7m next year and £11m the following year.

She added: "If Northern Ireland wants the quality and service that is being delivered in Northern Ireland then there is a requirement for public funding."

QUOTES

* Jimmy Spratt: "Take the fare increases off and give them back to the travelling public."

* Catherine Mason: "Nobody takes any joy in putting fares up. It's a last ditch measure."

* Sean Lynch: "Why can't you put the fares increase on ice?"

* David McNarry: "I think you can perform as a company without the Government subsidies you get."

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