Belfast Telegraph

Intercity competition 'not sole reason for threat of Bus Eireann going bust'

The state's transport chiefs have claimed that competition on intercity and motorway routes is not solely to blame for the threat of Bus Eireann going bust.

And the National Transport Authority (NTA) said that if the company cancels loss-making services - as threatened on the Dublin to Derry, Dublin to Clonmel and Athlone to Westport routes - it will step in and ensure local demands are met.

An all-out strike is now looming at Bus Eireann as management insist 12 million euro payroll savings must be found or it will be insolvent by May.

"The notion that there is saturation on the intercity corridors served by Expressway services, and that the NTA grants licences to operators at the drop of a hat, also does not stand up to scrutiny," chief executive Anne Graham said.

"In fact since 2011, we have rejected almost as many applications for licences on these key routes, as we have granted."

The Oireachtas Transport Committee was also told that that 875,000 pensioners and others are directly eligible for free travel passes and when companions and husbands and wives are taken into account there are potentially 1.4 million people in the scheme.

The Government last year rejected appeals by Bus Eireann's controlling company CIE to boost the amount of money paid to cover the scheme.

Tim Duggan, assistant secretary of the Department of Social Protection, told the committee: " Given the many competing demands for funding in Budget 2017, the Government was unable to increase the level of funding for the free travel scheme."

CIE will get 61m euro this year for carrying people for free but the breakdown of how that money is paid to Bus Eireann, Dublin Bus and Irish Rail was not detailed at the hearing.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny said on Tuesday that rumours that the free travel scheme was under threat were false.

Meanwhile, the NTA told the committee that Bus Eireann's commercial services like Expressway only account for about a fifth of all the company's passengers.

And the agency insisted that it was prepared to step in to cover routes that close down and cited the example of Bus Eireann's Waterford to Dublin service via Enniscorthy which was cancelled in 2015.

Ms Graham said existing local services were extended and new services put on the roads to serve towns along the route, including Clonroche and Bunclody and that "the service level has improved in a number of the towns".

Mick Barry, Anti Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit TD, also claimed Bus Eireann workers were facing 7,000 euro pay cuts in the company's cost-cutting plan.

The NTA also insisted it could not force private bus companies which have licences to run city-to-city motorway services to carry pensioners and others with state bus passes.

Ms Graham said it is a commercial decision as they will not get 100% of the fare.

"They have to make a decision in relation to their own business," she said.

"If you were to ensure that they were all using the free travel scheme there's compensation that would be required in relation to that.

"It's up to them to make that decision about their passengers and the type of passengers they want."

Retail Excellence, which represents 1,650 high street stores and traders, called on Transport Minister Shane Ross to take a lead role in the financial crisis.

The lobby group's spokeswoman Lorraine Higgins said businesses could see losses of 60% if shoppers and staff cannot travel.

" The matter is a national embarrassment and with continued threats of industrial unrest this could very well lead to many of our international retailers rethinking their investment strategy for Ireland which would be very damaging to Ireland Inc," she said.

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