Belfast Telegraph

Cuts plan will not deliver efficient transport service

By Gail Walker

Fair enough, we are in straitened times and we have been well warned that they will get even more straitened over the next few years.

But the news from Translink that the public transport company is looking to cut ALL local bus services in Armagh City and 13 towns across Northern Ireland really is shocking and not just because of the scale of the cuts.

The bigger question is how we got ourselves into the situation where one company can trim and dock vital public transport over the whole region?

Is there any other company in these islands solely responsible for all public transport?

A private company, of course, can do what it likes. But one which receives massive subsidy to provide an adequate public service should never be in the position of deciding who will get to work in the morning and how they will do it.

That's what's astonishing about the statement Translink has issued about the suggested reduction in its subsidy from the Department for Regional Development.

Even stranger, it was the minister with responsibility for transport, Danny Kennedy, who detailed the list of proposed cut services. It makes one wonder why there is a company called Translink at all when even the local bus from the shopping centre to outlying housing estates is subject to Government announcement.

In short, public transport faces a cut of £15m in subsidy. Now, it may be that Mr Kennedy himself is outlining a nightmare scenario to strengthen his hand in budget negotiations with the Department of Finance and Personnel and Finance Minister Simon Hamilton, who will ultimately take the decision on the final budget. Certainly, both he and Translink stress that no decisions have been taken and the budget proposals are still in draft form.

But one wonders if a more root and branch review of public transport here might have produced a wholly different financial picture.

You know, something radical, like having a second or even third service provider.

The idea that local town buses in Ballymena and Newcastle, and those serving remote and sparsely-populated rural areas, should be at the mercy of Goldliner inter-city performance or overnight buses to Dublin, or indeed vice-versa, seems to me to be eccentric. These aren't like-for-like services and why we have ended up with a solution based on one-size-fits-all, when it clearly doesn't, has always baffled me.

The anomaly of the Transport Minister outlining the detail of cuts to local services as if transport provision was a state-run rather than a state-funded private concern is alarming also.

We see the Culture Minister, for example, maintaining a distance from the sports, fisheries and arts sectors over which she has ultimate responsibility. That's because there are agencies under her which have an immediate remit for those activities.

You don't see Caral Ni Chuilin detailing what nights a play will be on or sadly listing the sports grounds which will be closed or have reduced opening hours.

It's a sign of the far-too-close connection between Government and Translink that Mr Kennedy can be seen to act almost as a chief executive of the company.

Which is ironic since the actual chief executive, appointed earlier this year, lifts £200,000 as a salary, far in excess of anything Mr Kennedy can hope to see as the elected minister (even with expenses!). But, of course, David Strahan is CEO of the Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company, which is our very own homespun version of state-run in all but name.

Public transport here has been a thorny problem for decades, one that administrations here, direct or devolved, have failed to solve.

Well, it needs solved now. Because if it is the case that £15m reduction in taxpayers' money means services axed on the scale the minister and - one presumes - Mr Strahan envisage, and if that cut to state aid really does need to be made, then the transport system has signally failed our population and will need to be remodelled root and branch.

This is Western Europe. We cannot be expected to suffer a public transport system which resembles something out of the more ravaged parts of the post-communist Eastern Bloc. Pensioners thumbing lifts at the side of the road for hospital appointments. Troupes of passengers decanted at bus stations on the outskirts of town filing their way on foot a mile and a half to the centre. Whole rural regions rendered even more remote and exposed by a cynical head-count which is so unstrategic it takes no account of actual need.

No version of the threatened cuts - continued subsidy or significant cut - makes for efficient service.

We need proper public transport in this tiny country. If we can afford GB salaries, we expect GB service.

Follow me on Twitter: @GWalker9

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