Translink's financial crisis could put brakes on Northern Ireland services
Union warns cuts threatening collapse of public transport
Public transport in Northern Ireland is close to crisis point as cash levels run dangerously low at provider Translink, a government department has warned.
The Department for Infrastructure, which funds Translink, said it is unlikely that services will stay at their present level as the company behind Ulsterbus, Goldliner, NI Rail and Belfast Metro may soon lack funds for day-to-day operations.
Maintaining our railways would be under particular pressure due to Translink's financial problems, according to the department's annual accounts.
A trade union said the future of public transport was now at risk - which would have a "devastating" impact on jobs and the economy.
DfI said Translink had been using up cash reserves since its annual subsidy was cut by £13m in 2015/16 - despite making other efficiencies to compensate.
"These issues could become acute in 2019/20 as the company may breach its working capital threshold," the accounts said.
"In any event, it could not sustain a deficit in 2020/21 as its reserves will have been significantly depleted.
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"The department is actively working with the Department of Finance to seek to redress the deficit within Translink's finances."
The Department for Infrastructure was not available for comment yesterday on whether routes could be cut.
But the accounts said: "The continued provision of public transport services, particularly maintenance of the railway infrastructure, will be challenging. Maintaining current levels which were dependent on in-year funding in 2018/19 will be unlikely."
A spokeswoman for Translink said: "We will continue to work with DfI to ensure sustained levels of recurrent funding going forward to maintain high quality public transport. This is essential to maintain the economic, social and environmental wellbeing of the region."
The spokeswoman would not comment on what routes, if any, might be at risk.
Economist John Simpson said Translink had long faced funding problems: "A situation which has been tight is now getting even tighter. There had been an implication they can manage on their reserves but that's always against a background that a situation like that can't go on forever."
Davy Thompson, regional coordinating officer at trade union Unite, said that since the cutting of its subsidy, Translink had been left to "burn through its reserves in an unsustainable way".
He said the company had only been able to keep going by using profitable routes to subsidise loss-making links. He added: "Northern Ireland is the only region in Western Europe where there is no subvention for public transport.
"This is particularly concerning given the now widely acknowledged central role for public transport in the transition to a post-carbon economy and the avoidance of climate crisis.
"Instead, years of austerity cuts threaten the possible collapse of public transport in Northern Ireland with a devastating impact on jobs and the wider economy."
Mr Thompson added: "The only reason that Translink has been able to sustain its existing network coverage against such a backdrop is because, as a publicly-owned operator of virtually all public transport services in the region, it can obtain economies of scale and is also able to cross-subsidise the costs of non-profitable routes with the surpluses from revenue-generating ones."
Mr Thompson said Unite had opposed the decision to cut the subsidy, an action which had led to industrial action at the time.
"While monies were found by the Executive to avoid swingeing cuts to bus and rail services and end the industrial action, the reality is that Translink has been left to burn through its reserves in an unsustainable way," he explained.
An economic impact report commissioned by Translink in June claimed that the business "indirectly and directly" accounts for over 6,000 jobs here, resulting in a contribution of £185m every year to the economy.
Mr Thompson said the department should now decide to "properly" fund public transport.
He said the efforts of Ballymena bus company Wrightbus to create carbon-neutral buses demonstrated the know-how available in Northern Ireland.
"The Department for Infrastructure must now decide to properly fund our public transport service and grasp the opportunity to develop a world-class industry in transport," he said.
"Northern Ireland is likely to pioneer one of the very first carbon neutral bus services through a partnership involving Wrightbus, Translink and Veridian where renewable energy from turbines fuels hydrogen-powered buses.
"There are also obvious opportunities for investment to stimulate local jobs growth and sustain our economy while also providing an overhaul of Northern Ireland's ageing bus and rail fleet. This could position us strongly for export opportunities and jobs growth."
Last year, Translink and the DfI warned that rural and "socially necessary" routes would be hardest hit if a solution isn't found to its financial problems.
At the time, a spokesperson for the company said: "If Translink can no longer draw on its reserves, it would be those unprofitable but socially necessary services that would be impacted due to the sustained insufficient subsidy.
"Any network changes could involve withdrawal of lesser used services in towns and rural areas.
"The level of subsidy we require is around £13m to operate at current levels."