Translink chief Chris Conway has warned of legal action if an agreement can't be reached with the government over public service funding in the coming weeks.
He said he has written to the Finance Minister asking for a meeting to discuss funding for public transport services after a shortfall over the past number of years.
Mr Conway and Translink Financial Officer Paddy Anderson were speaking to the Assembly’s infrastructure committee about funding issues.
MLAs have heard how the public transport operator is facing significant financial pressure with a warning it is on the brink of collapse.
That’s despite what Mr Conway described as a resurgence in public usage, with passenger numbers rising to 85million this year - the highest figure in more than 20 years.
The Translink boss said he believes the company has a strong legal case due in terms of its public service arrangements under EU law - saying the company is relying on reserves and in-year funding bids to maintain routes that are not commercially viable to the tune of £49m a year.
In response to a question from Sinn Fein’s Cathal Boylan, Mr Conway said Translink would “prefer not to” challenge the Department for Infrastructure on the basis of breach of contract.
He said they would prefer to work with the department to reach a resolution.
“That could be a route we could go. It’s very much a route we would prefer not to go down,” he said.
Mr Conway said if the government decided they couldn’t fund non-commercially viable routes, they wouldn’t disappear immediately.
“If the government decided they couldn’t afford these services, we would have a legal expectation to [enter] a transitionary phase to do that. It would be unlikely that these services would just stop one morning,” he said.
There is now a backlog in bus fleet investment and rail infrastructure investment as well as investments needed on the Enterprise service for both higher usage frequency and journey time improvements, Mr Conway said.
He called on the department to agree a contract with Translink over a 10-year period to enable the company to take a sustainable approach towards infrastructure.
“Public transport infrastructure has been underfunded in Northern Ireland for many years - you just need to go back to the 2015 Northern Ireland Audit Office report to see that,” he said.
Translink has recently undertaken projects such as the introduction of the Glider and the new Northwest Transport Hub in Londonderry - as well as maintaining its fleet, with some buses having “more than a million miles on the clock”.
Mr Conway said Translink has received “letters of comfort” from infrastructure ministers over the years that they would support it to meet its going concern requirements.
He said: “This situation has been brought about by a significant reduction in the department for infrastructure budget in 2015/16.
“However, Translink has continued to deliver these services in good faith to support the social, economic and environmental wellbeing of Northern Ireland. Translink now has a legitimate expectation to be appropriately funded in line with commitments made,” he said.
Due to the contractual obligation of these commitments, he said, bosses at Translink were surprised that in year funding was not allocated by the department in January.
“These costs, couple with concessionary fares income, are inescapable in our view,” he said.
He was asked by committee chair Michelle McIlveen whether the Department for Infrastructure is in breach of its public service agreement with Translink.
Mr Conway said the company has had assurances on the funding which confirm the department’s commitment, along with an extension to the public services agreement.
He said they had a legitimate expectation to receive the funding.
The Translink chief was asked about an IT incident reported at the start of February, where internal computer systems were targeted in a suspected ‘ransomware’ cyber attack.
“We’ve been able to remove any viruses from our network as well and we’re in the process of slowly rebuilding business applications,” he said.
“How it occurred is a very unique incident and certainly it is being investigated by the National Crime Agency (NCA) to address how that actually took place"