Poor families and people in rural areas face losing access to basic services under deeply concerning plans: union
Translink budget cuts that could lead to the loss of more than 1,000 services are “deeply concerning” for low-income families and people living in rural areas, a trade union has said.
Unite deputy regional secretary Davy Thompson was reacting to a stark warning from Translink chief executive Chris Conway, who said public transport funding could be cut by 10% under Stormont’s draft budget.
Mr Conway said the “managed decline” of services could hit rural areas hard.
Appearing before the Stormont infrastructure committee on Wednesday, he briefed MLAs on how Translink would cope while emerging from the Covid pandemic.
While predicting a welcome rise in passenger numbers, he said that without proper investment, the financial viability of public transport operator “could become a serious issue”.
The Northern Ireland Fiscal Council has already criticised the proposed budget for lacking a strategic approach.
Mr Conway said: “If this was the outcome of the budget, this would involve significant cuts to the bus and rail network which would in fact lead to a managed decline of public transport in Northern Ireland, with a significant impact on rural areas.”
With Translink delivering around 12,500 services every day, he warned that even a 10% cut could lead to more than 1,000 services being cut.
Mr Thompson said the Translink chief executive’s evidence was “deeply concerning for anyone with an interest in public transport, the environment or rural inclusion”.
“The fact that 1,000 rural bus and rail services are under threat due to underfunding poses obvious questions for social inclusion,” he added.
“Low-income households and those without access to cars in rural areas face the prospect of being cut off from basic services.
“Those in deprived urban areas risk losing the only affordable transport option they have.
“The fact that, per capita, public transport here receives only 27% of what it does in the UK is a disgraceful indictment of public policy. It is also unsustainable.
“If Stormont is serious about the environment or social inclusion, they need to lift funding for public transport immediately.”
Mr Conway asked the Executive to consider including “a strong commitment” to public transport in the 2022-25 budget.
While welcoming recent funding secured in the January monitoring round, he said ambitious plans to transform public transport over the next decade needed long-term support.
“I think it’s fair to say that public transport in the past has been treated a bit more like a Cinderella service within Northern Ireland,” he added.
On value for money, he claimed Translink had delivered significant savings in the four years prior to Covid-19.
Efforts to reduce costs in the pandemic saw 2020/2021 deliver £24m of savings, with 2021/22 on track to deliver £20m.
Upper Bann DUP MLA Jonathan Buckley, the chair of the committee, asked if Translink had come close to breaking point during the pandemic.
Mr Conway replied that passenger numbers had fallen to around 10% of their levels at the start of the health crisis. He said while there were concerns about how this would be managed, the Infrastructure Minister had quickly responded with funding.
As it became clear the pandemic was becoming a long-term problem, Stormont allowed Translink to maintain an essential service.
“When we look forward, the concern is how that can be maintained and how we start seeing a budget that can grow public transport and recover passenger numbers,” Mr Conway said.
By the end of last year, passenger levels had returned to around 77% of pre-Covid figures.
While the Omicron variant caused more disruption, Mr Conway said he was “very hopeful” of a full recovery this year.
He added that while consumer patterns may change, there was still a great demand for public transport because of an increased awareness of climate change and because more people were choosing public transport for leisure.
With an expectation of hybrid working becoming increasingly popular, Mr Conway said that more people may consider using public transport instead of a second car.
The Translink chief executive also announced the phased return of bus and rail timetables “to more normal levels” from the end of this month.