Belfast Telegraph

Translink funding cuts slammed as union vows to fight for rural bus routes in Northern Ireland

By Claire O'Boyle

Union officials are calling for urgent talks with Translink bosses and civil servants to discuss a serious threat to bus routes.

As revealed yesterday in the Belfast Telegraph, vital but unprofitable rural and "socially necessary" services could be axed by 2020 if government funding doesn't improve.

Unite's Davy Thompson warned any threat to provision stemming from underfunding would be met by "whatever action is deemed necessary" to protect rural communities and "the most vulnerable in society".

"Public transport has been chronically underfunded since the removal of the fuel duty rebate by the NI Executive in 2013," he said.

"Since that time, Translink has been burning through its reserves - reserves that should have been used to invest and expand our public transport infrastructure. This situation is clearly unsustainable.

"The government of Northern Ireland - whether that's civil servants, direct rule ministers or a locally-accountable Executive - need to get real about funding public transport.

"Unite has written to Translink senior management to seek an urgent meeting to determine the status of plans to cut services.

"We will also be seeking meetings with the departmental permanent secretaries responsible for this threat; we want to ask them how it is they claim to have no powers when it comes to investing in our NHS or delivering pay increases but they can threaten cuts to frontline public services.

"As we did successfully in 2014, our drivers and engineers stand ready to build a campaign, alongside affected communities, or take whatever action is deemed necessary to defend jobs, public transport services, rural communities and the most vulnerable in our society."

The Institution of Civil Engineers has also called for government to step in.

Regional director Richard Kirk said: "One in five people in Northern Ireland have no access to a car. This doubles to two in five in underprivileged areas. Without crucial transport services, people will be cut off from economic opportunities and their quality of life will suffer.

"Public transport is about social inclusion, protecting the environment and bolstering the economy. We are now feeling the detrimental effects of decisions taken in 2014-15 to reduce the funding available to the Department for Infrastructure.

"We urgently need our Executive back in order to prioritise and subsidise the infrastructure Northern Ireland needs. Infrastructure underpins all aspects of our lives and we must ensure it continues to do so for all of our communities."

Sinn Fein's Oliver McMullan has said any threat to public transport services will cause great concern in rural areas.

"People attending medical appointments, those travelling to their jobs or to seek work and young people travelling to schools all depend on public transport," he said.

"Public transport also helps tackle rural isolation which can have a hugely negative impact on people's mental health. Instead of reducing public transport in rural areas, we could be doing with more frequent services."

Green Party leader Steven Agnew added: "The whole point of publicly owned organisations like Translink is that they provide unprofitable but socially necessary services with the help of subsidy from government.

"If they can't provide these vital lifelines, then it brings into question their very existence. Translink's purpose is to serve the whole community and it's incumbent upon the department to make sure it is equipped to do so.

"Less than fifth of the transport budget has historically been spent on public transport and it is time for the Department for Infrastructure to take a long hard look at its priorities and allocate the money that is needed, instead of leaving rural communities high and dry."

Belfast Telegraph

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