Translink set to axe some rural bus services across Northern Ireland after losing subsidies
People in rural communities will be left isolated if vital bus routes across Northern Ireland are axed by 2020 due to a lack of government funding.
Translink, which is losing a staggering £13m a year, has been forced to fund all public bus services for three years since subsidies were stopped in 2014-15.
Now the company and experts at the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) have warned the situation is not sustainable, adding that rural and "socially necessary" routes will be hardest hit if a solution isn't found.
A spokesperson for the company said: "Translink has maintained the public transport network without any sufficient subsidy required to operate unprofitable but socially necessary services.
"The subsidy required to run these services is around £13m per year. Since 2014-15 Translink has drawn on its own reserves; however, this is no longer sustainable going forward.
"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."
In 2012-13 DfI paid £81.1m to Translink. The projected spend for 2017-18 is £74.5m, which includes funding for the Concessionary Fares Scheme and a subsidy for public service obligations on the trains.
But by next year that figure is expected to fall by more than £13m to £61.4m.
A DfI spokesperson said that due to the removal of the subsidy for bus services from 2014-15 onwards, "Translink has maintained the public transport network by sustaining annual losses of around £13m".
"These losses have been covered by drawing on reserves but these have now been run down to such an extent that there is limited capacity for this to continue beyond the 2019-20 financial year," DfI said.
"All departments continue to face competing budgetary pressures and the future budget outlook remains extremely challenging. In order to match the Translink service to the available funding, services would need to reduce significantly beyond 2018-19. Without an appropriate subsidy, there would be limited scope to run loss-making services."
Sinn Fein's Francie Molloy said any drastic change to bus routes would be disastrous for rural communities and the elderly. "This would be a complete disaster," he said. "People need access to the towns and cities and the buses are an absolutely vital part of that.
"The rural post offices and banks are gone, so for people who don't drive, the buses are a lifeline. We've also got people in big estates who need to be able to get around too, elderly people in particular need this service.
"We talk about the health service, which is vitally important, of course. But we've got to think about people before they find themselves in hospital - we've got to stop them ending up there.
"What the buses provide is crucial for social interaction, for people's mental health and their well-being. They help people get up and out, to stay active. We can't allow a budgeting problem get so out of hand people right across the board are left stranded and isolated in their homes."
A spokesperson for the DfI added the department would welcome comments from the public on a number of potential budgetary scenarios, released last month by the Department of Finance. The consultation period closes on January 26.