From Monday bus services across the country are expected to be affected by an official strike being called by the National Bus and Rail Union (NBRU). Bus Éireann claims that its finances are in a perilous state. Following a failure to reach agreement with the trade unions, the company will proceed to implement cuts from March 6th.

Dermot O’Leary, general secretary of the NBRU, addressed members of Clare County Council recently, accompanied by a delegation including NBRU president John Moloney and Clarecastle man Kevin Scanlon. They had been invited by Fianna Fáil councillor Tony O’Brien, an NBRU member for 36 years, who said that the union has been proactive in highlighting potential consequences of national transport policy for rural Ireland.

The union is opposed to the cost-cutting measures which Bus Éireann insists are necessary to avoid insolvency. Management want to reduce wages by around 10% but the union claims the real reductions could be put to 30%. Following a report by consultants Grant Thornton, Bus Eireann indicated its intention to restructure the national Expressway coach service and reduce staffing levels.

Dermot O’Leary told councillors that the union has embarked on a Save Our Bus Service campaign (SOBS), particularly to alert people in rural Ireland that a vital social and economic transport link is under threat. He claimed that the present crisis is putting 2,600 jobs at risk as well as the future of public transport for rural Ireland. Mr O’Leary stated that the problems at Expressway are generally believed to be related to the issue of competition following de-regulation, however this is not the full story.

On the matter of competition he said the issuing of licences by the National Transport Authority to private bus operators has resulted in a saturation of capacity across the motorway network as these licences are given without due regard to existing Expressway services. As a result of competition he said people have migrated to faster private operators but Bus Éireann is slower because there is a social aspect to its service which includes stopping in towns and villages right across the country. Meanwhile private operators can cherrypick the most lucrative parts of the network. “Bus Éireann,” he said, “cannot compete because the NTA have over-saturated the segments of its network that were returning a profit and issuing licences to privates with no social service, unless you happen to live beside a motorway.”

Recalling that Bus Éireann was once a profitable company, Mr O’Leary said it has cost over €40 million to subside Public Service Obligation routes over the last ten years. These are generally unprofitable routes in out of the way places. Mr O’Leary pointed out that prior to much of the de-regulation Bus Éireann operated as an integrated transport provider reinvesting profits back in to the State. “Today,” he said, “any profits go to shareholders in Hong Kong or London. I say any profits because the most recent accounts of one of the main private operators, Dublin Coach, shows a loss of €1.6 million, which supports our view that the market is oversaturated.”

Highlighting the absurdity of de-regulation, Mr O’Leary told of Bus Éireann being forced to exit five towns on the Cork to Dublin route in an attempt to compete with private operators. Consequently the NTA was forced to tender for replacement services at a cost to the taxpayer of €440,000 per year, the same services that had been provided freely by Bus Éireann. He also claimed that Bus Éireann’s obligation to subsidise Expressway journeys for people using Department of Social Protection (DSP) passes is contributing to the company’s losses. Dermot O’Leary claimed to have anecdotal evidence that quite a number of private operators do not facilitate DSP passes, while Bus Eireann receives just over 40% of an average fare, €4.81 for the average fare of €11.78.

Noting that a recent rail review carried out by the NTA and Iarnrod Éireann recommended that the Department of Social Protection’s contribution to free travel passes should be increased by 40%, Mr O’Leary said that a €40% increase would benefit Bus Éireann by €4.5 million annually. In his conclusion he told councillors, “The notion that the State has no role in addressing the problems at Bus Eireann is fundamentally wrong, it is simply not good enough for the Minister to say he has no responsibility. Such a stance does nothing to move this debate one jot, it also tells Rural Ireland that your services are not as important, or as relevant as those in large urban centres. That is simply not good enough.”

Following the presentation Fine Gael councillor Johnny Flynn thanked the NBRU delegation and said, “basically you came here to ask what kind of society do we want, is it a society that just lives in cities, with people travelling up and down motorways, or is it an inclusive society taking in counties like ours and people living in rural areas?” Cllr Flynn said he fully endorsed the bus men’s campaign and rejected what he described as “a lot of negative information in the media”.

Cllr Tony O’Brien, who is also a Bus Éireann inspector and a member of the NBRU’s national executive, said the present public transport crisis is more than simply an industrial relations dispute. He said the NBRU has emphasised that there are a number of stakeholders involved and this not just about workers fighting for their wages, but also about the social impact of some of the transport decisions being proposed by the employers, the NTA and the Department of Transport.

Cllr Pat Hayes remarked that rural people rely on national bus services and said that if these are not financially viable then they must be subsidised by Government. In this instance, he said the Government has a duty to increase the subsidy. Members of Clare County Council subsequently supported a proposal calling for the Government to increase subsidies to Bus Éireann.