Transport under strain
THE DECISION last week by the Government to provide “emergency funding” of €36 million to the CIÉ group has been greeted with dismay by the Coach Tourism and Transport Council, which represents private bus operators. Not surprisingly, they want to know where this money is going, as they suspect that much of it is being used to subsidise Bus Éireann’s long-distance Expressway services.
Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar merely said that the funding “is being allocated because we are conscious of the need to maintain the public transport service and because we recognise that the financial position of CIÉ is very difficult”. But the Minister, who is known for his frank views, ought to have spelled out precisely what the money will be used for and, more particularly, how it is to be divided up between the three CIÉ companies – Iarnród Éireann, Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus.
Contrary to the fears of private bus operators, it is improbable that most of the emergency funding is going to Bus Éireann, as the State would be infringing EU law by subsidising this “commercial” entity. It is much more likely that the lion’s share is going to Iarnród Éireann, which presides over a loss-making railway that can’t compete with our new motorways – an unintended consequence that was never considered when billions of euro were being spent on the roads. Rail speeds are too slow – no train in Ireland exceeds 160 km/h – and this obviously results in longer journey times. And although there has been a great deal of investment in new rolling stock, an additional €275 million would be needed to bring speeds up to European norms.
Iarnród Éireann will need to give serious consideration to closing uneconomic routes, such as the link between Ennis, Co Clare, and Athenry, Co Galway, which carries an average of just eight passengers per train. This grim statistic suggests restoration of the Western Rail Corridor from Limerick all the way to Sligo was a political fantasy. Instead of holding out the vain hope that the corridor can be reopened to rail traffic in what is, a sparsely populated area, properly sustainable infrastructure is needed for commuters to big urban centres such as Galway and Sligo. Equally, parts of the rail reservation should be turned into cycling and walking routes, following the highly-successful model of the Great Western Greenway between Westport and Achill.
In Dublin and, to a lesser extent, other urban areas, public transport provides a vital service that needs to be publicly funded in order to remain viable – just as it is in other European countries, with subsidy levels ranging from 48 per cent of running costs in Brussels to 60 per cent in Madrid. If Dublin Bus, which carries nearly 30 per cent of commuters into the inner city daily (compared to less than 5.5 per cent for Luas), is required to “pay its way”, it will face the classic spiral of decline, with fare increases, falling patronage and service cuts; indeed, this has already been happening. But privatisation is surely not an option, as studies have shown that the Thatcher-era deregulation of bus services in Britain saw a precipitate fall in patronage.