Private bus firms cry foul over subsidised 20% fare cut for public transport rivals

Ticket fares outside greater Dublin area to fall from Monday in second phase of scheme

Commercial bus operators say they are being unfairly excluded from a Government scheme that will see a 20 per cent cut in public transport fares from Monday.

Under the Government scheme to encourage more people to use buses, trains and light rail, the price of annual tax-saver commuter tickets dropped by 20 per cent on April 1st.

The second phase of the cuts will see an average reduction in ticket fares by 20 per cent outside the greater Dublin area from Monday.

A third phase will see the 20 per cent reduction extended to public transport in the greater Dublin area in May.

These cuts in prices come on top of the Government’s decision to introduce the young adult card later this summer, which will offer an average discount of 50 per cent on fares to those aged between 19 and 23 years.

But the discounts will apply only to services which already qualify for public-service obligation (PSO) payments from Government. These include Dublin Bus; Bus Éireann with the exception of Expressway services which are classed as commercially viable; all Irish Rail services including Dart; and a very small number of private bus operators.

Commercial Bus operators who do not receive a PSO subsidy met Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan last week to express their frustration at what they called “market distortion” and “anti-competitive practices” which will force their customers to switch to the mainly State-owned transport sector.

‘Undermining’

Brendan Crowley of Wexford Bus, a member of the executive of the Coach Tourism and Transport Council, which represents non-subsidised commercial companies, said private operators were “100 per cent behind anything that encourages public transport and reduces fares, but it cannot be at the risk of undermining the commercial sector”.

“Mr Ryan probably did not mean it but this will set public transport back years,” he added.

Commercial operators typically served intercity routes, airports, regional towns and particularly the State’s third-level colleges, and 30 million passenger journeys were achieved in 2019 with no PSO payments payable, he said.

However, from Monday “tens of thousands of these passengers will be forced to switch their transport providers in order to avail of the new discounts”.

West Cork Connects founder Damien Long said his buses compete daily with Bus Éireann services from Skibbereen and Bantry to Cork city, a route with a high number of students. He said a student round trip on Bus Éireann costs €21 but this will be reduced to €10.50 incorporating the 50 per cent youth card reduction. “It’s unclear if the 20 per cent will be on top of that,” he said. Mr Long said his current comparable price was €6.30 each way, giving a round trip of €12.60.

“We put in an offer to run an hourly service from Skibbereen last October without any subsidies at all, and which would save the tax payer €5 million a year, and we have heard nothing. Instead they are using more taxpayers’ money to destroy us.”

The Department of Transport said collectively the measures were designed to encourage a shift from private to public transport. The department said it was envisaged the young adult card discount would include commercial operators “at a later date”.

The department also drew attention to the level of financial support paid to private or commercial bus operators during the Covid pandemic, which has been extended a number of times and which has amounted to more then €60 million to date.