A decision to privatise 10 per cent of the routes operated by Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus could lead to higher ticket costs and poorer customer experience, an Oireachtas Committee has heard.
Representatives of staff working in the companies today described the move by the Government and National Transport Authority as "flawed" and part of "an ideologically based agenda".
Siptu organiser Owen Reidy told the Joint Committee on Transport there appeared to be a "black and white view" among State authorities that outsourcing the routes, largely in the Dublin and Waterford areas, from the public to private sector would save money.
Mr Reidy said he could understand a clamour to shake-up operations if running targets were not being met, but said Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus services were hitting more than 95 per cent of these.
He said the wider privatisation of bus services in England had resulted in a drop in usage, confidence and satisfaction among customers.
National Bus and Rail Union general secretary Dermot O'Leary said the move appeared to be a rush to satisfy the wants of a lobby group and that pursuing such an ideologically based agenda would ultimately be to the detriment of customers and staff.
The Government has agreed to open up certain routes to competition in order to comply with EU directives and the National Transport Authority last month announced it was opening some 10 per cent of the routes operated by the semi-State companies to competitive tender. Contracts are to be awarded next year with services to commence in 2016.
In Dublin, orbital routes rather than city centre services - such as those between Blackrock and Rialto, and Chapelizod and the Square shopping centre in Tallaght - will be put out to tender.
Affected Bus Eireann routes include commuter services from Dublin to Tullamore, Portlaoise and Kildare, as well as a number of routes in Waterford city.
Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann will be able to compete for the tenders when the competition begins.
Independent Senator Sean Barrett welcomed the privatisation of the routes and said it was a shame the Minister for Transport had not sought to put more out to tender.
“It’ll be 50 years before we get a competitive bus services in the country [at that rate],” he said.
Mr Barrett said the transport sector was subvented with tens of millions of euro annually and increased competition from private firms on routes such as Dublin to Galway had been beneficial for consumers.
Mr O’Leary said he was not surprised by Mr Barrett’s comments as he had been consistently attacking public transport workers for years.
He said workers were not afraid of competition but wanted recognition of the work they had done in establishing the State’s bus network.
Clare Fianna Fáil TD Timmy Dooley said he was not opposed to competition in the market but that economies of scale needed to be considered. He said a company like Bus Éireann might no longer be able to offset costs of less profitable routes against others and this could lead to a rise in prices.
Labour TD for Dublin North East Seán Kenny said there was a need for serious debate on the issue and that if the bus operators were hitting their targets "why break it?"
Mr Kenny expressed concerns that people with disabilities could be affected by such a move, pointing to private firms such as Aircoach not having accessibility features throughout its fleet.
Sligo-North Leitrim Sinn Féin TD Michael Colreavy said he expected the privatisation of 10 per cent of routes would be just the beginning of a wider initiative.
He said there appeared to be “no strategy” for the selection of routes and that such situations bred “ad hocery”.