by Rob Winkel
Originally published by the Evening Echo, 16 February.
It has been clear for some time that the Independent TDs propping up Fine Gael in The Dáil are independent in name only. Ideologically, many of them match their Fine Gael counterparts, as is exemplified well by Minister for Transport (and former Fine Gael councillor) Shane Ross. Elected as an independent candidate and now following the Fine Gael playbook to the letter, Ross appears to be set on running the public services under his control into the ground.
The political programme of closing and privatising public services in Ireland has been underway for some years, and throughout has been accompanied by scare stories about the public costs of these services. Efforts to run down Irish public transport are no different – frequent reports are presented to the public showing how close Bus Eireann and Ianród Eireann are to the brink of financial collapse. In late 2016, news arose of possible closures of the lesser-used railways in the country following a report by the National Transport Authority – the statistic most emphasised was the €550 public subsidy per passenger on the Limerick to Ballybrophy railway line. The hasty jump to close certain lines bypassed consideration for alternatives and was touted as a measure for saving €16.8m per year. Come January 2017, similar news surfaced that Bus Eireann faces massive cuts to its Expressway service because a report showed that the company isn’t deemed profitable enough, having ‘lost’ €6m the previous year.
Irish public transport systems are consistently presented by the government as though they are at risk of collapse by some natural force. Common sense says, after all, that, if a private company lost that much money, it wouldn’t survive. The idea that public transport operators are enterprises which must turn a profit is repeatedly put forward by Irish ministers – and it is entirely untrue. Public transport bodies are not business enterprises designed to create profit. Today’s issue has arisen because of a lack of investment and poor management; the case may be that Irish public transport systems need an increase in subsidies. And, as we have seen again and again in the last year, there is no political will in Ireland’s minority government to spend additional money on anything that resembles a public service.
Public transport may be financially loss-making, as the reports have shown us. This is so not just in Ireland – many European countries have enormous subsidies for rail services. But they are only loss-making in the same way that a public education or public healthcare system might be considered loss-making by someone looking at balance sheets only. All of these services bring huge economic and social benefits to society. Public transport services get people to their place of work or education. City and town centres thrive and benefit because people can access their local shops and businesses using bus and train networks. To close down what public transport connections remain in parts of rural Ireland would be to damage communities and businesses severely.
Debate around how to address the public transport ‘crisis’ is quite limited. The €550 subsidy per person figure made for a great soundbyte – of course this is not cost beneficial. When confronted, commentators rush to the same answer: close the service! However the question of why such services are so under-utilised in the first place is rarely asked. Perhaps, for instance, funding the services correctly or offering more sensible fares would lead to greater utilisation and, consequently, more fare revenue. It just may be that, if the 40km one-way rail journey from Limerick to Nenagh didn’t cost nearly €13 each way, more people would choose to use it.
Few would deny that Bus Eireann and Irish Rail have serious problems. The rail subsidy gives poor value for money when compared with other nations. Bad management has led to poor reliability, illogical timetables and archaic fare structures, which result in many short journeys being grossly overpriced. These problems, compounded by political decisions to cut funding, continue to deter people from using public transport systems, making car usage in many cases preferable. However, these problems stem from political decisions and poor management – a solution could indeed be found if there was the political will to do so.
The answer to the problems with Irish public transport is not to shut down services; this would be a massive step backwards and would ruin towns and communities. The answer is not to open the door to rail privatisation; UK rail privatisation has been disastrous, and the majority of Britons now want railways to be returned to national control. The only straightforward solution is to genuinely address the severe problems that have arisen from years of poor management and under-investment.
The predictable and expected ‘crisis’ within Irish public transport is being used by the government to attack unions and punish workers at Bus Eireann and Ianród Eireann – Shane Ross is no doubt counting on his scare stories to bring about public support for pay cuts. Bus Eireann staff are right to stand up against these harsh pay cuts. No one should expect them to pay the price for the failure brought about by their political and administrative managers.
Threatening transport workers and the general public won’t solve Ross’s problems. Only a Minister for Transport with more interests than closing down public services, and more creative politics, would be fit to solve these problems. The establishment parties will not provide this – they are committed tooth and nail to a problematic and bankrupt political ideology.