Above: A placard rests on a fence near Grangegorman during the last Dublin Bus strike.
It might have passed you by but 24 Dublin Bus routes have been tendered out by the National Transport Authority (NTA) to British transport giant Go-Ahead. The private operator is taking on routes that serve the outer suburbs. Patrick McCusker has the lowdown on what this signals.
Go-Ahead are multinational operating services in Britain, mainland Europe and Asia. They are one of the largest operators of bus services in the UK, running around a quarter of London’s buses, British train services such as the Southern rail service, and bus services in Singapore, with an estimated annual revenue of £3.4 billion for the fiscal year ending in June 2017.
They also recently made the papers in the UK for their employment practices. They provoked a strike on the Southern rail service by trying to introduce driver-only trains. The acquisition of the Dublin Bus tenders marks their first foray into the Irish market.
There is far more to this than simply a change of management on a handful of suburban bus routes. Here’s the real game. It’s the continuation of the longstanding national policy of dipping into the public purse to subside private operators, but with a new frontier; the opening up of our main suburban bus service, which up until now, was fully public.
Private sector bus transport in Ireland is hardly new. Anyone who’s gotten the likes of John McGinley Buses, Feda O’Donnell or the imaginatively named Wexford Bus amongst numerous others can attest to this.
Overlooked is the promotion of these operators over Bus Eireann. Wouldn’t it make more sense to allow Bus Eireann to run these potentially profitable routes, and use the dosh to cross subside, with a particular nod to rural and hard-to-reach areas?
Unfortunately this isn’t the case. Either as a result of deliberate Government or Bus Eireann policy, Bus Eireann seems to have avoided the tendering process for the high speed, high volume “motorway” routes which would help sustain bus services where they are most needed.
In reality, we have a barely existing rural bus service, as attested to by the current debacle in school bus transport. Bus Eireann currently compensate for their near-invisibility in many rural areas by subcontracting 89% of school bus contracts to locally based private operators. Anyone who grew up in rural Ireland and experienced overcrowded, freezing buses clearly on their last legs can attest to how flawed the tendering process for this can be.
Bus Eireann has been so badly managed, and so poorly invested in, that it expects to lose €12 million this year, and any news coverage has largely focused on how industrial relations have inevitably descended into chaos as a result of management’s efforts to bring this under control. It’s hard to expect this situation to change as Bus Eireann’s much-publicised financial and industrial relations problems continue, and the private operators continue to be favoured by public policy.
What we have instead are a litany of small companies, some of whom have been accused of appalling labour standards, running a big chunk of the services. Bus Eireann handles the rest, and huge areas of the country are left unconnected in the meantime.
Successive governments have addressed the deeper problems of public transport by continuing to encourage the development of private bus companies to fill the void left by their absence from the market.
However, this tender could be the beginning of the end for the smaller operators in many respects. The Go-Ahead contract is a first of its kind, a bus contract awarded to a multinational, rather than a local operator or national carrier. Dublin Bus did tender for the services awarded to Go-Ahead. So take note Bus Eireann.
The criteria for making a tender for the “Dublin 10 per cent” were well beyond even a thriving local bus provider. Private companies seeking to compete on Dublin metropolitan routes would have to have a turnover of €30m and at least nine million passenger journeys per year. Only companies like Go-Ahead or semi-state companies like Dublin Bus or Bus Eireann meet these criteria, which is a lot easier when your services involve several different routes in big cities.
The obvious result into the future will be that the likes of Go-Ahead are essentially being subsidised by the state. This marks a new shift in public bus policy, away from the semi states and local operators. It won’t be long before the Go-Aheads take out the chequebook and buy the services from local operators, which the public bus company did not tender for in the first place. This is privatisation Irish style. The fact that there isn’t a public company to hand over to multinationals smoothes the way.
The current government is open about their public policy preferences. Minister for Transport Shane Ross went so far to claim he didn’t view it as his duty to intervene in public transport disputes. A cursory Google search of the news stories about the bus strike will reveal dozens of Fine Gael councilors based in the rural hinterland of Rathmines boasting as to how this hasn’t been an issue in the private sector. Typically, their idea of addressing a problem is to deny their own power to solve it.
With both the EU and the Irish Government favouring liberalisation, the entry of Go-Ahead points to a grim scenario of for profit services which will disadvantage those who live on the less profitable routes.
The smaller operator for more isolated communities could well be forced out of the market by deregulation which grants multinationals such as Go-Ahead an inbuilt advantage over them.
It follows inevitably that a privatized bus service will mean no bus service at all for many, and that our commuters and students will simply be fodder for a large corporation that cares little for their community, unless there is proper opposition to bus tendering and people demand a proper bus service that actually caters for the needs of people rather than businesses.
The alternative is that many people will have to get up very, very early in the morning to deal with the long drives and massive traffic jams that will punish them for having a job or children, or needing to travel for access to public services or recreation.
Is this grim fate what Leo Varadkar meant when he said he wanted a government for early risers?