Government policy continues to neglect the bus

Opposition to privatisation gone to ground awaiting Brennan’s next move

Figures released this month show what we were already beginning to suspect, some of the traffic measures put in place in Dublin last year are starting to bear fruit. With some of the most popular journeys on the bus now taking half the time than they would if taken by car, we really have to wonder how long we must suffer Seamus Brennan’s foolish, and we must say suspicious, scheme to franchise (or privatise) Dublin Bus entirely by 2008, starting with 25% of routes next year.

After his proposals were announced they were showered with praise from many uninformed commentators in the media, with them being proclaimed as a visionary and brave step into a bright future. Much that was written was copied verbatim from Department of Transport (DOT) press releases, with little editorial comment on any possible ill effects of the plans. With this in mind, we thought we’d have a look at where Brennan’s privatisation plans currently lie. The strangest thing of all is the almost universal acceptance of the idea of pitting public transport modes against each other (bus v train, bus v tram, bus v bus) and the notion that this will improve the current situation. This thinking has, unfortunately, even begun to creep into the lexicon of Brennan’s arch-rival, Owen Keegan, Dublin’s “Traffic Tzar”. Keegan has begun to talk of QBCs competing with the DART for passengers, and has even welcomed competition in the bus “market”. It is unfortunate to hear this from a man who backs the bus as the linchpin of Dublin’s transport future.

Competition between different types of public transport is not something that would be regarded as sensible anywhere else in the world, public transport modes should be integrated and complement each other, that’s how it works in successful cities. Besides, the bus already has a competitor, the private car, and with a little help from the DOT and Dublin City Council (DCC), it can make further progress in beating it.

Bus v Car (av. morning rush hour)
From – To Bus Car
Foxfrock – Leeson St. 32:55 65:43
Finglas – Dorset St. 13:48 23:45
Tallaght – Camden St. 50:07 73:33
Swords – Richmond rd. 29:16 40:42
Malahide – Amiens St. 27:11 35:35
Lucan – Arran Quay 32:36 35:16
Rathfarnham – Leonard’s Corner 34:55 36:22
source: “city” newspaper

The Best Laid Plans…
Everything about Brennan’s plans seem to be designed to annoy the unions, from the time and place he chose to deliver them, the Forum on Public Transport, to the way they gave little or no thought to the workers future. The workers were angry when they were announced, and begun organising public opposition to the scheme, indeed the entire public campaign against Brennan’s proposals was union orchestrated.

The lack of engagement with other groups, to build a broader platform, gives the incorrect impression of CIE workers simply watching their own backs. To make matters worse, there are a regular stream of unattributed comments in the national press, with yet another anonymous user of Dublin Bus after another giving their “thumbs up” to Brennan’s plans.

Many questions – no answers

Well how easy is it to give a thumbs up to a scheme that nobody’s seen? After all, the minister has yet to publish any actual nitty-gritty detail of his grand idea for CIE. What Dublin Bus routes are to be franchised? What form will regulation take? When and how will private operators tender for routes? Will there be integrated ticketing? If so, when and what form will it take? Will there be integrated timetables? Will operators share bus stops?

All of these are questions that the national press fail to ask, and we have yet to hear an opposition TD dare ask any of them in the Dáil. Strange stuff indeed, considering the destruction of Dublin Bus would have a massive impact on the economy of our city, and would have a major impact all our lives. It is important to remember that public transport privatisation has been a disaster everywhere it has been tried, without exception.

With all it’s failings Dublin Bus has the ability to be a great success, while remaining under public ownership. It needs more investment, better management and more help and cooperation from the Gardaí, DCC and central government.

As far as the official union opposition goes, it’s gone to ground. After the industrial action staged early in the summer, when passenger were allowed travel for free, Brennan agreed to hold talks with SIPTU and NBRU, talks with the minister being one of their key demands.

Representatives of the Department of Transport and the unions have been meeting for a “re-engagement in discussions on public transport”. We are told that three meetings have so far taken place, but both the government and the union leadership are tight lipped on the contents of their deliberations, with grassroots union membership left as much in the dark as the rest of us.

The workers who organised the series of public meetings in Dublin, earlier this year, remain bullish, and are currently producing a newsletter for Dublin Bus drivers, spreading the word on Brennan’s proposals and their possible effects. They remain confident that the government can be defeated on this issue.

What is Brennan really at?

We ask to ask though, why is Brennan so keen to privatise Dublin Bus in the first place? It can’t be unpopularity with passengers, Dublin bus now carry over 500,000 people a day. It can’t be the cost of state subsidy, since Dublin Bus receives less money than any other public transport operator in Western Europe and North America. It can’t be because it’s not-viable, Dublin Bus produced a €1.5 million operational surplus last year, a big change from it’s previous €5m deficit.

Could it be that the only reason Brennan want’s to offload Dublin Bus is that the government want to save a few bob on some pensions, since employees of the private multi-nationals, waiting to swoop in and take over Dublin’s bus system, will not be semi-state workers and will have none of the benefits that goes with that?

If that is the case then we are looking at nothing short of a major scandal, to sacrifice the future well being of our economy for the sake of saving a few Euro is more like the act of a penny pinching accountant in a small company than the act of a “visionary” government.

It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise though, with Charlie McCreevey holding the purse strings. Strange that McCreevy managed to find over €14m of state funds to pay for improvements to a racecourse in his native Kildare, but he would begrudge the people of Ireland an efficient, publicly owned and publicly accountable transport system.

Dark times ahead

Privatisation of public transport has a long history of failure, in the UK fares went up 62% in urban areas after privatisation. Safety is also an issue. While no bus in the Dublin Bus fleet is more than 12 years old, private operators face no such regulation, in England the buses in use were 45% older ten years after deregulation was introduced.

This leads to more danger for both drivers and passengers, with buses kept in service far beyond a safe lifespan. Add to this attempts by private companies to eliminate concessionary passengers (OAPs, disabled people), and measures designed to reduce or kill off routes deemed “unprofitable” and you are left with a recipe for disaster. The privatisation of Dublin Bus is a bad idea, we hope people begin to wake up to this fact.

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