'Irascible' transport head steps off treadmill
It got generous funding in the boom, but CIE is now facing cuts in services and higher fares. Its departing chairman looks back at his tenure and what his successor faces. By Emmet Oliver
Published 23/06/2011 | 05:00
Sitting down, somewhat reluctantly, for his final interview as head of CIE, John Lynch is trying to get the balance right.
When I suggest final interviews allow subjects to fully unburden themselves, Lynch shoots back, "I still want to be able to walk around this town''.
Having worked with 14 ministers across a number of state agencies and companies, Lynch, whose style is best described as irascible, has enemies and friends in equal measure.
But while his direct style is not to everyone's taste, it is impossible to deny his ability to survive at the top in the notoriously shark-infested waters of Irish semi-states, where politics and business don't always mingle easily.
CIE has a huge amount of critics and the economist Colm McCarthy reached the embarassnig conclusion last year that the company had no actual financial value, despite all the generous subsidies it got in recent years.
He argued that the amount of investment the company has receieved should mean it needs less in annual grants, but Lynch responds by saying all public transport companies need to keep their assets maintained, particularly railways and that is expensive.
Lynch is retiring but whatever he does post-retirement, he is unlikely to be any different a person. "As long as my toes touch the floor in the morning it is a day to be appreciated," is how he describes his own personal outlook.
Lynch retires next week and Transport Minister Leo Varadkar will be the last minister he serves. Contrary to perceptions, Lynch says he gets on well with Mr Varadkar, who he describes as extremely bright.
This week Mr Varadkar set about appointing a new management team at CIE and Lynch jokes that it was a back-handed compliment to him. "They are replacing me with four people," he grins.
Lynch was appointed to CIE in 2000 by then minister Mary O'Rourke and he admits it is time to go. "I personally believe you should never stay in a job longer than 10 years, I am now at 11 years, so it is time,'' he explains.
When Lynch took over the job there was €1.2bn of funds to be spent as part of the National Development Plan and public transport was a big beneficiary. Now public transport is being cut back in all areas and in the last two years CIE's traffic numbers have slumped by 30pc on the back of a worsening economy.
Lynch consequently thinks fondly of the period when he was first appointed. He adds that he enjoyed working with Mary O'Rourke -- his favourite minister -- and he name checks Martin Cullen.
He says there has been a "quiet revolution" in CIE, with staff numbers drastically reduced, resulting in payroll and non-payroll savings of €232m during his tenure.
During his leadership there was also very little industrial relations problems, which Lynch puts down to what he calls his "cappuccino management".
Essentially this means that Lynch tries to chivvy along the various stakeholders connected to the company, from unions to management, to Government to passenger groups to his own board. Most of it is done over a coffee in the time-honoured Lynch style.
In fact, this approach is what his various replacements will need to have.
"Running CIE is hard, we have hundreds of thousands of passengers, get even a small thing wrong and a lot of people get annoyed," he says.
"Whoever runs this company needs political nous and business nous,'' he adds.
He said his main aim had been to remodel the company. When he began the freight division was losing €18m a year -- it is now profitable. And the trains were not frequent enough, capacity was too low and assets were wasting away, he claims.
Lynch set out to change that. He says productivity on the train service has improved despite grumbling by passengers. Where DARTs used to have four carriages typically, they now have eight.
The public transport system remains exactly as the name suggests, but Lynch claims privatisation didn't work in the UK and subventions from the state simply grew.
The civil service that Lynch worked with has earned his respect.
"They are bright people,'' he says. But he believes the structure, with assistant principals and secretaries general, is antiquated. He also says politicians have farmed out too much responsibility to un-accountable state agencies and quangos, something he doesn't welcome.
He always hates the word subvention for the grant that CIE receives annually and prefers the term 'state support'.
He says the generosity (or not) of this amount has nothing to do with how the company works internally, which comes down, he claims, to how management and workers interact.
"We got results without pain," Lynch explains.
"There has been virtually no industrial relations problems and that is down to better management and a good relationship with the unions."
While there have been many redundancies and cost cuts (and more on the way), Lynch says he never shouted this from the rooftops.
"We didn't put out press releases about those trends, we just got on with it," he explains.
Now the company is facing a huge reduction in its €264m annual subvention. Nobody knows yet how large the cut will be, but Lynch is certain the impacts will hurt.
"If you cut it too much, you suddenly don't have a public sector transport service," he comments.
But he admits that so-called "lightly used" rail lines are living on borrowed time, including one running between Waterford and Limerick Junction and the so-called Nenagh branch line, which runs between Limerick and Ballybrophy, via Nenagh.
He says the issue of these lightly used lines was first pinpointed as a problem by economist Colm McCarthy.
"The two main cost headings are fuel, which I can't control, and people and their wages and we have been tackling that area,'' he adds, with 3,000 people leaving the company over the last decade.
The lack of finance also means future development opportunities will be limited.
While speaking up vigorously in favour of the DART underground, Lynch says it will be hard to progress the idea in the current financial climate.
"Nobody wants to lend to Ireland and the banks are in no position to do PPPs either," he comments.
But there are enough resources left for maybe one more grand project. For Lynch it would be a railway connection to Dublin Airport, effectively a spur of the existing north Dublin rail network.
He says the cost would be about €300m over four years, which is not so grand when placed alongside the far more expensive alternatives like Metro North.
"It would be the first phase of getting people, tourists, around the country and long term it should link up with the DART underground," he says.
Either way CIE would be expected to operate the system, to which Lynch says, "why not?"
The company has experienced passenger fall-off, is trying to keep losses down and will report losses of €50m for 2010, the Irish Independent understands.
About half of this will be exceptional items, with the ending of a fuel rebate taking a toll.
Asked what future cuts could look like for passengers, Lynch is frank.
"I would be concerned."
He says the current minister wants to minimise disruption but bus routes will be scrapped, rail services closed and, more alarming for many commuters, fares will rise.
"If your revenue consists of ticket sales and state support and state support is falling, then, of course, you have to increase fares," says Lynch.
"There is no doubt about that,'' he adds, saying the fare rises will be across all services.
Asked if he would look forward to announcing such rises, he smiles and says: "It's a political decision ultimately."