Kevin Myers: Completely Inept Everywhere – no wonder CIE is at end of the line
IF the proposed Bus Eireann strike ever goes ahead, it will be a heaven-sent chance for that still-tethered but creative beast that is the private transport sector. Any strike over a recovery plan would really resemble a refusal of the stokers in the Titanic to come up on deck until the captain removes the iceberg from their canteen.
Strike or not, CIE is approaching its end. It was cobbled together nearly 70 years ago and whatever justification there might have been for it during that great national euphemism, 'The Emergency', long ago buckled beneath insupportable losses and CIE's delightful reinterpretation of its own acronym: Completely Inept Everywhere.
Billions of state money has now gone into the most incompetent state transport service anywhere, apart from Haiti's ass cart and, due to unforeseen circumstances, Syrian Railways.
Do you know that the bus from Clifden used to arrive at Galway railway station five minutes after the train to Dublin had left, and vice versa? My favourite CIE phenomenon – which I witnessed – was of catering staff clearing away paper plates and plastic cutlery on one intercity train by throwing them out of the windows.
But CIE's real horror story is financial. It lost €52.5m in 2010, despite a €288m state subsidy. Or, if you like, CIE services lost €340.5m: essentially a million a day.
And who would notice in such a bloodbath the mere €5,000 a week it costs to run the new rail link to Limerick junction, servicing the constituency of the Labour Minister of State for Public and Commuter Transport, Alan Kelly, with just 10 paying passengers a day?
This sort of politicking takes us to the reality of our nationalised "public transport" (the inverted commas here denote heavy irony; CIE does not exist for the public and it only intermittently transports). CIE is in Fianna Fail's genes. It was Sean Lemass's baby and for decades membership of the CIE board was a meal ticket for FF placemen too stupid or worthless to plonk onto more demanding semi-states.
Yet CIE is even more in the DNA of Labour, especially this year, the centenary of the 1913 Lock-out, when we can expect the usual witless re-invocation of bad history. Frankly, no one comes out the lock-out very well, least of all the strike leader Jim Larkin and the boss of the Dublin United Tramway Company, William Martin Murphy.
But Larkin, having brought his workers to utter penury in a futile and vainglorious struggle that was all about class warfare, not economics, then high-tailed it to the US, whereas Murphy stayed to run his business empire. What Ireland needed then (as now) is simple: fewer Larkins and more Murphys.
Forget the fact-free stereotypes you were fed at school or absorbed in that risible travesty, James Plunkett's 'Strumpet City'. Before the lock-out, Dublin United Tramways was one of the most efficient urban transport companies in Europe, and profitable too: in 1912, it paid a 6pc dividend.
And contrary to popular myth, Murphy actually encouraged his workers to join a union: it was political syndicalism such as Larkin's that he opposed. In 1912, the Tramway Employees Benevolent Society, representing 900 of the DUT employees, reported assets of £5,991, of which £4,798 was invested in Dublin United Tramways stock. (Can you imagine CIE's employees investing their savings in CIE? Of course not. They're not that stupid).
SO loss-making is not a genetic characteristic of Irish transport organisations. And, as Gerry Mullins, chief executive of the Coach Tourism and Transport Council – representing private coach companies – has pointed out, privatisation of public transport has dramatically lowered costs everywhere: Adelaide, down 38pc, Copenhagen, 24pc, Helsinki 34pc.
No doubt defenders of a nationalised CIE will cite the Swiss, but that argument doesn't work. Firstly, their national language isn't Swiss but Timetable, and secondly, the justification-bus left precisely on time, long, long ago.
Now, I must confess, until the bus unions started their tantrum, I didn't even know of the existence of the white-collared Transport Salaried Staff Association, TSSA. How delightful to see the class system live on – and where else but in that historical anachronism, Liberty Hall? Gerry Mullins' people have got their white-collar workers too: they're called spouses, who keep the books and make the tea and who don't get a penny in state subsidy.
Rather like news about a pregnancy scan taken on Christmas Eve which shows that A) the woman's pregnant all right, but B) with a two-headed cat, CIE's catastrophic accounts for 2011 have been withheld "until the time is right". Of course there's never a right time to break such abominable news ("But look on the bright side: you'll save a fortune in mousetraps").
Still, there could be a light at the end of this tunnel. If the strike ever does go ahead, it could well be the Irish equivalent of the British miners' strike, resulting, finally, in the long-overdue withdrawal of the State from the transport business. But rather like a CIE bus, oh where is a Thatcher when you most need one?