Thursday 29 September 2016

Competition on our bus routes can benefit everybody

Published 13/05/2015 | 02:30

'Imagine a world where if you were flying to the UK Ryanair didn't exist and Aer Lingus was your only option...'
'Imagine a world where if you were flying to the UK Ryanair didn't exist and Aer Lingus was your only option...'

Imagine a world where if you were flying to the UK Ryanair didn't exist and Aer Lingus was your only option.

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Or if, instead of sticking your hand out to get a taxi when you came out of a city centre bar on Saturday night, you had to queue for over an hour to get one of the small number of cabs. Or when you used your phone to access the 'Hailo' service to flag that taxi, a state-owned Eircom was the only service provider. Impossible? Ridiculous? So why is it so different for bus services?

The kind of monopolies once enjoyed by the likes of Aer Lingus, Eircom and a few thousand taxi drivers are relics of a past era. But it seems workers at Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann are still looking to dictate their own terms.

In the bad old days, it cost hundreds of pounds to fly to London, you had to wait weeks to get a telephone delivered to your house and every Christmas you walked home from the pub instead of getting a taxi. The customer was secondary to the demands of State or State-licenced workers. Governments, terrified of the political fall-out, routinely put the interests of a tiny number of workers before the greater good.

Those days are gone - aren't they? Yet this weekend, unless there's a breakthrough in talks, bus unions are willing to once again inconvenience hundreds of thousands of their customers in an attempt to hold back the de-regulation tide.

To be fair, there are differences between Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann today and the semi-states of yesteryear. Both bus companies are good at what they do. Dublin Bus, in particular, manages on a subsidy a fraction of what its peers across Europe enjoy. Fares, despite increases in recent years, are reasonable. But that doesn't mean the service can't be better. The one lesson we've learned over the past 20 years is that competition improves service to the customer.

What's being proposed by the National Transportation Authority (NTA)/Government is pretty modest - a tenth of routes put out to tender. As the dominant bus companies in the State, with decades of experience operating the routes, Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann must be favourites to win a large chunk of those new contracts. Even if they don't, workers are guaranteed their jobs at the State companies. Transport Minister Paschal Donohoe has given assurances that none of them will be forced to move to a private operator. It's a move reminiscent of Charlie Haughey's infamous 'letters of comfort' given to Aer Lingus workers to get them to move to the Team Aer Lingus subsidiary a quarter of a century ago. Those letters, guaranteeing them jobs with Aer Lingus, ended up being bought out at a cost of IR£70m.

Despite Donohoe's assurances, workers remain concerned about the impact that even partial de-regulation of the market will have on their terms and conditions. They argue that private operators will hire drivers on less lucrative terms and conditions and that will allow them to undercut the State bus companies and ultimately have a knock-on, downward impact on wages in the sector. It would be wrong to dismiss those concerns. But they may be overstated. Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann will continue to be, by some way, the big beasts in the sector. The idea their employees' pay will be dictated by what's happening in a few minnow private operators seems a little far-fetched.

Beside that's the environment workers in the real world have to operate in. And - as was the case with Aer Lingus, Eircom, taxis, TV and radio de-regulation, etc - there's a far bigger picture at play and that's the greater good.

We've already seen how competition on inter-city bus routes, and between Dublin city centre and the airport, has seriously improved the quality of service for the bus user. Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann have had to seriously up their game. Everybody has benefited. Why would it be any different for the 10pc of the routes the NTA wants to put out to tender?

Nobody is proposing a whole-scale opening up of the market with bus companies racing each other to get to stops first, as happened in some countries. What's being put forward is a structured, ordered and modest introduction of competitive tendering to operate certain routes. Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann are already good companies. Competition, and the knowledge they have to deliver on each route they operate on, will make them even better. It will also ensure the taxpayers' subsidy, quite rightly in place on many of these routes, is being used as efficiently as possible

The hope is that common sense will prevail and the talks at the LRC will be successful in averting industrial action. More strike days, which will do serious damage to the domestic economy and alienate valuable customers, are not just irresponsible, they're futile. Ask the taxi drivers or the workers at Aer Lingus or Eircom or Bord Gáis. It's taken longer for the bus sector, but change is inevitable.

Shane Coleman presents the Sunday Show on Newstalk.com

Irish Independent

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