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Bus firm to face huge lawsuit over route tactics

DUBLIN Bus is facing a multi-million euro legal action over allegations that it used taxpayers' money to drive a private bus operator off the road, despite repeated warnings from the Department of Transport about the conduct.

Now Morton's Coaches is to sue Dublin Bus after its Circle Line service ceased trading with the loss of 27 jobs, leaving 22 new buses worth more than €3m lying idle.

Documents discovered under the Freedom of Information Act have raised serious questions about the campaign that was mounted by Dublin Bus against the private competitor, which was granted a licence to operate its Circle Line service between Lucan, Celbridge and Nutgrove via Dublin City Centre.

The documents obtained by Fine Gael provide evidence that Dublin Bus, incensed at the introduction of a private service for commuters, saturated the Circle Line route with its own buses -- to a level well in excess of the approved levels of service.

According to Fine Gael TD Fergus O'Dowd, Dublin commuters lost out because "Dublin Bus . . . acted more like an inefficient Soviet-era State body, abusing its position to hide its own terror of competition. These documents chart a deliberate campaign by Dublin bus, using buses paid for by the taxpayers, to force a private operator off the road. Dublin Bus got €80m in taxpayers' money to help run its services."

Mr Paul Morton of Morton's Coaches told the Sunday Independent the documents confirmed what he already knew.

"The Circle Line service was driven out of business. I had meetings with three Ministers for Transport -- Martin Cullen, Seamus Brennan and Noel Dempsey-- to tell them what was happening.

"In fairness, Seamus Brennan tried his best. My lawyers are preparing papers which will be lodged as soon as the legal term begins next month," he said.

Morton's Coaches was awarded a licence to run the route in late 2002, but within a couple of weeks Paul Morton lodged what was to be the first of a long litany of complaints to the Department of Transport that Dublin Bus was swamping his routes and crowding out his customers.

Dublin Bus rejected the accusations and launched an attack on the private operator.

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"The licences granted for Lucan/Celbridge substantially replicates Dublin Bus services that have operated successfully for a long number of years. Your granting of these licences is in our view, totally in contradiction to the objectives of the 1932 Act and is a very retrograde step," it wrote to the Department.

However, the Department of Transport took the Morton complaints seriously, and officials were sent out to monitor what was happening on the route.

A departmental briefing note concluded that after many days of observation "it is clear from the evidence, that there can be no doubt but that the number of services provided by Dublin Bus at this peak time has increased."

In March 2004, further observations were carried out, with an official reporting: "From my observations this morning , it seems to me that the Morton's second bus seemed to be completely dominated by the Dublin Bus services which travelled directly in front and behind the Morton bus. I noted that there were no passengers at the Morton's bus stops along Griffeen Road or Foxborough Estate as the Dublin Bus had gone in front of Morton's."

The Department of Transport wrote to then Dublin Bus Chief Executive Dr Alan Westwell with their evidence, but he denied wrongdoing by the semi-state company and there was an exchange of increasingly fractious correspondence between the Department and Dublin Bus. Dublin Bus unions also attacked the Department's decision to grant a licence to the private operator.

The Department continued to monitor and observe the extra Dublin buses on the Circle Line route over six years.

A briefing note sent to the assistant secretary of the Department said: "During the most recent monitoring exercise carried out on December 18, 2007, it was observed that Dublin Bus was not adhering to its published 25A and 25 X timetables and seemed to be departing the Newcastle Road at similar times to the Morton's departure times. As a result of this, it was observed that the company was parking up buses on the Newcastle Road in some cases for between 20 and 45 minutes."

Another document attempted to summarise the seven separate monitoring exercises carried out by Department of Transport inspectors.

"Without exception, the department has found that Dublin Bus is operating services on the 25X service that are well in excess of the approved levels . . . it is very clear that the company is operating the 25A service in a way that bears no resemblance to the timetable and is parking up vehicles at the Newcastle Road terminus."

The exchanges between the Department of Transport and Dublin Bus became even more tense in the wake of further pleas by Paul Mornton that he was being run off the road. In April this year, the Assistant Secretary of the Department, Andrew Cullen, wrote to the Chief Executive of Dublin Bus, Joe Meagher, to remind him that the Minister was the regulatory head for transport in Ireland and that Dublin Bus should take note of ministerial decisions.

In June, the Morton Circle Line service went into voluntary liquidation, saying the action was necessitated "by the continued saturation of our route by a large number of Government-funded buses, which are being subsidised by the taxpayer."

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