The entire public transport system could be plunged into chaos if thousands of CIÉ workers' pensions are slashed, a union leader has warned.
In an interview with the Irish Independent, general secretary of the National Bus and Railworkers' Union Dermot O'Leary said the threat to his members' retirement incomes will be a key battleground in 2019.
The defined benefit schemes that have 16,500 members including staff, deferred pensioners and pensioners have a deficit in the region of €332m.
There is also potential for industrial action at Bus Éireann next year after unions lodged a pay claim on behalf of staff.
But Mr O'Leary said he is hopeful this will be unnecessary if the Labour Court backs their claim following a hearing on January 23.
The pension row is likely to erupt again as legal experts are due to report to unions on the status of commitments they claim the company gave in relation to the schemes.
"There is significant concern about the liabilities of these schemes and if anything goes wrong with the pension debate, you could end up with a situation where the transport in this country does not run," said Mr O'Leary.
He said the unions' ambition is to ensure that people who paid into the schemes all their working lives can maintain the benefits they expect.
"In the event that people on either side of the debate be determined to reduce those benefits that creates the appalling vista of potential disputes in the CIÉ Group, at the three companies, and all that goes with that," he said.
"To my mind, looking at the pension issue, there won't be a second new year talking about pensions again. This issue is going to come to the fore whether we like it or not."
However, he said unions would rather resolve the issues at the negotiating table.
The NBRU along with Siptu and other CIÉ unions are seeking a pay rise - somewhere between 2.5pc and 3.75pc.
"Bus Éireann will be the last of the transport companies to get a pay rise after the recession," he said.
"Our people are very scarred over the three-week dispute back in 2017," he said of the row that ended up with them accepting a composite pay rate after being told the company was on the brink. This meant basic pay and overtime were merged into one rate.
He said his members believe they have done the heavy lifting and want a return, while Bus Éireann is growing and recruiting again.
"Hopefully the court will see in our favour. We will try to avoid a dispute but despite the fact they're scarred, if they have to engage in industrial action if they find themselves in a situation where no pay rise is forthcoming, then obviously that will happen."
He was heavily critical of Shane Ross for failing to set up a promised stakeholders' forum to discuss public transport issues. "If that forum sat, it would allow issues like the Metro to be debated publicly and allow people to have an insight," he said.
The minister commissioned a draft report on the issue around May, he said, but there's still no sign of it.
"The current minister has a record for washing his hands and doing the Pontius Pilate," he said. "He's shown inaction on lots of different issues."
He said he used to write about "mandarins and bureaucrats" but claimed "mandarins" at his department and the National Transport Authority are now controlling him. He said these so-called "mandarins" don't want the forum because they don't want to answer to anyone.
Mr O'Leary said Fine Gael's "lean" towards privatisation means drivers at new operator Go-Ahead earn about €32,000 a year.
But they see CIÉ drivers who are doing the same job but getting about €50,000 go past them.
"We have a fundamental problem with that and it's going to be dispute after dispute after dispute because you have the bizarre situation now where the Go-Ahead UK multinational is on the streets of Dublin today paying €14.50 an hour," he said.
"They'll achieve no mortgage on that whatsoever. They can't even pay rent on it."
He claimed some workers may have to turn to the State for help in the form of housing assistance or working family payments so it is paying an additional "hidden subsidy" on top of the cost of the contract. "Is that designed to break up CIÉ, designed to break up the State companies, or is it the ideology, or what is it?" he asked.
He said there are alternatives to the Metro that would get people around the city a lot quicker and more cheaply than putting tracks on the road.
They include a 'Bus Rapid Transit' that could run from the western suburbs across the city, from Blanchardstown to Tallaght, with dedicated lanes. He describes it as a "Luas on wheels".
He also favours a Dart "spur" from Clongriffin to Dublin Airport and said there is no reason there could not be a connection between the new children's hospital at St James's and Heuston Station.
He said Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Paschal Donohoe, who are Dublin based, will get two election campaigns "out of this" before any digging starts.