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Irish Rail hedge-trim bidders 'told their throats would be slit'

BIDDERS for a lucrative Irish Rail hedge-cutting tender were told their throats would be "slit" if they submitted a bid below an agreed fixed price, a court heard yesterday.

A fitter who attended a meeting of contractors in the car park of Athenry train station in January 2007 told the Central Criminal Court "handshakes were offered" as an agreement for the price of cutting hedges and trees on a disused 36-mile stretch of railway track.

The track stretched between Ennis in Co Clare and Athenry in Co Galway.

The claims were made on day two of an alleged bid-rigging trial. Two men are alleged to have entered into an anti-competitive agreement to submit a minimum tender price for an Irish Rail hedge-cutting contract.

John Joe McNicholas, trading as John Joe McNicholas Plant Hire, and Oliver Dixon, a director of Oliver Dixon (Hedgecutting & Plant Hire) Ltd, deny entering into an agreement to prevent, restrict or distort competition for their services.

Oliver Dixon (Hedgecutting and Plant Hire) is also being tried for entering into an anti-competitive agreement with Mr McNicholas.

The defendants have pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Yesterday John Garry, a fitter at Abbey Contractors Limited, said that after a site meeting of contractors on January 15, 2007, at Athenry train station, Mr McNicholas "basically" said he would "slit our throat" if the bidders submitted a tender below a price of €50,000 per 12-mile stretch of the 36-mile line.

The compulsory meeting for eight contractors was convened by Irish Rail.

The jury were told by Mr Garry that after Irish Rail engineer Peter Dalton left the meeting, a discussion took place in the car park among six or seven contractors.

Mr Garry said the conversation then "kind of opened up" to "decide a price, fix a price".

"It (the meeting) was trying to determine a price per section of clearance," said Mr Garry.

It is alleged Mr Dixon suggested a price of €50,000 per 12-mile track and Mr McNicholas suggested a price of €30,000.

Mr Garry said handshakes were offered as an agreement on the fixed price of €50,000 per section.

The court heard four contractors withdrew their bids, "apparently independently", after the meeting in Athenry.

All four were ultimately granted a portion of the Ennis to Athenry line contract under a separate tender.

The trial continues.

Irish Independent