NTA will not rule out further privatisation as strike looms
Transport bosses may tender even more bus routes in 2019
The National Transport Authority (NTA) has refused to rule out tendering additional bus contracts to the private sector.
Chief executive Anne Graham told the Irish Independent that it was not possible to determine if additional services could be placed on the market from 2019 when the current contracts with Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus expire.
"We can't foresee the circumstances in 2019 when we lead up to the next awards. We do not know at this stage as to whether there will be further market opening or not. There may be none," she said.
The authority intends going ahead with offering 10pc of existing routes to the private sector in Waterford city, commuter routes into Dublin and some services in the capital, but refused to state how many expressions of interest had been received.
Ms Graham also said it expected to achieve savings ranging from 5pc to 10pc after the contracts were awarded next April.
Her comments come as drivers in both companies are expected to mount seven days of strike action commencing from next weekend amid concerns that members will suffer cuts in their terms and conditions if they are forced to move to a private operator.
The National Bus and Rail Union (NBRU) has sought a judicial review of the decision, claiming the NTA does not have the legal powers to tender out the routes.
This is because the union says the legislation establishing the NTA affords both bus companies "exclusive rights" to operate services.
But Ms Graham insisted the move would result in substantial savings, and asked workers not to take industrial action.
"It's to put forward a comparator of another operator in a competitive market so we can test the value of money of the subsidy we're putting into Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann," she said.
"It's also to introduce a bit of market tension into what is a closed market for PSO (public service obligation) services.
"We would also expect some cost savings.
"The international comparisons we look at are between 5pc and 40pc. We would expect them (to be) between 5pc and 10pc."
In 2013, the most recent year for which figures are available, Dublin Bus was paid €64.5m to operate services in the capital. That means savings between €3.2m and €6.5m could be achieved.
Bus Éireann was paid €34m the same year, meaning savings between €1.7m and €3.4m could be realised.
The NTA will seek to fast-track the NBRU's legal challenge into the Commercial Court, and Ms Graham said the authority was "surprised" that the action was being taken.
"We will obviously be seeking to move that into the Commercial Court, if we can. We're surprised the unions are taking a challenge in the courts and undertaking a number of stoppages as well.
"We would ask why discommode public transport passengers?
"It doesn't make sense to have a strike and a legal challenge.
"Why should the public transport customers suffer?"
The NTA will provide buses to the new operator, but it is not clear what will happen to 290 affected drivers.
It insists the terms and conditions, including pension provision, will be protected for any drivers who transfer to a new operator for the duration of the five-year contract.
It is not clear what will happen to these workers once the contract expires.
"We will consider that at the time," she added. "The initial thing is to think about the contract we are undertaking now. It's likely if we provide it (guaranteed conditions) in one, we will provide it in another."