Strike takes out a vital rural lifelineA day on a threatened service shows how those most affected by the bus dispute fear the future
The 21 Bus Eireann coach out of Athlone isn't one of those roadliners you see on the TV ads populated by attractive students with a Red Setter galloping across pristine meadows emblazoned on the side.
It's an altogether more functional affair. There's no loo, the seats are tight and there are no fancy recliners.
There were only eight of us taking the 11.05am out of Athlone heading to Westport - a route which brings you across the heartland of the west.
Most 'flashed the pass' and minded dodgy knees and creaky hips as they got on board.
Strike action at Bus Eireann will enter a third day today and there is no end in sight. Transport Minister Shane Ross has refused to get involved and no talks are planned to resolve a row that escalated after the company made plans to enforce cost-cutting measures without union agreement.
These plans will see 300 job losses and routes linking Dublin with Derry, Limerick, Galway and Clonmel close as management look to address massive deficits that could see the company marked insolvent within three months.
The 21 is earmarked to go on April 16, leaving thousands of Bus Eireann customers in a transport purgatory.
Among them is Maureen Taylor, a pensioner from Westport, who uses the threatened 21 route to access a connecting bus in Claremorris. This then carries her to Galway for cancer treatment.
"These buses help me get to where I need to go.
"I leave at 7.05 in the morning and I am usually able to get home in the evenings depending on how long the treatment takes."
She was one of 42 passengers to hop on board the service with the Sunday Independent at various stages on a recent trip from Athlone to Westport.
"God knows how I would cope without it."
The majority of customers I met on the 21 were travel-pass holders. These are problematic for Bus Eireann. To generate more money, Bus Eireann needs to draw more customers but there are few incentives to use the service.
The small car park next to Athlone's bus station was choked by 10.40am. The next nearest car park charges €8 per day to use their facility, inflating the cost of leaving the car behind. A single ticket to Westport is already €12.50.
The journey takes more than three hours but travelling by car saves an hour and 15 minutes.
Taking the 11.05am bus as far as Westport means an overnight stay because there is no direct service back to Athlone after arrival.
"You won't get caught short on the train," said one elderly passenger, pointing to the lack of a toilet on board.
The bus is warm and clean but the seats are a bit too snug for my 6'3" frame. The scenery is reminiscent of the Saw Doctors vision of the N17, "stone walls and the grass is green".
However, the issues plaguing rural Ireland are also clear to see. The land is scarred with standing water from recent floods - the region was the worst hit by storms last year as the Shannon burst its banks.
Gardai work with customs officials at a checkpoint outside Knockcroghery village taking fuel samples from passing motorists as part of a clampdown on fuel laundering that previously caused havoc in the area.
The bus is waved on and the driver is happy to chat with passengers along the way. The route's closure is the main topic of concern.
In Ballinlough, a blink-and-you-miss-it village near Roscommon's border with Mayo, Brian Quinn is welcomed on board.
The retired farrier has been waiting patiently outside the Whitehouse Hotel, a stop where many moons ago a bus driver would come in and round up the last few stragglers finishing off the evening's few pints before giving them a safe passage home.
Brian uses the bus several times a week to attend dances, meet friends in Ballyhaunis and run errands.
"I haven't a car and I was an athlete and did a lot of cycling in my day but when you get on in years, and I have had my hip done as well, you can't always do that."
Everybody on board knows him and the driver looks particularly pleased to see him. Today he is too busy talking about football to entertain the other passengers with his usual singing.
"I'm the last of four generations. There were eight of us in the family and all the others got married but I was the one who stayed at home to mind the farm.
"I am going to Ballyhaunis today to do a bit of shopping and I'll come home then at 3.30pm. I'll do my shopping, call in to the bookies and have a bit of craic with the lads to get out of the house."
The National Transport Authority has reacted to Bus Eireann's decision to withdraw its service by looking at maintaining and expanding the route's Public Service Obligation status. No definitive plan has been announced.
Should Bus Eireann become insolvent in May, it will mean even more uncertainty for Brian and Maureen, for whom the bus is vital.
"If the weather was good I'd dust off the aul' bike again or depend on lifts," said Brian, "but it's like they are closing the country down."