'There were rumours about this route - but we never thought the whole thing would be cut'
IT is 8am on a bitterly cold March morning in Clonmel as driver Jim Robinson fires up the engine on his Bus Éireann coach, turning up the heating.
The X7 Dublin to Clonmel route is Jim's daily workplace, but come March 12, it's possible that it will be no more.
"I got the news over the radio on Monday evening and we hadn't heard our jobs were gone or anything like that at all, so it was quite the shock," shrugs Jim.
"There were rumours about this route before and there's an early morning service that's pretty poor, so we thought that might get the axe, but we never thought the whole thing would be cut."
For Kilkenny man Jim, there's a real concern about the increasingly limited options that might be available to his regulars, including a number of people with intellectual disabilities who travel to a workshop in nearby Callan.
"There are a good few people who get on from Grangemockler and go into a workshop in Callan. They are worried about what is going to happen now," he said.
As Jim pulls into his first stop at Clonmel railway station at 8.20am, there's a sure air of doom in the car park as other drivers assemble to chat. One worker reveals he read about the planned closure in the newspaper. "How is that a good way to learn about something like this? It's a disgrace. Maybe they are just scaremongering and it won't happen at all," he shrugs, with a faint glimmer of hope in his eyes.
With four passengers on board from the railway station, Jim drives on before pulling up at the next stop in Clonmel town. Local man Paul Ryan struggles with his crutches. He almost missed the bus.
"I'm glad I got you, I have an appointment in Blackrock Clinic," Mr Ryan tells the driver. "Come here, is it true this service is going to stop from next week?"
"Looks like it," Jim replies.
"Jesus, that's a terrible pity," said Mr Ryan.
He uses the Bus Éireann service to travel to regular medical appointments in Dublin. For him, it's by far the best and, he says, cheapest option for the route.
"I take this bus because it's quicker than all of the others and doesn't stop from Kilkenny to Dublin," he said.
As to what he is going to do if the service is scrapped, Mr Ryan said: "Back to Kavanagh's I suppose. And another half-hour on to my journey each way."
Kevin O'Connell from Manchester boards the bus in Grangemockler. He moved to South Tipperary last year and is a frequent user of the service.
"I use this service going to Dublin and also going to Kilkenny three times a week," he said. "It's more about the older people and how it might affect them; I didn't realise how bad the rural connections were over here."
The bus winds its way into Callan and then on to Kilkenny city before departing for Dublin with upwards of 30 passengers on board. Some are airport-bound, others get off in the city at O'Connell Street and Busáras.
Driver Jim is well aware this could be one of his last times on the route he knows so well. "We are all hoping, just at the back of our minds, that something will happen to stop it closing. That's all we can do," he said.