Monday 18 December 2017

Transport Minister Shane Ross says claims Government is 'attacking rural Ireland's public bus service' are 'nonsense'

Transport Minister Shane Ross. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Transport Minister Shane Ross. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Anne-Marie Walsh

Minister for Transport Shane Ross has dismissed deputies' claims that the Government is attacking the public bus service in rural Ireland as "nonsense".

Speaking at at the Oireachtas Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport this morning, Shane Ross claimed it is expanding the public bus service in rural Ireland.

He went on the defensive in relation to his own role as minister as Bus Éireann faces an indefinite all-out strike from Monday and plans to close three routes and cut the frequency of services on two others.

The minister said the government was defending rural services by increasing the amount of funding to Bus Eireann to run public service obligation routes. He said this rose by 11pc this year, and 13pc last year, while Bus Éireann benefited from a 21pc increase in its subvention last year.

He said it was also providing a 24pc increase in funding to  the Rural Transport Programme.

Mr Ross said he was also examining funding for the Free Travel Scheme in conjunction with the Minister for Social Protection, Leo Varadkar.

"Some deputies have alleged this government is 'attacking' the public bus service in rural Ireland," he said.

"That's nonsense. We're actually expanding the public bus service in rural Ireland through increasing the amount of PSO funding to Bus Éireann as I've already pointed out, and also providing a 24pc increase in funding to the Rural Transport Programme."

He said that people needed to stop confusing issues.

"The vast majority of people in rural Ireland who use a bus travel on a public service obligation service or a commercial operator other than Expressway," he said.

"There are no threats to those services. In fact they're expanding, they are seeing increasing passenger numbers, and in the case of PSO services, increasing taxpayer funding."

However, he said Bus Éireann must adapt and modernise to respond to customer demand.

He said the growth in the commercial bus market shows the customer is responding positively to these changes.

Mr Ross said he was deeply concerned at the effect a proposed strike over payroll cuts could have on the travelling public, particularly those in regional cities and rural Ireland who depend heavily on public transport.

"At this very delicate time of a potentially serious industrial relations dispute, I believe we are all required to exercise great care so that all opportunities are taken by the company and its employees to resolve the issues that have led to this threatened strike," he said.

He said he was happy to dispel some of the "incorrect claims" that have been made by some committee members about the causes and origins of the dispute.

"In particular, I want to rebut suggestions that I am not doing enough to enable a settlement to be reached by the parties," he said.

Mr Ross said that the National Transport Authority will step in and assist in cases where "connectivity" is threatened.

He said it had taken action it deemed appropriate following Bus Éireann's announcement of a "small number of route changes" on some Expressway routes.

Three are set to close and two services to be cut. The National Transport Authority yesterday confirmed it will only replace one of the routes as the public's needs are being met by existing services on the other routes.

"But let's be clear, those actions by me, actions which this very committee has called for, won't resolve the issue," said Mr Ross.

"Expressway is a commercial business unit run by Bus Éireann and it is losing money."

He said Expressway accounts for 10pc of all Bus Éireann passenger journeys and 90pc are made on taxpayer-funded services.

These are either public service obligation services provided under contract with the transport authority or a school transport service.

He said Expressway's commercial services could not be subsidised by the taxpayer under EU rules.

"Some committee members seem to think that I should intervene directly in internal matters of the company," he said.

"To do so would mean cutting across the role of not just the company but also trade unions in terms of agreeing work practices and terms and conditions."

He said the Workplace Relations Commission and Labour Court are best placed to assist employers and employees in settling contentious disputes.

"I am as impatient as any member of the committee to see a return to stability in the company’s industrial relations," he said.

He denied that he or his government colleagues are seeking a very low cost employment model for Bus Éireann.

However, he said he was willing to engage with the committee and other stake-holders on how transport legislation could be strengthened to further promote the interest of passengers.

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