Bus fares down £50k during flag protests

A double decker bus was hijacked and set on fire in the Rathfern area of the O'Neill Road prior to violent clashes at Cloughfern Corner.
A double decker bus was hijacked and set on fire in the Rathfern area of the O'Neill Road prior to violent clashes at Cloughfern Corner.

Around £50,000 worth of fares were lost through cancelled Northern Ireland bus services because of loyalist Union flag protests, it was revealed.

Three vehicles also sustained damage during the disorder and cost £112,600 to repair, public transport company Translink said.

Weeks of sporadic violence erupted before Christmas as demonstrators blocked busy roads and clashed with police, particularly in East Belfast. Evening bus services were diverted after attempts to hijack vehicles during the rioting left one driver hurt.

A Translink statement said: “Gauging revenue lost as a result of cancelled bus services is slightly more complex, as many factors come into play, including weather.

“Our best estimate is that buses have lost circa £50,000 overall, although that is more pronounced in recent weeks.”

A driver received a facial injury earlier this month during an attempted hijacking linked to Belfast City Council’s decision to restrict the number of days it flies the flag to designated dates, like royal birthdays. He was hurt by flying glass when a brick was thrown through his window in the lower Newtownards Road area.

Diversions were immediately introduced, bypassing trouble spots.

Since the unrest started some passenger travel patterns changed, but there has not been an overall drop in numbers, except on Saturdays in Belfast when regular loyalist city centre rallies are scheduled, a Translink spokeswoman said.

Normal service has begun again without incident and Translink introduced an unlimited £2 Metro (city bus service) fare on Saturdays in February to encourage users.

The company said NI Railways revenue had increased because of the protests as passengers considered the train to be safer than the bus or car.

It was difficult to quantify this extra revenue because a new train timetable had been introduced with greater service frequency, additional seating and new stopping patterns. Some bus timetables were also disrupted by snow earlier this month.

Alliance Party MLA, Stewart Dickson, whose constituency office in Carrickfergus in Co Antrim was damaged by arsonists after his cross-community party backed the flag change in Belfast, said the violence could have serious consequences for.projected numbers of visitors using buses during major events.

“If you have a public transport company that has as key milestones these events and we are having these current protests and unrest which is deterring people from coming as tourists, deterring people from coming to events in Northern Ireland, that has a knock-on effect on public transport,” he said.

Mr Dickson scrutinises public transport at the Northern Ireland Assembly. He said events like the City of Culture in Londonderry or this summer`s World Police and Fire Games in Belfast could be affected by the trouble.

“Not only is there a consequence now, it has a future consequence for an organisation like Translink,” he added.

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