Plans for new privately run express bus routes across Northern Ireland could have a devastating impact on Northern Ireland’s public transport system, it has been claimed.
Co Antrim-based firm Hannon Coach has applied for a licence to operate express services between Belfast and a number of towns across the Province.
The company told the News Letter it was seeking to “fill a gap in the market” by providing faster services from regional centres including Armagh, Ballymoney, Cookstown, Coleraine, Dungannon, Enniskillen, Omagh and Newcastle.
The union Unite has warned that the move could pose a real threat to publicly funded Translink services.
But Hannon Coach claims its fleet of express buses would “complement” the existing Translink services, rather than undermine them.
Unite’s regional secretary, Jackie Pollock called on the Department of Infrastructure to reject the application, and accused the private firm of seeking to “displace” Translink on some of its most profitable routes.
Unite’s regional coordinating officer, Davy Thompson, said the application would undermine the cross-subsidisation model of NI’s public transport system.
He added: “Fifteen per cent of Translink routes, principally the Goldliner express services, subsidise the 85% which operate at a loss.
“If Hannon Coach is successful in targeting these income-generating Goldliner routes, the resulting revenue reduction will force the discontinuation of dozens of non-profit making routes which are vital to rural and deprived communities.”
A spokesperson for Hannon Coach told the News Letter: “Trying to get people out of their cars while not providing a rail service or express coach service is simply not going to happen.
“Ulsterbus passenger numbers are in chronic decline and that the current timetabled services are failing to stimulate demand or encourage people to use public transport.”
Ulster Unionist infrastructure spokesman, John Stewart MLA, said the department has “a delicate balancing act to perform” with this application.
He told the News Letter: “On the one hand we want to encourage private sector opportunities, but we also have to be conscious of the fact that these privately run express routes could have a serious adverse impact on rural and deprived communities who rely on the services provided by Translink.”
A Translink spokesperson said: “We are aware of a number of applications by Hannon Coach. We await the decision of the department.”