Fresh disquiet has been voiced about the state of the Province’s public transport system after renewed reports about possible threats to services.
Unite, which represents roughly 2,600 workers in Translink, has said that media coverage of the public transport firm’s problems on Tuesday was “highly concerning”, whilst the Institution of Civil Engineers demanded that funding for services is prioritised “urgently”.
The renewed concern comes after the Belfast Telegraph reported that Translink is “set to axe some rural bus services”, while the BBC later said people “could be left without local bus services” due to budget problems.
This largely echoes stories from last year; for example, last August after Translink’s annual accounts were published, the News Letter reported that it was calling for a funding boost of about £12m in order to keep running the same level of services as present.
Both Translink and the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) indicated on Tuesday that there are no immediate plans to ditch services.
Even if there were, a decision would require a public consultation first (it is also believed that, under normal circumstances, a minister would also have to ratify the changes).
Translink has been running off its cash reserves in recent years.
It says it should have an estimated £20m-worth in its reserves to keep doing this, but by 2016/17 there was only about £31m left.
Former transport minister Danny Kennedy said at the time that the pleas for more cash from Translink were not mere “scaremongering”, with lobby group Retail NI backing the call for extra cash – and stressing in particular the value of buses for rural communities.
Tuesday’s reports are thought to stem from a briefing document published by the Department for Finance in December.
It warned “there would be a requirement to significantly reduce the public transport network to ensure financial viability going forward” unless Translink’s recent annual losses of about £13m can be stemmed.
Translink said in a statement today that it does not have “sufficient subsidy required to operate unprofitable but socially necessary services”, and that drawing on its cash reserves is “no longer sustainable going forward”.
The DfI said:“The current position is that Translink will continue to deliver the existing range of services.”
But it added “funding will not be available for Translink to deliver the full range of services from 2019/20”.
Davy Thompson, regional coordinator for Unite, said if and when service cuts come, provincial centres such as Londonderry or Enniskillen would probably still run express bus services to Belfast.
But “it’s feeder routes in from the more isolated towns and villages around those areas that would be impacted – and I’m not just saying it’d be the west of the country, you’ve rural towns all down the east side as well”.
He imagines it is likely to be bus services that are hit rather than trains.
Mr Thompson also said that up to 85% of services run by Translink are unprofitable, but are kept afloat by services which do make money.
He told the News Letter that one way of helping solve Translink’s budget problems would be to re-instate the entitlement to a fuel rebate which public transport used to enjoy – something which was axed in roughly 2014.