NI wants fast, express buses – yet commuters are still left waiting

Hannon Coach put forward a proposals for more routes
Hannon Coach put forward a proposals for more routes

Having lost a judicial review and ordered to pay costs, the Department for Infrastructure continues to thwart Hannon Coach express services.

In February of last year, the company I work for, Hannon Coach, was successful in a judicial review brought against the Department for Infrastructure (DfI). We were also awarded costs.

Owen McLaughlin

Owen McLaughlin

Our beef was not to argue against the current public transport regulations, Translink’s monopoly on bus services or anything like that. We had simply identified and wanted to fill an important gap in the local public transport market – unlike the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland does not have a network of express services linking its main towns and cities.

To understand why such a gap is present it is important to understand just one simple point. Translink does not provide any express services anywhere in Northern Ireland and it has nothing to do with lack of demand – it’s because express services don’t qualify for subsidies.

So, in 2017 we applied for a permit to operate a high-frequency, non-stop express service between Londonderry and Belfast and for services between Belfast and Newcastle, Armagh, Enniskillen, Dungannon, Cookstown, Omagh, Strabane and Coleraine.

That’s the background. However, the way the Department for Infrastructure has behaved throughout the entire episode ought to be shocking but is sadly all too predictable. Counter to legislation and regulation, the Department denied our permit for the Londonderry –Belfast service and simply ignored all the other submitted applications.

Letter to the editor

Letter to the editor

We were forced into the judicial review.

As part of the settlement, the Department was required to make a fresh determination within six weeks.

That was February 2018. The Department dragged the process out to June 2018 and then there was complete radio silence for seven months – despite polite requests for updates.

Then in February 2019 we received a letter from the Departmental Solicitor’s Office.

The letter stated that the Department now needed a further 12 weeks. But this time there was a catch. The letter also said that the Department may in fact not make a decision at all. And the reason given? The now classic statement that it represents a major decision that would under normal circumstances be referred to a minister if in post.

Throughout, Translink has steadily lobbied against us and browbeaten the department. Not content with its monopoly, Translink has sought to ensure that even the services it does not operate are off limits.

We raised our plight with the Competition and Markets Authority which is looking into our situation.

Just like Gollum in The Hobbit, Translink’s defence of its precious may well be its downfall.

Owen McLaughlin, group marketing manager Hannon Coach, Aghalee