Thousands of Northern Ireland’s most vulnerable and isolated residents are facing massive disruption after rural community transport charities were forced to withdraw buses.
The Department for Infrastructure has decided to update its interpretation of the current legislation in respect of driver licensing, specifically dealing with drivers of minibuses.
Previously, community transport drivers who held a licence which qualified them to drive a car would also have been able to drive a minibus.
However, revised guidance from the Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA) states that they must now have a D1 category licence to do so, which can cost up to £1,000 and take months to complete.
The move has led to dozens of community transport drivers who are not suitably licensed being taken off the road, causing chaos for elderly and disabled people who depend on them for hospital visits, doctor appointments or shopping trips.
The problem affects rural areas across Northern Ireland, and it is understood an estimated 67 drivers have had to step aside until they meet licensing requirements.
The News Letter understands the department did not undertake a consultation process or put in place a grace period to allow groups to implement the changes.
Ashley Keane, manager of Out and About Transport in Magherafelt, said they were “really in a difficult situation”.
It is understood the Magherafelt office – which has a service delivery run of over 2,000 people a month – has had to take four of its six minibuses off the road. Only two drivers meet the new licensing standards.
Magherafelt Ulster Unionist councillor George Shiels claimed the Out and About service in the town “is fighting for its life”.
He added: “The service could, at worst, be decimated unless the department’s officials see sense.
“I think this is a reprehensible way for department officials to operate in the absence of a minister. Civil servants in ivory towers are behaving as de facto politicians.”
Meanwhile, North Coast Community Transport told the News Letter it has been forced to refuse some bus runs, after taking 11 of its 19 drivers off the road.
Manager Billy Moore said: “The people who use our service are so dependent on us, and these changes to licensing is crippling for the very people we are here to serve.”
Paddy McEldowney, manager of Easilink Strabane, said he had taken five of his 15 drivers off the road temporarily as precautionary measure.
He added: “The whole situation is all very unclear, and we are waiting for clarification from the DVA.
“In the meantime, we have had to take some of our drivers off for a period of three weeks, in the hope of getting this resolved.”
Meetings have been taking place this week between departmental officials and managers of Rural Community Transport Partnerships in an effort to avert a transport crisis.
The News Letter asked the department for a comment, but they did not respond at the time of going to press.