Passengers could face the loss of up to 300 bus routes if the Government fails to include commercial coach companies in a taxpayer-funded fare discount scheme, the industry warned on Wednesday.
The Government introduced 20 per cent cuts in fares for State-funded public service bus routes from April to the end of this year, at a cost of €54 million, but excluded private-sector coach firms.
Commercial bus companies say this exclusion is unfair competition and warn that passengers will lose if these businesses fail or some of the 300 routes they provide close as a result of the Government decision.
“Our customers are being treated unfairly,” said Brendan Crowley, owner and managing director of Wexford Bus, at the launch of the Coach Tourism and Transport Council’s (CTTC) “Fare is Fair” campaign.
Sinéad Kavanagh, managing director of Eirebus, warned that businesses already hit by Covid-19, falling passenger numbers and rising costs now faced competing at a disadvantage with the State.
Ms Kavanagh’s business runs the Swords Express service, which competes with Dublin Bus. She said that its rival enjoyed a taxpayer-funded discount while Eirebus wrestled with rising fuel prices and labour shortages.
“It’s unfair competition and it’s unfair to the travelling public as well,” she argued. Ms Kavanagh pointed out that Eirebus customers would not benefit from cheaper fares unless they switched to State-owned or funded competitors.
The CTTC published a report by economist Jim Power on Wednesday showing that it would cost the Government €14 million to include commercial operators in the 20 per cent discount scheme until the end of this year.
Mr Power’s analysis, Unfair Treatment of Customers of Commercial Bus Companies, warns that the decision to exclude commercial companies from the scheme threatens their survival as passengers will shift to services benefiting from the State-funded discount.
Both Eirebus and Wexford Bus maintain that the Leap Cards used by travellers to pay their fares ruled out any likelihood that companies could profiteer from the discount scheme.
Jeff Clarke, Eirebus’s operations director, described the system, operated by the National Transport Authority (NTA), as “foolproof and completely transparent”.
Mr Crowley explained that an independent third party reconciled all Leap Card transactions daily. “It’s an automated system that we have no control over,” he said.
A Department of Transport spokesman said the Government did not include commercial bus companies as, unlike public service routes, the NTA does not set, monitor or regulate their fares.
However, he added that the Government would extend the young adult card, which entitles anyone aged between 19 and 23 to 50 per cent fare discounts, to commercial operators.
“It is technically more challenging to roll out fare initiatives on the commercial bus network than it is on the Leap-enabled public service obligation network,” the spokesman said.
He noted that the NTA and commercial operators have set up a working group to extend the young adult card to private sector companies.
The department maintains that fare cuts are just part of a national public transport plan that includes proposals to boost services linking rural communities with cities and towns.