Public transport: Oppose privatisation & race to the bottom

By Councillor Michael O’Brien

Dublin Bus workers in SIPTU and the NBRU have accepted the pay offer of 11.25% over three years that emanated from the talks at the WRC. There is no doubt this higher offer has been won through the strike action spanning six days in September. Dublin Bus workers can hold their heads high as their determined action yields results.

The strike action in September and the impending likely action at Bus Eireann, where a significant attack on the pay and conditions of Expressway workers is being sought, bring to centre stage the issue of the funding of public transport and specifically the subvention from the state.

An underfunded service

It has been well demonstrated in the course of the dispute that Ireland is an absolute laggard when it comes to public transport subsidisation. UNITE researcher and economist Michael Taft in his blog demonstrated how if Dublin Bus was to have a subsidy in line with the average in comparable western European cities it would have an additional €200 million on top of the mere €58 million they get now (down from €86 million in 2008). Another hit taken by public transport companies which did not get much of an airing during the Dublin Bus dispute has been the stagnation of the payment they get from the Department of Social Protection for accepting the free travel pass from elderly people, despite an increase in passenger numbers.

A subsidy of this scale could provide for an expansion of the service, reduced fares and decent pay and conditions. A point was consistently made that because of the cost cutting measures and productivity concessions by the workers, Dublin Bus returned to profitability. This is a valid point however hidden within it there’s a danger of conceding to the notion that there is some kind of requirement for public transport to be profitable.

Need not profit

We would not accept the idea that healthcare or education as a system should record annual profits on their balance sheet. So too with public transport, we believe that it should be seen as an essential public service that mitigates traffic congestion, damage to the environment and facilitates economic, social, sporting and cultural life for everybody, not least the elderly.

The complaints by the small business sector in Dublin about how their businesses were being hit by the effects of the strike is a back handed testimony to how a public transport system supports economic life across society.

This concept of a real expanded, affordable public transport system is at odds with the ideology of Minister Ross and the mission of the National Transport Authority. Bus Eireann is seeking to hive off its intercity Expressway services which are non-subsidised because they have become unprofitable in the face of unfettered competition from private operators whose workers are on lesser pay and conditions. Likewise with Dublin Bus we face the danger of a pay battle being won but then losing a war against privatisation if the tendering of 10% of routes goes ahead as scheduled next year.

The terms of the current pay offer to Dublin Bus workers appear to be silent on the issue of the tendering of routes. Therefore there should be no restriction on a pre-emptive battle being fought by the workers on this issue if the National Transport Authority under Minister Ross’s direction pursues this privatisation by stealth.

Subsidy to public transport as % of revenue:

Lyon: 79%

Brussels: 68%

Amsterdam: 62%

Zurich: 57%

London: 38.5%

Dublin: 28.6%


(2007 figure for Dublin, the subsidy has been cut since then)

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