Private bus companies could sue state-backed reductions in Bus Éireann fares, according to one of the state’s regional bus operators following the exclusion of private operators.
Serving Bantry and Skibbereen to Cork City, Damien Long of West Cork Connect said the discounts, along with a proposed 50% discount for student travel card holders, could put operators like him bankrupt.
“If it goes on for a year, we just can’t survive,” he said. “Our margins are already being squeezed as much as possible with the effects of Covid and now the huge fuel cost increases.
“Now they seem to be trying to kick us out completely. It just doesn’t make sense,” said Mr Long, who recently met Transport Minister Eamon Ryan as part of a delegation from the Coach Tourism and Transport Council of Ireland.
“We were effectively told, ‘Sorry, the money is not available’ when we asked if they could extend the tariff reductions to private operators. Not only is this unfair, but it is also anti-competitive.
“We hope that doesn’t happen, but we’ll have to look at legal options if the government can’t find a way to treat us fairly,” he said.
This month’s fare cuts are part of the government’s wider program to reduce inflationary pressures and have seen fares fall by 20% for Bus Éireann customers on municipal services in Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford , as well as municipal services in Athlone, Balbriggan, Drogheda, Dundalk, Navan and Sligo.
Fares have also been reduced on Bus Éireann’s intercity and commuter services and rural local link services, but the reductions only apply to subsidized services, not private services like West Cork Connect.
Mr Long launched the Skibbereen service, in direct competition with existing Bus Éireann services. He has since added the Bantry route and is planning a Kinsale-Cork run soon.
“We can take you to Cork from Skibbereen and back for a standard fare of €18 while Bus Éireann will cost you upwards of €30. We don’t cost the government a dime and we also provide local jobs,” Long said.
He believes he now carries 80 per cent of passengers using the Skibbereen route. “People are now using buses that they wouldn’t have had before because they know our bus will arrive on time.
“They go back and change from day to day what they say; it really seems from our perspective that something strange is going on here.
“We just ask to be treated fairly. We’re not looking for state funding and I just can’t understand what they’re trying to do,” he said.
In response, the National Transport Authority (NTA), which licenses bus services, said private operators would be included when fares for students and young adults are reduced by 50%, but the date of introduction of this change had not yet been fixed.
“It was not possible to implement this change to coincide with the 50% reduction in tariffs on subsidized services,” the NTA said, adding that work was underway to resolve technical and funding issues. .