Why extra competition for Translink could in fact make things worse. Far worse.

Brian let me see his post before he published it earlier on today, but it lacks context.

That context is the purpose of a private company, ie to make money.

As I’ve outlined before, here, here and here and probably other places besides, there are several fundamental problems with the operating model in Northern Ireland.

The first is that Translink is expected to run loss-making services on no more than the cash it gets in the farebox and for concessionary fares.  Basically, for free.

That means that Translink needs a free hand to run its few profitable services (Goldline and certain Metro services) so that it can keep operating the services that nobody else will run because the Department for Infrastructure won’t provide direct subsidy for local bus services.  Like the service from Newry to Rostrevor – the reason why Translink can’t beat Eamon Rooney on price is that Rooneys just run to Warrenpoint and Rostrevor on the way home, as it were (and it is a great service.)  The marginal cost of running Rostrevor-Newry as well as Newry-Belfast is, in reality, nil.

For Translink?  Not so much.  Translink doesn’t offer an express service from Newry to Belfast because it would have to use extra buses and drivers to do so – passengers from Dromore and Banbridge and their politicians would make their views pretty clear if they were forced to use the local Newry-Belfast service.

So it would cost money.  Because Translink fares are pitched to pay for loss-making services without forcing passengers away, they still couldn’t compete with Rooneys.

And that is probably why Hannons was turned down.  Because if Hannon can exploit the lucrative traffic from Belfast to Derry in a way that they would not be permitted to in GB under the same rules, Translink will lose more money.

And if Translink loses more money, fares have to go up, services have to be cut, or Department for Infrastructure has to start paying Public Service Obligation to keep loss-making services running.

Which, bluntly, means one thing.

Worse services, costing passengers more, and costing ratepayers more.

The solution?

First of all, as I’ve said several times we need to restore the fuel duty rebate, which is paid to all stage carriage operators in Great Britain (and would have been paid to any stage carriage operator in Northern Ireland until abolished in 2015).  Black hole in Translink finances plugged.

Secondly, maybe it’s time to change to the London model for stage carriage services.  Long since signalled, it would cause Department for Infrastructure to get their act together, because Translink would be providing services for a cash sum which would cause them no more worries about breaking even, and the Department would have to plug the gap between the cash box income and the contract sum from its own resources.

What will not work is to pretend, as Brian suggests, that private companies will “get on with the job of providing good quality services that meet the demands of their local area.”

I don’t believe there is nothing to stop any private bus company from operating stage carriage services which Translink isn’t operating (and benefiting from the concessionary fares scheme), but they don’t.  Because there’s no way to make the services profitable without subsidy from somewhere – either from services which do make a profit, or from ratepayer direct subsidy.

And imagining that private companies will provide any services to meet the demands of their local area without being paid enough to do so is simply not realistic.

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  • Brian O’Neill

    I think my main point which I should have made clearer is that there is a large percentage of people out there who never use public transport. The idea is to attract them onto buses. The Rooney example shows that they can get people out of their cars.

    So I am not taking about private companies cherry picking good routes from Translink. I am talking about new services that are attractive enough to get commuters who currently drive.

    It is about increasing bus usage overall not just stealing passengers from Translink. These passengers are not currently on Translink they are in their cars.

  • aquifer

    Yep. Lets pay Translink to get cars off the road instead and let them get creative with ride sharing Apps, supervised electric bike racks at stations, free tickets for first year schoolkids and students to get them onto buses, laptop sockets in buses.

  • AndyB

    But, Brian, the private companies by definition will only cherry pick the good routes. They will refuse to touch anything else because nothing else will make money.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    That also depends on their marketing budget and their marketing expertise. Undiscovered ‘good routes’ might elude us for the moment.

  • AndyB

    So why does the private sector not investigate instead of waiting for the public sector to do the marketing for them?

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Does Ulsterbus still do ‘mates rates’ for bands and orange lodges? (Was around 100 quid a night 20 years ago….)

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Am I expected to answer that authoritatively? My guess is that there is less incentive in the public sector to market products and services effectively because survival doesn’t depend on it.

  • AndyB

    Translink does depend on effective marketing. When it loses passengers as an inevitable result of being forced to raise fares and cut services it has to replace the income from somewhere, because the money pot is not only anything other than bottomless, but it’s more limited than other parts of the UK.

    So why isn’t the private sector doing its own market research? Surely if the market is there to be tapped into to provide what Translink isn’t already providing, there would be all sorts of new services.

    But there aren’t. All the private firms offer are variations on a theme: direct non-stop service Newry-Belfast. Direct non-stop service Dublin Airport-Belfast. Direct non-stop service North coast to Belfast. All mainly duplicating existing Ulsterbus services, just stopping less often.

    No innovation into services that Ulsterbus isn’t providing at all. I wonder why not.

    Says it all.

  • AndyB

    If bus hire rates are anything like train hire rates, they’ll have gone through the roof in the course of being put on a full commercial footing.

    I know that for the last 20 years or more, Translink have generally been dearer than private firms for private hire (even the A26 opening used a local private coach firm rather than Ulsterbus Ballymena – despite being organised by Department for Infrastructure!)

  • Am Ghobsmacht


  • Oggins

    I agree with Brian. The focus and easy wins should be on those who currently don’t use the public transport that with a change in direction could make a big difference.

    I had into recently worked in the greater Belfast area and live here’s also. I only ever took the bus to work when my car was getting serviced, or if I had planned to have a beer after work (2 in 5 years, the beers fyi).

    I worked out the cost of running my car on fuel against the weekly bus ticket and you know what there was no benefit to me financially or there was no benefit for the service times, so why would I use public transport.

    If there were quicker buses, and better routes, that don’t require every bus to go into town, to out out of town, or was significantly cheaper then yeah I would of used it.

    The simple fact is we people that live in the city still use our cars. There was too many of us.

    The rest travel great distances from outside Belfast to queue into traffic because they have no other option. How many people who work in Glengormley or Hollywood from Newry would even take a bus from Newry at an hour and a half to turn proceed to commute via public transport to their work from the city centre. You would spend most of your day traveling to work and home.

    People who use the express services work within the city centre, as it is cheaper than driving and parking.

    People use cars because even thought they are stuck in traffic, it means they can pick up the kids, do the shopping, go to the football match.

    Until we provide a cheaper and better service to take us addict car people of the roads from the city, the traffic won’t get any better.

  • murdockp

    Nonsense. Translink is a classic example of a terribly run company with a civil service culture at its core. It should not be allowed to exist as a monopoly. Competition will force it to up its game.

    It is a lazy organisation that does not fight for revenue or customers. It owns prime real estate that it fails to drive sufficient revenue from. It runs £500k busses on routes that do not need them.

    I bet you if eamon rooney ran translink it would make money, a lot of money.

  • murdockp

    Again translink has a long long way to go. Take Ryanair for example. I can rail tickets on flights. Belfast has no rail stations at airports so it would be reasonable that I can purchase a bus ticket.

    You can’t. But then you discover the bus from international to Belfast is a shitty bus and goes when driver’s actually turn up.

    Until the managers of translink wake up and accept it is a dysfunctional company things will just stay the same.

  • AndyB

    By “when drivers actually turn up” do you mean “at the advertised booked time on the timetable” or “as soon as they fight their way out of the Belfast traffic?”

    Or do you subscribe to the fallacy that if the airport services were run by a private company, all the congestion that delays buses would miraculously disappear?

    For the record, the buses have been replaced, and it costs money to have somebody selling tickets for the bus at the airport. Even if it’s just having a ticket machine on site.

  • murdockp

    I have waited at night for buses at Belfast international that have never arrived. You can’t blame the Belfast traffic for a no show.

    I have waited in Newry for buses that have not arrived and when I ask information they told me the timetables I was holding in my hand was no longer valid but that the website had not been updated.

    Translink is not a good company. It can do better. A lot better

  • ted hagan

    So who is going to run non-profitable routes? Damn sure it won’t be private operators. They would then likely cease.