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.