Ross says rural bus routes will be protected

The Transport Minister has been defending his response to the Bus Éireann crisis

Ross says rural bus routes will be protected

Bus Éireann, 19-01-2017. Image: Leah Farrell / RollingNews

Transport Minister Shane Ross has pledged that there will be no negative impact on the connectivity of rural communities as a result of the ongoing Bus Éireann dispute.

The minister has been defending his response to the crisis in front of the Oireachtas Transport Committee.

He told the committee that the Government is prepared to increase subsidies for the company's Public Service Obligation (PSO) routes and will consider how best to ensure sustainable funding for the free travel scheme.

The Taoiseach Enda Kenny backed Minister Ross in the Dáil earlier, and again insisted the dispute will only be solved by direct talks between management and unions.

Mr Kenny said the Government cannot intervene in the dispute - adding that the company’s financial woes stem from its commercial Expressway service.

Bus Éireann’s acting CEO said last week that the entire company is facing insolvency and will go out of business - with the loss of 2,600 jobs - if decisive action is not taken.

Unions have refused to attend talks with the company until a highly controversial survival plan involving redundancies, cuts in premium payments and out-sourcing is withdrawn.

Rural connectivity

In his opening remarks to the Transport Committee Wednesday afternoon, Minister Ross insisted that taxpayer funded connectivity is “at the heart of our public transport system” and pledged that the National Transport Authority (NTA) will ensure there is, “no negative impact on the connectivity of rural communities.”

“The NTA has assured rural Ireland that it can, and will, step into any area, consult with local communities, and assess what public transport services are required and what is the best method to provide them,” he said.

He said the Government is prepared to offer increased funding for PSO services - however he cautioned the increase would only be available, "as resources allow.”

He again insisted the Government cannot subsidise the Expressway service and refused to involve himself or his department in the negotiations.

“If a company wishes to operate a commercial service then that service must make commercial sense,” he said. “That's a basic concept that I think most people readily understand.”

Direct negotiations

Minster Ross said the state industrial relations mechanisms - the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) and the Labour Court - are ready to assist with negotiations between management and unions - adding that he is hopeful talks can soon get underway.

Unions have refused to enter negotiations while pre-conditions - the proposed survival plan - remain in place.

Representatives are concerned the proposed cuts to workers terms and conditions could amount to losses of more than 30%.

The company on the other hand has denied the plan constitutes a pre-condition.

"They are both saying they will talk without conditions and yet where are they?" said Minster Ross. "Let them come together and let them talk."

"I don't want to be in there because the reason they want me in there is because they want me to come in with my cheque book.

"I don't want to do that. That is not the role of a minister in these disputes."

The minister effectively called on the company to withdraw the survival plan - asking both sides to "go the table with a blank sheet of paper." 

Public transport policy 

He said the Department of Transport is due to begin work on an overarching public transport policy statement later in the year and pledged that the policy will, “place the citizen, rather than vested interests, at the centre of its consideration.”

He said his department will also now consider how best to ensure a sustainable funding model for the Free Travel Scheme.

Industrial Action

Three of the main unions - NBRU, SIPTU and UNITE- have already received a mandate from their members to take industrial action.

The unions are meeting this evening to decide what course of action to take.