Monday 21 March 2016

Bus Wars

When Pádraig Pearse died on the cross in 1916, he left this world with a vision of a . . . Republic [which] guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally . . . ?socialist paradise?  Cut off in his prime on 3rd of May 1916, he wasn't put to the trouble of implementing his broad brush-stroke vision across the cities and villages of Ireland. The actuality was set by a deeply conservative civil service bureaucracy and a succession of opportunistic populist politicians who would promise you cake every day of the week if only enough people would vote them into a government billet.

Take public transport: an essential infrastructural component of a modern state.  You could throw that open to 'the market' and allow competition to equilibrate services and prices so that everyone is happy.  The providers make a modest profit, the customers receive and adequate service. That would be nice, wouldn't it? The thing about public transport, though, is that it requires large numbers to work sensibly.  If there is only one person in the market for a trip from Ballyhack to Ballinaboola in the morning and returning in the evening, then even a mini-bus is over-egging the pudding. If a handful want to make that journey, the fares may still not be enough to pay the driver, the petrol, taxes and depreciation on the bus.  It may then seem sensible - for social inclusion, for the planet, for efficiency - to provide this 'loss-making' route with a government subsidy.  If things are only to be run 'at a profit' then prices creep up and the indigent are left on the side of the road.  Of course, the indigent are poor but not stupid: they won't stand on the side of the road, they'll stay at home, probably in bed to keep warm.

It's also clearly desirable to have coordination of the transport system.  Some of the passengers from Ballyhack might want to travel on to Wexford and thence to Dublin. Integration of timetables, commonality of fare-structure would make it far easier for customers and also for accounting. Córas Iompair Éireann CIE was formed by the Transport Act of 1944 to integrate the bus and rail network across the Republic.  It was the state transport monopoly and the culmination of a series of acquisitions both compulsory and 'voluntary' of small bus operators. Like many of the Irish state monopolies and semi-state bodies, CIE was negligent, complacent and corrupt. Legislation was enacted to protect the railways which were notoriously loss-making, over-staffed, strongly unionised . . . and slow. Nevertheless, CIE was a good thing because it integrated buses into the transport system although the CIE buses were also expensive, and slow.  Rail served the bigger centres on a network that radiated from Dublin and buses filled in the holes - by visiting every cross-road and hamlet between hubs.  As students in the 70s it sometimes seemed quicker [and cheaper] to walk than to wait for and then take the bus.  Back then everyone who didn't own a car or have a child at foot went about the country hitch-hiking. Since then the epidemic of axe-murderers has put an end to that.

In the 1980s, the transport monopoly started to lose customers as entrepreneurs began to satisfy block demand - for sporting events, shopping binges and getting home to the farm for the weekend. The Feast of the Immaculate Conception [8th December] was the day when droves of country-folk would travel up to Clery's in Dublin for the craic and the Christmas shopping. Operators had to apply for a licence for each of these events and that was an inconvenience and an expense but more and more buses were appearing on the road in liveries other than Bus Eireann. The civil servants who were meant to prosecute these violators of the railway/CIE monopoly were quite likely to be on an unlicenced bus on Friday evening, so were not assiduous in their hunt for prosecutions.  The fines were infrequent and set off against a profitable bottom line and 'civil service buses' could be found on quiet side-roads all over the city centre; particularly on Friday evening. Dublin- Carlow- Bagnelstown- Borris- New Ross- Duncannon could be picked up under the railway viaduct on Prince's Street South for example.  I used to catch that bus, which was much cheaper than taking the car or train to Dublin, until Big Sean the driver fell off a ladder one weekend and broke his ankle. Nobody could be found to replace Sean for the wages he thought were fair and that was the end of the Duncannon Flyer. In the late 1990s buses were more widely deregulated and Bus Eireann had to fight its corner in the marketplace.  The idea that BE was in business to service the needs and desires of the travelling public was entirely alien to the board of management - they were trying to maximise return on their investment. When JJ Kavanagh started to run an express service Dublin- Carlow- Waterford- Tramore, then BE altered their schedule to run at more or less exactly the same times as JJK in the hope of draining their customers and killing the competition.  But they were also forced to drop their prices which was good for us.

The BE return fare from Dublin-Waterford (160km) is €19.50.  The fare from Cork-Waterford  (125km), essential for Dau.II to get home to the farm for the haying season, was €30! There is no railway between Cork and Waterford.  The journey between the 2nd largest and 5th largest conurbations in the country took an official 2hr20m because it dipped in to every town and village on, and slightly off, the route.  That's a speed of 50km/h which equals the urban speed limit: hardly express.

Well I'm delighted to report that has just extended their recently established Dublin- Kilkenny- Waterford route from Waterford to Cork. It's great because their fare structure is bog-simple €5 €10 €15 €20 and is the same for twice the one-way as the return fare.  2x €10 Cork- Waterford- Cork is a lot cheaper than €30 and DublinCoach is quicker too.  The rapacious goons in Bus Eireann have woken up and smelled the competition this week dropped their fare to €19.50. Imprecation:  May they be condemned to turn in their company limos and travel to work on one of their buses!

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