The Furore Over Bus Tenders, Revisited

Remember the bus strike in May?

Dublin Bus and Bus Eireann trade union workers took industrial action on the first Friday and Saturday of that month. They were protesting the National Transport Authority’s (NTA’s) plan to put 10 percent of their bus routes out to tender.

They were worried about their job security and wages – and that the plan could lead to a decline in the quality of service.

Unions representing bus workers had planned seven strikes in all that month, but the ones slated for five days scattered through the second half of the month were called off after last-minute talks with the Labour Relations Commission.

The unions backed off because, in the talks, the government addressed many of their fears about route-tendering, said Owen Reidy, divisional organiser at SIPTU, one of the unions representing bus workers.

So what does any of this mean for you? 

Well, only a small part of the bus service will be affected. At least that’s the current plan. “They are on the record saying, it’s not government policy to go beyond 10 percent,” Reidy says, although he concedes that “obviously governments change”.

But even opening up this small part of the system for competition has the potential to make Dublin’s bus service more efficient – as long as the regulator does its job properly.

You see, Ireland has learned from Britain’s mistakes. (Hopefully.)

In 1985, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher privatised all bus services in the UK. London was the sole exception. This full privatisation and deregulation was a disaster, says David O’Connor, transport and mobility lecturer at Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT).

Private providers were pitted directly against each other for customers on busy routes. Less-profitable routes – those that served a few stranded folk out in the boondocks, for example – were ignored.

So other countries have avoided this full privatisation, opting for a mixed approach, instead. This has worked well in some cities, and it’s what Dublin is going to try.

“If you go to the cities that really, really work, it’s a mixture of private and public services and no one can tell the difference,” says O’Connor.

The list of cities with mixed, integrated transport systems is long, and includes some that Dublin might aspire to emulate, in transport-terms: Copenhagen, Hamburg, Zurich.

In Café Blas just below DIT Bolton Street, O’Connor explains, with all the patience of an educator, the difference between tendering and privatisation.

“Everything changed in 2009 with the Public Transport Regulation Act,” he says.

The act, based on European Union rules, created Ireland’s National Transport Authority, and gave it the sole right to issue licenses to operate bus services.

For the first five years after the act went into effect, Dublin Bus was given exclusive rights to the bus contracts. But the NTA decided that 10 percent of the contracts for 2014 to 2019 would be put out to tender.

O’Connor says that “the EU approach”, which Ireland is following, “is kind of a middle approach between privatisation and public-sector control; they call it controlled competition.”

The idea is that there is no competition for customers in the same market. The regulator, in Dublin’s case the NTA, puts routes out to tender, and bus companies – private or public – compete against one another to win the contracts to provide services.

The NTA will plan which routes they want serviced, and how frequent those services should be. Any private company that wins a tender will have to follow the NTA’s orders or risk losing its contract.

A Cautionary Tale

Eoghan Madden, senior engineer in the city council’s Roads and Traffic Department, said he wasn’t incredibly worried or excited at the prospect of the NTA tendering 10 percent of bus routes. He seems to see arguments on both sides of the public-private debate.

A balance between private and public services may improve efficiency, Madden says. “You do get a wedge of atrophy when something is national,” he says.

On the other hand, if it’s not handled right – if the NTA doesn’t weave together the patchwork of public and private operators and ensure that only capable bidders get contracts – things could go seriously wrong.

Transport planners point to Adelaide in Australia as a cautionary tale. There, the desire to win the bid led to a race to the bottom; once the winner was called on to execute the contract, it found it couldn’t do it at the price it had promised.

When Adelaide’s private bus operator said, midway through its contract, that it could no longer provide service at the agreed-upon price, the government decided to bail the company out rather than go bus-less.

Madden agrees that bringing in private operators creates the risk of an Adelaide-type situation. Private companies can go under, he says, but if Dublin Bus runs into financial trouble “it’s just an increased subsidy and you still have the same service next year”.

Dublin can’t afford to have its bus system fail. Eighty percent of the population growth in Dublin is taking place outside the M50, Madden says. 

“Now, we can’t take any more cars in, in fact we’re going to have to take less cars,” he says. “They have to come by public transport, they’re not going to cycle from outside the M50 to the city centre every day.”

And, for the time being, the bus system is going to be the mainstay of Dublin’s public transport system. “The only game in town is the bus,” Madden says. “They can bring rail up, but they can’t bring it up fast enough.” He estimates that “bus is going to have to increase by 20-25 percent” in the medium-term – perhaps the next ten years.

“I think you’ll always be subsidising transport,” he says, “and it’s worth subsidising because if you don’t subsidise public transport, people will have to come by car and you’ll actually rip the city trying to feckin fix it up for cars. You’ll destroy what you’re looking for.”

The following routes are up for tender:

Dublin Bus Routes

17 Rialto to Blackrock

17a Blanchardstown Centre to Kilbarrack

18 Palmerstown(Old Lucan Road)to Sandymount

33a Swords to Balbriggan

33b Swords to Portrane

45a Dún Laoghaire(Rail Station)to Ballywaltrim

59 DúnLaoghaire to MackintoshPark

63 DúnLaoghaire to Kilternan

75 The Square Tallaght to Dún Laoghaire

76 Chapelizod to Tallaght (The Square)

76a Blanchardstown Centre to Tallaght (TheSquare)

102 Sutton station to Dublin Airport

104 Clontarf Road(Conquer Hill)to Santry (Shanard Road)

111 Loughlinstown Park to Dún Laoghaire

114 Ticknock to Blackrock Station

161 Dundrum Luas Station to Rockbrook

184 Bray Rail station to Newtownmountkennedy

185 Bray Railstation to Shop River (Enniskerry)

220 Ballymun (Shangan Road) to Lady’s Well Road

236 Blanchardstown Centre to Damastown

238 Tyrrelstown to Lady’s Well Road

239 Blanchardstown Centre to Liffey Valley Shopping Centre

270 Blanchardstown Centre to Dunboyne

Bus Eireann Routes

120 Dublin–Edenderry–Tullamore

123 Dublin–Naas

124 Dublin–Naas–Portlaoise

126 Dublin–Naas

130 Dublin–Naas–Athy

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Willy Simon: Willy Simon is Dublin Inquirer's planning and transport reporter.

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