O'Rourke gets it wrong on CIE
BY ROBBIE MacGABHANN
If there was an award for ministers who don't just court controversy but actively stir it up, January's winner would have to be 26-County Public Enterprise minister Mary O'Rourke.
Speaking at a Ballinasloe Chamber of Commerce meeting in mid-January, O'Rourke said that public transport in the 26 Counties was ``widely perceived as a poor-quality service - unreliable, slow, inefficient and bad value for money''.
Dublin Bus receives a government grant subsidy of 6% of its total costs, compared to 39% in Barcelona, 55% in Helsinki and 74% for Rome. Even London which has a privatised transport system has a subsidy of 18% of costs, three times greater than Dublin Bus
``We will no longer be able to offer lack of investment as the reason for poor service and we will have to look at new models for delivering public transport services,'' she said.
O'Rourke also said that her department was now looking at new legislation aimed at introducing competition to the bus service in Dublin and that people should not always look to the state for public transport solutions.
It took two days for the O'Rourke speech to reach the pages of the national newspapers. CIE workers reacted angrily to the minister's comments and National Bus and Rail Union (NBRU) general secretary Peter Bunting has written a detailed response to the minister.
The NBRU response says: ``Once again CIE and its workforce across all grades have, as a result of your speech, been cast as the villains.'' The NBRU argues that the problems at CIE are primarily a result of the fact that ``CIE receives the least state subsidies of any industrialised country to operate a national public transport system. The lack of funding has resulted in the provision of services, which we are all accept, could be greatly improved in terms of state of the art rolling stock, vehicles, and other quality enhancing infrastructural developments.''
The NBRU believes that the ``lack of investment has stigmatised both the company and its employees, creating in turn a morale deficit which is fuelled by the contents of irresponsible speeches''.
The failure of the Dublin government to formulate a national transport policy was also highlighted by the NBRU. Such a policy to eliminate gridlock in the major cities and towns would have led to ``a major improvement in faster journeys and reliability of our services''.
The NBRU also tackles the issue of competition. ``How can competition improve public transport... how in the current situation would a passenger be assured of greater reliability, speed, efficiency i.e. quality of service?''
The failure of the British model was highlighted by the union. In Britain, competition has created a situation where fares have risen faster than inflation and passenger numbers have fallen in all regions except London. Three companies control the greater part of the bus and rail industry.
The NBRU also points up the range of anti trade union measures such as low wages, inadequate pension arrangements and welfare schemes that have become endemic in the British transport industry.
One of the interesting parts of O'Rourke's speech was her praise for the DART rail service in Dublin. Every DART passenger is subsidised £1.40 for each journey compared to a subsidy of 3p for each Dublin Bus passenger.
Dublin Bus receives a government grant subsidy of 6% of its total costs, compared to 39% in Barcelona, 55% in Helsinki and 74% for Rome. Even London, which has a privatised transport system, has a subsidy of 18% of costs, three times greater than Dublin Bus.
Dublin Bus is also losing out in wage comparison. The £204 per week paid to drivers in their first year is considerably less than the £248 paid in Amsterdam, the £340 per week in Berlin and the £385 paid in Copenhagen.
The NBRU believes that ``the minister and her department are rooted in an ideological time warp wherein competition is considered as the panacea for the ills of an underfunded public transport system, combined with the absence of a national coherent transport strategy''.
Mary O'Rourke took some very positive steps when she first became Public Enterprise minister. Her immediate diffusion of a management-created industrial relations crisis was welcome. It would be a step backwards now if she was to deliberately rekindle conflict with the CIE workforce.