I can’t remember the last time I took a Bus Éireann bus to get from one Kildare town to another.
There was much talk in the last week about the restructuring of Expressway — the commercial arm of State-owned Bus Éireann — or possibly ending it altogether. Its services link most of the big country towns with either Dublin or their nearest city. It is, on paper, a crucial service.
The usual suspects got a hammering as the reasons for the service’s poor commercial performance were battered up and down the airwaves — the (relatively) good terms and conditions enjoyed by staff, the alleged penchant for free bus pass holders to ‘joyride’, as one commentator notably called it, free across the network to alleviate a boring day; and, of course, the cherry picking of the lucrative routes by commercial bus operators while leaving the State-subsidised buses to provide a vital lifeline to the one-horse towns of the nation.
Every time the public transport bus service is in the airwaves, the private operators are vilified as opportunists happy to take the low-hanging fruit without making a contribution to providing genuine public service transport.
Not true, in my opinion, and I travel the buses between Monasterevin and Naas quite frequently, using K Coach and Dublin Coach, aka the ‘Green Bus’.
It’s important to note here that most of the Bus Éireann buses you will see plying the the busier routes of mid-Kildare are not Expressway, but belong to Bus Éireann’s regional commuter service.
You’ll see them pull up at bus stops, disgorge a crowd of people — many using free passes — and wait forlornly for more passengers.
Meanwhile, the crowds loitering at the pavement try not to catch the eye of the driver and whistle nonchalantly while waiting for the cheaper bus.
There’s always a scrum for one bus if the two happen to pull up together… but it’s not the one in the red and white livery.
Why are we, the taxpayers, subsidising underused buses? One private operator plying the same route takes the free pass, and they’ve been in operation for so long now that there’s no chance they’ll do a flit without notice.
In fact, Dublin Coach introduced before Christmas a new peak-time service between Kildare town and Naas — still for just €1 each way — to cope with demand. It’s a fair bit cheaper than the four plus quid you’d be asked to stump up to travel with Bus Éireann on the same journey.
The fact is that these private operators are serving the people of Kildare very, very well.
Their services are regular and — mostly — reliable, so people are confident using them.
On the buses you see all sorts of clientele, from mums with buggies, to immigrants speaking a cacophony of different languages, to teenagers on a day out to airport travellers to those commuting between the towns to low-wage service jobs. The latter, incidentallly, are the very people who keep our economy running — in other words, who need really cheap, reliable transport.
So here’s a suggestion. Why doesn’t the state-run service cut all useless duplicated routes that are now well-served by private operators? Think of the money that could be saved by taking these near-empty buses off the roads. Subventions should be totally concentrated on providing services for rural towns without regular private services. Make it compulsory for these licensed private operators to take the free bus pass and guarantee a certain level of service — the odds are that they’re meeting the market demand as it is.
Surely a little more intelligent distribution of resources would mean a better outcome for all members of the travelling public.