Why do we expect Bus Éireann to be a commercial entity?
After all, we don’t expect the fire brigade to generate a profit.
We don’t require our national police force to make money.
We don’t insist on the Coast Guard recording a handsome return year after year.
Because these are public services and we all agree that they exist for the common good, for the benefit of our society.
Why, then, would public transport be any different? Why are we talking about Bus Éireann, the company in danger of insolvency, instead of Bus Éireann, the grossly mismanaged public service?
And why do we focus on striking staff instead of looking closely at the antediluvian management practices that keep Bus Éireann and CIÉ as a whole, locked in the 1940s?
Yes, Bus Éireann is dysfunctional, and not just Bus Éireann but the entire CIÉ family. Anyone who has shivered at a November bus-stop knows about its casual disregard for timetables. Anyone who has raged on discovering that the bus left early understands the contempt some Bus Éireann staff have for the customers who pay their wages. Anyone who has been baffled by the fact that there’s only one way on and one way off a Dublin bus can see immediately that something fishy is at work here.
Why, almost uniquely in Europe, is it not possible to board an Irish bus without negotiating with the driver? Why are there no card-reading machines on our buses? Why can’t we board via a second door?
It’s insane, just as it’s insane that Bus Éireann’s customers, in an age of satellites, geo-tracking and downloadable apps can’t track the location of their next bus and find out at the flick of a phone how long they’ll have to wait.
Why is this?
One plausible explanation is that the old CIÉ attitudes pervade everything that happens in Bus Éireann.
It’s true that the drivers are militant and it’s true that their unions have always dominated the company and impeded every initiative tending to increase efficiency. But on the other hand, what is to be gained by management actively creating a crisis by presenting the workers with an ultimatum, based on a spurious premise? The company is not and will never be permitted to become insolvent. This is a State-owned company and it will not go broke, nor should it.
If the State could bail out banks that engaged in highly dubious activities, endangering the very foundations of our democracy, why would it not bail out a company that provides a public service to those who require it? Furthermore, if our commitment to the environment is to be credible, should we not be doing all in our power to offer an alternative to the private car?
It’s all nonsense.
Bus Éireann workers are on a cushy number and we can’t deny it. They’re well paid, but the answer is not to crush them. The answer is to mould an efficient transport system using the best logistical techniques available. If that means trampling on some cherished, established practices, well and good, but let’s not demonise the workers or the unions, even if those same unions treated the public with contempt by calling a lightning strike.
And let’s not allow Bus Éireann management to hold a gun to the heads of their employees when they themselves would not withstand professional scrutiny if subjected to examination by an external agency.
Finally, let us consider again our attitude to public transport.
Why does everything have to be subject to market forces? After all, it isn’t so long since those same forces threatened to destroy our country.