Public transport could "collapse" in Northern Ireland without funding boost

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By Michael McHugh

Public transport could "collapse" in Northern Ireland unless more money is made available urgently, senior civil servants have said.

Funding for provider Translink has been cut as part of wider savings and the shortfall is £29 million.

It has struggled for years with unprofitable routes.

Ulster Unionist Assembly member Roy Beggs asked what options there were for more cuts.

John McGrath, from the Department for Infrastructure, told the Stormont committee: "It won't be things at the margins, you're talking about hacking at the bone."

In recent years Translink has drawn on its financial reserves to maintain the rail and bus network.

Mr McGrath added: "Because of the scale of this there isn't a 'tighten your belt and it'll be alright'.

"The scale of it means, in our view, the continued viability of the public transport network is in jeopardy."

Mr Beggs said officials had confirmed during a meeting on Wednesday that without increased funding, NI Transport Holding Company directors, who are responsible for Translink, would have to prevent insolvency by very significant reductions in bus and rail services, with few services being viable on their own.

The Infrastructure Department told its scrutiny committee: "The recurrent shortfall is £29 million going into 2020/21.

"Should this not be remedied, the company will be unable to deliver the public transport network and its ability to trade at all will be in doubt

"Action in this budget is essential if we are to avoid an imminent and serious collapse of our public transport."

Mr Beggs said public transport enabled the community to get to work and to school.

He added: "It is also important in avoiding social isolation and in fighting climate change.

"The Northern Ireland Executive must ensure that essential public transport services continue to be provided."

Translink has previously warned that people living in rural communities could be left without local bus services because they are not profitable.

At one stage it was losing about £13 million every year running rural buses.

The public transport operator is funded using fares and Government money.

Its Government subsidy has fallen by around a fifth since 2013/14.

Translink services like the Glider, which better connects different parts of Belfast, have proved popular.

The company carries around 1.5 million passengers a week.

It runs 12,500 services every day and operates a fleet of 1,400 buses, coaches and trains.

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