The closure of Circle Line this week is making lots of news headlines. But the real issues are not being debated.
Newspapers and radio have been alive with the tale of Circle Line Bus this week, which has gone into liquidation with the loss of 20 jobs, blaming unfair and predatory tactics by the state run Dublin Bus operator.
Circle Line, a joint venture between Mortons Coaches of Rathfarnham and Bartons of Maynooth, operated services from south and central Dublin to Lucan and Celbridge. Originally launched in the late 1990s as a peak hour express service, a move to frequent all-day operation was made in 2007.
According to co-owner Paul Morton, up to 11,000 passengers a week are using the Circle Line service, which will cease after close of business on Friday 27th June. Mr. Morton told AllAboutBuses that it was “impossible to continue operating in the face of saturation tactics by Dublin Bus” who he accused of “flooding the area with buses paid for by the taxpayer, and using these buses to force us off the road”.
“Since we started our all-day service there has been a marked increase in the number of Dublin Bus vehicles running before and after our departures” Mr. Morton said, claiming that surveys conducted by his staff showed the state run operator providing a bus every two minutes along some sections of his routes.
In a muted response, Dublin Bus has said that its services in the Lucan and Celbridge areas are “fully compliant with Department of Transport service authorisations” and that the company remained “fully confident that our actions are entirely lawful”.
Meanwhile a spokeswoman for Minister for Transport Noel Dempsey said he regretted the Circle Line decision and that he had written to Dublin Bus on numerous occasions regarding allegations of anti competitive behaviour on some Circle Line routes.
Mr. Morton told AllAboutBuses that all holders of prepaid smartcards for his services would be fully refunded, and that he would be doing his best to offer some of the affected bus drivers alternative employment at his other company, Mortons Coaches.
According to Mr. Morton, in the year to December 31st, Circle Line recorded losses of €160,000. It had invested more than €3.6 million in a fleet of new single-deck MAN buses in April 2007 to increase the frequency of the service and Mr Morton said he was considering legal action to recoup this.
A spokesperson for the Coach Tourism and Transport Council (CTTC) which speaks for private bus and coach operators, told us that the closure of Circle Line was very regrettable, and highlighted the unfair and unequal situation in which private operators found themselves competing with buses which had been supplied with government funding for their state run competitors.
The issue of Government funding for the state run bus operators is currently the subject of a complaint lodged by the CTTC with the EU Commission.
On the face of it, this closure will add weight to the EU complaint, and cannot do anything but make the operational environment more difficult for Dublin Bus when it approaches the Department of Transport for future licence or timetable change requests.
What’s disappointing in all of this is that the role of the Department of Transport has been barely mentioned in the news coverage, despite the fact that their hand lies heavily on the shoulder of both Dublin Bus and Circle Line, controlling what services can be operated by both companies, and crucially, failing to introduce the integrated ticketing promised for all operators long ago, which would have removed at the stroke the single largest disincentive on passengers to use Circle Line buses – the fact that only Dublin Bus offer tickets that can be used on buses throughout the whole of the Greater Dublin Area.
The irritation felt by Paul Morton and many of his colleagues in the private sector about “taxpayer funded buses” is compounded by the fact that every new bus he sees on the local Dublin Bus routes carry stickers asserting that they are funded under the Transport 21 project. In fact, only a small number of buses purchased in recent years are taxpayer funded additional buses, but Dublin Bus is required to display the T21 sticker on all of them, for the greater glory of their political masters.
And so, to Paul, every Dublin Bus is a free bus, whereas in fact, the majority are paid for out of operating revenue – your bus fares and mine.
Denied access to government grants, taxpayer funded bus stations, infrastructure and integrated ticketing, the playing field is indeed stacked against the Circle Lines of this country.
But it is the Department of Transport, not Dublin Bus, who have the real questions to answer . . and those questions are not even being asked.