Photo by Lois Kapila

The real reason Dubliners are being subjected to another spate of public-transport strikes is something that happened many years ago, and there’s no going back from it. Nor should there be any reason for Dubliners to be fearful, even if you are a bus and tram worker.

In 2009, the Public Transport Regulation Act was implemented by government. It transposes new EU rules about the way cities and governments manage public-transport services. From then on, the National Transport Authority (NTA) was established as the sole regulator of all public-passenger transport services for Ireland.

Significantly, this applies to Dublin Bus and Bus Eireann, no less than it does to private operators such as Mortons or the Swords Express. It also applies to Transdev Ireland, the private operator of the Luas light rail system.

The NTA chose to implement its new licensing authority lightly at first, awarding all of Dublin Bus’ and Bus Eireann’s services back to them.

In 2014 the NTA took its first tentative step. Ten percent of Dublin Bus services were tendered on the open market along with selected bundles of other, publicly operated bus services around the country.

As the contract horizons are 5-yearly, the NTA will gets its next shot in 2019, when they can tender out more, or even all of the bus routes if they want to. This is a big end-game for transport in Dublin.

It is a matter of certainty that the big European transport utilities will have an interest in an affluent, growing market like Dublin’s, operating, as they do, in cities far larger than Dublin. Many of them wrote submissions to the public consultation run by the NTA in advance of the initial tender.

Transdev (operators of Luas) and FirstGroup (operators of the Aircoach service) are already here. Hopefully, there will be Irish operators too, many of which are becoming increasingly professionalised in their operations.

This new way of regulating our public transport is not some kind of Thatcherism or “de-regulation”, a “race to the bottom”, as some groups wrongly contend.

In the UK, the Thatcher administration introduced the dreaded “1985 Transport Act” in the misguided conviction that open, unfettered competition and private ownership would lead to bus services magically transformed.

Instead, service quality plummeted, as did patronage, and the scars of that failed idea were such that no other city or country has ventured near. Only London, which retained its autonomous transport regulator, Transport for London (TfL), escaped the inexorable deterioration in England’s bus services.

Rather, the NTA is complying with EU regulations in their actions. The experience at the European level is that “controlled competition” is required to best deliver transport services to urban markets: competition “for the market” as opposed to “within the market”.

The direction this new legislation should be taking us is towards a regulatory model used by the many European cities which boast reliable, useful and usable public-transport networks. Cities which have been operating within just such a public regulatory environment for ages.

Berlin’s Transport Authority boasts about having over 40 “partners”, some of which are publicly owned, others privately owned. Berliners don’t care about this. What matters is that they buy one ticket from one agency which can take them anywhere in their city with relative ease.

Zurich, a city with densities similar to Dublin’s, achieves public transport mode shares in the 50 to 60 percent level. Its services are efficient and simple to use.

In London, TfL have a common livery (or brand) for services, so users are oblivious as to whom the operator is. All they see is the big red London bus approaching, increasingly doing so on time and offering due comfort to passengers.

Dublin, by comparison, has public-transport mode shares down around the 20 percent mark. No wonder, since its timetables and route maps are incomprehensible – to the true blue Dub, never mind the perplexed visitor.

If the objective was to, say, double mode share and make the network legible and easy to use, then who could complain? In that scenario, there would be room for an expanded Dublin Bus, and other operators.

Tendering out, say, 30 percent of the market could allow for innovation, best practice and even competition for good labour.

So when the bus-workers’ union declared its 6-day strike action on 8-9, 15-16, and 23-24 September, it is likely that what they most fear is the slicing up of their transport market and the displacement of their monopoly position in worker representation.

The recent Luas strikes were a strategic and potentially cunning signal to any potential international operator eyeing up the market in Ireland. The message was very clearly: “We are here and you have to deal with us.”

The problem was, as indicated by the Workplace Relations Commission, the Luas workers were not being treated too shabbily at all.

Dublin Bus may do very well in a regulated, multi-operator network. One decided advantage it has is its network of (albeit badly located) depots, a feature oddly left out of the legislative framework. More important is their long-standing tradition of community and public service to Dublin’s travelling public.

Benchmarking has proven that, in spite of popular wisdom and the decisions of their political paymasters, they have delivered a value-for-money service, given constraints.

It is a pity that the transport worker representatives don’t also engage seriously in how to build a transport network to make Dubliners proud, and get them around a bit easier.

The critical element, it seems, is strong, public network regulation, and the Swiss and German cities, in particular, excel at this.

Whether services are operated by a public incumbent or a private utility is immaterial compared to the need for a reliable, legible network carrying efficient services. This ultimately lands at the desk of the NTA, now the public-passenger transport authority and regulator for the capital city.

No small task for them, and small comfort to travellers soon to be left without the means of carrying out normal daily affairs.

David O’Connor lectures at DIT and co-runs the MSc in Transport and Mobility, a new multi-disciplinary programme in transport planning. Follow him on:

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