Bus firm refused Derry to Belfast permit, Hannon Coach, brands NI ‘laughing stock’ and says ‘we are better off investing in Europe’

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A manager at a private transport firm refused permission to run a Derry to Belfast express bus has said the north is a ‘laughing stock’ due to how difficult it is securing permits.

Owen McLaughlin, group marketing manager for Hannon Coach, told the Stormont Infrastructure Committee, that the company has been investing in Paris and elsewhere in Europe after being knocked back for routes in the north.

The Co. Antrim firm submitted an application for an express service from Derry to Belfast in 2017 which was refused by the Department of Infrastructure. Despite securing a successful Judicial Review outcome against DfI’s original refusal the company has still not been able to obtain an permit.

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Mr. McLaughlin told the committee: “We are left in a position where, in Northern Ireland, getting an express service permit is considered to be a matter for the Minister, which, I suggest, makes us a bit of a laughing stock in the rest of the UK. Standard transport economics evidence and advice from one of the UK’s leading experts in the field has been labelled insufficient to secure a permit on a vacant route.”

Mr. McLaughlin said that liberalising the permit application process would help promote cleaner transport.

“The main reason that people cited to explain why they would not travel by public transport was that it takes too long and the journey is quicker by car. That is the number-one reason. The only way to get people out of their cars successfully is to shorten journey times to make them comparable to using a car and for there to be inter-urban connectivity, which means express, non-stop services of the type that we tried to offer,” he told MLAs.

He claimed that the regime in the north is more stringent than anywhere in Ireland or Britain.

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“In England, Scotland and Wales, and, I believe, in the Republic of Ireland, you do not even need a permit for an express service. In Great Britain, you do not even need to register it. It is laughable that we have those barriers here. Those barriers were all stamped out in the rest of the UK over 40 years ago,” he maintained.

He said the north ‘sits out like a saucepan handle’.

“We are the only place in Europe that does not have express coach services between urban centres. It is not just about the fairness of the application process; it is hurting public transport in NI.”

The Derry to Belfast route was supposed to be part of an overall £11 million investment that would create 75 jobs across the north.

But Mr. McLaughlin explained: “We do not need to invest £11 million in NI. We are better off opening up in Paris, as we did, or further extending across Europe. That is what we intend to do.”