Hannon Coach, the firm behind a bid to run a new ‘express’ bus service between Derry and Belfast, outlined the benefits to members of Derry City and Strabane District Council’s Business and Culture Committee this week.
Owen McLaughlin, group marketing manager, and Jonny Boyle, group head of operations, at the Co. Antrim transport company, sought to convice sceptical councillors of the benefits of the proposed new service.
They said it would complement rather than damage the existing 212 Translink stopping service between Derry and Belfast, and promised it would lead to the creation of at least 15 new jobs and an investment of £4m over the next three years.
Last year councillors expressed concern the new service would directly compete with and displace Translink’s public offering and, initially, the Department of Infrastructure (DfI) seemed inclined to agree. However, last month DfI said it was redetermining its licence application refusal for the route having been convinced by Hannon that Translink does not operate an ‘express’ service between Derry and Belfast.
DfI guidelines expressly state that ‘express’ services must not stop on stretches less than 30 miles.
Making their case for the route, Messrs. McLaughlin and Boyle told councillors that their coaches, would be ‘best in class’ in Europe in terms of wheelchair accessibility as well as being fully toilet equipped. They said the service would provide more options for travellers west of Bann who are (see graphic) particularly ill-served with a lack of ‘express’ services.
As well as the Derry to Belfast route, Hannon, also propose two ‘express’ services from Strabane, one running north of Lough Neagh via Donemana and Claudy, the other south via Omagh and Ballygawley.
Hannon are targetting discretionary travellers and tourists rather thant Translink’s commuters, said Mr. Boyle, who suggested the new route would boost Derry’s economy through the £8.30 in tourism revenue that is generated by every £1 spent on internal transport.
Concerns were raised by SDLP Councillor Martin Reilly, however, over the potential damaging effect a new route would have on Translink’s profitable 212 service, which effectively subsidises unprotiftable public services in rural areas.
DUP Alderman David Ramsey agreed, warning that the Council needed to be very protective of Translink’s rural routes.
Independent Darren O’Reilly, upon hearing Hannon would be offering £15 return fares from Derry versus Translink’s £18.50 fares, expressed concern over the pay and conditions enjoyed by Hannon’s drivers.
Mr. Boyle responded by saying that an effective labour shortage in the quality bus driver market meant Hannon had to offer competitive salaries and terms to its staff.
Speaking after the meeting, Mr. McLaughlin said: “I think there was also an element of people being convinced by Translink that we will bring no benefit and lead to the destruction of large swathes of rural services.
“The reality is that Ulsterbus passenger journeys are in chronic decline with no competition or degree of contestability at all – down by 17 per cent over the past 2 years alone.”