Border bus contracts now kosher: officials

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Officials from the Department of Infrastructure have told the Stormont Transport Committee the operation of Donegal bus firms on school runs this side of the border has been regularised.

Liz Loughran, Director of Road Safety and Vehicle Regulation, and Sharon Clements, from the Vehicle Policy branch, made the claim during a briefing of the Committee just before the Assembly closed for the summer recess.

This is in spite of claims by at least one local bus driver that operations have been in breach of European Union ‘cabotage’ laws, which cover cross-border bus and haulage journeys.

People Before Profit MLA Eamonn McCann raised the matter during the Committee briefing stating: “Bus operators in the North say that they are being disadvantaged because companies based in the South are able to apply for contracts in the North. A Donegal company can apply for school contracts in the North, for example, because it operates cross-border generally.”

Ms Clements replied: “What you are talking about is what we call ‘cabotage’, which is domestic services undertaken by an operator licensed in another jurisdiction.

“There are rules on that. Basically, if an operator from another jurisdiction comes in to provide domestic services, there is a requirement to meet our standards for disability access. There are other standards that I cannot recall off the top of my head.

“It is controlled by regulation. We were aware of issues in the North West that we investigated. We issued detailed guidance on the rules that you had to comply with to operate in Northern Ireland.”

Mr McCann then asked: “It is not the case that buses can operate in the North that are not required to meet Northern standards. It is not true that some can wave their Southern permission to operate, as it were, and go up and down Northern roads. That is not true?”

Ms Loughran responded: “The bottom line is that is not true. There was certainly a problem prior to 2014, before we had a look at the detailed guidance. Most of the issues raised were in the north-west. The guidance was intended to make sure that it was not happening, and no further issues have been raised by our enforcement colleagues to suggest that we need further legislative change.

“They are just enforcing the guidance. That is not to say that some people are not trying to do it, but that is when enforcement would come in.”