Private firm responds to councillors’ concerns over new Derry to Belfast bus route

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A private Armagh bus company that wants to operate a new express bus service between Derry and Belfast has moved to assuage concerns raised by members of Derry City and Strabane District Council on Thursday that the move could undermine existing Translink services.

Owen McLaughlin, Hannon Coach’s group marketing manager, said he was surprised to learn some councillors had expressed concerns surrounding its recent application to provide what he described as a much-needed direct, non-stop express coach service between Derry and Belfast.

Speaking to the ‘Derry Journal,’ Mr. McLaughlin said: “I believe that there was a suggestion that our service could in some way undermine the current 212 stopping service operated by Translink.

“I think there is a high degree of confusion out there. I think what people don’t realise is, that in 2015, the Department awarded exclusive rights to Translink to operate all its bus and rail services through an exclusive Service Agreement. Effectively, the service agreement prevents any operator competing against Translink on any of its current services – we could not offer intermediary stops between Derry and Belfast for example.

“What we have applied for is to operate a much-needed direct express service designed specifically to stimulate demand through a combination of reduced journey time, lower discretionary fares and the provision of an online booking facility to allow people to pre-book and reserve a seat.

“We believe that the provision of the service will have huge benefits for tourism in Derry, the business sector in general and increase the ability of people who do not have access to a car to make quick and cost-effective trips to see friends and relatives in the greater Belfast and Derry areas.

“We would welcome the opportunity to discuss our application with the Council.”

Mr. McLaughlin was speaking after Hannon Coach’s application to operate seventy-six express services a week between the two cities was discussed at the local council’s monthly meeting on Thursday,

Councillors from across the political spectrum raised concerns about how the approval of a new route might affect existing public services.

Sinn Féin Councillor Eric McGinley said his party wouldn’t be in favour of the authorisation of any new private operations that could “undermine the service already provided by Translink”.

Councillor Martin Reilly of he SDLP said that while Hannon’s “unique offer is that it is a direct service”, he would also have concerns around potentially damaging competition with public transport.

“We are trying to encourage people out of their cars and onto public transport and it is important to ensure balance,” he said.

DUP Alderman David Ramsey said: “We definitely want to be seen protecting local employment in Translink.”

Independent Councillor Paul Gallagher suggested that private firms were “cherry picking the best routes” without committing to cover unprofitable but vital community routes.

UUP Alderman Derek Hussey hailed the “wonderful service provided by Translink” locally but said the public service provider needed to “look to its own laurels” as private firms often provided similar services at lower cost to passengers.

Outside the meeting, Shaun Harkin, PBP Westminster candidate for Foyle, supported calls by the UNITE union for the Department of Infrastructure to reject Hannon’s application.

He said: “The Derry City and Strabane District Council should also reject the application. People Before Profit calls on the political parties to back UNITE and to support public transportation. Resistance is needed to defend and expand our public transportation networks.”

He added: “We need to protect our public transportation system and expand it to better serve rural, isolated and deprived communities.

“Cherry-picking of busy routes by private sector companies in pursuit of profit will undermine public services and workers’ rights. This has already occurred in the South. If we want more connectivity for Derry and the Northwest it should come through the expansion of our public transportation system. Privatisation leads to profits for the few and less access and worse services for the many.”