Private coach firm Hannon in vow to 'break Translink monopoly'

Hannon Coaches is challenging Translink in a bid to break what it sees as its monopoly on public transport services
Gary McDonald Business Editor

TRANSPORT firm Hannon has vowed to "do everything within our power" to smash what it believes is Translink's "stranglehold and monopoly" on public transport services in Northern Ireland.

The Aghalee-based firm says its vision to invest more than £9 million and create at least 75 jobs is being stymied by the publicly-funded operator, which it claims has an "inefficient and unsustainable funding model" which is putting pressure on the north's block budget.

It comes ahead of Translink being called to make a representation to Derry City & Strabane District Council's business & culture committee this week to argue why Hannon as a private operator should not be allowed on to its territory

This follows Hannon being successful in a judicial review against a decision by the Department for Infrastructure to refuse it the necessary permit to operate an express service between Belfast and Derry.

And Hannon's bid to force public transport services to be opened to competition has now been backed by the SDLP's Upper Bann MLA Dolores Kelly.

She told the Irish News: "For the life of me I can't see how one body like Translink can retain such a monopoly on bus services, yet every time it needs capital it keeps coming back to the public purse. That's simply not sustainable."

The Hannon Transport Group, which operates Hannon Coaches, made an application to the Department last May for a commercial bus service permit to operate the express service between the Derry and Europa bus stations.

Hannon claimed it had firm evidence of demand and “sound transport economics and direct expertise” which claimed that such a service would stimulate passenger and tourism demand.

That should have been a straightforward application taking eight weeks, but Translink claimed it would mean it having to cut rural routes - an emotive assertion which councillors and MLAs found difficult to challenge.

Hannon's group marketing manager Owen McLaughlin says: "We're a small company taking on a giant here and going for a precedent, and if we are successful, it will still take us years to reach a break-even situation.

"Yet we believe it's crucial that an organisation which enjoys a complete state-sponsored monopoly, which gets tens of millions of pounds of state subsidies every years, and which does not offer below-market fares or a universal bus service, should have competition from the private sector.

"The Department needs to have regard for the need for ensuring fair competition among those providing public passenger transport services."

Following the successful outcome of a judicial review brought by Hannon against the original DfI decision (Hannon was awarded its costs following the process), the transport firm presented its proposal to Derry City & Strabane District Council in March.

As part of the JR settlement, the Department was required to provide its decision within six weeks, which is the middle of this month.

But the Department wrote to Hannon to ask for an extension to that deadline to enable the views of Translink to be considered at this week's business & culture committee meeting - and it agreed to that request.

"While this does mean a further delay and allows Translink to challenge our proposal, we take a longer view," Mr McLaughlin added.

"It is more important for us that the Council can come to an informed view than to get a quick decision or deny Translink or other stakeholders an opportunity to put their views forward.

"We want to be a partner of the Council over the next five to 10 years – it's more important to build good relationships and trust, so an extra month isn't going to make a huge difference in the wider scheme of things, even though it's unlikely we would get any Belfast-Derry service up and running now until after the summer."

A spokesman for Translink told the Irish News: “Translink continues to offer high quality coach services on the 212 Derry/Londonderry to Belfast route, clearly demonstrated by the increase in passenger numbers. In the last year, an additional 70,000 journeys were made, as more people were attracted to Ulsterbus's quality services and good value fares.

“In all, over 50 Translink return services operate between the two cities every day, both Goldline and NI Railways, fulfilling our vision of making public transport your First Choice for Travel in Northern Ireland. We are aware of the application by Hannon Coach and we await the decision of the Department for Infrastructure.”

The family-owned Hannon business has invested millions in a fleet of ultra-modern coaches, and in January it launched a twice-daily £29-each-way direct service between Belfast and Glasgow via the Stena Line ferry, backed up with a major marketing and advertising campaign.

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