Department for Infrastructure 'could be sleepwalking into another judicial review' over coach contracts
COACH firm Hannon Transport in Co Armagh insists it is "nothing short of a disgrace" that it and other operators continue to lose out on commercial contracts to the government-funded Translink.
It claims that Translink "undercut its best possible price by 35 per cent" to win a recent major Antrim GAA contract - and says no commercial company "can possibly compete with Translink's subsidies".
And despite the coach services market having opened to competition three years ago, Hannon and at least one other private operator claim Translink's parent NI Transport Holdings, which is ultimately overseen by the Department for Infrastructure, is continually delaying applications and "effectively protecting their monopoly situation at all costs".
Two years ago Aghalee-based Hannon Coaches, headed by Aodh Hannon, was 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. It was also granted its costs in full.
But according to the firm's marketing manager Owen McLaughlin, the system hasn't improved, and applications for permits from private operators - which should be processed in six weeks - are taking up to a year.
"It's frustrating and anti-competitive. They're kicking the can down the road, and the Department could be sleepwalking into another judicial review," he added.
At the start of January Translink announced that it had purchased four new state-of-the-art coaches for its Ulsterbus Tours brand, which focuses on UK and European tours and private hire.
Then two weeks later, Ulsterbus Tours was contracted as the official transport supplier for Antrim GAA, chosen to carry the Antrim hurling and football teams to all their away games throughout the 2019 season.
Hannon had also pitched for that contract but lost out.
Mr McLaughlin said: "It's not sour grapes, but it's incredibly frustrating to lose out on commercial contracts to Translink while we are at the same time being denied access to enter the vacant express services sector less it impact Translink's finances. We also face competition from Translink on our Belfast to Glasgow Express.
"For the Glasgow route, Translink has a subsidised base, drivers and coaches based in Stranraer which it uses to carry out the service under contract for Scottish Citylink. Again, it claims that this is through the ‘separate' Ulsterbus Tours.
"Translink tells us that Ulsterbus Tours is carefully run under a separate cost code. But this is the thinnest of paper walls. They share premises, computer systems, senior management, pensions, pay scales, training, internal job opportunities, garages, etc. It is simply a brand name of its tours business that competes directly against private operators - and is heavily subsided by the tax payer to do so."
When applying for applications for point-to-point express service licences, Mr McLaughlin claims "it's like we are in a game of poker and the DfI has dealt Translink all four aces.
"Rather than just complete the required application form, we are effectively now required to challenge all of those aces held by Translink - monopoly, subsidy, blocking of vacant express services and subsidised predatory pricing. They simply cannot have it every way."
He added: "While the Antrim GAA contract is important and has hit us hard, it is the monopoly on all bus services that Translink holds and how that was directly awarded that is of the uppermost public interest.
"In particular, it is entirely unreasonable that Northern Ireland be denied an express coach network for the sole reason of protecting the state subsidised monopoly supplier."
Mr McLaughlin told the Irish News that he has spoken to the Competition and Markets Authority and would be asking them to probe Translink. CMA refused to comment.
But in a statement to the Irish News, a spokesman for the DfI said: “Following the application for judicial review last year, the Department has been incorporating improvements to the permits process. This has resulted in some delays to the processing of applications.
"The Department has always endeavoured to, and will continue to endeavour, to process all applications properly and within the framework of the governing legislation, and we strongly contest any suggestion to the contrary.”