Northern Ireland news

Translink funding crisis could see public transport provider 'drive off financial cliff'

Translink is facing a funding crisis. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire

TRANSLINK is facing a funding crisis that could see cuts to the bus and rail company's already reduced services.

The Department of Infrastructure (DfI) is expected to allocate its annual subsidy to the publicly-owned company in the coming days but there are fears that squeezed Stormont budgets will leave Translink facing what one MLA termed a "financial cliff".

The impact of Covid on passenger numbers, coupled with the need to move its fleet away from fossil fuels in line with requirements to meet net zero targets, is placing fresh pressures on the company, which says it receives a significantly smaller government subsidy compared to its counterparts in Britain and the Republic.

Translink has been utilising its financial reserves to maintain the north's public transport network but told The Irish News that this "is not sustainable going forward".

The tens of millions of pounds that ordinarily provide a funding safety net for the company are understood to be near exhausted.

DfI has indicated that the company is likely to receive around £78m for the forthcoming financial year. However, while the figure compares favourably with pre-pandemic subsidy levels, there are concerns that in the midst of current challenges, it may not be adequate.

Translink fares were hiked by 7 per cent earlier this month, while an 'early bird' scheme that offered a sizeable discount to some commuters is being scrapped.

Alliance infrastructure spokesperson Andrew Muir said what happened in the coming weeks was "critical" for the public transport provider.

"Bus and rail services transport workers, school children, shoppers and more – they should not be allowed to be driven off the edge of a financial cliff in the time ahead.," he said.

The North Down MLA said if the north was serious about meeting net zero obligations, Translink "needs to be put on a sustainable financial footing, not forced to live hand to mouth operating on a wing and a prayer".

"A year after passing the Climate Change Act it’s unreal future delivery of bus and rail services is in doubt with Translink facing a precarious future after having burnt through their reserves," he said.

Translink said sustainable public transport was "essential to the social, economic and environmental wellbeing of the region" and "vital" in delivering net zero targets.

“However, government spending per head on public transport in Northern Ireland is still only around 30 per cent of the UK average and this does not align with the climate legislation or clean air policies," a spokesperson said.

"Over the last year Translink has been utilising financial reserves to maintain NI’s public transport network, which is not sustainable going forward. Agreeing a budget for 23/24 is crucial to maintain and grow the public transport network in Northern Ireland and we will continue to work with the Department for Infrastructure to secure this."

DfI said it would work with Translink during the budget process.

"The allocation of funds to Translink for 2023/24 will be confirmed as soon as possible, once the budget allocations to Northern Ireland Civil Service departments have been confirmed," a spokesperson said.

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