Sensible Smartcard changes can help keep public transport moving - The Irish News view

Encouraging as many people as possible to make use of public transport must always be the priority

Buses in Belfast as a three-day strike action set to go ahead next week after public transport unions reject 5% offer. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN
People aged over 60 applying to the Translink Smartcard scheme for the first time will be expected to contribute a modest fee towards their public transport use PICTURE: MAL MCCANN (Mal McCann)

There has been a sharp debate about the provision of free public transport for senior citizens, and there is every reason to believe that, after a period of consideration, the authorities have reached some fair conclusions.

The initial introduction of the Smartcard system had a transformational impact on the lives of many members of the older generation by removing the need to pay for Translink’s bus and train services.

People who were over 60 were entitled to free travel within Northern Ireland, opening up a range of new possibilities for them, while the over-65s qualified for further advantages on an all Ireland basis.

Recipients who might previously have largely stayed at home were able to get out and about, meeting up with family and friends in a way which clearly had a hugely positive effect on both their physical and mental condition, and removed a burden on related health services.

They also brought their trade to shops and restaurants, boosting the economy, while some took the further step of volunteering to help out in a number of charitable and community outlets, and the scheme in many ways provided a lifeline to those pensioners who had suffered disproportionately during the recession, opening up fresh horizons and undoubtedly benefitting wider society at the same time.

It of course involves public money, something which needs to be constantly assessed, and the decision by Stormont’s Department for Infrastructure to introduce a consultation exercise last summer was part of this process.

The review asked if Translink’s concessionary travel rules should be changed, curtailed or extended, and drew some strong responses, including well attended public demonstrations in favour of the status quo.

Other voices highlighted the fact that the concession was available to all senior citizens, regardless of their income, while points were made about the cost of fares for ordinary commuters.

The outcome is that the Smartcard system is to be largely retained in its present form, although one-off application fees are now scheduled to come into force from the autumn, with first-time applicants paying £20 if they are aged between 60 and 64, while the fee for those who are 65 and over will be £12 but the disabled remain exempt.

Most senior citizens have to carefully assess their spending, but there will be a general consensus that the charges have been kept at a low level and represent good value for money.

While Translink has other issues to examine, include long standing concerns about the bizarre anomalies for Enterprise train fares on different sides of the border, encouraging as many people as possible to make use of public transport must always be the priority.