Public transport in Ireland can be viable but the culture must be one that looks outwards to the needs of customers and potential customers, Fine Gael Senator Pat O’Neill told the Upper House during a debate on the Transport Bill under which it is proposed that CIE will be allowed to borrow additional funds to get over its current financial difficulties.
It can be easy for large companies in receipt of State funding to get caught in a bubble and to lose focus, said the Senator. He quoted Michael O’Leary, the CEO of Ryanair, who said that the best companies start during a recession when the challenges to be lean and flexible are greatest.
Tough economic times can provide the impetus for much needed reforms and culture changes, he said. There was an opportunity for Ireland’s much valued public transport companies to respond to current challenges in a way that would secure their viability far in the future, said Senator O’Neill.
With proper restructuring, the Senator hoped that CIE could get back to profitability. A major enterprise like CIE would face difficulties when circumstances change rapidly. Smaller companies can be more flexible and have the capacity to react to changing circumstances rapidly.
“To use a metaphor, small companies are like speedboats whereas large State transport companies are like oil tankers,” he said. “They are difficult to manoeuvre in response to changes in circumstances. I believe they can be moved in the right direction. They can be cumbersome in comparison to small private companies but while we must recognise the scale of the challenges faced by CIE, the company must also realise the need to change.”
While the current economic difficulties mean the State cannot provide the same subventions as it did in the past, they also offer an opportunity for public transport companies to promote themselves as a less expensive and hassle free alternative to cars, he said. In recent years, however, the number of passengers using CIE services had declined according to figures from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.
There was a significant drop in passengers right across CIE companies in 2009, with an overall loss of 26.3 million passengers. That would be a major loss to any company. Economic circumstances caused much of that, but it also had to do with bus routes and services provided, added Senator O’Neill.