BUS company JJ Kavanagh & Sons is putting the brakes on its shock plan to withdraw from Laois towns on the Dublin-Limerick route.
The private coach operator is expected to confirm this week that it will continue to operate the route, subsidised by the taxpayer, until a replacement service is finalised by the National Transport Authority (NTA).
NTA chief executive Ann Graham will meet Laois TDs in Leinster House at 12.30pm this Thursday, 11 April, as talks begin on the most suitable long-term bus service for the route, which is used by many Laois students attending the University of Limerick and by commuters travelling to and from Dublin and Dublin Airport.
It will take some months for a public procurement process to be completed, allowing a new operator to commence on the route. In the meantime, JJ Kavanagh will continue to provide the regular service with the agreement of the NTA.
There was shock at the announcement late last week that the private company intended to withdraw its eight daily buses stopping at Mountrath, Castletown, Pike-of-Rushall and Borris-in-Ossory with effect from next Tuesday, 16 April, because it is not commercially viable.
In the wake of the shock decision, the NTA issued a statement last Friday reassuring passengers that it would “address gaps arising from the withdrawal of services” on the Dublin-Limerick bus route.
The statement said: “The NTA is already engaging with Bus Éireann, LocalLink Tipperary and LocalLink Laois with a view to providing solutions for bus customers at local level, both in the short term and the long term.”
The NTA said it completed an examination of affected locations such as Mountrath and Borris-in-Ossory and determined that there was a requirement to continue to provide services on the route to meet a social need.
The transport authority said that the relevant route – Route 735 – is a commercial service provided by JJ Kavanagh & Sons between Dublin Airport, Dublin city and Limerick and is licensed by the NTA. Licenses set out the nature of the service and conditions under which a licensed public bus passenger service must operate, such as the point of origin and destination as well as a detailed timetable and stopping places.
The NTA confirmed that JJ Kavanagh & Sons applied to the authority to amend its licence for Route 735. The amendment sought the withdrawal of all services from a number of intermediate locations, including Mountrath, Borris-in-Ossory, Moneygall, Toomevara and Birdhill and the application was granted. The NTA does not have legislative powers to refuse an application to withdraw services.
The NTA statement added: “In circumstances such as this, where commercial operators withdraw or curtail services, the authority examines whether, in the absence of any commercial services, a public service obligation exists to provide socially necessary but commercially unviable public transport services. Such examination includes an assessment of the demand for public transport services and options to either reconfigure existing services or to competitively tender for the provision of services.”
The NTA said the examination found that there is a public service obligation to provide a service for Laois commuters on the Dublin-Limerick route and timetables of services are already being drawn up. It said that the replacement service, whether Bus Éireann or LocalLink operators, would not only meet the existing need but would also seek to improve levels of service to a wider area. The NTA added that funding “is not anticipated to be an issue” when the replacement service is finalised.
The issue led to a flurry of representations to the NTA from Tipperary and Laois TDS, including deputies Seán Fleming and Brian Stanley.
The outcome is that JJ Kavanagh & Sons will continue to operate the route until a replacement is put in place. At the meeting in Leinster House this Thursday, local TDs will put forward their views on the best long-term bus service for the area.
Speaking to the Laois Nationalist yesterday (Monday), deputy Fleming said the meeting with the NTA would ensure local input on a range of important issues, such as the need to link in with providers such as TownLink and LocalLink and the matching of timetables with existing Portlaoise and Roscrea services.
Deputy Fleming said he was “absolutely sure” that the agreement with JJ Kavanagh to continue a subsidised service in the meantime would be in place before next Tuesday, 16 April, the date when the coach operator was due to withdraw from the route. He added: “I expect that to be confirmed this Thursday at the meeting in Dublin with the NTA chief executive.”
It could take up to four months for a long-term replacement service to be put in place for passengers in Mountrath, Castletown, Pike-of-Rushall, Borris-in-Ossory and surrounding areas.
Deputy Fleming said he would insist that the replacement bus service covers the entire route through local towns and villages from Portlaoise to Roscrea and back. He said: “Many people use the bus service in these areas to go in and out to Portlaoise, but a number of people use it to go in and out to Roscrea on a regular basis. I am also asking Slieve Bloom Coaches, who operate the TownLink Services, to increase their bus service on these routes.”