Yesterday, a revolution happened in Irish public transport. For the first time ever, someone did something that was both innovative, and in customers’ interests, rather than simply in the interests of employees or management.
The bus and rail unions had a fare strike. Services operated as usual, but no fares were collected. By doing so, the unions got the publicity and financial impact they wanted, but without having to worry about turning the public against them.
This was quite an innovative thing to do. There’s never been a strike like it in Ireland before, and while there have probably been similar strikes in other places, it’s not a common occurrence.
It also did what the unions wanted it to. It drew attention to the situation and hit the employer where it hurt. It succeeded in portraying a positive image of public transport: Usually, a bus strike makes people think of public transport as boring and hit-and-miss. This strike made public transport sexy – rebellious, fun and fast -.
If everything about Dublin Bus and Irish Rail was as clever as this strike, then we wouldn’t be in the mess we are now. The routes would have been revamped, the fare system and the ticketing would be simpler, the buses and the drivers would be safer, and the service would be better.
Of course, the reaction of management to this strike was to penny-pinch. Rather than using the opportunity to promote a debate on public transport, they are telling all the newspapers how they are going to recover the ‘lost’ revenue. Of course, it’s just PR; they aren’t going to be able to realistically recover more than a small fraction of the fares they would have expected to have collected.
The problem in Dublin Bus and Irish Rail isn’t the staff. Like everywhere else there are problems, but most of the drivers and staff are doing their best to provide a service.
The problem is really with the big picture of how Irish public transport is run. It’s incomprehensible. There doesn’t seem to be a master plan. No one is taking control. Simple things, like the ticketing system and the signposting aren’t getting sorted out at the pace that they should be.
That’s why the minister, Seamus Brennan wants to change the way public transport operates in the Dublin area. The only way he can see to do that is privatisation.
Here’s an idea: why don’t a group of drivers and other Dublin Bus staff offer to take over the management of some of the routes? They have the hands-on expertise, and if they can come up with some ideas as good as this strike, I think they could make some big improvements. They certainly couldn’t do much worse.