November 2013        

Rail and bus transport: Why nationalisation was the obvious answer

In 1953 the Great Northern Railway was nationalised under the joint control of the governments of the Republic and the North. The other major railway company was Córas Iompair Éireann (CIE), which had already been nationalised in 1950. Between them these two companies then controlled public transport in the twenty-six counties.
     Many small private bus companies were subsumed into the two companies, and the state (i.e. the taxpayer) paid what was at the time huge compensation to these private owners. This money was paid out on the grounds that public transport would be state-owned, and that private operators would not be allowed to re-enter the market.
     There were many reasons for the nationalisation process. Remember that Ireland was not exactly a hugely revolutionary country at this time, but even the most strident capitalist couldn’t make a great case for the opposition.
     The main problem was safety. In the pursuit of profit, buses were often badly maintained, and crashes resulting in injury or death were not unusual. Often employees and owners, who in some cases were also drivers, worked long hours, which did not help make things safer.
     Another issue with badly maintained vehicles was reliability. A mechanical breakdown for a small operator often meant lack of or no transport for the public, with the resulting knock-on effect on the work force.
     Private operators vied with each other for the most lucrative routes. For instance, on sunny Sundays many operators just serviced the busy routes from the city centre to the seaside, but woe betide you if you didn’t live near one of those routes and you needed to get somewhere.
     There were many other reasons why nationalisation was the obvious answer. This is not to say that bus and railway services are perfect nowadays, or have been since the nationalisation; but I would argue that they are of a very high quality, in spite of the fact that some of the appointments at the head of the transport organisations were political ones, not people who had worked their way up through the ranks.
     Many of those appointed were not exactly admirers of public ownership. Todd Andrews, appointed by Fianna Fáil as chairman of CIE, presided over the closure of significant sections of the railway network. This has proved to have been a very short-sighted policy, particularly now that the world has to start looking at alternatives to the private car, and railways may provide an answer. Some of the railway infrastructure has either been built on or allowed to fall into such a state of decay that it may never again be operable. Think of the massive work that had to be done to recover only a section of the old Harcourt Street to Bray railway line for the Luas tram service.
     In recent times we have seen the re-entry of private bus and coach operators into the transport arena. A question that has never been asked is whether the taxpayer has ever received compensation from any of these operators. But I think we know the answer to that one.

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