CLARE Bus is continuing to serve the community of East Clare during the Covid-19 crisis, despite the fact that the National Transport Authority (NTA) has appointed alternative operators to its routes under the Local Link scheme.
The Feakle-based service has joined the East Clare Covid-19 Community Response Group, saying its drivers have invaluable local knowledge and are ready to help the public as and when required.
Following a dispute over funding levels for the accessible local transport service, and despite intensive negotiations involving four of the constituencies TDs, on Friday last, the NTA unveiled new operators on 12 routes previously served by Clare Bus. Three routes have gone to the company ranked in second place in last year’s tendering process, while nine went to another company on an interim basis for three months.
Clare Bus had secured all 12 routes in the NTA procurement process at the end of December but declined to sign contracts until it secured an assurance on what it regards as a significant underpayment dating back to last June. When the company had not signed the contracts by a deadline of March 20, an alternative provider was immediately put on the routes. While the company, on the advice of Clare Dáil deputies, did sign the documents on Wednesday last, March 25, the NTA judged this to be too late. By March 27 it issued a press release advising of alternative operators.
“Clare Bus as a company still exists,” said Chairperson Ger Hoey. “The reality is that most of our staff have now had to avail of Social Welfare payments and our fleet is off the road. We have joined the local community response support group because Clare Bus drivers are known and trusted and they are aware of people in different areas who may be vulnerable at this time, so we are ready to assist wherever we are needed.”
Councillor Pat Hayes who is co-ordinator of the East Clare Covid-19 Community Response Group welcomed the support of Clare Bus, but said there was disappointment about their treatment by the NTA: “I would have hoped for a bit more latitude at this time. Clare Bus have provided a wonderful, accessible community service and now they are in No Man’s Land. I would still hope that the incoming Transport Minister might look at the situation differently.”
Scariff-based TD, Michael McNamara meanwhile expressed the hope that a mediator could be still be appointed: “This could be done by email from a desk and it’s an issue I will be raising when the Dáil sits on Thursday.”
In a press release issued on Friday last, the NTA said that “the fact that they [Clare Bus] did not sign the contracts by the deadline set by the Authority meant that for the sake of customers across the county, National Transport Authority and Local Link Limerick/Clare were left with no option but to put alternative measures in place”. It noted that a public competition will shortly get underway for nine of the 12 Clare routes.
While the NTA also insisted the new fleet is wheelchair accessible, concern have been raised in this regard by Clare Leader Forum (CLF), who said they have been inundated with calls from those with disabilities over the loss of Clare Bus. “Clare Accessible Transport service was viewed by many as the gold standard in rural transport due to its ability to provide a door-to-door service, which was a lifeline for so many,” said CLF PRO Ann Marie Flanagan. “The reality is that this cannot be easily replicated.”