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FactCheck: Which public transport services get the most state funding?

AAA-PBP TD Brid Smith says the state gives more per journey to rail and tram services than it does to buses. We put her claim to the test.

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AMID THE ONGOING debate over the future of Bus Éireann and its Expressway service, AAA-PBP TD Brid Smith has criticised the government for the way state funding is distributed across the public transport sector. On RTE’s Late Debate earlier this month, she claimed:

We in fact give more subvention to Luas and to Dart than we do to Bus Éireann, and yet, more people use the buses than they do the trains and the trams.

A big claim. Is it true?

(Send your FactCheck requests to factcheck@thejournal.ie, tweet @TJ_FactCheck, or send us a DM).

Claim: The state gives more funding per passenger to Luas and rail services than it does to bus services

What was said: You can listen to the show here (the relevant section starts at 48 mins), but we’re interested in this claim:

We in fact give more subvention to Luas and to Dart than we do to Bus Éireann, and yet, more people use the buses than they do the trains and the trams.

In response to FactCheck, Brid Smith clarified that the sense of her claim was that bus services get less state funding per passenger than rail and tram services do.

The Facts

ban-fracking-804_90501581-2 Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

There are two important things to know here.

Firstly, Bus Éireann, Dublin Bus and Irish Rail all get a Public Service Obligation (PSO) subvention from the state.

Because they have an obligation to serve the public as well as to pursue profits, the government gives them a certain amount of money every year to help offset any losses they might endure from the cost of running relatively under-used routes.

Luas, on the other hand, gets no PSO subvention from the state.

Instead, Transdev – the company that operates Luas – has a contract with the state, and gets money in return for operating the service and maintaining the trams and lines, not to cover the cost of losses from under-performing routes, unlike the other transport companies.

For this reason, we’re not including those amounts in our calculations for this fact check, but for the record, the current operating contract (announced in 2014) is worth €150 million over five years.

However, Transdev does get annual funding from the Department of Social Protection to off-set the cost of providing free travel to some people. We will be including this funding in our calculations.

Secondly, there is no PSO subvention specifically for the Dart. The subvention is paid to Irish Rail (which runs the Dart) and is not itemised or broken down by the various Irish Rail services, such as the InterCity, Dart and commuter routes.

So when Brid Smith said we give more in subvention to Luas and Dart, this doesn’t really make sense.

Luas, in essence, gets money from a contract, not a subvention, and Irish Rail (not specifically Dart) gets the subvention.

However, in response to our request for evidence, Smith explained that the sense of her claim was a comparison of state funding (not merely PSO subvention) for rail and tram services, as opposed to bus services, based on their respective passenger numbers.

She also emphasised, in her response, that she does not object to the funding and subsidisation of rail and tram services.

So let’s take a look at the numbers and see if her claim checks out.

State funding and PSO subvention

Source: For a full-size version of this chart, click here

As this chart shows, Irish Rail consistently gets the highest PSO subvention of any public transport service, with €110.6 million last year – almost double that of Dublin Bus, which received €59.6 million.

Bus Éireann got €40.8 million in PSO subvention, while the Department of Social Protection paid Transdev €3.9 million to defray the cost of providing free travel on the Luas.

Passenger numbers

Source: For a full-size version of this chart, click here

Dublin Bus consistently has by far the highest number of passenger journeys, with 128 million last year – around triple the journeys on both Bus Éireann and Irish Rail.

By comparison, 34.1 million journeys took place on the Luas in 2016.

State funding per journey

Source: For a full-size version of this chart, click here

We’re getting to the nub of Brid Smith’s claim here. Irish Rail receives by far the largest PSO subvention per passenger journey, with €2.59 per journey in 2016.

Bus Éireann got €1.03 per journey, compared to €0.47 per journey for Dublin Bus, and Transdev received €0.18 in funding from the Department of Social Protection, for each journey on the Luas last year.

Remember, that this comparatively low rate is because the state does not pay Transdev a PSO subvention for the Luas, to cover loss-making routes.

Instead it gives the company around €3 or €4 million a year simply to cover the cost of free travel on the Luas.

Let’s combine funding per journey for rail and tram services, on one hand, and funding per journey for bus services on the other, in line with Brid Smith’s claim.

Source: For a full-size version of this chart, click here

There you have it. When you combine state funding per journey for Irish Rail and Luas, those companies get far more than Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus – €2.77 compared to €1.49.

However, it’s worth noting that almost all of that is made up of funding to Irish Rail, while Transdev gets just 18 cents per journey from the Department of Social Protection.

The ratio between rail and tram and bus services, in this respect, is closing (it was 2.5 to 1 in 2009), but is still significant – 1.85 to 1 in 2016.

Conclusion

Brid Smith’s claim, as articulated on the Late Debate, was somewhat confused, since the PSO subvention doesn’t go specifically to the Dart, and doesn’t go towards the Luas at all.

However, her claim as clarified in correspondence with FactCheck – that rail and tram services get more state funding per passenger than bus services do – is absolutely on the mark.

We rate her claim TRUE.

This is the second time we’ve fact-checked a claim by Brid Smith. Previously, we gave her a verdict of UNPROVEN. You can read her FactCheck File here.

FactCheck File Brid Smith

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here.

For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here.

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About the author:

Dan MacGuill

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