Last June, Ross Kelly was excited to start his new job. He hadn’t enjoyed his last position, and was looking forward to a new start as an investment analyst in Dublin’s city centre.
The 27-year-old , from Navan, Co Meath, was relying on the Bus Éireann NX service to take him from his hometown to the capital for work. Soon after starting the new job, problems began to emerge on his daily commute.
On more than one occasion, full buses thundered past his stop, leaving him – and other Navan commuters – stranded.
“I was showing up [to work] maybe a half an hour, maybe 45 minutes late – that happened on three or four occasions,” he says. Fresh to the job, it wasn’t a good look.
In recent times, Kelly has ditched the NX Navan express route, driving to Dunboyne to catch a train into town instead. “It just gives me that reliability that I know I’m getting into work on time.”
Regular commuter Peter Heylin (41), also from Navan, has seen capacity issues on the NX worsen in recent times. Seats on peak-time services fill up quickly.
“It’s not reliable enough in the morning,” he says. He’s now opted to commute to the city centre via the slightly slower 109 route.
Coming back home is also an issue. Heylin, who is an IT manager working in the public sector, says the demand for the NX service is a cause for concern at certain bus stops.
“I view it as a safety issue,” he says. After work, the crowds waiting for the NX bus at Beresford Place, close to the Busáras bus station, resemble a crush at a music concert, he says.
“[It’s] absolute panic, people trying to get home. If they can’t get on a bus, they’re waiting another 20 minutes for the next one,” he says.
Demand for bus services in Co Meath have increased by 20 per cent since the Covid-19 pandemic, according to statistics provided to local Aontú councillor Emer Toibín, with more than 60,000 journeys completed in and out of the county every month.
Last year, the National Transport Authority (NTA) agreed to allocate funding for four additional daily NX services – proof, in Cllr Toibín’s view, that the authority recognises the high demand for the service from commuters in Co Meath.
But still, problems persist. “The Department of Transport, the NTA, Bus Éireann, are all shooting themselves in the foot because they’re not providing an attractive [alternative] option to car transport,” she says.
The NX is one of several Bus Éireann services that have been criticised as unreliable in recent times. As well as Navan, services around Cork city have been roundly criticised in the Dáil. Stories of delayed or no-show services in other parts of the country are often found on local Facebook groups and in local media.
In response to queries, a spokesman for Bus Éireann said the company has seen “unprecedented” levels of growth in the last 12 months: “Bus Éireann served in excess of 44 million PSO [public service obligation] passengers during the past 12 months, a significant increase on the 35 million passengers who used its services the previous year.”
But with growth comes challenges. “Like other operators in the industry, we are facing significant challenges in relation to the recruitment of both drivers and mechanics.”
While acknowledging the frustration caused by cancellations or delays, Bus Éireann maintains that delivery rates on its services remain high: for example, last month, 96.6 per cent of scheduled NX services ran as planned, according to the company spokesman. (A delayed service that completes its route is still counted as “delivered”.)
But it isn’t just major commuter routes that suffer from delayed or cancelled buses. Eamonn Mullen (56), a resident of Termonfeckin and a heart transplant patient, says he cannot rely on the 168 service that serves the Co Louth village to get him to his regular appointments at the Mater hospital in Dublin on time.
“I would have a lot of trips up to the Mater hospital. It could be a couple in a week, two or three in a week,” he says.
Catching a connecting bus from Drogheda to Dublin hasn’t been an issue for him, Mullen says – but a spotty service from his home village means he always has to have a back-up plan.
Just last week, he abandoned efforts to catch the bus from Termonfeckin to Drogheda, he says, after a scheduled morning service failed to show.
“I’d say there was roughly, eight, nine, 10 people standing with me,” he says. “Not only did I have to walk away, but all those other people, had to walk away. I don’t know what they did.”
I think the terrible state of Cork’s bus system is only a promoter of private car usage, and that has it’s own knock-on effects then on traffic and pollution and so on— Adam O'Reilly, student at University College Cork
If he was solely relying on public transport to get to Dublin, he would likely miss important hospital appointments, Mullen says. “I’d be stupid to do that.”
Bus Éireann has admitted that the 168 route is being impacted by “vehicle availability issues”, and is working to address this.
“It’s sad because you want to use public transport. I’m a retired person. I have free travel,” Mullen adds.
Without a car, Elizabeth McConnon (32), a manager at The Winding Stair bookshop, doesn’t have much choice but to use public transport. “I’m solely relying on [public transport], because [I’m] currently trying to purchase a house. Car and house at the same time wasn’t financially an option.”
Travelling to work from Drogheda, she faces regular issues with the 100X service, she says, and is often late for work. “Bus breaks down, doesn’t show up, I’m late to work, have to get the train.”
Adam O’Reilly (20), a third-year geography student at University College Cork (UCC), believes unreliable bus services in Cork city are turning people away from public transport. He relies on the 220 service daily, to travel from his home in Ballincollig to UCC, as well as to work, at a local SuperValu.
O’Reilly says he has experienced a litany of problems on the busy 220 service: “Buses don’t show up, are very late, they’re constantly stuck in traffic, they’re full or they’re cancelled, or they drive past without stopping.”
As well as acknowledging the wider problem of driver recruitment, Bus Éireann has specifically cited traffic congestion as a hindrance to its services in Cork city. “Traffic congestion is an operational challenge we are increasingly encountering and there is very limited bus prioritisation outside of Dublin,” a spokesperson said.
“I think the terrible state of Cork’s bus system is only a promoter of private car usage, and that has its own knock-on effects then on traffic and pollution and so on,” O’Reilly says. “I want Cork to have a good public transport service, I want Cork to be a better city. I don’t have the answers or the solution, but I just think change has to be made.”
Thomas Gould, a Sinn Féin TD for the Cork North-Central constituency, raised the issue of unreliable bus routes in Cork City with the Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan in the Dáil earlier this month. “People have no faith in the service at present,” Gould said during a Parliamentary Questions session.
Gould believes more drivers are required to tackle the ongoing issues on Cork’s Bus Éireann routes – something Ryan was in agreement with. “We need more drivers,” the Green Party leader said. He also said in relation to issues on the Navan route were raised: “It is true we have challenges in getting bus drivers and mechanics across all networks and all bus operators. We are addressing that. Availability of mechanics is very tight.”
“We believe there’s a shortage of drivers, probably a shortage of buses as well . . . It all comes [down] to resources,” Gould says.
Cllr Toibín is of a similar view: “I just think they need to – it’s simple – match demand with supply, because people are saying, in their numbers, that they are going back to their car.”
“While we acknowledge there have been some delivery issues in certain areas Bus Éireann is extremely confident we are in a strong position in 2024 to continue to support the growth of sustainable public transport journeys and deliver an excellent public transport service across the country,” Bus Éireann’s spokesman said.