*Clare Bus making its way into Scariff. Photograph: Martin Connolly

Frustration and anger has been voiced in East Clare with the antics of the National Transport Authority (NTA) who have put the future of Clare Bus on the line, once again.

Last week in the midst of a COVID-19 dominated news cycle, the NTA announced that Clare Bus had lost the contract it was awarded in December to run the bus routes and instead put a caretaker operator in charge of the twelve routes.

25 jobs are now at risk with the future of the Feakle based transport provider now in serious doubt once again. Last year, the NTA awarded the contract for the operation of the routes to Limerick Local Link who subsequently took over management of the service with Clare Bus continuing to provide the routes.

Correspondence issued to elected representatives by Clare Bus has been obtained by The Clare Echo. “We didn’t lose the contract, we could not sign it as the funding arrears owed to us by the NTA has made the company unsustainable. We have been continually trying to get them to pay us so we can sign the contract that we won. The NTA refused to acknowledge this and moved another operator in within hours of the contract deadline despite our requests to negotiate”.

“This is the culmination of a sustained NTA agenda to take out Clare Bus. It’s not about cost, they want a standard white van operated by private operators and have no capacity to offer the same responsive service to the community. Our local knowledge and connections are a vital resource for vulnerable people at this time of crisis. They have taken the opportunity when few passengers are travelling and the communities mind is focused on the virus”.

The Clare Echo has put multiple questions to the NTA in the past week which asked what changed between December and March for the contract not to proceed, for response on Clare Bus’ claims of being ignored by the NTA and having “an agenda” against them and what influenced the NTA’s decision to reverse.

However a spokesperson for the NTA stated they “refused the premise” of the questions put forward and instead of answering any of them gave the same statement that has been issued to all media outlets who have made queries on the matter. “In December, Clare Bus was advised by the NTA that they were the preferred bidder for the publicly tendered Local Link services in Clare and contract signing was due to take place in January 2020. However, as of today’s date, Clare Bus has been unable to conclude the contract. As a result, Limerick-Clare Local Link is putting alternative arrangements in place on an interim basis. There will be no disruption to services for customers arising from this”.

Clare TD, Michael McNamara (IND) has requested both the NTA and Minister for Transport “to immediately review the decision”. He said, “This move threatens jobs and undermines the future provision of Local Link services in Clare. I would ask that any decision be reversed until the ongoing COVID-19 crisis has passed after which a comprehensive review should be carried out”.

Suspension of Clare Bus operations has been described by Cathal Crowe TD (FF) as “appalling”. He added, “Its timing, at a time of national crisis and mass unemployment, couldn’t be worse”. He has written to the NTA asking the decision to be reversed and said they cannot walk away “from this with clean hands”.

Crowe outlined that he organised a meeting between the Board of Directors at Clare Bus and senior NTA officials three weeks. “The focus of this meeting was to discuss a combination of non-payments and under-payments on the part of the NTA that has left a major hole in the finances of Clare Bus. No significant progress has been made regarding the funding shortfall since that meeting and now Clare Bus are unwilling to commit to a new contract with the NTA unless they are paid monies owed to them. Clare Bus have been totally blackguarded by the NTA”.

Clare Leader Forum has expressed their distress with the antics of the NTA and said they are devastated. PRO, Ann Marie Flanagan was adamant, “No decision as serious as this should have been made in the current climate of uncertainty. We are all dealing with an anxious time and vulnerable Irish citizens, particularly those who are older or who live with a disability do not need the added stress that this latest announcement will cause”.

She highlighted that Clare Accessible Transport had been viewed “as the gold standard in rural transport” as it provided a door to door service. “The reality is that this cannot be easily replicated and we fear it will not be replaced. What happens to all the people who are now isolated in their own homes? COVID-19 has shown us all what isolation feels like imagine living like that everyday of your life simply because you cannot get the services you require”.

Local Link confirmed a new operator would run public transport services in Clare with “no interruption or disruption in services arising from this change”. They continued, “This change has come about as a result of the fact that previous operator Clare Bus did not sign contracts that were offered to them arising from a competitive tender at the end of last year, when the company was the successful tenderer for 12 routes in the county.

“The fact that they 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.

“Under those measures, three of the routes that were to have been operated by Clare Bus have been awarded to tenderers who placed second in last year’s procurement process. Those contracts will be awarded for one year, in line with the provisions of that procurement process. The other nine routes will be run on an interim basis by a Clare-based operator, who is qualified to provide these services. Those contracts have been awarded by NTA under the relevant legislative powers, and are of three-month duration.

A new public competition for the operation of those nine routes will get under way very shortly. All vehicles contracted for the delivery of rural transport services are wheelchair accessible,” a spokesperson for Local Link concluded.

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