Rural bus crisis hits Mid Ulster

Out and About now prioritising  runs
Out and About now prioritising runs

Hundreds of Mid Ulster’s most vulnerable and isolated residents are facing massive disruption after Out and About Rural Community Partnership was forced to withdraw buses.

The Department for Infrastructure has decided to update its interpretation of the current legislation in respect of driver licensing, specificially dealing with drivers of mini-buses.

Several drivers operating in the Magherafelt, Cookstown and Dungannon areas who are not suitably licenced have had to be taken off the road, causing chaos for people depending on them for hospital visits, doctor appointments or shopping trips.

Meetings have been taking place this week between departmental officials and managers of Rural Community Transport Partnerships in an effort to avert a transport crisis.

The problem affects rural areas across Northern Ireland with an estimated 67 drivers having to step aside until they meet licensing requirements.

Magherafelt Ulster Unionist Councillor George Shiels claimed the Out and About service in the town “is fighting for its life.”

He told the Mail the total stood down fleet would amount to “dozens and dozens of vehicles”.

“This means in operational terms locally that Out and About Rural Partnership will from today be prioritising runs,” he said. “The service could, at worst, be decimated unless the department’s officials see sense.

Ashley Keane, manager of Out and About Transport in Magherafelt, said they were “really in a difficult situation”, and it was the same in Cookstown and Dungannon.

It is understood the Magherafelt office - which has a service delivery run of over 2000 people a month - has had to take four of its six mini-buses off the road. Only two drivers meet the new licensing standards.

Councillor Shiels added: “There are many community groups within the rural area dealing with severe disadvantage. Up to now these groups could have encouraged one of their members to take a short training course which allowed that member to self-drive one of Out and About’s buses. This meant a reduced rate for hiring the bus and the group benefited financially.

“To continue to drive the bus, the member will now need to take another course which will cost close to £1,000.

“I think this is a reprehensible way for department officials to operate in the absence of a minister. Civil Servants in ivory towers are behaving as de facto politicians.”

It is understood the Magherafelt office - which has a service delivery run of over 2,000 people a month - has had to take four of its six mini-buses off the road. Only two drivers meet the new licensing standards.

Councillor Shiels added: “There are many community groups within the area dealing with severe disadvantage. These groups could have encouraged one of their members to take a short training course which allowed that member to self-drive one of Out and About’s buses. This meant a reduced rate for hiring the bus and the group benefited financially. To continue to drive the bus, the member will now need to take a course which will cost close to £1,000. I think this is a reprehensible way for department officials to operate in the absence of a minister. Civil Servants in ivory towers are behaving as de facto politicians.”