Government plans to restructure Longford’s rural transport network, by replacing it with a more rationalised and streamlined version, has been greeted with sweeping cynicism locally.
Many service users this week told of their anguish at proposals to replace the current structure with a new scheme under the control of county councils.
Some even went as far as to say its regionalisation to also include counties Laois, Offaly and Westmeath would leave large numbers of pensioners and older persons cut off from the outside world.
“It’s heartbreaking and for me it (rural transport service) has been a life saver,” said a visibly emotional Kathleen Briody as the Leader caught up with one such route in the north of the county last Friday morning.
Despite the job loss fears initially highlighted by this newspaper last month, concerns have also emerged about how the changes are likely to impact the service’s personalised door to door policy approach.
One suggestion has centred on passengers having to travel to a designated location for both pick up and drop off purposes, mutterings which local users roundly condemned this week.
“We would rather it left the way it was,” continued Ms Briody, who stepped aboard the bus from outside her home in Drumnacrehia, Mullinalaghta. “For someone like me, I wouldn’t be able to walk far. They (Government) are supposed to be thinking of perhaps picking us up at different points but I just couldn’t do that. I have one son at home and if he’s not away working he’s out on the farm so something like this (rural transport) is such a great comfort. If I stayed in my own house all day I would get down in myself I just know I would.”
The talkative north Longford woman was not alone in making known her obvious disapproval. As she freely chatted with neighbours and friends on the way into Granard, others took the opportunity to express their own anxieties.
An almost permanent fixture on the scheme since its roll-out ten years ago, 88-year-old Anna McGovern said the thought of travelling potentially long-winded journeys just to meet the bus, was one that troubled her deeply.
“I have no way of driving anywhere and my family are away at work during the day,” said Ms McGovern, who also hails from Mullinalaghta. “This is great as it brings me around and gets me out. I wouldn’t like to see it change and I would be lost without it.”
Perhaps the strongest message of defiance however, came from the rural transport network’s very first passenger Liz Brady. She said the alterations outlined in a draft report by the Department of Transport would represent a “step backwards” for rural communities, like those in north Longford.
“It’s been a wonderful service and I have been using it for the last ten years,” she quietly explained. “I just hope they don’t pull the money. I look forward to it so much. And the great thing about this is your family know you are safe.”
First set up in 2002 and enacted locally the following year, passenger journeys have risen from 5,000 to 23,000 at the tail end of last year.
Currently, the system is managed by Longford Community Resources Ltd (LCRL) and backed up by working groups, a steering committee with a large scale voluntary element attached.
Under the new plans, eight regional authorities would oversee the new scheme, paving the way for local authorities to assume responsibility for individual projects in their own areas.
The scheme’s present co-ordinator Seamus Lee said the proposed alterations, though not entirely unexpected, have thrown up arguably more questions than answers.
“Rural transport is a unique service that commenced in 2003 as an initiative that we started in the north Longford area,” he said.
“Passengers are the most important persons. There is that door to door and that humane driver to passenger service in place so that straight away you know what is happening with each person. I can see where the Government are perhaps coming from in terms of rationalising, but the only question I have to ask is can they maintain the quality of service it is at the minute under the new structure?”
That’s a question, no doubt, that will be thrust in the direction of government leaders ahead of the planned reorganisation in June.