Comment: Hands off the free NI travel SmartPass must be shouted out loud and clear


By VIEW editor Brian Pelan

I can remember when I turned 60 years of age (no way, I can hear you all saying) and I was entitled to use my free 60+ free SmartPass on buses and train in Northern Ireland for the first time.

The feeling was one of delight if slightly tempered by the loss of a mis-spent youth. Free travel is something that I’ve long supported despite the harbingers of misery who constantly cry out: ‘But who is going to pay for it?’

Since that joyous moment, I have went on to claim my 65+ Senior SmartPass. It allows me to travel freely throughout the whole island of Ireland – on bus or by train.

But schemes that work and which benefit many thousands of people are an affront to those who believe that payment should always be extracted for a commodity or an asset. The Department for Infrastructure (DfI) has recently announced a consultation to the Northern Ireland Concessionary Fares Scheme.

The 12-week public consultation will review eligibility for the scheme.

The DfI website states: “Changes being considered include raising the age of eligibility for concessionary fares to either 65 or state pension age. This change, which would apply to existing users and new applicants, would bring Northern Ireland into line with England and the Republic of Ireland.” What about bringing England and the Republic of Ireland into line with Northern Ireland?

The consultation, which opened on June 1, closes on August 24 at 17.00pm.

You can respond to the consultation via the DfI website but be prepared to wade through a forest of words and questions that might sap your will to live.

‘The SmartPass is a lifeline for thousands of older people in the 60-64 age bracket and plays an important role in keeping people active, promoting independence and reducing loneliness and isolation’

Some points to consider if you’re undecided re this consultation.

• The Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company (NITHC) is a public corporation. Its responsibilities include holding and managing property assets and the oversight, in terms of support, control and supervision, of its private limited subsidiary companies, the principal ones being Ulsterbus, Metro and Northern Ireland Railways, trading jointly as Translink. The full-scale privatisation of the service has always been on the cards. A removal of a key free benefit for passengers is a clear sign that this option is being considered.

• The privatisation of railways and buses in England has been an unmitigated disaster for passengers. Rising fares for passengers and stagnating wages for workers are both linked to the privatisation of the railway.

• Einsten’s definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is clearly lost on the Tories.The government recently took over yet another railway (TransPennine Express) – and yet it still balks at full nationalisation.

The Commissioner for Older People for Northern Ireland, Eddie Lynch said: “I am hugely concerned about the impact these proposed changes will have on older people across Northern Ireland, who rely on the SmartPass as an essential means of transport.

“The SmartPass is a lifeline for thousands of older people in the 60-64 age bracket and plays an important role in keeping people active, promoting independence and reducing loneliness and isolation.

“Stripping them of an essential means of transport to attend GP appointments, hospital appointments, attend day activities, visiting friends and family, post office/banking services and links to the public transport network not only negatively impacts on their mental health but takes away their independence causing them to rely more heavily on friends and family.

Luxembourg, one of Europe’s smallest nations, has, since 2020, allowed its residents to travel entirely free on public transport in an attempt to ease car congestion.

Spain has also made regional and commuter trains free for frequent users until the end of 2023 though there are some restrictions including a maximum of four trips a day.

These measures make total sense in an era of rapid climate change.

We have already lost the provision of grant aid to students. Instead they are now saddled with debt. The public library has witnessed its services being decimated through a series of closures. Free dental treatment on the NHS has largely been replaced by expensive private clinics.

All those who support the right of older people in Northern Ireland to have free access to bus/rail services must make their opposition known. Remember, despite your best efforts, you also will be an older person one day.

The various political parties here should be also challenged to spell out where they stand. SDLP MP Claire Hanna recently tweeted her opposition to the 60+ SmartPass being removed.

Hands off the free SmartPass must be shouted out loud and clear.

PS: I also support free public transport for all citizens.