Traffic Today, Gondola Tomorrow – A proposal for a ski lift between Belfast and Lisburn

"Emirates Air Line towers 24 May 2012" by Nick Cooper
“Emirates Air Line towers 24 May 2012” by Nick Cooper

Anthony McNamee is proposing  this radical transport idea to ease congestion and make life easier for commuters. The idea is not as crazy as it sounds. There is a 1km Gondola system over the river Thames in London. 

For over 10 years I drove the road from Newry to Belfast and back, a daily commute of anything up to two hours in each direction.

I was there in 2006 and 2007 for the full pain of the M1-widening project, and those calm, reassuring voices who kept telling us it would be worth it in the end, proved to be the voices of honest men. Unfortunately, there was a smaller, rather more aggressive group of voices who always maintained it would produce only a short term gain, and they have also been proven right.  Traffic on the A1, M1, and anything that connects or pulls from either is, undoubtedly, worse than ever.

Unable to take it anymore, and aided by a newer, more centrally located job, I decamped to the train around August time. This change has made my daily journey much less of a grind, so much so that I almost became a fan of the much-maligned Translink – a feeling of warmth tempered somewhat by recent warnings they are likely to cut regional services.

The one thing my car journey definitely gave me was plenty of time to think, and an idea that crossed my mind while staring up at a snowy sky, from the part of the road BBC NI’s travel alert calls Ballyskeagh (I’m still not sure if this is even a real place), was that a ski lift running along the central verge might actually provide a quicker journey down than the M1.

Over the course of a few commutes I evolved the idea into a fully-flung gondola lift, the kind of overhead system you might find careering skiers up the Alps or down the Dolomites. It would be a seemingly endless series of 10-15 person pods that rotate from Lisburn to Belfast and back again, all day long, every day, picking up and dropping off commuters at a few choice spots along the way.

I’m no engineer, but I came up with two underlying principles that made the project viable, well in my mind anyway: terrain – if these things can be built upon mountains, then a flattish road should present no challenge at all, and cost: if ski resorts can make profits from these implementing this sort of lift, even if they’re only open four months a year, then surely connecting two cities with proven commuter traffic, can be done without losing money.

But being a car user at the time, I couldn’t separate the idea from the M1 that tortured me so, and as such, it was always a non-starter. The logistics involved in creating stations – along with the necessary access – that would merge with the M1 and then enter the City Centre, was too much… even for this optimist.   The thought was firmly parked.

Fast-forward a few months and I’m sitting on a Translink train, wondering how much more traffic the Belfast~Newry line could support. Out of pure self-interest of course, for I’d like a few more trains added around the rush hour: anything at all to make life easier.

Based on a feeling that the regular  “all-stopper” service between Belfast and Lisburn might actually be the key blockage to more express services, my mind got thinking about this could resolved.  Which, naturally, led me to looking up – although in truth it was looking around and below that was the real key.

Between Lisburn and Belfast, there is 10 miles of flat, fully fenced-off, government owned and maintained land. It weaves through residential areas, and is replete with stations that provide readymade access.

Yes there might be a train track on that land, but a gondola system doesn’t need a lot of land: just enough to provide found

"View of HarbourFront and a cable car from Singapore Cable Car" by SGTOSA
“View of HarbourFront and a cable car from Singapore Cable Car” by SGTOSA

ations for its towers.  Indeed, towers on modern gondola systems are known to be as far apart as 2 miles.

As an idea, it is centred upon re-use. Not just of the land, but of the routes, stations, staff, facilities, and indeed ownership of Translink; it would be a fully integrated part of the transport network, connected directly to Belfast’s hub.

It is financially prudent to implement, with experts estimating a cost of $3m-12m per mile, compared to $400m per mile for underground work (source) and even allowing for the current 15mph maximum speeds, would produce the immediate financial benefit associated with reducing commuter times.

The existing train stations should be extended upwards, to create a new gondola level at each stop. The system would of course need some additional staffing, but as there are no drivers, and no conductors, resourcing would be streamlined.

While the idea described is vested in enhancing the Lisburn to Belfast commute, there is little reason why a start point would not to be devised at a greenfield site near Moira that supports park and ride services for M1 and M2 commuters. Dare I say it, if the site of certain former prison was put to good use as part of the project, there might even be the opportunity to create a substantial business park on the site: at less than 30 minutes from Belfast, Lisburn, Newry, Armagh, Portadown, Lurgan, Antrim and Dungannon, plus the international airport, there are obvious benefits for recruitment and communications.

The gondola would signal the end of the all-stopper train service, freeing up that track and train stock for express services to connect Belfast,  Lisburn, the new hub, and further south. With the local commuters set to benefit from an “on demand” transport system, there wouldn’t be many voices of complaint.

For now, this is just a pipe dream: an idea that I hope someone more qualified and more forceful than me might grasp and pursue.

But while a few years ago, the idea was generally considered a bit bizarre by any friends I talked to, it would appear that people around the world are coming up with the same solution, with Rio, Medellin, Caracas and La Paz already enjoying the benefits.  Why not us?

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What do you think? Let us know in the comments below. Do you have any radical ideas for Northern Ireland? Email your suggestions to [email protected]