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?

You can read more on http://gondolaproject.com.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments below. Do you have any radical ideas for Northern Ireland? Email your suggestions to brian@sluggerotoole.com

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  • Ernekid

    Silly idea really. The gondola over the Thames is a total White Elephant. I think over a six month period there was only two registered regular users.

    Also you want it to be run by Translink? They can barely run a bus network in a tiny place like Northern ireland. How badly would they f**k up a project like this?
    If you want to brighten up a way to get to Lisburn (although why anyone would want to get to Lisburn stumps me). Why not restore the Lagan canal? Water taxis taking the canal from Lisburn to Stranmillis. the canal towpath is quite nice. You could take the canal from the shores of Lough Neagh to Belfast City Centre if it was all restored. Restore the Ulster Canal and we could connect the Shannon Erne Waterway to East Ulster making it theoretically possible to go from Dublin to Belfast by Ireland’s Canals and river ways.

  • Bryan Magee

    I actually have a lot of respect for what Translink have done on the railways. The number of people travelling by train has gone up many times – maybe triple or quadruple what it was ten years ago. The service is much much better, and their main issue is that too many people want to use the trains now so the car parks are full and its standing room only.

  • Neil

    It is financially prudent to implement, with experts estimating a cost of $3m-12m per mile, compared to $400m per mile for underground work

    Emirates Air Line in London:

    The service, announced in July 2010 and estimated to cost £60 million, comprises a 1-kilometre (0.62 mi) gondola line

    From CNN:

    The La Paz urban gondola will consist of three separate service lines stretching across a combined 10.7 kilometer (6.1 mile) area of the city.
    These giant structures, most commonly associated with ski-resorts or mountaintop tourist spots, will cater for a combined hourly capacity of 9,000 passengers and come in at a reported cost of $235 million dollars.

    So in London it cost 60m, sterling, for a 1 km line, in La Paz it costs 235m, dollars for a 10 km line. Where 3 million per mile comes from I don’t know but real world examples seem to be thin on the ground, or am I missing something?

    Back to London, 3 years running costs 5.5 million, based on a 4.40 single adult fare making up the difference. It’s a nice idea, and fair play for the blue sky thinking but surely an elevated train line would be less expensive and more viable.

  • Dan

    They could use the Falls balls to hang the cables on at one end. Get some use out of that colossal waste of money,

  • Ernekid

    The trains are ok if you live within half an hour of Belfast but trains are non existent West of the Bann. Only 4 of Ulsters 9 Counties have train lines. Derry is the only Western county with a train and they had to fight tooth and nail for a train to belfast that manages to be slower than the bus.

    The trains in the North are pathetic.

  • chrisjones2

    …and it would allow us all to look down on West Belfast as we sail above

  • Sharpie

    Belfast to Dublin via a canal? Why not use a ferry from Belfast to Dublin – a fast ferry could do the journey in an hour.

  • Sharpie

    I like this thinking. Immediately everyone gets stuck on the “what is there right now” problem instead of thinking – what could it deliver that doesn’t exist right now? The LUAS in Dublin changed commuting habits – i.e. it created new behaviours around where people chose to live, the businesses that grew up around the hubs, and the new travel patterns that commuters started to exhibit. Much of it was not envisaged when it was created.

    Similarly this type of thinking is needed in Belfast. I saw the feasibility studies for light rail and they were all based on current use patterns rather than what would happen once built. I like the “build it and they will come” – if it provides speed, affordability, convenience, and a cool factor. Trains and light rail always do this over buses.

    Most UK cities of note have a light rail system. The only White Elephant is Edinburgh, where they built one that travels alongside the road network and is more expensive than buses plying the same route and always within sight of the tram.

    I always thought it weird that a light rail infrastructure was not put on Queens Island when it was empty. It could have taken people to the airport from the city centre in minutes as opposed to the mess that it is now.

  • Brian O’Neill

    That is exactly why we are running this story. I know there is not a hope of it happening but it is important to think outside the box. We need new ideas and new ways of looking at things.

  • Practically_Family

    Can they build/run it for just 13p per person per year?

  • John Gorman

    Altogether now, Monorail monorail!

  • Gopher

    As I have pointed out on the road thread it is the underemployed who have all the time in the world to use public transport and dont infact they drive just for the sake they can are the problem. South Belfasts Roads to and from Lisburn are no longer fit for purpose with Stockmans Lane, Donegal Rd junctions and M1 country bound at complete over capacity. The money would be better spent building a dual carriageway from the A55 at the Purdysburn Road along the B23 to the M1. The profit from the sale of City centre schools should cover it.

  • chrisjones2

    Or Joihnny McKeagues alligators

  • chrisjones2

    trains are non existent West of the Bann

    That’s because there are no rails

  • Karl

    The Railways are a joke. We simply do not have enough people travelling on them outside peak hours to ever make them profitable, so my solution is simple. Rip up the tracks, tarmac the routes and use them exclusively as toll roads for buses. Turn the Railway stations into Bus stations. Buses directly into GVS every 15 minutes between 6.00 and 9.00am. Cheaper, safer, more comfortable. Put the routes out to tender and give private companies a crack at the profitable routes Translink has a virtual monopoly on because of their subsidy, Translink can carry on with their current main routes, and the money saved propping up a joke of a rail network, along with revenues from the toll routes will enable them to keep the non-profitable services going in rural areas. They could for instance start running smaller buses on those routes to save costs..why is an 11 metre bus used to carry 10 people on a rural route? This would target disgruntled train commuters and car commuters alike, Portadown to Belfast with no congestion in 25 minutes, day or night. Newry to Belfast is a different matter, someone, please remind me…what the hell is the train doing going via portadown to Belfast again?

    NIR/Translink has been run like a company from the 1950’s for far too long, vehicle technology means railways no longer compete with spring suspension uncomfortable, unreliable charabancs, but with air-conditioned, air-suspension, leather seated, comfortable behemoths that cost less to buy, less to run, and less to maintain.

    Let Ambulance services use the route also, resulting in more comfortable experiences for the many outpatients attending the BCH and RVH etc on a daily basis.

    The infrastructure is there, the coach and bus companies are in dire need of the work, the market is there, all we need is a lick of tarmac to get going. A Rail service is not a sign of a proper state, it’s not something a state needs to have to qualify as a country, so can we fold up the train set, put it away and get the country moving again.

  • Richard Kenny

    I think you’re referring to John (Johnny) McQuade (Shankill councillor) not John McKeague (allegedly Red Hand Commando), both deceased.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Mono!!!..Doh!

    “Themuns in nrth Haverbrook get everuh-thin, we get nahin!”

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Karl

    Was the ‘rip up rail’ approach not endorsed by Los Angeles, or as its better known to its commuters ‘Hell-A’?

    As much as this is anecdotal I have to say that I find it more than coincidence that all the places that I have lived in/worked in/got drunk in it was noticeable that those with a greater public transport network had less of a traffic problem.

    Also, anyone who catches the Maiden City Flyer at rush hour will have noticed that people are willing to endure queues, delays and stupidly priced tickets.

    I fail to see why this couldn’t be exploited by the railways.

  • kalista63

    How the Fek are you meant to hijack these things?

    They’ll be another erosion of are kulture.