Transport options for Belfast. Who gets priority on our roads?

712284_54126ab6Andy Boal explores the transport options for Belfast

It’s been interesting to read the responses to Brian’s post, but I’ve had a good look at the DRD’s proposed budget cuts and the consequences for public transport.

It’s grim reading.

Before we get into that, let’s start with a few principles.

First of all, there is limited roadspace in Belfast, and a lot of people trying to use it.  It needs to be prioritised.

Secondly, a lot of drivers have little or no choice other than to drive on a particular day.  This is for all sorts of reasons.

Thirdly, there is a significant number of people who drive to work for the sole reason that they own a car and they want to.

Fourthly, a lot of passengers must be recognised as using buses and trains because the alternative is sitting in a traffic jam, watching buses sail up the inside, and then paying through the nose for parking (the cheapest car parking near the City centre, around Corporation Street, is 40p per hour, or £3.20 a day, against two City zone Smartlink fares totalling £2.30)

Bus lanes are a big part of that.  We know Liverpool has all but abolished theirs, seeing benefits to all traffic, but in Belfast, the recent influx of passengers to Metro arising from the new bus lanes making it harder for motorists to commute to the city centre suggests that it wouldn’t take too much to chase them back into their cars.  Fare rises, slower buses…

Fifthly, and this is key, everybody on the road benefits from public transport, including those whose circumstances mean that they can never actually use the bus or train.

Everybody?  Yes.  I’m not aware of the cost of congestion to the economy of Lorries and delivery vans being stuck in traffic having been quantified, but when you see them stuck in traffic jams, you have to think of those waiting for the goods to be delivered.  Time wasted in traffic jams gets passed on to the customer in the end, costing us more in the shops and for services. Plus the impact on individuals of waiting for deliveries critical to their work.

Sixthly, the more people who use public transport, the more roadspace is available for those who cannot avoid driving.

Seventhly, DRD, DFP and the Treasury all require Translink to break even after planned subsidy (or in the case of 2014/15, subject to agreed use of reserves that can’t now be put towards improving passenger facilities.)

If DRD cuts Translink’s subsidy, then once all economies have been made (and considering the number of economies made since 1997, how many can still be left to be made?!), all that is left is putting up fares and cutting services.

Even if Ulsterbus returned to the frequencies I remember in the 1980s before a lot of rationalisation happened (I was shocked to see the extent of cuts to buses to Donaghadee and Millisle in recent years), there are a massive number of people whose journeys could not reasonably be accommodated on public transport.  This is the reality we live in.

However, that raises more questions.  Why do people drive through Belfast city centre when they know it will be bunged up and there are alternative routes? (A12, M3, A55)  Why do people drive into Belfast on a Thursday night at 5pm knowing that Cromac Square and Victoria Street will be full of commuters trying to get home, instead of waiting until after 6 when the roads will be clearer, helping everyone?

So, to the DRD budget consultation.

There are several key sentences regarding public transport.

From paragraph 40:  “In 2014-15, in order to address the 4.4% reduction applied to the Department’s budget baseline and to manage inescapable pressures the Minister has required Translink to operate at a loss of around £12 million funded from reserves.”

Or in other words, the reason why we avoid a fare rise in 2014 was that Translink was required to use up reserves built up by Ulsterbus.

From paragraph 42, after discussing efficiency savings:  “However, a £15 million reduction in funding would inevitably lead to a combination of increased fares and reductions in, and the cessation of, some bus services. Service reductions would be expected to focus on the least profitable routes, including complete withdrawal of town services from a number of towns and a reduction in the frequency of other bus and rail services.”

From paragraph 43: “It is generally accepted that fare levels in Northern Ireland are well below those in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland.”

That, unfortunately, is true.  You could go 4 miles in Dublin for €2.80, which is rather more than £1.90 for a similar journey.  £1.90 may be nearer the upper reaches of city fares in GB (Nottingham is £2, Bristol is £1.50-£2.50 for that distance), but I haven’t seen anywhere that approaches as little as £1.15 for a multi-journey ticket for a journey of four miles. Lothian buses have an absolute flat adult fare of £1.50 with discounts only available if making more than three journeys in one day.

Similarly, on the trains.  Ok, we don’t have the cheap advance fares that Virgin and others offer, other than on the Enterprise.  On the other hand, our normal walk-on peak fares are less than many similar distance journeys in GB (in fact they’re typically slightly cheaper than GB off-peak fares), and a lot cheaper than on Irish Rail.  Until very recently, a single on the Enterprise from Belfast to Dublin was significantly cheaper than a single in the other direction.

I also remember a number of years ago being charged £17 by Callinan’s Coaches, who were operating the overnight buses to Dublin airport, instead of the then Ulsterbus fare of £14.  The reason was that at the time Bus Eireann’s fare for the same journey was €20 – this was before Ulsterbus and Bus Eireann cut their fares to respond to the competition from Aircoach.

(Before anyone says it – like taxis, all bus and train fares are based on a fixed fee for boarding, plus a distance related amount.  That’s why they are so expensive per mile for short distances, but a lot better value over long distances.)

I’m not about to make the case for fares to be higher just because they are lower than in GB or the republic.  In fact, I agree with everyone who says they are already too expensive.

However, the reality is the choice between fare rises which will price more people into driving (bad for revenue and worse for congestion) and service cuts which will also force people into driving.  Buses and trains are only useful if they are in the right place at the right time.

On top of that, we would find no sympathy if we got DRD and DFP to ask for more subsidy for Translink in order to cut fares.  Central government policy in GB is that the passenger should pay a greater proportion of the cost of public transport in fares, and the Treasury would just not be interested (although they would probably suggest raising the regional rate and introducing water charges to do some revenue raising!)

Should we open up the network to private operators?

I’ve seen the usual chorus of people in response to February’s proposed fare increase crying out for Translink to be opened up to competition.

Competition will never happen.

Well, it might.  But only on the most profitable routes.

So, as now, there will be competition Belfast-Newry-Dublin (including the excellent Eamon Rooney operation to Newry and Warrenpoint) and Belfast-Derry.  There may even be competition between operators on the most popular Metro routes.

However, if and when DRD finally decides to start tendering baskets of routes to private operators (a basket being a group of routes, some profitable and some unprofitable), it’s almost guaranteed that whichever private operator gets a group of routes will have no competition.  The only competition will be between operators to have a right to a monopoly unlikely to be challenged unless there is a lot of profit to be made.

Therefore, if you live on the Cregagh Road, don’t expect to have a choice between Metro and another company.  That will be even more so in the country.

On top of that, it needs to be understood that if a basket of routes is assembled, and Bloggs opens a bus company to operate them, he’ll be given a minimum level of service that he must offer.  That will almost certainly be less than Translink offers now, and as in GB, it is almost inevitable that unless Bloggs’s service is very popular and gets him lots of income, service will be reduced to the minimum allowed under the contract.  No good for customers.

On top of that, you get additional demands for subsidy as Bloggs needs to make money for his shareholders.  If fares are regulated, he will go looking for more ratepayers’ cash to avoid going under.

He might also apply to withdraw services as being economically unviable. DRD might then decide to tender the service as being socially necessary, with a massive subsidy to make it worthwhile – in at least one example in GB, the company who initially refused to operate it won the tender with the increased subsidy.

So, in short, tender services out to private operators, and the vast majority of passengers will still only have one bus company to get them to and from their destination.  Even if they have a choice, and they miss Translink’s bus, Bloggs’s bus following behind won’t necessarily have to accept a Translink ticket.

Add to that the fact that Bloggs will probably take on former Translink bus drivers via TUPE, quite possibly purchasing former Translink buses, and the passenger will be no better off.  In fact, by the time that services are cut, unregulated fares are increased in search of profit, and subsidy is increased, the passenger and ratepayer could be a lot worse off.

So where does this leave us?

I think roadspace in Belfast has to be prioritised.

1. Lorries, vans and others who drive for a living
2. Mass transit
3. Commuters with no practical alternative other than to drive into and through the city centre
4. Shoppers with no practical alternative other than to drive into the city centre
5. People who drive into the city centre because they want to drive, but have a reasonable public transport alternative.

The problem of course is that of all of those, the only one you can legislate for is mass transit.  Bus lanes.  Rapid Transit lanes.  Both of which are good for cyclists (and yes, we do stay ahead of buses at peak times – I leave them way behind when I cycle down the Cregagh and Woodstock Roads, as they have to stop for passengers!)

I’m not proposing HGV lanes.  If mass transit is sorted properly, there will be enough road space for all essential drivers when they need it.

There is very little that can be done about road capacity.  Abolishing bus lanes would reverse the rise in average bus speeds seen in recent years, chasing more people into their cars so we’d be worse off than when we started.  The proposed scheme to complete the Inner Ring with a link road from outside Movie House Cinemas on Dublin Road to further along Ormeau Avenue is one of the few schemes left to offer a little more capacity to divert through traffic away from the City Hall (and will indeed finally permit Donegall Square North to be closed to private traffic as proposed some time ago)

So what is left to give priority to the first four categories unable to use public transport on a particular day?

Only one thing.  Persuasion.

Making the case that for the sake of those who cannot avoid driving that day (remembering that many use public transport most of the time but have to drive the odd time, and vice versa), those with a choice need to consider the impact on society of deciding to drive.  And the impact on themselves because of the impact of congestion on deliveries, pushing up prices in shops.  Pushing up the price of services.  Wasting time waiting for a delivery by a van driver stuck the other side of a traffic jam.

In the end though, only a carrot will fix this, and that carrot is affordable, reliable public transport.  Reliable means that it doesn’t get stuck in traffic so people give up waiting.  It means not having to turn round and run back into the city empty to get back to something remotely resembling “on time”, stranding passengers.

And affordable means cutting fares so that it isn’t cheaper for two people to park in Belfast than to get the bus together.  That’s one of the absolute disgraces of the current system – car parking is expensive enough in my view for the days I can’t avoid driving (and I despise traffic jams with a passion,) so the problem is bus fares.

And cutting fares means increasing subsidy.  Matt Johnston (link to is highly persuasive on the subject of the marginal subsidy required to offer free public transport to all, and thus being able to close the city centre to almost all private cars and otherwise only permit very high frequency shuttle bus services from nearby park and rides (suggesting, as I recall, Sirocco).  I don’t think that this is a goer, but it will make you think a lot about what it would mean.

In the end, we all pay for congestion in cost to the economy.  When public transport is there with the power to take away some of that congestion, and given the right carrots, the benefits of supporting it become clearer, especially for those unable to use it.

Perhaps the problem is that the stubborn mules who will never take public transport regardless of the cost to themselves, let alone the cost to everyone else, don’t like carrots?

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