£1.1 billion running public transport to stand still

I have to say, I hate listening to my recorded voice, so it’s probably as well that I haven’t listened back to myself on Good Morning Ulster or Radio Foyle breakfast.  I did watch myself talking to Kevin Sharkey on BBC Newsline, which is a bad idea for the shy.  I have to thank my friend Wesley for recommending me once again.

Having received an advance copy of the NIAO report into DRD: the effectiveness of public transport in Northern Ireland to comment for the Belfast Telegraph (unfortunately bumped due to space constraints, but available on my own website) I was able to dig more deeply for Slugger.

The report reflects on the impact of £1.1 billion investment in public transport in Northern Ireland since 2002.  I observed that much of this went on addressing backlogs in vehicle renewal (buses formerly supplied steadily at about 40-50 a year had slowed down to 60 every couple of years, and the newest trains, delivered in 1986, had reconditioned mechanical equipment from 1966 in new bodies) and railway infrastructure maintenance – in other words, together with the funding to support expanded entitlement to concessionary fares and to run additional and longer trains to meet a totally unprecedented rise in demand for railway services, the £1.1 billion only served to bring Translink to where it ought to have been if its funding hadn’t been neglected, not least due to the Troubles.

In the media, I have focussed on the necessity for buses and trains to compete with the private car on speed and cost, including reflecting that buses will nearly always be slower, but if speeded up this can be mitigated by not having to take charge of a vehicle in Belfast rush hour – but it is crazy that it is cheaper for my wife and I to drive to St George’s market on a Saturday and pay to park than to get the bus together.  I noted on Radio Ulster that there were no proposals by then to increase charges for on-street car parking (the surface car parks now being the responsibility of the local councils) but in the end, modal shift is not going to happen unless the burden of paying for public transport is rebalanced towards the ratepayer: everyone who needs to drive benefits when other people take the bus or train instead of adding to their traffic jam.

The main focus of the report is to examine the implementation of the Regional Transportation Strategy and in particular the 2002 consultation “Public Transport: a new start”, the standalone Transport Agency proposed in 2009, the implementation of Transport NI in 2013, and the reduction of Transport NI to Roads Service, Park&Ride and Bus Rapid Transit in 2014.  It also benchmarks governance and operations (including timetabling and fares) with GB, concluding that “DRD does not have the skills to effectively manage public transport in Northern Ireland.”

I do have issues with the benchmarking of operations.  I don’t think it’s fair to compare city fares across similar size cities without considering how much council tax payers in Plymouth have to contribute in subsidy to achieve a flat fare of £1.00 while Belfast has an average cash fare of £1.58 and a multijourney fare of over 33% less, again not shown in the report.  Rail fares shown are confusing, because they are grouped in bands rather than by actual distance (so Belfast-Bangor is compared to both the same distance (Dublin-Bray) and a lot longer (Hull-Doncaster) but it’s still enough to show that privatised National Rail charges a lot more for similar distances.  They also highlight the impact of the relatively low line speeds on NIR on journey times compared to driving or National Rail.

It does note that GB cities have better spread and intensity of services than Metro but Ulsterbus service levels are currently higher than rural areas in GB – how much longer this will be true remains to be seen, especially as our superior rural services actually appear to carry fewer passengers – presumably due to fare levels in a context where buses are more likely to be at times they are wanted.

The report also considers ratios of operational staff (drivers, train conductors etc) to managers, without noting that Arriva, and Stagecoach and in particular FirstGroup need a lot fewer managers proportionally due to their sheer size.

Other issues raised include the fall in passenger numbers on Ulsterbus (the 2005 introduction of Metro saw some passengers transfer from Ulsterbus to Metro perforce, but Ulsterbus lost fewer passengers than Metro gained), the impact of cheap Belfast parking and the methodology for passenger charter punctuality and reliability calculations.  It doesn’t mention that the fuel duty rebate which had been paid to all public transport operators to help with fuel costs came to an end in March 2015.

My conclusion from the report is one inspired by Dickens, unlike the title of this piece, sourced from U2, and one I signed off with on Radio Foyle this morning.

With an imperative to increase services and cut fares to achieve modal shift, DFP, who ultimately fund Translink through DRD, need to act a lot less like the Beadle when Oliver Translink politely asks for more.

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