Interview with Translink CEO Chris Conway

Thursday afternoon in the Europa Buscentre, and knowing I’ve been scooped by the Business Telegraph (the price of blogging), I meet with Chris Conway in the conference room.  We’ve met before, as I happened to be at Stormont for an Autism event on the day Translink launched Train and Bus week, but this chat has been pre-arranged to talk about the new ticketing systems.

Phone is recording the audio (no boos today), and we dive fairly quickly into the new ticketing system – Parkeon, the successful tendering firm was one of a range of suppliers who had been approached in advance, and then narrowed down through the tender process to five, then three, and then finally appointed, is the present owner of the Wayfarer brand, which has supplied ticket machines to Ulsterbus since 1987, and Citybus since a few years later.  They’re considered to be one of the best suppliers, on price, quality and best solution, and I can’t remember when I last got on a bus without a Wayfarer ticket machine anywhere in the UK (or, for that matter in Ireland) – Chris notes that Dublin Bus has an additional bolt-on from a different supplier for the LEAP cards which Parkeon was able to integrate, but Translink felt a completely integrated solution was the way to go.

I looked back to 2001, the last time that Translink did a full new ticketing system.  NIR had to replace its ticket machines about five years ago as the old Wayfarer handheld machines were life-expired, but the present machines will have nearly a ten year life due to the timescale for the new solution.  I then introduce Andy the cynic. There were a lot of promises in 2001 which were never quite fulfilled – integrated ticketing, card readers on NIR ticket machines never commissioned, and technology superseded almost as soon as it was introduced – all we got were Smartlink cards, and eventually iLink, which was a bit of a disappointment.

Technology moves so fast generally that you have to keep yourself future-proofed…

Even some of the suppliers who have implemented things three or four years ago, we’ll be getting a much more up to date technology than that now.  So we’ll actually be going into the market in two-three years’ time with something that really is leading edge, but technology will keep moving and you have to get as much future-proofing in as you possibly can when you implement it because you don’t want to be putting in new systems every few years.

We move on to ePurse (the technical name for the Oyster equivalent) – Chris intends it to be tap on, tap off subject to anyone forgetting to tap off being charged to the terminus, with weekly capping, but any discounts etc for using the card rather than cash will be decided as part of an overall fare strategy which is still under development.

When NIR has its turn, all stations will have tap on/tap off points, and at least selected halts will have ticket vending machines.  CCTV will be required to monitor them, but we talk about railway stations which are only manned part time and rely on CCTV for the rest of the time.

We talk about the bus ticket machines, which are likely to be based on the upgraded version of the current model (colour screen, new button cluster) – the press release shows the off-the-shelf version) with the tap on-tap off reader beside the door.  Vending machines will be in two types – one like a car park machine for halts, and digital walls for manned stations.  We also talk about NIR tickets – will they still be paper, or will they convert to card for compatibility with, for example, the gates at Dublin Connolly?  Chris isn’t sure – that’s one for the technical team, but they would have to be compatible with the automatic gates at manned stations anyway, which suggests card.  The technical team is led by staff who have worked in Operations, and who therefore know what the staff have to deal with.  This will not be the only indication that Chris wants the right people in the right place to make good decisions.

Chris remembers what I forgot to ask about – barcode technology on e-tickets, replacing the status quo of coloured codes on the mLink app.  Like the easyjet app, I reflect, although I could have mentioned a barcode in a text message for me to use as a boarding pass with BMI about ten years ago.

We talk about timescales – BRT first, then Metro, then Ulsterbus, and then NIR, which is at least partly because of the new gates, vending machines etc at stations, but, reflecting on the teething problems the Wayfarer Mk2 machines had in 1987, perhaps good for that too?  Chris notes that while the media is asking why it is taking so long, we are at the end of 2016, so two years until go-live is actually quite a short period of time, and as I remind him, trying to avoid sitting in five years’ time stuck with yesterday’s technology.

We move on to fuel duty rebate, which is paid to every local bus operator (both publicly owned and privately owned) in Great Britain and is equal to 89% of the duty they pay on diesel, and was paid to Translink and other Northern Ireland local bus operators until March 2015.  Chris is on record as wanting it back, and I ponder the political chances.

In the political climate, I think there’s good support for what we’re trying to achieve, and there’s good support for public transport, and it links well into the Programme for Government, and so I think the political support is there.  On the other hand, you have the financial climate, which is where the challenges are, and where the Executive have to prioritise funding… Even with a one year budget, if we start to see signs of that deficit which we’re running every year being rectified, I think it will be a very positive message to all of our staff to start with, and to Northern Ireland as a whole.

Public transport is a costly business – the best services are the ones which get the best public funding, and I ruefully reflect that the public hasn’t entirely understood the cost.  I mention Coleraine-Londonderry Phase 2 – the extra services are dependent on extra Public Service Obligation, and there will be pressure for the restoration of services to Larne, Scarva and Poyntzpass.

Speaking of which, we touch on the International Airport and the general investment strategy. The short term plan is to complete the Coleraine-Londonderry scheme, then the two hubs at Waterside station and Great Victoria Street, additional rolling stock for suburban services (and additional staff); the medium term plan is improving Enterprise services, and Knockmore-Antrim is in the long term plan.  I ponder that Ballinderry, Glenavy and Crumlin used to sustain a decent commuter service, but Chris is clear on priorities – the short to medium term plan to improve existing services needs to be delivered first.  In the meantime, coaches with leather seats are expected to replace the current service buses operating Belfast-International Airport.

The Enterprise reminds me of Alan’s discussion of the draft new Enterprise timetable last year.  Chris confirms that there was a minor adjustment from 1st July, but he believes that this will have been enough to facilitate Irish Rail’s plans for the DART without resorting to the earlier and slower first departure.  In the medium term he still wants an hourly service.

The Waterside transport hub will be over and above Foyle Street bus station, although the precise site is as yet still uncertain as they are working through options and proposals.  Portrush, similarly, has no pre-supposed options for the design work for the station to be funded under the general public realm scheme.

We go back to fares and fuel duty rebate.  Edinburgh is £1.50 flat fare, and Chris notes that they are heavily subsidised to achieve this, and I note the lack of commuter discounts in Edinburgh.  I also note that Bristol Airport is higher than the International Airport for a shorter distance.  I reflect that travelling time will militate against a railway link to the airport due to changes of train and bus making it more inconvenient.

Could fuel duty rebate pay to reverse some of the service cuts?  Chris notes that since last autumn’s cuts, they’ve been able to restore some services at a very low cost.  The problem is that the fuel duty rebate would more or less cover the annual deficit – and we agree there are only so many efficiency savings you can make – like closing a ticket office and being criticised by the same politicians who voted for the cuts.

We turn to integrated services, and the failed attempts in the 1990s to integrate rail and bus services that fell apart as soon as the next timetable arrived.  Chris reports that network planning has now been centralised for the three companies, with the potential to improve this, but this brings issues with late services – can buses be held for late trains without impacting later services?

Finally, I ask: what is Chris’s wishlist as Chief Executive?

I would like to see all of the key projects to truly transform public transport delivered, and on my list would be the ticketing which we have announced, but we have to deliver it.  Belfast Rapid Transit… the hubs in Derry and Belfast committed to in terms of finance and delivered… our capital plans for fleet (both bus and rail) commited to as well… and the Enterprise… if we have those we will make a big transformation in public transport.

A visionary who wants to make sure it will happen and put the right people into place. I said the most difficult question was always going to make sure it wasn’t 2001 all over again, and Chris is determined to make sure the right people are there to be effective.
Many thanks to Chris for his time and to Lynda Shannon for arranging the interview.

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