Belfast Rapid Transit (Glider) Phase 2 announced

This week, Minister for Infrastructure Nichola Mallon launched the public consultation for Phase 2 of the Belfast Rapid Transit (Glider) system. 

I think this is a welcome development and will improve connectivity, access to and uptake of public transport in the city. 

I remember when Glider was first launched on the east/west route a few years ago. Before it got off the ground, it was fashionable to dump on it (a common pattern for public transport projects on this island). People argued that it could not even get around corners. A few shop owners predicted that the removal of parking spaces would destroy their businesses. Parents argued that they could not drop off their kids at school. Taxi drivers complained. All of these complaints more or less disappeared when the service was launched.

But despite some nasty hiccups, especially down at the Titanic Quarter, the rapid transport scheme has been a success, and now those of us in the other parts of the city want to access it too. 

Why does Glider work ? Branding it to make it seem like something more than just a bendy bus plays more of a role than people might like to admit. The real key, though, is off-board ticketing. A significant cause of timetable slip and slow service is the need to issue tickets and change. By getting dwell times at stops down to a predictable level, coupled with well-enforced bus lanes, you build confidence in the reliability of the system in a way that attracts more users. 

Like everything in life, Glider represents a compromise. A tram system would be more scalable, would attract more passengers, and would be more environmentally friendly. But it would also cost significantly more to build and operate. The government argues that it cannot justify the additional cost. I don’t agree with this judgement, but for the time being at least, we need the eggs. Glider will never be as good as a tram, but it gets us part of the way there for relatively little outlay. 

Turning to the consultation, the route options broadly reflect what many of us predicted, although there are some disappointing shortcomings which I will come to later.

North Belfast was always going to be politically tricky due to the community divide, with the two major arterial routes through the constituency corresponding to two major sections of the community. On the plain facts and figures, the Antrim Road route comes out on top, with higher residential density and a number of major primary and secondary schools along the route, leading to higher passenger flows which are reflected in the existing bus patronage along the route.

However, the Department should try to find a way that everyone can win. One way to do this is very simple – build both routes. Alternatively – or, even better, in addition – it is long past time to look at what benefit could be achieved by adding additional railway stations between Whiteabbey and Yorkgate, or adding additional express bus services that use the M2 and M5.

As with the first phase of the Glider, we can expect protests from businesses and residents who will be required to give up parking spaces on the main road. Businesses between Limestone Road and Duncairn Gardens, and residential properties between the New Lodge Road and Carlisle Circus, will have to be accommodated somehow, and it’s a similar story on the Ormeau Road from the University Road all the way to Rosetta. I hope that politicians and the Minister hold their nerve here. While a solution is required, and I hope the Department will be innovative, we cannot throttle the city’s public transport system to protect the driving preferences of a small number of people, and I hope to see the Infrastructure Minister standing up to any parochial interests arguing to the contrary.

Turning to the route itself : at the northern end, the decision to terminate the route at O’Neill Road, missing the large and densely-populated residential area of Glengormley and its environs, will prove to be a serious long-term mistake if it is allowed to stand. The consultation argues that securing bus priority on the section between O’Neill Road and the junction at Hightown Road will be too difficult, citing the high cost of land acquisition and “high risk to stakeholder and public acceptability”. This is where our elected representatives must be brave and insist that the Department look at this matter again. It is for politicians, not officials, to decide what the public might find acceptable or not, and I can guarantee that bus users in Glengormley will rightly find it entirely unacceptable that they will need to switch buses halfway along the Antrim Road to reach the city centre.

Moving further along, many people wondered how the tricky technical problem posed by the narrow section of the Antrim Road between Bellevue Bridge and Serpentine Road would be solved. The solution is to have a bus lane in the city-bound direction only, with the likely elimination of right-turn pockets. Time will tell whether or not this compromise will work, but the cost of solving it by widening the road would likely be a multi-£million project in its own right, involving the compulsory purchase of high-value property that would become necessary in the area around Ben Madigan Park, alongside property occupied by Belfast Zoo. I can understand why the Department have side-stepped that idea, but I hope that the door is kept open to securing funds to do the work here if required in the future.

From there, it’s bus lanes in both directions all the way to Donegall Street. Interestingly, the Department proposes the elimination of Carlisle Circus, which will now become a signalised junction. I am assuming that this means the Antrim Road will connect to Clifton Street on a continuous curve. This junction is very busy at peak times and this change will ensure reliable operation of bus traffic. 

In the city centre itself it looks like Royal Avenue/Donegall Place will return to having buses run in two directions. This will hopefully help to draw investment and custom back into the rather dreary looking Royal Avenue area, and also benefit the new Ulster University campus which will be served at its edge at the bottom of Donegall Street.

In town, the circular G2 route is extended to run from City Hall to around the area of Queen’s University. However, this is where the next major disappointment arises; the service will not pass by the front of the new bus/train station currently under construction at Weaver’s Cross (Durham Street). The consultation argues that this is not technically possible. However I think this must be looked at again – the public will struggle to understand how the Department would build a new station and transport system but not be able to figure out how to make them connect. It is essential that long-regional and national bus and train passengers have the option of hopping on or off a Glider right at the front of the station to continue their journey.

Moving out of town towards South Belfast, a new bus-only connecting road is built from Bruce Street to the Gasworks, passing in front of the former Movie House cinema and enabling buses to easily connect from Great Victoria Street to the Ormeau Road. From there, bus lanes run both ways as far as Cairnshill. Once again, there is controversy over the failure to extend the Glider all the way to Carryduff. This may turn out to be a major shortcoming, although unlike the northern end of the route, the two-mile section between Cairnshill and the Manse Road appears to be mostly open country. The consultation argues that there are few “attractors” here and it is hard to argue with this, but we should also bear in mind that public transport projects should not simply serve to facilitate existing demand but to draw investment into an area. 

The final observation to make about the scheme is the timescale. The consultation anticipates service commencement by September 2027. While I expect that consultation and design could reasonably be expected to take another year or so, it again beggars belief that four or five years are required to build a set of bus lanes with ticketing machines and realign some sections of road. The Department has delivered projects far larger than this in much shorter timescales. Again I think politicians need to look closely to see what can be done to accelerate this project.

Overall, I am looking forward to the project getting started and entering service. I hope that the Department and the Minister listen carefully to the feedback from the consultations and are able to address some of the shortcomings highlighted in the proposal. Everyone interested in the project being a success should take the time to review the proposal details here and, in particular, respond to the consultation here.