Will Belfast’s Grand Central Station Be A £340m White Elephant?

Friday 10th May brought the curtain down on Northern Ireland’s busiest railway hub, as Great Victoria Street Station closed its doors after just 29 years in operation. The ‘Grand Central Station’ facility that will replace it is at an advanced stage of development on an 8 hectare site behind Great Victoria rail Station (GVS) and Europa Buscentre. The new hub will be ten times larger than those two facilities, with a total of 8 rail platforms and 26 bus stands (compared to 4 rail platforms and 18 bus bays currently). Whilst the construction of Grand Central appears to be running on-schedule, with opening expected this Autumn, it was recently revealed that the project is heavily over budget. At the early stages of its conception the facility carried an estimated price tag of £175m, before being referred to for most of the period since as a £200m project. It is claimed that the cost had then risen to £295m by the time its full business case was approved in November 2020 – though Translink still continued to refer to it publicly before and after then as a £200m project. It therefore came as a shock last month when it was revealed that the cost of the project has now escalated from a reported £300m (a figure seemingly not mentioned previously) to a whopping £340m. All of which means that over a third of a billion pounds is being spent on just one rail and bus station in Belfast – a city which already has 10 other rail stations as it is. All whilst the three western counties of NI share just 5 rail stations in total between them – with only 3 of those located ‘West of the Bann’ (which is the traditional geographic, demographic and public expenditure dividing line in NI).

The fact that Grand Central Station is running over-budget should surprise no-one. Just last month it was revealed that the cost of rebuilding Belfast’s Yorkgate train station had also ballooned from an initial £10m to £17m. Translink’s Chief Executive has blamed a combination of Brexit, Covid and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for rampant construction cost inflation, and it is still possible that the final bill for Grand Central could even exceed its current £340m price tag. Whilst the existence of a cost over-run should not come as a surprise, the sheer scale of it definitely should. £340m is a vast sum to spend on just one transport facility in a medium-sized city like Belfast and a region as small as NI. It amounts to spending almost £1,000 for every man, woman and child living within Belfast city.

The new station will undoubtedly be an impressive-looking facility – as you’d hope and expect for the largest and most expensive transport hub ever built on this island. However – there is one pertinent question that has yet to be raised by either the media or politicians about the new station. And that is whether or not Belfast actually needs or warrants such a large and expensive facility in the first place. As a life-long campaigner for buses and rail I welcome and celebrate any improvements to public transport. I also accept that the current Europa Buscentre and Great Victoria Street Stations were tired and in need of significant investment – so I fully support the idea of a new transport hub there. At the same time, however, I am left with a nagging feeling that the Grand Central project is significantly larger – and vastly more expensive – than it actually needs to be. And as someone who is keen to see taxpayers’ money spent well, who frequently laments the gross regional imbalance that exists within NI’s transport provision, and who understands that public money spent in one location means there is less available to spend elsewhere – I feel uneasy about the scale of a new facility that appears to have fallen victim to hubris or bloated ambition. In layman’s terms – I worry that Belfast’s Grand Central Station is far bigger and much more expensive than it actually needs to be, and has therefore diverted much-needed infrastructure funds away from elsewhere in NI where facilities are sub-standard or largely absent.

The argument made to justify the scale and cost of Grand Central Station is that it will future-proof the facility for the transport needs of Belfast for the decades to come. However – that claim doesn’t withstand scrutiny in seven key ways :

1) GRAND CENTRAL WILL ACTUALLY REDUCE SOME SERVICES

When Grand Central Station opens it will provide a shiny new rail terminus for Belfast – but one without genuinely improved train services. Despite the significant increase in space at the facility for both buses and trains, there appear to be no plans currently to run new services or destinations from there (with the exception of the relocated Enterprise, which I’ll come on to shortly). This makes sense, as the station will in-of-itself not create much new demand or deliver new capacity. There won’t suddenly be demand for a new bus route between Belfast and Sligo, for example, just because one end of that journey has a new station. Nor will a new rail station address the significant network capacity issues that currently limit the possibility of additional rail services in and out of Belfast. So it is likely to be many years before Grand Central leads to much in the way of genuinely new rail services. The one exception is the recently announced hourly rail service to Dublin – but the reality is that that could just as easily be delivered from the Enterprise’s current departure point of Lanyon Place. A new £340m station isn’t an essential requirement for more frequent Enterprise trains.

Weighted against the lack of genuinely new services is the fact that Grand Central will deliver an instant REDUCTION in services. A number of NI rail routes currently travel through Belfast. For example a regular daily service runs between Bangor and Portadown every 20-30mins, calling at 8 of Belfast’s 11 rail stations en route (including Great Victoria Street). There is also a direct service between Larne Harbour and Lisburn via Belfast a number of times a day, and until recently a once-daily service also ran from Derry direct to Portadown through Belfast. Once Grand Central Station opens, all rail services that directly connect towns either side of Belfast will cease to exist. This is because Translink have decided that Grand Central should function solely as a terminus station. For whatever reason, the choice has been made that every train visiting Grand Central must start and end there. So once the new station opens, anyone who currently travels between Bangor and Lisburn/Portadown directly for work will instead have to switch trains and wait at Grand Central – with journey times, and presumably ticket cost, increased as a result (whilst artificially boosting the number of passengers using the new station). Removing the ability of people to travel directly between the towns and cities either side of Belfast does not ‘future proof’ public transport within the Belfast metropolitan area. If anything, it is a deterrent against the use of rail for certain journeys.

There is also a more invidious impact caused by preventing rail services from running through Belfast – and that is in further entrenching the physical and psychological primacy of that city within Northern Ireland’s transport network. The Northern Ireland rail and road networks already largely revolve around the needs of Belfast as it is. This is most clearly exemplified by the map of the rail network that Translink themselves use (see below) – which distorts geography to ensure that Belfast, and particularly Great Victoria Street, are the visual heart of NI’s entire system. The map also ignores geography and network reality by visually relegating NI’s second-largest city to the status of a mere branch line from Coleraine – portrayed as being of no greater significance than Portrush, which has a population 18 times smaller :

No doubt the name of ‘Grand Central Station’, which will shortly appear at the very heart of these maps, has been chosen to declare not just the new facility’s primacy amongst Belfast’s 11 train stations, but also within NI as a whole.

2) GRAND CENTRAL IS ISOLATED FROM GLIDER & CYCLE PROVISION

Despite being branded as a future-proof hub, Grand Central Station will be disconnected from other key aspects of Belfast’s future transport provision. Chief amongst these is the fact that none of the city’s planned or existing Glider Bus Rapid Transport routes will call at the new ‘central’ hub. The Glider is a flagship transport project for Belfast, with a series of tram-like buses operating on high-frequency cross-town routes to and from its suburbs via the city centre. The first 2 routes – G1 from Dundonald in the east to Colin Glen in the west, and G2 from Titanic Quarter to City Hall – were introduced in 2018 at a cost of approximately £100m. Phase 2 will see the introduction of an additional north-south route from Glengormley to Carryduff (again via the city centre), whilst the existing G2 route will also be extended south to Queen’s University and City Hospital. These additional routes carry an estimated cost of £145m at 2020 prices – of which £35m is due from Belfast’s ‘City Deal’ funds. It was hoped that the UK Government would also contribute a further £20m from its New Deal funding programme – but that is now paused and in doubt. So as of the latest update in February 2024 the project was facing a significant £110m shortfall (and that’s at 2020 prices, so likely to be much higher now). The problem for Grand Central Station is that the place where all these cross-town Glider routes are planned to converge is Donegall Square/City Hall, rather than the new £340m ‘Transport Hub’. This reflects the fact that whilst Grand Central Station may be grand, it will not be particularly central. Belfast’s retail provision and night-time economy are concentrated a 10-20min walk north east of there, and are more readily accessible from Donegall Square (which is already a hub for many local bus services). Two of the future Glider routes will run along Great Victoria Street, and will therefore be a few minutes walk from the Grand Central facility. But these services will not be operational until late 2028 at the very earliest. And the fact that not one of Belfast’s 3 Bus Rapid Transport routes will be routed via the new £340m Transport Hub – whilst some will be a 10min walk away instead – undermines its claim to be Belfast’s central transport junction.

Another way in which Grand Central will be disconnected from some of Belfast’s future transport priorities is in the realm of Active Travel. The new transport hub will not be adequately connected to the proposed Belfast Cycle Network or the city’s emerging greenway network. Urban areas across the UK, Ireland and continental Europe are all undergoing a revolution in terms of the provision and usage of good quality cycling infrastructure. As is so often the case however, Northern Ireland is an outlier in this regard – and still utilising extremely out-dated approaches towards cycling provision. This exposes the truth behind the ‘modal shift’ claims that the Department for Infrastructure employs within its press statements and strategies in an attempt to fool itself and others, whilst in reality doing little or nothing to actually deliver on the promise. The poor quality of waking and cycling connectivity within the design of Grand Central Station has been eloquently critiqued by the Bikefast campaigning group here : Cycling snub at the Transport Hub (bikefast.org) – including the stark contrast with the large amount of vehicle parking being provided at the site. The future of Belfast (and indeed all urban areas) will by necessity be about a reduction in car dominance and the promotion of Active Travel and public transport as attractive alternative options. Grand Central Station unfortunately fails to enable and deliver on the Active Travel part of that requirement.

3) GRAND CENTRAL IGNORES IMPACT ‘WORKING FROM HOME’ HAS HAD ON COMMUTING.

The rise of ‘Working From Home’ (WFH) since Covid has had a significant impact upon patterns of travel to and from Belfast. As outlined in this recent article (Is ‘Working From Home’ Impacting Belfast ? Transport Gives an Indication… – Slugger O’Toole (sluggerotoole.com), 2022-23 figures revealed that Belfast has experienced a decline of 26% (or more than 1 in 4) of its rail passengers compared to the period before Covid. Of the city’s 11 rail stations, 10 now have lower passenger volumes than they were prior to Covid. The only exception is Yorkgate – thanks to the appearance of 17,500 staff and students on its doorstep in a car-free university campus. WFH has led to a decline in short-to-medium-distance weekday commuting in and out of Belfast, and a subsequent rebalancing of rail demand towards longer journeys and more leisure usage. And the largest fall in rail passenger numbers in Belfast has been experienced at Great Victoria Street station – which carried 1.4 million fewer passengers in 2022-23 than it did before the pandemic (almost half of the total decline in rail usage across Belfast). Yet this is the station which the 20 million passenger capacity Grand Central is due to replace in the coming months.

The post-Covid growth of WFH and hybrid-working has resulted in what may be long-term shifts in travel habits amongst commuters. Whilst there is likely to be further post-Covid recovery in the level of passengers using rail in Belfast and elsewhere over the coming years, the Working From Home genie is out of the bottle. We may therefore not get back to pre-Covid levels of commuter demand in and out of Belfast for quite some time. Yet the city is about to be gifted a vast new station with a staggeringly high 20 million passenger capacity.

The Grand Central project was conceived in 2014, and is very much a child of the pre-Covid era. The facility was at an extremely advanced stage when the pandemic reached here in Spring 2020 – although it should be noted that its final business case wasn’t approved until 7 months later, with building work only beginning on-site a further 2 months after that. As a result, the Grand Central project hasn’t been reviewed or revised to take into account the significant change in travel demand that home-based working has had upon Belfast. That feels like a missed opportunity to pause briefly and sense-check any likely ongoing impact on travel demand for a city and a rail network so heavily designed around commuting. The scale and ambition for Grand Central Station already felt excessive prior to the appearance of Covid, and there is a risk that the change in circumstances since then may well exacerbate that. It may now be even more likely that the new facility will operate significantly below its 20 million passenger capacity for many years to come.

4. UNREALISTIC IN SCALE AND AMBITION ?

The new Grand Central Station will contain 26 bus bays and 8 rail platforms – marking a significant increase in capacity versus Europa Buscentre’s 18 bays and Great Victoria Street’s 4 rail platforms. It is difficult to critique the likelihood of the new station requiring all 26 new bus bays, due to the very flexible nature of that transport mode. But it is easy to critique the inclusion of 8 train platforms.

There are currently four separate rail routes connected to Belfast – namely the Derry, Larne, Bangor and Newry/Dublin lines. The recently revealed All-Island Rail Strategy maps out a plan for rail expansion on the island over the next 30 years and envisages at-most 3 additional routes from Belfast (a reopened track to Derry via Portadown/Tyrone, a new route to Newry via Banbridge, and a rather unexpected proposal to link Belfast with Mullingar via Armagh) – plus a way to connect Belfast International Airport to the city, via largely existing tracks. It is therefore unclear why Grand Central Station needs to have 8 rail platforms – particularly when the sharing of platforms is standard practise and a sensible use of space. In addition, it is likely to be the 2050s before all of the recommended routes in the All-Island Strategy get introduced anyway (and that assumes they all get built in the first place). So realistically we are talking about a quarter of a century after Grand Central Station opens before it appears likely it will reach its peak rail provision. Yet transport facilities these days often lead relatively short lives of just a few decades before they are rebuilt or significantly re-designed to reflect changing circumstances. The existing Great Victoria Street station, for example, is being demolished before it reaches its 30th birthday, whilst Yorkgate Station has just been completely rebuilt after 32yrs. It is therefore not out of the question that changed times will mean that Grand Central could similarly find itself in need of a major redesign or rebuild by the middle of this century – before all of the All-Island Rail Strategy’s new routes have even fully transpired. The station may therefore never get to accommodate the huge 20 million passenger capacity that it is being built for currently (at great expense).

5. A PROPERTY PLAY MASQUERADING AS TRANSPORT ?

Grand Central Station is just one part of a much broader regeneration project to create a new neighbourhood in Belfast called ‘Weaver’s Cross’. The land involved is owned by Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company (NITHC), which is the public corporation that owns and operates all Translink’s property, facilities and services (including Ulsterbus, Metrobus, NI Railways etc). Once development of the entire Weaver’s Cross site is complete it will contain 1.3million square feet of space for offices, residential apartments, student accommodation, retail and leisure (plus a new public square). The barrier to the redevelopment of much of that land prior to now was the fact that it is land-locked behind Great Victoria Street and Europa Bus Stations. By flattening those facilities and replacing them with a new combined facility in a neighbouring part of the site, a vast tract of NITHC-owned land has therefore been unlocked. The website for the Weaver’s Cross development makes clear the pivitol role that the new Grand Central Station is playing in that broader property project. Which raises the question – is a vast sum of taxpayers money being directed towards the creation of an overly-large transport hub to partly or largely serve as a lure for private sector property development? Is the NI public unwittingly writing an increasingly large cheque to enable an arms-length quango to play a real life version of the game ‘Monopoly’ under the guise of an infrastructure project ?

With Stormont having been mothballed for a total of 5 years across the decade-long period of the design, planning and build of Grand Central Station, there were neither Ministers nor committees in-place to provide a check or a rein upon the officials involved in this major project at certain stages. And those most closely involved with the project – the civil servants – will never have to answer to the public if it does prove to be an over-sized white elephant. I would suggest that closer scrutiny of the entire project would have been particularly helpful across the 5 years of it when there was no Executive. Particularly given Translink’s objective of using Grand Central Station as the taxpayer key to unlock a much larger property play for their NITHC owners.

 

6. A VANITY PROJECT?

The Department for Infrastructure and Translink are delivering a project that may prove over-sized, but which is undeniably over-budget. Is it possible that individuals involved in the Grand Central project may have succumbed to the sort of monument-building hubris that can befall politicians when seeking to leave a permanent legacy? In the absence of a functioning Stormont, was it instead our civil servants who sought to fulfil the role of the monument builders here? The only thing we can say with any certainty is that many CVs within Translink and DFI will have been enhanced through involvement with such a vast and expensive flagship project. Whether it needed to be so vast or expensive in the first place – and the impact of corralling so much public money into just one project and location – will presumably be ignored.

7. THE ‘OPPORTUNITY COST’ FOR THE REST OF NI

The concept of Grand Central Station was first launched in 2014 by then-Minister Danny Kennedy. Three years earlier (2011) Kennedy had signed-off on a project to upgrade the rail route between Derry and Coleraine, with its track considered ‘life expired’ and in need of renewal to ensure the line could stay open. That work was originally due to finish in 2013, but was delayed and split into 3 distinct phases instead. The first phase took place in 2012, and the second in 2016-17. The third and final phase involves the lifting and replacement of just 14 miles of track between City of Derry Airport and Downhill, and was scheduled to take place in 2021. But when the Stormont Executive was absent for 3 years from 2017-2020, the Infrastructure Department (who a decade earlier had wanted to shut the line) removed the project from their work schedule. When Stormont returned in 2020, the new Minister Nichola Mallon put it back onto the workplan again, with a start date of 2025. But the absence of Stormont from 2022-24 has seen it kicked further down the road yet again – with the earliest possible start date now 2026/27. As a result of these continual delays, what was originally a c.£30m piece of essential work to keep the only rail line in the west of NI open has since trebled in cost. What is most notable about this story isn’t what it reveals about the attitude of civil servants towards investment in the West of NI. It is that a completely discretionary/non-essential project to create a brand new, state of the art, third-of-a-billion pound transport hub in Belfast will have been conceived, planned and built from scratch in significantly less time than it has taken to NOT replace 14 miles of essential rail track West of the Bann. Grand Central will have taken 10 years from conception to delivery (2014-2024). Replacing 14 miles of track between Derry and Coleraine will have taken at least 16 years by the time it eventualy happens (2011-2027).

This touches on a key problem with the Grand Central Station project. Public money is always limited in a small place like Northern Ireland – and even more so in current times. Decisions on where to invest therefore carry an opportunity cost for all the other locations and projects that must by consequence miss out on a share of that scarce funding. To pour such a vast sum of money – more than a third-of-a-billion pounds – into just one transport facility in one town, whilst leaving large swathes of the rest of NI with transport that is at best sub-standard and at worst non-existent, is frankly grotesque and immoral. It is the rest of NI that will be carrying the cost – both financially and in terms of lost opportunities – from the creation of this over-sized and hugely expensive monument to excess on the edge of Belfast city centre.

ALTERNATIVE APPROACHES

Alternative approaches could and should have been pursued in the conception, design, funding and build of Grand Central Station – enabling it to meet its laudable transport objectives whilst avoiding the risk/temptation of making it an unnecessarily-large white elephant. The most obvious option would have been to use a modular design for the facility from the outset. One whereby the facility could be built now to provide an increased capacity of, say, 10 million passengers – but with a design and planning that could easily enable the facility to be further expanded in future as and when demand proved it necessary. Secondly – as mentioned earlier, the signing-off of the project’s business case in November 2020 should also have been used as an opportunity to pause briefly and reflect on what impact the Covid pandemic could have upon the assumptions behind the scale and cost of the Grand Central project. When major societal changes are triggered by an unprecedented global event, it surely makes sense to pause for breath when the opportunity presents itself (and before committing vast sums of public money).

Finally – if we had a Northern Ireland where jobs, public expenditure, infrastructure, university places, population etc were not so heavily concentrated upon just Belfast, then there would be no credible argument for creating such a vast and expensive transport monument for just that one location. A serious attempt to level up the rest of NI through greater regional balance – rather than continually doubling-down on the dominance of Belfast – would remove any pretence that 20 million passengers a year might pass through any facility in NI. And it would also deliver significantly better economic, social and environmental outcomes for everyone across the whole of Northern Ireland.

CONCLUSION

The over-riding question regarding Grand Central Station is : does it really need to be so big and so expensive? Is it a wise move to spend over a third-of-a-billion pounds on just one transport facility in Belfast, and is it likely to prove value for money ? Why does Belfast city need to host the largest transport hub on the island anyway (or the largest anything, given how much smaller it is than Dublin) ? What tangible transport deliverables will the £340m bill for this station achieve that realistically couldn’t have been delivered for a much lower sum? Will the facility’s 20 million annual passenger capacity prove too big from the start, and too big longer term? Can it really meet the future transport needs of Belfast whilst disconnected from other key initiatives like Glider and Active Travel ? And how will this monumental facility genuinely improve public transport in the towns, cities and communities beyond Belfast’s Metropolitan orbit – many of whom are left with little or no transport worth speaking of ?

In short – will Grand Central prove to be an over-sized and excessively expensive white elephant? We will all no doubt have our own opinions on this issue as we approach its Autumn opening date, but only time itself will reveal the truth behind this question.


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