State-owned Northern Ireland coach, bus and rail operator Translink hopes to double its 2019 passenger numbers within five years, building on an ambitious investment plan that before the onset of COVID-19 had delivered the highest number of public transport journeys in the province for 20 years.
That was the headline from an address given by Chief Executive Chris Conway at an Urban Transport Group webinar on 3 June. But Mr Conway left no doubt that the support of politicians and other key stakeholders will be imperative if Translink is to come good on its aspiration.
“Mass transport is key to [mitigating] climate change,” he says, adding that greater recognition that decarbonisation is “not all about electric cars” is needed. But the industry has not yet done enough or moved fast enough to reduce its contribution to overall carbon emissions, Mr Conway continues.
In the future there will be a need for it to make things happen more quickly, he notes. However, Translink’s overriding lesson already is that if a high-quality service is provided, people will use it.
Mid-2022 recovery for passenger numbers, Translink expects
Hopes for public transport patronage growth and modal shift in Northern Ireland come against a backdrop of both an ongoing schedule of improvements and the COVID-19 crisis. The latter means that across its network, Translink is currently carrying around 50% of pre-pandemic passenger volumes.
Mr Conway does not expect numbers to completely recover until summer 2022, but he notes that before COVID-19, Northern Ireland was the only one of the Home Nations that was seeing growth in bus patronage.
In Belfast, one of the drivers of that trend has been Glider, the east-west high-quality bus rapid transit service.
While Glider uses tram-like Van Hool Exqui.City articulated vehicles, Mr Conway says that it is not seen by users as a bus; rather, it is a brand.
Significant work on infrastructure took place in preparation for Glider’s opening. Bus lanes are an important part of its success, and priority measures form a large part of Translink’s future plans.
Gilder BRT demonstrated strong pre-pandemic growth
Glider was delivered in partnership with Northern Ireland’s Department for Infrastructure (DfI). Before the pandemic, patronage had grown to 45,000 journeys per day and Translink purchased four additional vehicles to supplement the original fleet to accommodate that.
“People could see that Glider is what high quality public transport looks like,” says Mr Conway. He adds that the service has also demonstrated the social inclusivity benefits of good public transport. Communities in east and west Belfast see more mixing thanks to the enhanced connectivity that Glider has brought.
A north-south Glider service is planned, but lessons relating to stakeholder engagement during the disruptive construction phase have been learned from the first route. Mr Conway notes that where drivers of other vehicles see usable road and parking space reduced, there can be vocal kickback.
A robust plan to counter those concerns is needed, he adds. It is also necessary to compromise at times. But those are short-term difficulties. “Because Glider is such a good service, people get over their concerns quickly.”
‘Provide high quality public transport and people will use it’
Pre-pandemic potential for growing commuter traffic on bus services was clear from Translink’s experience with its Urby services.
They serve towns on the outskirts of Belfast and park-and-ride sites. Urby has succeeded a previous approach where these areas relied on services that passed through as part of longer journeys, a change that has benefitted reliability.
Urby generated patronage growth of 10% in its first year. Mr Conway adds there “there is more to come” for the concept, with investment in further bus priority a part of that.
Urby vehicles are well appointed, which is important in the commuter market. “When you invest in high quality public transport, people use it,” he says.
Work progressing well on Translink’s zero-emission transition
While Translink patronage is currently at half of pre-pandemic levels, the rate of return has grown from what was expected earlier in the year. Translink’s 2021/22 budget is in the throes of being agreed with DfI. Mr Conway says there will be “an element” of COVID-19 support funding within it.
Translink’s move towards zero-emission is also progressing. Three Wrightbus StreetDeck FCEV hydrogen fuel cell-electric double-deckers are performing well. Work is progressing on the infrastructure for others that form part of an order for 100 zero-emission buses from the Ballymena manufacturer.
Additionally, it also has plans to roll out what Mr Conway says will be “one of the biggest” account-based ticketing schemes in the UK outside London.