The news that Translink has a huge backlog of essential work to bring safety systems on Northern Ireland Railways up to date was no surprise to those of us who have taken a close interest in public transport over the years. Indeed Seán Neeson highlighted safety as an issue after a minor accident on the Larne line over two years ago.
The figure quoted – £183 million – has led to speculation that the entire Northern Ireland railway system might be closed, with Belfast-Dublin left as an appendage to the Southern system. I believe that such a decision would be disastrous for the future of Northern Ireland.
For too long, public transport in Northern Ireland has been regarded as a Cinderella service. While investment in buses has been very low by UK standards, investment in our rail services is dire: less than a fifth of that given to private rail companies in GB. The former Department of the Environment regarded building roads and providing for the private car as the panacea for all our transport problems.
In an area of widely dispersed population, such as much of rural Northern Ireland, it will never be possible to have quality public transport to meet all our needs. But the real problems of traffic congestion occur on heavily populated routes into major work centres. This includes a number of towns across the region, although it is most concentrated in Belfast.
As a Councillor and Assembly Member in South Antrim, with a large commuting population, I know how much people want to have decent public transport. Where Translink have put on quality bus services, such as the City Express in Newtownabbey and on the Templepatrick/International Airport route, people have been attracted out of their cars, with consequent benefit to the economy, air quality and health in the inner city.
People in Templepatrick and Muckamore tell me – and write to me – to say how much they want to have a decent rail service. When the threat to services between Antrim and Lisburn became known, I had more responses to my local news-sheet in Crumlin than I have had on any other issue. I sought, and received, an assurance from Peter Robinson, during his only Ministerial Question Time, that Translink would re-examine the possibility of retaining services on that line.
But my constituency is not unique. After problems with broken down rolling stock on the Bangor line, Eileen Bell, MLA for North Down, convened a meeting between commuters and senior NIR staff, which attracted a large turnout on a winter evening. There was a serious, rational discussion about the problems of NIR and how these problems can be addressed.
Nor is this a recent development. Will Glendinning was pressing for the building of the Lagan Bridge and the use of the Bleach Green Line when he was a member of the Alliance Assembly team in 1982/86.
The people of our region are not stupid. They know that the private car cannot provide for the needs of a large population of regular commuters. They know that quality transport costs money. They know that the NIR infrastructure and rolling stock have been allowed to deteriorate with minimal investment.
However, since it appears that those civil servants who have driven public transport policy (and driven their own private cars) for over the last thirty years don’t know the realities of life, let me spell out some of them.
As long as the civil servants who are in charge of bus and rail policy are regarded as a section of the Roads Service within the Department of Regional Development, and changed frequently, there will be no serious examination of the issues.
As long as the Treasury claws back ‘profits’ from Translink, rather than allowing them to be invested in improvements, services will deteriorate.
If Government Ministers can’t read their own development strategy, ‘Shaping our Future’ and realise the importance of strategic transport routes, we will have no improvements.
Quality public transport has a crucial role to play in improving the quality of life and enhancing the economic development opportunities of Northern Ireland. In every other part of Western Europe, public transport is run to a high standard, at low cost to users, because of its economic and environmental benefits. As a result it is popular with all sorts of people.
I can remember a few years ago attending a weekend conference in Bern, Switzerland. At teatime on Saturday, I was on a tram with elderly ladies going home from the market, tourists coming down from the mountains, teenage boys going to an ice hockey match and middle class couples going to the opera house.
Nearer home, the DART in Dublin has shown the potential of improvements to public transport in attracting drivers onto the railway. There is no reason why the railway lines into Belfast should not provide the same level of service on the heavily populated transport corridors into the city from Bangor, Lisburn, Antrim and Carrickfergus.
The railway network is a single unit. The belated opening of the Lagan Bridge and the reinstatement of the Antrim-Whiteabbey line make it more integrated. Any suggestions that we should cut off parts of the network are wrong in principle. The experience of the 1960s, both here and in GB, shows that reducing services and closing lines reduces the number of passengers for remaining services.
In fact we require the development of new services to maximise the potential of the system. It may not be possible to reintroduce rail on the Comber line, but there ought to be a direct rail connection from the International Airport, where the terminal building is only 400 metres from the line.
All this will require significant investment. European Structural Funds are available for infrastructure improvements. With so much rolling stock overdue for replacement, there is the opportunity to provide appropriate stock for different services. If Government is unwilling to fund new rolling stock, the option of a public-private partnership may have potential.
Public transport in Northern Ireland has suffered from a thousand cuts over the last four decades, ever since the Unionist Government cut services in the West, including the major Portadown-Omagh-Derry line. The present crisis presents only two choices: total closure or reinvigoration of the entire system. Closure is unthinkable.