Public transport is a cross-cutting enabler for economic growth, social connection and environmental progress, writes Translink Chief Executive, Chris Conway.
Public transport is key to the delivery of any future Programme for Government, as well as the delivery of any net zero strategy. It is essential for the good of our economy and our environment that there is a modal shift to sustainable transport and reliance on the private car is reduced, this will help to deliver on a broad range of deliverables in health, education, social policy, community development and above all, the road to net zero.
2023 is shaping up be a challenging year for Northern Ireland’s economy and the budget for public services, with significant impacts being felt across a wide range of deliveries and there is a pressing need to ensure that public transport, a major enabler of a vast number of other policy priorities and a key component of the transition to net zero, is appropriately funded as part of this process.
Translink wishes to see public transport adequately supported in the time ahead, with financial stability and an agreed budget that will enable us to deliver our essential services for the benefit of the whole community.
The situation as it currently stands, with public transport spending in Northern Ireland sitting at 30 per cent of the UK average, simply cannot continue. There is a need to address the public transport funding shortfall as a priority so that the network can not only be delivered but enhanced; otherwise, the cross-cutting aspects that public transport delivers for health, education, the economy, and our environment, will be in jeopardy, with Northern Ireland’s net zero target moving out of reach.
As well as working with a significant funding discrepancy in Northern Ireland, as compared to Great Britain, there is also a significant gap between funding here and funding in the Republic of Ireland. In 2019, just prior to the pandemic, the per-capita subsidy in the Republic was €2.17, compared to £0.86 in Northern Ireland.
Translink has a wide range of ambitious plans for the months ahead and beyond towards 2040, but these can only be realised, and provide benefit to communities in every part of Northern Ireland, with appropriate, long-term support and funding.
Plans and ambitions
Our ambitions remain unchanged, however, and Translink is wholly committed to achieving net zero across our network. Climate change is the most pressing environmental concern of our time, and the time for action is now. We must continue the progress towards net zero this year, in line with the 2022 Climate Change Act; transport accounts for around 20 per cent of all Northern Ireland’s emissions, a figure that has actually grown in the last thirty years. Translink has a strategy to accelerate the transformation towards net zero, seeking to deliver a 50 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030 and achieve net zero across our bus and rail network by 2040.
We are embracing zero emission technology and innovations to decarbonise the fleet, and we are making strong progress; we already operate one of the largest zero emission bus fleets in these islands, and over one third of the Belfast Metro fleet already runs on zero emission technology.
The headline this year however will be the transition to zero emission of the entirety of the Derry~Londonderry Foyle Metro fleet in the months ahead, as well as an initial roll-out of zero emission services in the Causeway Coast area . Many of our major depots, including Belfast’s Milewater Service Centre and Pennyburn in Derry~Londonderry, are already equipped with some of the largest charging and refuelling points in the UK and Ireland, with Newtownabbey depot hosting one of the largest hydrogen refuelling plants in Europe.
Our railway fleet will also transition to renewable technologies ahead of the 2040 target, and we are working with key stakeholders to deliver a range of developments. We have a joint venture with Irish Rail to bring forward improved cross-border Enterprise frequency, including the procurement of additional fleet, which will deliver an hourly service frequency and improved journey times. The forthcoming All-Island Strategic Rail Review will bring forward recommendations to expand the opportunities offered by rail transport. We are also working with some of the opportunities presented by the UK Government’s Union Connectivity Review, which will help us enhance our connections to other transport hubs, such as airports.
Passenger numbers have returned strongly to bus and rail travel during 2022 and we will be working to continue this trend this year, with a continued focus on high levels of customer service; we are also continuing the deployment of contactless ticketing across the network to make it easier for everyone to use public transport, providing greater choice and flexibility.
We are also undertaking major track and signalling works across our £3 billion rail asset to address years of underinvestment and to make sure that rail infrastructure is fit for future generations to use, helping to improve journey reliability and safety, and we will complete work in the Lisburn area, at Cullybackey, and at Lagan Junction in central Belfast, in the months ahead. We will work to progress the much-anticipated Phase 3 project on the Derry~Londonderry railway line, helping to build capacity and provide essential resilience on this vital inter-city link.
Alongside this, work is being maintained at pace at the flagship Belfast Grand Central Station project, which is on target to enter the first phase of operational service by late 2024, with other major projects, including the new station at York Street, also making progress.
We also look forward to working with the Department for Infrastructure to deliver Belfast Rapid Transport Phase 2, building on the success of the existing east-west and Titanic Quarter connections in operation since 2018.
Translink is working to expand the public transport network to support the economy and our environment in Northern Ireland with a high-quality, sustainable service, working in support of other policy areas, but we are clear that this will require ongoing investment in our services and in our infrastructure.
We want to work with a wide range of stakeholders to ensure that public transport is appropriately funded and supported, with our society benefitting from better, extended, more frequent services, and public transport helping to drive economic and social regeneration, playing our full part in the shift towards an active, sustainable, net zero future, one that is Better. Connected.
For more information, please visit www.translink.co.uk/betterconnected