Issues

The route ahead

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Draft plans to reform public transport are moving forward, centred around a proposal for a new agency and more competition for Translink.

Bus and rail services in Northern Ireland are due to move in a new direction over the next two years.

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In the department’s own words, its stated aim is to provide “a customer-focused, high quality integrated public transport system, which is sustainable, provides good value for money, enhances competitiveness, helps sustain economic growth, promotes regional development and contributes to equality and social inclusion.”

A new public transport agency will set out what service should be provided and license this out to operators. Translink, which dominates public transport at present, would therefore be joined by other licensees in a more competitive market. These performance-based contracts would contain commitments on reliability, punctuality and customer service.

All public transport services must be provided through contracts, according to EU Regulation 1370/2007; this law comes into force in December and has a 10-year transition period.

Benefits to the public would include the introduction of integrated local transport plans, the improved integration of timetables and common ticketing between different transport modes and different service providers, and a single call centre for all public transport passengers.

Fares on all contracted services would be regulated to ensure that increases are kept to a minimum and services are provided “as efficiently as possible”. Private operators delivering licensed services will be able to use bus and rail stations, and bus stops, rather than pick up and set down passengers at the roadside, as they have to do now.

Another proposal is that the agency would recover some of the costs of public transport from the developers of largescale building projects.

Regulation is seen as essential as deregulation in Great Britain has led to gaps in the market, where it was not profitable to run a service. “There is no intention to privatise Translink,” DRD stresses, adding that it would remain within public ownership and would remain the “lead provider” of services.

For the local plans, ‘wide’ consultation with councils, operators and the public would be needed. Formal co-operation will take place between the agency and the Consumer Council.

Speaking at the ‘Exploring the future of public transport’ seminar, Transport Minister Conor Murphy said he wanted to make public transport people’s first choice and not last resort.

“While there have been substantial improvements in public transport, I think we all recognise the need for this to be a continuous process,” he said. “Whilst investment will be important in that process we also need to ensure that we have in place the best systems and structures to enable us to build on our achievements.”

The end result would be a three-tier model:

  1. Funding, policy and legislation(covered by the relevantdepartments: DRD and DoE);
  2. Regulation, service specificationsand procurement (the publictransport agency); and
  3. Service delivery (Translink and the private operators).

Departments will transfer responsibility for planning, budget management, contracting, concessionary fare, community and rural transport to the agency. Operators would be free to draw up timetables, maintain property and deal with customers’ views and complaints.

The consultation closes at 5pm on 5 February.

After this, the department plans to publish its final plans by spring 2010. A Bill will be introduced to Assembly, subject to the Executive’s approval, and the ambition is to put the new system in place by mid-2011.

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