Roads Service, Transport NI, and the Inquiry into Comprehensive Transport Delivery Structures

I actually wrote this post last year with the intention of submitting it to another website. For one reason or another, it never got published there, but with the succession of Transport NI from Roads Service, it has suddenly become current again.

For more information on the handover, please see my friend and local roads expert Wesley Johnston’s blog.

In the meantime, let me take you back to September 2013, when the Committee for Regional Development released their much-anticipated Report on the Inquiry into Comprehensive Transport Delivery Structures.

Well, it turned out to be a bit of a storm in a teacup.

Any examination of the minutes of the Committee for Regional Development shows what I could politely describe as serious concern about the level of subsidy received by our public transport providers and the return on that investment. This is a concern which I hope to address in another post.

Today’s post, however, is about the Committee’s Report on the Inquiry into Comprehensive Transport Delivery Structures, which was finally published on Tuesday. While subsidy and return on investment in Translink was undoubtedly the main theme of its 286 pages, the main criticism was reserved for the DRD itself.

To explain this requires a little background, which thankfully is fairly comprehensively covered in the report itself.

EU Regulation 1370/2007, which came into effect in 2009, aims to ensure regulated competition within public transport delivery. In practical terms, and I am unashamedly borrowing from Austin Smyth’s submission to the inquiry, this meant that “public authorities who award exclusive rights or provide funding to an operator [must] do so within the framework of a public service contract that must be strictly controlled and adhere to a performance-based contractual regime.

This was intended to be implemented in a three-tier system – DRD to be responsible for policy, legislation and funding, the bottom tier to be providers including (but not limited to) Translink, and as confirmed by a DRD official when the Transport Act 2011 was passing through the Committee Stage, the middle tier was to be an Executive Agency responsible for tactical planning, service requirements, securing provision, managing contracts, and permits for new entrants.

The middle tier proved to be the sticking point. As implemented, rather than an agency, Transport NI was established within Roads Service, with responsibility not only for public transport but also roads planning. The new structure won criticism from several witnesses and the Committee itself for several reasons:

  • Limited staff with experience in transport planning, contract specification, contract management and fares regulation
  • Lack of trust in Transport NI to properly fight the corner of public transport, reflecting that roads spending is rising in proportion to public transport spending (although I would note that this is more due to a long backlog of maintenance, a legacy of the Troubles, as witnessed by the number of small schemes which have hit the ground in the last few years, as well as long overdue schemes such as the A4, the deferred A5, A2 Greenisland, and the A8)

Indeed, the Committee directly called for the Agency to be implemented independently of the Roads Service (but very much part of DRD, rather than any form of arms-length body), for it to be staffed with appropriate professionals (without reference to the salaries they would receive) and that the Department reviews its future budget allocations to make “a more proportional apportionment” between roads infrastructure and public transport.

A lot of space is devoted to the apparently close relationship between DRD and NITHC seen through the prism of the subsidy it receives (I tend to see it through an entirely different prism, that of the long-term train passenger noticing the number of speed restrictions Coleraine-Derry, Belfast-Larne and Belfast-Bangor before those lines were relaid, and how many years after NIR had told us all that the 80 class sets needed to be replaced it was before the DRD finally funded the C3Ks!) but few conclusions other than that the CEO and COO of NITHC should cease to be Directors of NITHC and the group be audited by NIAO.

Fares are discussed mainly in the context of regulation, as it appears that fares policy will fall under Transport NI or the Agency originally intended, but there is also implicit criticism of the lack of integrated ticketing, eighteen years after Ulsterbus, Citybus and NIR came under common ownership. To date this is still limited to iLink cards as successors to the Freedom of Northern Ireland tickets; “Plusbus” tickets sold by NIR for use on local town bus services (but not Metro), but not sold by Ulsterbus drivers to extend onto train services; and annual commuter cards.

The usual complaints arise in correspondence about NIR not offering multi-journey tickets as an alternative to unlimited travel weekly and monthly tickets, which is a matter of revenue protection unless the money is going to be made available to provide vandal-proof ticket machines at all stations.

Two models are suggested in the appendices for franchising – either fixed fee to run the service and income goes to DRD, or all fare income goes to the provider. Privatisation of Translink is not being considered.

The most interesting parts of the report concern how providers other than Translink (who retain a legal right to provide the “majority” of public transport services under the Transport Act 2011) will gain access to the market.

The good news is that it appears to be intended that to retain the necessity to cross-subsidise unprofitable services, routes will be tendered to franchisees in bundles of profitable and loss-making services.   (Before passengers start licking their lips at the prospect of friendlier drivers, they would do well to remember that they would get the same drivers in different uniforms!)

The complication will be that providers will expect to have their services co-located so that they can have a single depot rather than having isolated drivers elsewhere.

It also appears that fares for franchised operators will be centrally regulated, and there will hopefully be through ticketing where it already exists (with reservations which have been expressed to me by other companies that they would have to buy the “standard” ticket machines as a result – I had a conversation with a private operator some years ago who said that he had got round the requirement with an older ticket machine which still provided enough of an audit trail for him to reclaim his concessionary fares), but private companies such as Eamon Rooney will presumably still be able to compete on their own terms outside the Translink plus franchisees model where licences are granted.

Even with all these, I’m not convinced that the status quo is going to change to any great degree. With either tendering process, the pressure will be on Translink to reduce costs even further, much as I am unconvinced that there is great scope to do so, but I’m not convinced that many providers will come forward, especially if they do not consider there is enough profit to be made under regulated fares, and with regard to Transfer of Undertaking (Protection of Employment) regulations requirements regarding NILGOSC pension rights.

On top of that, franchising arrangements will have to be very tight. Practice in GB has been that unless a route is profitable, private companies (and this has been observed on National Rail in particular) will eventually reduce service to the absolute minimum required under the contract in order to maximise profit. This is likely to be highly unpopular, and will require Transport NI or the Agency to specify service levels similar to the status quo if any aim to increase bus passenger numbers is to have any hope of success.

In the end, any desire to expand public transport usage, which it must be recalled requires money to be spent on loss-making services to attract potential passengers as well as providing enough park and rides to persuade drivers to change modes mid-journey if they don’t need to use cars to do their work or reach their work with any reasonable speed compared to multiple changes of bus.

It may be that, as with Coastal Bus Services in Portrush and Sureline Coaches in Lurgan which came into being alongside Ulsterbus in 1967, any new entrants might not indeed last that long before their franchises revert to Translink.

So DRD have stuck to their guns with regard to Transport NI not being an arms-length body.  It remains to be seen whether it will be business as usual in terms of roads over public transport, especially with the June monitoring round being bad news in terms of cuts for most departments, and whether they will attract sufficient staff with the necessary skills, particularly in transport planning.

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