£1.1 billion running public transport to stand still

This article reflecting on today’s Northern Ireland Audit Office report on DRD: the effectiveness of public transport in Northern Ireland was due to appear in today’s Belfast Telegraph, but was bumped before it went to press (although I did make it onto Good Morning Ulster and Radio Foyle Breakfast, and I’m due to be on BBC Newsline 6.30 thanks to Wesley Johnston!)  More detail on Slugger O’Toole later. [edit: here it is]

It sounds like a lot of money, but consider where we were in 2002.  No new trains for local services since 1986 (and to call the 450 class with its reconditioned 1960s mechanical equipment new was generous).  Buses which had once rolled out of Walter Alexander’s Mallusk factory at a decent number every year had slowed down to slightly larger batches every few years. Railway track deteriorating, bus services being cut, and the campaign by this newspaper to Save our Railways.

The NIAO report records how £1.1 billion went into addressing the maintenance and bus and train renewal deficit, plus expanded concessionary fares, and servicing an increase in demand for rail services such that anyone daring to predict it would have been laughed out of the room.

At the same time, demand for Ulsterbus services has diminished (how much can be attributed to the transfer of some services to Metro is still to be determined) and an expansion of Ulsterbus town services in the mid-2000s has largely been rolled back, with more cuts proposed.

Yet it also highlights how much has yet to be done.  It notes that Transport NI was created in 2013, and then reduced to Roads Service plus Park&Ride and Belfast Rapid Transit in 2014.  It comments on how the customer gets public transport on the cheap compared to similar distances in GB, but doesn’t indicate how much the ratepayer in Plymouth pays in subsidy to get their cash fare of £1.00 – one of a number of interesting questions not considered in the report.  It also considers the rise in cheap car parking provision, both public and private, in Belfast.

I wrote to DRD regarding their budget consultation late last year, and one of my notes was that I couldn’t see how they could reallocate the little funds they had received differently, given the challenges of trying to fund NI Water adequately and deal with the maintenance requirements of our road network.

I appealed for them to use any funds from quarterly monitoring rounds for public transport, but this is probably only a drop in the ocean beside what is actually required in increased subsidy.  I have argued elsewhere for a holistic solution that diverts unnecessary traffic away from Belfast city centre, but at the centre of that solution remains modal shift for the possible to public transport – and if you want people to get out of their cars, you need buses and trains at the right time and a lot cheaper.

Andy Boal blogs at www.andyboal.co.uk and www.sluggerotoole.com

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