Northern Ireland selects higher gear
by Paul Gosling
Travel around Northern Ireland and one thing quickly becomes clear: its transport infrastructure does not match that of Britain. The ‘A’ roads seem a leftover from the 1970s; rail services are slow; fewer people use rail and buses than in Britain.
But things are changing. Under the latest Northern Ireland Budget – about to be finalised and approved as Transport Times went to press – the capital investment programme of the Department for Regional Development, responsible for transport and water services, will jump by 52% for the coming financial year. In addition, the revenue budget of the DRD is rising by 63% over the next three years.
Suddenly, 35 or so years of Troubles-related transport underinvestment is coming to an end. Failure to put money into transport during the conflict was perhaps understandable. The Belfast-Dublin rail line was a frequent target for bombs, while the hijacking of buses became a favourite pastime of youths.
Those times are over. Now the focus of the devolved Northern Ireland Executive is to get the economy operating more effectively. This means that the two government departments that have done best from the first budget of the restored Assembly have been those of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and Regional Development. Under the DRD’s published programme of investment, there is to be over £3bn of investment planned for roads and £724m on public transport, including new buses and trains.
Northern Ireland’s economy is already moving up a gear post-Troubles. House price increases have outstripped all other regions of the UK, including London, and the province has had one of the highest economic growth rates in the UK. But transport weaknesses are holding Northern Ireland back. Road congestion, particularly in Belfast, can be severe.
The congestion problem is made worse by the lack of use of public transport, which is only partly explained by the rural character of Northern Ireland. Rail passenger numbers were up to 12% last year over 2006, but user numbers remain a small proportion of those of the rest of the UK. In 2004, 4% of the population used buses, against 8% in Britain, and less than 1% used the railways, against 4% in Britain.
One of the more heavily used rail routes is the Belfast-Dublin line, which saw passenger number growth of 14% last year. But local politicians and the CBI are calling for an accelerated upgrade of the service, reflecting the increase in cross-border trade and the number of people living in the Newry-Dundalk area who now commute to one or other of the two capitals, many crossing the border daily to go to work.
This growing cross-border transport pattern has led to significant investment in the Northern transport network by the Southern government. Investment commitments of the Irish government include the upgrade of the Dublin to Derry road and joint investment with the UK in the City of Derry Airport.
Another declared policy objective of the Southern government is the improvement of the road between the North’s two main cities, Belfast and Derry/Londonderry. At present, the road is subject to severe congestion, particularly through the town of Dungiven. While there are plans to by-pass this, DRD says this road may not be built until 2015. The rail route between the two cities has also been subject to under-investment. Regional development minister, Sinn Fein’s Conor Murphy, promised in November, though, that this rail line will be upgraded, lifting the uncertainty over its future.
Unlike Britain, Northern Ireland’s public transport services have never been privatised. Instead, in 1995, the three services of Northern Ireland Railways, Ulsterbus and Citybus were brought together as Translink – through which they continue to operate as thr separate divisions NIRailways, Ulsterbus and Metro, reporting to a common management and single board.
Despite the investment in Translink’s new buses, trains and rail lines and in the roads, there are accusations that this is insufficient. The CBI claims that most of the investment is coming on stream too slowly – only £572m of roads spending is committed before 2011, with the other £2.5bn coming in the period 2011 to 2018. This is branded by the CBI as about half a billion pounds too little in the immediate three year period. The lobby group the Quarry Products Association calculates that Northern Ireland continues to spend 21% less on its road network per capita than does Britain.
There are particular concerns that the investment programme will not counter the growing road congestion problem. Under the instruction of direct rule ministers before the restitution of devolution, DRD is conducting at present a review on road pricing. As part of the consultation on this, Belfast City Council submitted a paper sympathetic to the introduction of a congestion charge for the capital – but subject to the condition that revenues would go to the local authority.
The chair of the Assembly’s finance committee, Sinn Fein’s Mitchel McLaughlin, says that when his committee considered road pricing, there was a cross-party consensus that “addressed positively” the option of some form of charging. His prediction is that this will be introduced in the first instance as a congestion charge in Belfast and in subsequent years adopted in Derry. Government officials, though, are more cautious. While those in the Department of Finance and Personnel are supportive, there is less enthusiasm within the DRD itself. It is a decision that ministers and the Assembly are likely to struggle with in coming months.
There appears to be a clear agreement across the local parties that something must be done to increase the use of public transport, reducing the reliance of commuters on cars. What is unclear, though, is how this will be achieved.
The DUP’s Gregory Campbell is an MLA and MP and was the regional development minister in Northern Ireland’s last devolved government. He suggests that not only does transport present a serious political problem, but that it will get much worse. “Even when I was minister in 2001, the private car ownership growth was 4% annually,” he recalls. “So within a decade that would be 50% more cars and even then [in 2001] there was heavy traffic congestion, which is even worse now. So unless there is even greater investment, that will continue to worsen. People won’t voluntarily move to public transport without more encouragement.”
Campbell adds, “we have to think more strategically”, for example, he says, by investing significantly in the Belfast to Londonderry rail line. He points out that even without significant investment, there has been growth in passenger numbers on that line. Campbell argues, too, for “imaginative” improvements to the bus system in the province, while recognising this will be more effective in reducing car traffic in urban than rural areas. “It is commuter routes that are causing the problem,” he points out. Campbell suggests that congestion charging for urban areas is not realistic at least until public transport provision is greatly improved.
John Dallat MLA is the transport spokesman for the Social Democratic and Labour Party and shares Campbell’s view that it will be a struggle to get commuters to give up their cars, but believes that investment above that planned by DRD in rail lines such as that between Belfast and Dublin and Belfast to Derry would be a good beginning.
“Belfast to Dublin never had sufficient investment,” Dallat argues. “Plans to upgrade the Belfast-Derry railway are just laughable, sitting on it until 2011.” He adds: “We have not sufficiently seriously looked at decentralising public sector jobs.” Dallat also worries that plans for a rapid transit scheme for Belfast may not be as extensive or ambitious as is required.
Nor is Dallat convinced that congestion charging for Belfast would, on its own, resolve the problem. “Congestion charging might have been appropriate for London, but here we don’t really have a choice – I don’t think it is going to be very popular. We don’t have the alternatives and we have large rural hinterlands.”
In fact, suggests Dallat, Northern Ireland’s politicians should have refused to sign the St Andrews Agreement restituting devolution without a promise of massive investment in public transport in the province. “For 35 years, money that should have gone into transport infrastructure went into other things,” he says. “I just don’t see how we will put in the money now to induce people to use public transport.”