Six months on from taking over at Translink, group chief executive Catherine Mason gives Robin Morton the inside track on the challenges which are facing public transport in Northern Ireland
TRANSLINK boss Catherine Mason does not have far to look if she wants to get a handle on the problems caused by rush-hour traffic congestion in Belfast.
All she has to do is to rise from the seat at her desk in her third floor office and gaze down at the gridlock developing in Great Victoria Street.
As buses battle their way through the traffic to reach the adjacent Europa bus centre or the city centre, it is easy to see what the difficulties are.
And to illustrate the point Mrs Mason — who took up her post six months ago in March — produces what she calls “my picture”.
It is a computer print-out, the left hand side of which contains a photograph of the standard rush-hour scenario.
It shows two or three buses gallantly trying to keep on time but hemmed in by a sea of cars, nobody moving anywhere very fast.
And on the right hand side of the page is a computer graphic showing one single bus pulling into the bus stop at the Europa Hotel, with no cars around.
“All the people in the cars on the left hand side of the picture could easily fit into that single bus,” she says. “It’s about making the best use of the available road space.”
The impact that traffic congestion is having on Metro services in Belfast is clear.
Average bus speeds have fallen
from 10mph to 8mph over the past five years, and with traffic volumes increasing, there is no sign that things are going to get better.
“There is clearly an opportunity for improvement in bus priority measures which means not just bus lanes, but priority at traffic lights and other measures.
“We are working closely with the Department of Regional Development to ensure that bus passengers get their fair share of the road.”
Delayed services mean late-running buses, throwing schedules into disarray and adding to costs, because more buses are needed to maintain frequency.
Despite the problems Mrs Mason, who came to Translink from UK private sector operator Arriva, says that passenger volumes on Metro increased by 3.5% last year.
Park and ride schemes on the M1 and M2 approaches to Belfast are also proving popular, with the bus proving to be up to 20 minutes faster than the car at peak periods.
“I frequently hear from people who habitually used their cars but then tried out the bus — and were impressed by the experience,” she said.
“On Metro, our weekly ticket costs just £14, a sum which would not touch the cost of a tankful of petrol for a car.”
Indeed, one of the reasons that Translink was able to peg its recent fare increase to 5% was that the rise in the cost of fuel was offset by the income from increased passenger numbers.
And Mrs Mason is someone who believes in practising what she preaches. Now resident in an apartment in the centre of Belfast, she walks to work and does not own a car here.
“If I need a car here I hire one, but quite honestly I do not need one day to day. Running a car is expensive so it’s simply a question of being practical.”
As a result, Mrs Mason is a regular passenger on Translink’s bus and train services, giving her an opportunity to assess service standards.
“From my experience there is no doubting that the level of passion and commitment to service displayed by our staff is impressive,” she said.
“Our recent customer satisfaction surveys show that our performance is improving, which is gratifying.
“It’s not just about the infrastructure and the fleet, it is about service delivery and frequency, ”
Mrs Mason is delighted that Translink is meeting the targets set by the Government’s Regional Transportation Strategy.
The average age of the bus fleet has been reduced to eight years, while passenger numbers on Northern Ireland Railways are up from six million in 2001 to an anticipated 10 million this year.
Having made the transition from the private sector to the public sector, Mrs Mason sees benefits in having network provider, rail operator and bus operator all within the same company.
She says it reduces bureaucracy and facilitates “horizontal integration” between bus and train operations. “Our role is to provide bus and train services which will take people where and when they want to go.
“People have a choice whether to use our services. To make sure more people choose to travel with us, we need to do all we can to get it right for our customers — and that is what we intend to do.”