Public transport from Ulsterbus, Belfast Metro and NI Railways costs the taxpayer more than £120m each year.
In November 2009, the minister, Conor Murphy, initiated a consultation on the future of public transport and his policy conclusions have now been published and are beginning to be implemented.
The minister has reviewed the role and management of public transport.
To start, he had commissioned a thorough examination of the efficiency of Translink through each trading subsidiary. This pointed to the scope for improved performance.
Second, and with direct legal imperatives, he took account of EU Regulation 1370/2007 which set a timetable (across the EU) for performance criteria defining the public subsidy allowed.
For bus services, an option might have been to introduce competitive bidding to license services or to go further and deregulate the system to open the way for competitive providers. The minister has ruled out these options.
Translink has been given an assurance that the Department for Regional Development (DRD) proposes to award block contracts to Translink for the services which it supplies. Then DRD, to meet the standards of EU Regulation 1370/2007, will check that Translink is being run efficiently and is not being overcompensated for its public service obligations.
The thrust of the proposed operating system is that there will be little initial licensing of competition for other operators on scheduled routes.
Public transport will operate with regulated fares and a trading requirement that it balances its books within the constraints of any public funding. There may still be an option for Translink to sub-contract specific supplementary services.
The minister has built in limited opportunities for competition when additional new services are envisaged.
In particular, probably to the disappointment of Translink, the new arrangements could allow competitive bids to provide the forthcoming Belfast Rapid Transit services. However, competitive bids to test groups of existing services are not envisaged.
The critical test for the amended system will be how the performance-based contracts are assessed for compliance with the EU Regulations.
This test is likely to draw on external performance comparators. Desirably, it should be openly demonstrable and not a confidential private deal between the DRD and Translink.
While the new European Regulation only becomes enforceable in the future, the logic of the
current overall review is that DRD should now set the parameters to comply. Translink should now be asked to improve its performance both for bus and rail services using the criteria developed in the recent evaluation.
Although the new policy directions have been set, there may be some disappointment that the minister has not ‘set the bar higher’ for Translink. The assurance of new contracts, the guarantee that contracts will not be ended without three years notice, and the absence of an intent to test Translink by having distinct contracts for sub-regional or area specific services, points to a Translink remit that remains well protected.
A less conspicuous but equally important aspect of the reform is the decision to take some of the policy planning functions from Translink and place them in a new planning agency within DRD. Translink will have a clearer narrower remit as a trading operator meeting the contractual obligations specified and monitored by the new agency.
There are other wider implications of the reforms. DRD also carries responsibility for roads in Northern Ireland and has a potential role in the difficult choices in providing or permitting car parking facilities. There is a growing tension between public transport and private car usage with pressure for more protected bus lanes and controversial suggestions that there is too much existing car parking space in the main urban centres.
DRD is not a disinterested party when operators, such as Translink, seek extra restrictions on private car facilities. The Regional Development Strategy needs to include an explicit and accountable decision making procedure to balance these conflicting interests.