The biggest bottlenecks in the provision of better transport services in the region are both in Belfast.
First, the road network links between the M2, M3 and Westlink are now wholly inadequate. Second, single track railway operations between Central Station and Yorkgate are causing excessive timetabling constraints and other problems because plans for a new public transport hub at Great Victoria Street have not yet been published.
Translink and the Department for Regional Development have published eight possible -- and ambitious -- investment strategies for the local rail network.
At one extreme, the proposals can be seen as an extended wish-list with little recognition of the funding implications for Translink or the impact on the existing subvention from the Executive for public transport.
The present railway system in Northern Ireland is primarily aimed at expanding local commuter services operating alongside inter-city services from Belfast to Dublin and to Derry. All the main capital expenditure is financed by government and the operating costs of the network are further offset by the annual payment to Translink of a public service obligation of nearly £24m each year. Each rail journey is subsidised by an average of £2.40.
The subsidy for capital investment and operating costs is justified on the basis that providing over 10 million rail passenger journeys reduces congestion and makes the transport system more sustainable. Unhelpfully, the department and Translink have a policy of maintaining confidential restrictions on their in-house assessments made, for example, in studies commissioned from Booz Allen Hamilton.
The suggestions for an investment strategy for NI Railways fall into different groups. First, investment is needed to maintain the status quo. Second, there are proposed investments that with additions to capacity and persuasive marketing might increase passengers. Then a third category would rely on removing the critical Belfast railway bottlenecks.
Status quo: To maintain the railway system as it is means a bill of £620m for the period to 2034-35: over £30m each year. This would have a capacity to provide 14 million passenger journeys each year, or nearly 3 million more than now.
Increase passenger capacity: Simply by adding capacity (longer trains), but without any track enhancements, but dramatically improving 'park and ride' facilities, Translink's passenger numbers could increase to 18 million by 2034-35 but this expansion would cost a further £600m, or a further £30m each year.
Increase network capacity: If the Belfast transport network was expanded with a new transport hub at Great Victoria Street, Belfast Central station gained extra platforms and the Dargan Bridge was widened to dual track, then passenger numbers could be increased to over 20 million each year. Removing these bottlenecks would cost £260m in the next 12 years.
There are also suggestions to refurbish the Belfast-Dublin Enterprise which would cost £460m over the next 12 years, electrify the whole region's network for £350m and (less persuasive) re-open the Antrim-Knockmore line costing £50m in the next six years. Two other packages, extending the network into Tyrone and Donegal, are tenuous.
The railway investment shopping list is neither a logical set of priorities nor is it clearly expressed in terms of value for money.
The minister, and Translink, must be expected to do more professional analysis that could be integrated successfully into the strategic investment programme.
Translink is asking for capital commitments of potentially over £1.5bn at a rate of about £75m each year. That is a big ask in competition with the emergence of more electric road vehicles.