Belfast Telegraph

Monday 29 December 2014

Belfast commuters furious, fuming, fed-up... and going nowhere

Frustrated driver caught up in Belfastm traffic
Frustrated driver caught up in Belfastm traffic

Transport chiefs have been told to sort out the problems which have brought central Belfast to a standstill after another day of chaos on the roads.

The blunt message comes amid growing anger from fed-up motorists and traders at the controversial new traffic system which, they claim, is shutting down the city.

On Thursday thousands of commuters, who have seen their journey times soar because of new bus lanes and reduced driving space, faced the worst delays so far.

As the city centre traffic became paralysed irate motorists contacted this newspaper to claim that they had moved just a few hundred yards in more than an hour. The areas around the City Hall, Great Victoria Street, Ormeau Road and Newtownards Road were badly affected.

A number of people abandoned buses caught up in the chaos to walk to work.

Some also reported that they left their cars behind because it was quicker to walk.

The DRD said that problems with 29 sets of traffic lights in Belfast city centre led to the traffic jams and tailbacks.

But the vast majority of motorists caught up in the bedlam who spoke to us were of the view that the new bus lanes and roadworks contributed much more heavily to the congestion.

Joe Jordan, president of Belfast Chamber of Commerce, said: “The problem with the traffic light technology just compounded the problem, but the only issue here is the bus lanes.”

Amid unprecedented anger from motorists about the jams, the Belfast Telegraph attempted to speak to the minister responsible for roads, Danny Kennedy, but the UUP MLA said he was not available for interview when contacted last night.

We also asked the Office of the First Minister for a statement from Peter Robinson on the traffic gridlock, but were told he was not available for comment.

However, people whose journeys were disrupted by the problems had plenty to say.

One city centre trader said the traffic chaos was killing her business.

Mary-Claire McGrattan, who runs Extras Fashion Accessories in Fountain Street, said: “The current situation is jeopardising businesses in Belfast. People currently need to get every last pound they can.

“I haven’t seen it worse than this and many businesses won’t make it to Christmas at this rate. For many, this Christmas is vital.”

Yesterday’s disruption came just 24 hours after a new task force headed by Belfast Lord Mayor Gavin Robinson met to try to sort out the congestion mayhem.

Motorists have faced days of lengthy tailbacks and gridlock caused by new bus lanes introduced as part of the Belfast On The Move scheme.

Yesterday’s problems were made worse by a system glitch which affected the city centre’s 29 traffic lights. It struck during the rush hour, running from 7.15am to 10.30am.

Some motorists described how they had been stuck in traffic for over an hour.

Laura Wilson, from Holywood, was delayed for a job interview by the congestion.

“Usually 25 minutes would get me into Belfast in the morning,” she said. “That was about three-quarters-of-an-hour today. It’s not good enough, I hope it’s sorted soon.”

Divisional roads manager John Irvine apologised to people caught up in the mayhem.

“I saw how everyone else was, and I sympathise with people who were late for work,” he said.

The chairman of Stormont’s regional development committee Jimmy Spratt (left) hit out at the latest setback and said the department needed to urgently address the matter.

“This morning’s problems show that DRD need to ensure they get a grip of what is going on,” he said.

Mr Spratt said the current chaos on local roads cannot go on.

“The proper movement of traffic within Belfast city centre is vital for the economy, not just of the city, but it affects a much wider circle of people who are caught up in traffic jams, such as those who suffered this morning,” he added.

Lights glitch takes the rush hour mayhem to a new level

By Adrian Rutherford

A system meltdown affecting 29 traffic lights in central Belfast contributed to the chaos which brought the city’s streets to a standstill yesterday.

According to experts, a fault in a BT exchange led to problems co-ordinating the lights.

It was the second time in a matter of weeks that the system failed. Last month nine traffic lights were briefly out of action.

Divisional roads manager John Irvine said he had confidence in the system — but couldn’t rule out another repeat.

“With any technology you potentially have glitches, but we have operated this for 30 years trouble-free,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.

“This was an unfortunate event this morning but we are going to learn from it.”

The problems began about 7.15am yesterday and continued for around three hours.

“There was a fault in a BT exchange which led to a loss of data communication,” he added.

“We were aware of it at 7.15am and alerted their engineers to the problem. They got out, got it sorted and everything was operational by around 10.30am.” According to Mr Irvine, there were problems co-ordinating the lights.

He explained how the lights reverted to a fixed-time system which, although safe, cannot recognise if queues are building up.

“There is a set of fixed timings in each controller and the lights reverted to these after we lost control,” he added.

“It is still a safe system, but it isn’t an efficient one.”

Mr Irvine confirmed that a similar incident occurred several weeks ago.

“There was a smaller glitch which lasted a short period of time but we managed to rectify it very quickly,” he added.

“Today was an unusual event.

“This place operates effectively 7am to 7pm every day.

“This morning was unfortunate, it was unusual and we are confident in the resilience of the system.

“However, as with any incident, we have to sit down and figure out with our partners what happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

New bus lanes were already causing delays for commuters, and Mr Irvine admitted yesterday’s system failure added to the problems.

“The Belfast On The Move scheme is settling in at the minute, and this glitch in the city centre didn’t help that settling in period,” he added,

Mr Irvine — who travelled to work on bicycle yesterday — said he saw at first-hand the chaos caused by the glitch.

“I saw how everyone else was, and I sympathise with people who were late for work,” he added.

No one from BT was available for interview.

However, in a statement the company said: “A fault developed in exchange equipment which had an impact on the level of service BT currently provides to DRD.

“Engineers completed the repair, normal service has been restored and a review will be conducted with DRD to help prevent a reoccurrence.”

Delays cost £2m a day in lost output and working time

By Claire McNeilly

Traffic disruption over the past two weeks may have cost the local economy up to £8m, it has been claimed.

Yesterday’s snarl-up saw thousands of motorists late for work, affecting businesses and retail outlets in Belfast city centre.

New bus lanes and roadworks have caused havoc for drivers in the city centre causing tailbacks and traffic jams — and retailers have said they are now beginning to fear for their livelihoods.

Economist John Simpson said his calculations suggest that the serious traffic congestion had cost approximately £2m per day.

“Apart from the financial damage over the four days of disruption, which is around £8m, it is the reputation of Belfast as a place to live and work that is priceless,” he said.

“Each day it happens there is a loss of working time and lost output and that is not even taking into account the knock-on effects of inefficencies such as delayed deliveries etc.”

Joe Jordan, president of Belfast Chamber of Commerce, has called for the bus lanes to be removed — before it’s too late.

“The latest problem with the traffic light technology just compounded the problem, but the only issue here is the bus lanes,” said Mr Jordan.

“We want rid of them and we want things to go back to the way they were; we all want things to go back to normal.

“Retailers — who weren’t even consulted about them — are baffled as to why bus lanes would be introduced now in the run-up to Christmas, and not in February or March when things are quieter.”

Consumers have said they are becoming increasingly dissuaded from heading into Belfast because of the traffic chaos they will face.

Retail expert Donald McFetridge, who is based at the University of Ulster, said it was a bad message to be sending out in a crucial shopping period.

“Traders who have been having a less than buoyant year will be hoping sales will pick up as Christmas approaches and we don’t want to do anything to put people off physically going to the shops,” said Mr McFetridge.

“We do not want to see any more empty premises in Northern Ireland.”

Following the recent problems with congestion there were fears that emergency vehicles were experiencing difficulties en route.

But spokesman John McPoland said there was no impact on the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service responding to 999 calls in the area.

The sweeping changes, and the plan behind them

By Chris Kilpatrick

The radical changes that have brought traffic to a halt on a number of occasions over the past two weeks are the result of a new city centre roads management scheme called — without any apparent irony — Belfast On The Move.

Department for Regional Development chiefs say the new system will take up to six weeks to bed in. But organisations representing motorists are calling on roads chiefs to think again.

The most significant changes began at the start of last month, when a new bus lane opened along Oxford Street in the city centre. Further lanes were put into operation on Monday of last week along May Street, Donegall Square South and Howard Street.

To the rear of the City Hall, the four-lane system changed to a wide bus lane and two lanes of general traffic.

A bus gate also opened on May Street allowing buses to get into their lanes without having to navigate through traffic.

The net result is more space for public transport and cyclists but significantly less for motorists.

With no corresponding reduction in the number of cars on the roads, it has led to more tailbacks at peak times.

Paul Watters, the AA’s head of roads policy, said he thought the Belfast On The Move plan behind the changes was “radical” when he saw it last year, but he now admits: “It has to be tweaked for the functioning of the city.”

A multi-agency group is being set up to tackle the traffic congestion and will meet at least every fortnight over a two-month period.

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