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£1.1bn spent on public transport yet commuters still wedded to their cars in Northern Ireland

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 21/04/2015

SERE, run by husband and wife Stanley and Rosemary Edgar, employs 93 staff across its three bases in Northern Ireland
SERE, run by husband and wife Stanley and Rosemary Edgar, employs 93 staff across its three bases in Northern Ireland
A report has found that public transport infrastructure has been “vastly improved”, yet commuters still prefer to drive

Northern Ireland remains "wedded" to the car - despite a £1bn-plus investment in public transport over the last decade.

People are still shunning buses and trains in favour of their own vehicles, a report concludes.

It found that £1.1bn was invested in bus and rail services between 2002 and 2012, including £200m on cut-price fares.

Yet commuters are less likely to use public transport to get to and from work than a decade ago.

Rush-hour bus journeys on Belfast's main routes are also getting slower. The details are contained in a report published today by the Northern Ireland Audit Office.

Its key findings include:

  •  The £1.1bn investment has vastly improved the public transport infrastructure yet passenger take-up remains mixed;
  •  Rail journeys have doubled to 13.2m, but there has been a meagre 1.5% rise in bus travel (66.9m journeys);
  •  There has not been a modal shift from cars to public transport - despite a strategic commitment to achieving this;
  •  A revamp of Belfast's traffic system, connecting East Belfast, West Belfast and the Titanic Quarter via the city centre, has been delayed until 2017.

Public transport in Northern Ireland falls under the remit of the Department for Regional Development (DRD), and is delivered by Translink.

The operator has faced criticism over the number of highly-paid executives on its books amid a growing financial crisis.

Today's report notes that Metro and Ulsterbus, which are part of Translink, have higher management overheads than other comparative public transport operators. The report also questions the role of DRD in persuading people to ditch their cars.

It notes the £1.1bn spent on public transport between 2002 and 2012 includes £214m on discount fares and £157m on replacing buses and trains.

Despite the huge investment, made as part of the 2002 Regional Transportation Strategy (RTS), the report describes the results as "mixed". "The significant investment prompted by the RTS has transformed rail travel with passenger journeys doubling," it notes. "In contrast, total bus passenger journeys (Metro and Ulsterbus combined) between 2002/03 and 2013/14 increased by 1.5% (or one million journeys).

"Within this, Metro passenger journeys are up by almost a third, but Ulsterbus has suffered a 12% decrease in passenger journeys."

The report states that improvements in public transport have not brought the expected increase in passengers. "It is fair to say that the public transport infrastructure has been vastly improved, but equally fair to say that this has not led to significant increase in the use of public transport," it adds.

"Northern Ireland travellers are still wedded to the car."

Auditor General Kieran Donnelly called for more action to boost public transport.

"Public transport has enjoyed substantial investment of £1.1bn in the first decade of this century," he said. "However, passenger numbers have not increased significantly and the car remains the dominant mode of transport.

"DRD needs to do more to attract people onto public transport and make it their choice mode of travel."

‘Buses can be frustratingly slow through the traffic... sometimes it would be quicker to walk’

Albert Whiteside (64)

Connsbrook Avenue

“The buses are absolutely excellent, they come every 10 minutes. I have the bus pass and couldn’t fault them. I wouldn’t have anything bad to say about the system — which is a strange thing to say these days.”

PJ Conway (20)

Political science student at Ulster University

“It’s definitely a love/hate thing for me on the buses. In Belfast I’ve never seen so many people getting the bus and there is one every couple of minutes. At home in Plumbridge, there are two buses a day and the nearest train is in Derry. And they are like sheds, but in Belfast you get double-deckers. You have to rely a lot on taxis to get around back home. And it’s quicker to get the bus to Belfast than the train from Derry.”

Katie Noble (21)

Studies Animation at Ulster University

Lives in Stranmillis

“They can be frustratingly slow through the traffic, but that’s not their fault. Sometimes it would be quicker to walk, but that’s not an option when you have a lot to carry. Maybe more bus lanes are needed. But I do appreciate the service, although it can be expensive.”

Kim Sherridan (26)

Antrim Road

“I’m happy enough. There’s a regular service for me from the town to home. I really like them, you couldn’t fault my bus. They are really good — I like them and the drivers are all dead on.”

Victoria McGonigle (21)

Lives in Coleraine

Studies computing at Queen’s.

“I drive most of the time and only take the train very occasionally. It’s just too handy and convenient to get the car. But there’s no doubt the train is cheaper.”

Therese Monan (18)

Omagh

Studies English at Queen’s

“Once a week I travel to Belfast from Omagh. I am happy enough with the bus — it could be faster and there could be less stops. It takes one hour 40 minutes — it does the job.”

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