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Bus passenger fall leads to criticism of Translink chiefs

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 28/09/2015

Michaela Boyle
Michaela Boyle

Fewer people are using Northern Ireland's bus services, with a reported rise in passenger numbers actually driven by knockdown fares.

The number of full-paying passengers dropped by 5% in the space of five years.

Despite more than £1bn being invested in public transport over the last decade, cars remain the dominant form of transport.

The details emerged in a report published today by the Assembly's Public Accounts Committee. After investigating the public transport system, it concluded that significant improvements are needed.

Its key findings include:

  •  Criticism of Translink's structure, with claims that it is over-managed and not subject to enough scrutiny;
  • Greater innovation is needed to encourage people to swap their cars for public transport;
  • Proportionally more people travel to work by car compared to a decade ago;
  • Although £1.1bn has been pumped into public transport, we remain underfunded compared to other parts of the UK;
  • The cross-border Enterprise rail service between Belfast and Dublin needs reviewed to ensure commuters get to work on time.

The report notes mixed progress despite the £1.1bn investment in our public transport structure between 2002 and 2012.

"While rail travel has been transformed, with passenger numbers more than doubling between 2002/03 and 2013/14, in contrast, total bus passenger numbers have increased by just 1.5%", it notes.

Since 2007/08, the overall number of fare-paying passengers has decreased by around 5%, with the majority of passenger growth resulting from concessionary fares.

Cheaper fares have cost more than £18m over the last five years.

The report adds: "The significant expansion in concessionary fare numbers has somewhat concealed the need for greater focus on attracting more fare-paying passengers".

There is also criticism of Translink and its board, the Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company (NITHC).

"The persistence of over-management at Translink also highlights a weakness in the operation of the NITHC board's challenge function.

"In the committee's opinion, the board has been remiss in not dealing with this issue earlier, and has not demonstrated that it is proactive in challenging inefficiency and cost control".

It says Translink must undertake a review of operational and administrative expenditure to identify savings before it considers cuts to services.

The report also cites the recent debacle over the costing of the Coleraine-Londonderry railway line upgrade, which spiralled from £20m to £46m.

Committee chair Michaela Boyle said: "The committee has made a total of 12 recommendations for the DRD and Translink to consider and a key factor for us is that the department must set targets for fare-paying passenger growth as well as for overall passenger growth.

"We also believe that targets for getting people out of cars and on to public transport must be set and monitored closely."

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