Why Translink needs a tight funding balance
Although the officials would play down the claim, Translink is well endowed with good capital assets from which to provide an improving public transport system. But from an operations perspective, it is constrained and inadequately funded for operating bus and rail services.
The public sector financial squeeze has hit Translink. Capital spending is more limited than Translink would wish and the trading outcome has been pushed by official policy into a trading loss, drawing on the limited financial reserves.
Chris Conway, chief executive at Translink, is pragmatic about its finances for 2016-17. Revenue and costs have been provided in his budget plans with no fares increase expected this year. A trading loss will draw on most of the remaining cash reserves. As plans for 2017-18 evolve, his hope is that the minister and the Executive will restore the fuel duty rebate in Northern Ireland where, alone of UK regional transport services, this rebate of over £10m pa was removed two years ago.
To aid sensible planning for 2017-18, Translink need the re-instatement of this critical financial support confirmed as soon as possible. Other budget balancing options would be worryingly difficult. Fare increases or closure of loss-making rural services would be (at the very least) unwelcome.
For Translink services, Chris Conway has positive achievements in terms of improved rail services, better results from Goldline bus routes and is more reassuring about the operation of the Belfast Metro services. The serious tension is between maintaining an acceptable network of rural and town bus services and working within acceptable deficits for the network.
In 2016, there is a better sense of progress coming from Translink than in other recent years. Several key developments are coming to fruition, not always as quickly as was originally envisaged, but significant progress is expected.
Railway services have been attracting more passengers, particularly commuter services from Portadown, Bangor and Whitehead to Belfast as well as the inter-city Enterprise service. After a troubled approval and initiation, the long awaited train passing loop at Bellarena will allow better rail services to Londonderry early in 2017.
Park and Ride facilities continue to expand. Across the public transport network there are now 8,000 parking spaces. In addition another 450 will be added in 2016 and 800 at Portadown and Moira will be available in 2018.
Two large projects are pending: first, the overdue arrival of the Belfast Rapid Transit scheme where Translink has been awarded the operational contract by the (now renamed) Department for Infrastructure and second, the final unveiling of the large investment in a central Belfast multi-purpose transport hub.
The plans for the first Rapid Transit scheme are in evidence as the physical investment to facilitate the new service on a Belfast east-west route is taking place. Early in 2017, the special new vehicles will be available and the service will be tested.
Outline design plans for the new transport hub are due to be announced in late 2016 and approval of this contract, costing over £180m, should follow in 2017. For railway services, a new station will allow for relocation of the central Belfast terminal with an expansion from the current four platforms at Great Victoria Street to eight. Two of the new platforms will allow for the relocation of the Enterprise services.
The successful delivery of these new facilities and some related supportive station modernisations at Derry and Portrush will call for extra infrastructure investment to be approved by the Executive. These financial questions will affect the timing of the full delivery of the ambitions of the Translink management.
The continuing tension in forward planning for Translink is to achieve a balance between additional capital spending on buses and trains and earning an adequate (still loss making) return on the extra capital. Public transport comes with continuing demands for public capital investment.