Belfast Telegraph

Translink boss Chris Conway: 'We have a big opportunity to grow public transport in Northern Ireland'

The Big Interview

By John Mulgrew

In the space of just one year, Chris Conway has had to deal with a bus lane backlash, funding shortfalls and fare hikes.

The 52-year-old is chief executive of Translink - one of the most heavily scrutinised top public jobs in the region.

But he's advancing plans for a £150m transport hub for Belfast. And he also revealed that a smaller hub could soon follow for Londonderry, based at the city's train station in the Waterside area.

The bus and train operator reported a pre-tax hit of £10.5m for 2015/16, with the loss to be covered by its cash reserves, which now sit at around £40m.

On a daily basis, it operates 12,500 bus and train services across Northern Ireland.

"Translink is a public corporation. It sits under company law, but its main shareholder is the Government," Chris said.

Translink's income is made up from fares, around 50% of its revenue, concessionary fares and funding from Stormont.

Asked whether privatisation will ever be on the cards, Chris says "anything is possible".

"There are lots of different models about how to run public transport. There's nothing that says privatising a company is the best way of making it efficient," he said.

But he wants the introduction of fuel duty debate, in line with other firms in the UK, to "make sure that public transport remains competitive".

His role is much more public-facing than other jobs, and he says the "scrutiny" is part of the job.

"We are a public transport company, and they have a right to demand a high level of service," he said.

"If there are any issues or challenges, or people have a view on things being done differently, it attracts media attention very quickly.

"If we have done something that we shouldn't have done, you put your hands up and say, that's not the way we prefer to operate.

"Social media can sometimes get out of hand. People can read a particular story, and it can start taking on a life of its own."

Chris began his career after studying engineering at Ulster University, before joining Shorts in east Belfast.

"I was a design engineer in a division called future projects," he said.

He then moved on to STC in Newtownabbey, where he built GPS receivers - a precursor to the sat-navs systems most modern cars are now fitted with.

The bulk of his career was spent at Nortel, which was formerly Northern Ireland Telecom.

"It was a good decision. Nortel formed a good chunk of my career, and I was there nearly 20 years.

"It was a good opportunity to get involved in different parts of the business."

Chris left as vice-president of operations for Middle East and Africa.

"I lived through that whole growth cycle... and I lived through the other side, when the technology bubble burst."

A middle child in a family of six - which includes twins - his parents Michael and Teresa were both teachers.

In his current role, an issue which frequently raises its head is the issue of fares. Chris says there's no ruling out increases down the line.

"I would say that our fares are quite competitive within UK," he said.

"The decision on fares for next year, for example, that's something we do in consultation with the Department and the Minister, and that decision hasn't been taken yet."

Born in Killeeshil in Co Tyrone, Chris moved to Bangor when he was a young child.

He attended Our Lady and St Patrick's College in east Belfast, back when it was an all boys' school.

He's married to Anne, a medical secretary for the Belfast Health Trust and has three children.

Michael (23), has just graduated from university with a degree in engineering - following in his father's footsteps, while Rachel (20) is studying pharmacy and the youngest, Matthew (13), studies at his father's former school.

Chris has a serious job on his hands, with fewer people in Northern Ireland using public transport than any other region in the UK.

"There's still a big opportunity to grow public transport," he said.

"I think it's going to be necessary for Northern Ireland as the population grows. We only have a finite road space and we have to work out how to use it."

Just last week, Translink unveiled a major £45m overhaul of its ticketing systems, and bringing in London-style 'Oyster cards'.

Ticket vending machines and gated rail stations will feature a new way of operating that will allow customers to manage their accounts and top-up their smartcards via a new online app.

Work is also under way to build the Belfast Rapid Transit System, which will link the east and west of the city.

"It will give a very high frequency service. The road infrastructure is being built in, so we have good high quality bus lanes."

Customers will be able to get a so-called 'bus-tram' every seven minutes.

But the company's biggest proposed development is the Belfast Transport Hub, which would be based at the current Great Victoria Street station.

"We are currently doing the detailed design work and we go to consultation on that shortly," Chris said.

"We'll hopefully submit our master plan early next year, and by the middle of next year, hopefully shovel ready."

And Londonderry is also set for a new hub, according to the Translink chief.

"There's a project to put in an integrated transport hub in Londonderry as well. That's at quite an advanced stage.

"It will be smaller, using the old (train) station, and developing that."

But he's having to challenge something of a stigma that public transport has here, unlike bigger cities such as London.

"I think there is (a stigma), but I hope we are slowly changing people's views on that. Some of the services like the Goldline, which is a bus, which supplements our rail network. There isn't the same type of association.

"Over time, we are trying to change people's minds."

Despite pressure from taxi drivers and others to bin bus lanes, Chris insists that he's standing firm.

"Bus prioritisation is important for a city like Belfast," he said.

"The population of Belfast is going to grow, and we have a finite road space and we need to find the best way to use it, and bus prioritisation allows a vehicle to use that road space wisely.

"If we use it wisely, it benefits everyone."

While he says a direct train service to Belfast International Airport is "not a priority" Translink is set to add a new bus service.

"It will be a double-decker bus with leather seats, USB charging points and wifi," he said.

Chris is also a keen runner for stress relief, and took part in the inaugural Belfast Marathon, aged 18.

And he also spends a lot of time with his family, including camping holidays in France and Spain, and weekends in Donegal.

Asked about his salary, which is around £156,000, Chris said:

"I want a salary to live on, but it's not the reason I came to this role. Obviously in the private sector you could attract different salaries."

The job came under the spotlight in 2014, when ex-chief executive Catherine Mason was then the highest paid public sector employee.

But the pay packet was subsequently reduced from almost £200,000 to £156,000.

Before joining Translink, Chris had headed steel giant Tata at its base in Lisburn.

Tata Steel hasn't been far from the headlines in the last few months, after the company announced its plans to shut plants in the UK.

Thousands of jobs have since been saved after the sale of part of the company.

"It is about managing cost and about consolidating into the premium products. I think that's where Tata really is," Chris said.

Belfast Telegraph