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A rise in the number of passengers will prove difficult for Translink as it tackles social distancing

A rise in the number of passengers will prove difficult for Translink as it tackles social distancing

A rise in the number of passengers will prove difficult for Translink as it tackles social distancing

A rise in the number of passengers will prove difficult for Translink as it tackles social distancing

A rise in the number of passengers will prove difficult for Translink as it tackles social distancing

Translink has faced many problems in recent years - and maintaining social distancing on its buses and trains at peak times when passenger demand increases will be yet another.

Senior economist Dr Esmond Birnie of the Ulster University business school said the company has faced a series of setbacks, including falling rates of subsidy, and years of austerity in which it has been expected to run down its cash reserves.

That's led to several crisis points over the last few years but now Covid-19 has ushered in a new set of problems beyond the immediate hit to passenger numbers as people stay at home and avoid unnecessary journeys.

But in the future, how do you solve a problem like social distancing on buses and trains? Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon has said that buses would need to operate at just 15% capacity if social distancing is to be maintained.

And school buses are likely to be the worst pinch-point for Translink when the kids go back in autumn. How to carefully manage hordes of jostling schoolkids may prove quite an exercise in crowd control. The Department of Education confirmed yesterday: "As part of the planning processes for the restart of schools, the provision of home to school transport is being considered by the Department and the Education Authority in partnership with other key stakeholders and in the context of social distancing guidelines."

Translink has said it's working with departments to provide appropriate school transport.

Last night the Department for Infrastructure confirmed it will receive funding to get it through the challenges of Covid-19.

In the last few months it's been losing as much as 90% of its typical revenues from passenger fares as people stay at home. At normal times, Translink has a fleet of 1,400 buses and trains and runs 12,500 services every day. It's been operating at a reduced timetable since the lockdown - but even the buses which are running have few passengers on them. That has led to the phenomenon of 'ghost buses' with no passengers, gliding past us while we are out for our daily exercise.

While Translink can reduce services, it cannot cut them due to the public service agreement which it must fulfil by running rural and less popular routes, in exchange for its subsidy.

One transport insider said: "Their structure is that they are contracted to fulfil a network obligation and contracted to cover services regardless of how many passengers are on them. If they were more commercial as an organisation they might be making decisions like cutting routes but it's not really their decision.

"They're fulfilling that public service obligation role and that sets the beat. They have to maintain that unless the Department for Infrastructure would make some sort of pause by agreement."

He said Translink would find it difficult to maintain social distancing at peak-times. All Translink buses - Goldliner, Ulsterbus and Metro buses - have only one door.

However, the Glider has three - which could make social distancing easier on boarding.

Buses are also being retro-fitted with perspex screens to protect drivers - Metro buses already have them.

The company is increasing its use of pre-paid tickets so that drivers don't have to handle passengers' cash.

Some in the industry are vexed over whether operating at 15% capacity would mean 15% of seats or 15% of capacity in passenger number terms.

It's understood some discussion has ranged around closing off every other seat, or arranging passengers in a zig-zag fashion, with the first seat behind the driver cut-off, but the second seat open on the other side, and so on.

Trade union Unite's representative Davy Thompson says he's more concerned about social distancing for staff and passengers on trains, where conductors generally walk the length of the train to check tickets.

The reality of how Translink works, on a cross-subsidy model, means that the most popular routes finance the less-used routes in rural areas. Even in non-pandemic times, there's likely to be no problem with social distancing on some rural services around Northern Ireland.

Social distancing will therefore be harder to impose on peak services - and on school buses.

However, if schools are brought back gradually, for example for half days at a time, that could help solve that problem.

And while demand is down for Metro services in Belfast, some Metro buses are taking to routes like Ballymena where the buses normally used aren't fitted with screens.

With the Executive agreeing to come up with more money, it looks like Translink has survived its latest crisis.

But addressing its funding model in the long-term is always going to be a thorny political issue.

The deficit problem has been solved for the short term but in the long term, either its government funding will have to be increased, or there would need to a be sharp adjustment to its public service agreement.

One insider says: "That's a very political thing and they don't have the power to do that. Translink is really only a delivery agent."

It's clear that if social distancing continues in the long-term, it's not really viable for it to simply order more buses and trains.

"Even if Translink has unlimited money, you're talking a 10-year order to get in more trains, or an 18-to-24 month order to get more buses."

Translink bosses will be hoping that on the Metro and Glider routes in particular, the change in working practices that's likely to have many more people working from home into the medium term will mean we're all naturally distanced from our former commuting methods.

Or if demand does return to its pre-Covid-19 levels, could social distancing be sacrificed for more use of face-coverings on board?

Translink has a lot to think about but the arguments for changing its funding and privatising it probably won't win out in Northern Ireland, given the rural nature of much of the province.

"Privatisation would be a disaster," a source says. "The lucrative routes would continue to run but it would decimate the coverage which helps disadvantaged people and people in rural areas.

"It's a service like education, policing or health."

Belfast Telegraph