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Ivan Little finds out why Translink remain convinced its £90m Glider system will prove a smooth operator

Transport revolution: the new Glider service starts on September 3
Transport revolution: the new Glider service starts on September 3
Bus driving instructor George Weir
Driver John Fennell
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

Not since they put the four-legged haulers of horse-drawn trams in Belfast out to pasture or unhooked their trolley buses from their overhead cables has there been a revolution in public transport quite like it. Or a more controversial one.

The much vaunted Glider, an integral part of the Belfast Rapid Transit (BRT) system, has managed to stir up a storm even before it becomes fully operational on Monday, September 3.

The £90m Translink transformation to Gliders, which are essentially trams on wheels, is aimed at speeding up travel in Belfast along 12-hour bus lanes that have been driving motorists round the bend.

Indeed one lane caused so much traffic chaos in the Titanic Quarter that the Department of Infrastructure had to suspend it indefinitely.

But Translink officials are convinced the Glider will win over the public in time.

Their PR line is that the Glider is "the new, effortless and smooth way to travel - to glide through city traffic".

Translink officials are convinced the Gliders will be a success and win over the most doubtful traveller in much the same way that use of park-and-ride facilities has soared despite a slow start.

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Translink says the new buses will, for example, make access to the Royal Victoria Hospital in west Belfast and the Ulster Hospital at Dundonald in the east immeasurably better, removing the necessity for passengers to change buses.

City centre shoppers and commuters, they say, will also benefit from the new Glider service, which will run from early morning to late at night.

This week I got a preview ride on a Glider, which as well as providing direct cross-city services between the east and the west of Belfast is also linking the city centre with the Titanic Quarter, largely with tourists in mind.

For a seasoned sceptic whose resistance to change is a given, my first impressions as driver John Fennell glided away from the park and ride facility at Dundonald were surprisingly good.

As, indeed ,was the entire Glider ride.

Cinty Stubberfield, the Glider project engagement manager, gave me the lowdown on the high-tech service, which she said was hopefully going to cut down travel time in Belfast by 25% to 30%.

Three factors, she said, would speed up the journeys. Firstly, the Glider itself is significantly bigger than the existing single decker and double decker Metro buses, which can carry 54 and 74 passengers respectively.

The 18-metre Glider can accommodate 105 passengers, 63 of them standing. And passengers won't be paying the driver, who can monitor what's happening on and around his vehicle with a series of cameras.

Secondly, on-street ticketing machines will allow passengers to pay for their journeys in advance with cash or cards, or they can tap smartcards on special machines, with everything designed to make the boarding process faster.

Fares are the same as on the Metro buses, which will still operate on routes in Belfast along with feeder services for the Glider in parts of the east and west of the city.

For this inveterate fare-dodger from the Seventies, who was passing the very stop near Stormont that he used to start his journeys as a youthful miscreant, the question was obvious… how will Translink stop people using the Glider without paying?

The Glider back-sliders will regularly face the wrath on the buses of two CRPOs… the modern day equivalent of the old Citybus inspectors, who were often harder to dodge than the fares.

The customer revenue and protection officers will have a hand-held device to check that passengers have valid tickets or have tapped their cards. If they haven't they'll face a £50 penalty fare or possible legal action.

The Gliders have three doors that can be used by everyone, but the front one gives priority to passengers with disabilities and the back one prioritises parents with prams.

Cinty says: "We did an awful lot of work before the Gliders were built to ensure the facilities for disabled people would be right. For instance, a number of wheelchair users told us that if we could make the area for them a wee bit bigger, it would make all the difference.

"People with sight impairments said the fixed seating we were planning wouldn't allow their guide dogs to sit under the seats as they prefer them to do, so that was altered."

The third element of the Translink strategy to improve the transport system is the increased frequency of Gliders.

Services on the main Glider route, the G1, from east to west, will operate at peak times every seven or eight minutes, and the G2, which covers the Titanic Quarter, will run every 10 minutes.

Thirty of the vehicles have been purchased and another two are on the way.

In west Belfast, unlike the east, there's no park and ride at the end of the line, but rather a £2m Colin Connect town centre transport hub and civic square on the Stewartstown Road.

Work on the project won't be finished in time for Glider roll-out, but Translink hopes it will be completed in November.

The journey from east to west Belfast took around an hour, but in reality few passengers will complete the whole journey, just as not many people on the London Underground travel the entire Piccadilly Line from Cockfosters to Heathrow airport.

The Glider is quiet - in some ways too quiet - but it's equipped with a distinctive bell that drivers can ring to alert pedestrians to the presence of the bus.

On our trip there were few cars or lorries blocking the bus lanes, though on the Falls Road an Ulsterbus which had been involved in a collision with a pedestrian caused a partial obstruction, but the Glider simply overtook it and travelled on.

Come September 3, it's hard to imagine that the introduction of Glider will go without hitches, especially for members of the public who haven't paid attention to leaflets and advertising.

However, Translink will have a team of 60 volunteers on the streets at the Glider halts to explain to prospective passengers how to use the new service and the accompanying machines at its 102 halts.

West Belfast man Paul Cosgrove has been driving buses for 24 years, but he was keen to jump on the Gliders, which he said were a "joy to drive".

He adds: "You don't have to deal with collecting money anymore. You can concentrate on driving and safety. It's a completely different set-up on the Glider, where the state-of-the-art driver's seat is more towards the centre of the enclosed cab.

"The Glider is really a bus with a big end on it and it's no wider than an ordinary vehicle. After a while you get used to driving it. They are surprisingly manoeuvrable. Reversing can be tricky, but in normal day-to-day operations there shouldn't be too much call for us to do that."

Paul dismisses claims that the Gliders can't take corners. He says the myth came about after a video on social media showed a vehicle having difficulty negotiating a turn from North Road onto the Upper Newtownards Road.

He explains: "That was a diversionary route that would only be used in emergencies and the driver was a bit concerned before he was reassured that he had lots of room."

John Fennell, who's been a driver for 15 years, says the Glider concept is completely different from the Metro buses.

He says: "It's a fantastic vehicle to drive. And it's marvellous to be part of a new innovation."

George Weir, who has worked in public transport for 26 years, has been instructing drivers on how to handle the new vehicles, which are diesel hybrids with high-voltage electricity on them.

George explains: "You have a battery pack unit on the roof, and when there's sufficient power in the batteries it switches the diesel engine at the back off.

"And when the batteries start to expire, it switches the engine on and the batteries are charged again and the whole process starts again. It's more environmentally friendly."

More than 100 jobs have been created by the Glider project and a new engineering centre has been built at Milewater Road.

As for the Glider idea, the Department of Infrastructure has expressed its intention to extend the network to potentially link north and south Belfast.

But sources said the extension would be subject to the impact of the east-west Glider and the availability of funds in the absence of Stormont.

So there's no guarantee that after waiting ages for one Glider service to arrive, another one will come along any time soon.

Appeal for patience as bus hits streets

Translink chief executive Chris Conway has appealed to people in Belfast to work with the company as it prepares to introduce the new Glider buses onto the city's streets in just over a week's time.

Translink urged the public to be patient and give the new rapid transit system a chance.

"When passengers get out on the service and understand it better, we think they will approve and see the benefits for the city and for themselves," Mr Conway said.

The new Glider has been designed to provide a fast and frequent direct service between east and west Belfast, and there'll also be a link between the city centre and the Titanic Quarter.

Mr Conway said that introducing the £90m Glider as part of Belfast Rapid Transit has been a complex operation, but he's confident it will work despite the highly publicised opposition to its 12-hour bus lanes.

He added: "It is a big change, but we are planning for the future. We only have so much road space in Belfast, and we have to make more efficient use of it. In terms of the bus lanes, the trend has been for them to become accepted in other areas of Belfast as a good solution."

Mr Conway said the decision to introduce Glider had not been taken lightly. "We've studied many similar systems in other countries like France, where they had the same challenges of winning over hearts and minds at the beginning too. But once they were bedded in, they were generally seen as good for their cities.

"We need to encourage more motorists to use public transport. If you look at the population and business growth that's predicted in the city - and the projections in the council's Belfast agenda for the future - you can see that many of our road junctions will fail in time because there will be just so much traffic going through them.

"We have to address that - and that's what the Glider is starting to do, hopefully."

Mr Conway said that Translink, which has been involved in a massive advertising and outreach programme to inform the public about how to use the Glider and its off-vehicle ticketing system, will listen to the response from passengers.

He added: "It's important for us to take heed of any issues that we need to fine-tune. But ultimately this is about looking to the future. We can see some of these issues coming at us in four or five years' time and we need to begin implementing measures now."

Originally in Belfast there was a proposal to use the Comber Greenway for a light rail system, but the idea was abandoned.

The Glider is only the start of a major re-invention of - and investment - in Translink's operations.

Metro and Ulsterbus services will get new ticketing systems on and off the vehicles next year, and by 2020 Northern Ireland Railways will also see similar changes.

A huge new transport hub is planned for the area around Great Victoria Street and Sandy Row, which will integrate bus and rail services.

Local residents are currently fighting proposals to demolish the Boyne Bridge to accommodate the new hub in an area christened Weaver's Cross to reflect the heritage of the nearby linen industry.

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