Translink chief: Bus lanes are here to stay - there's no other solution
Translink chief executive Chris Conway tells Adrian Rutherford of the challenges facing the organisation and how the Belfast Rapid Transit system will transform the city.
Q. You've been in post for just over 100 days now. How has it been?
A. It's been good. Translink is a good company with great people who are passionate about delivering an excellent public transport service. Once you've got really good people who are passionate about their job, you have the core of what you need in any organisation.
Q. Tell me about your career before Translink.
A. I started out as an engineer, moved into operations, then sales and marketing. In the past 15 years, I've worked with two large corporates - Nortel and Tata Steel. I was a senior executive in both of those companies.
Q. What attracted you to Translink? It's a big job.
A. My time at Nortel was very challenging with the technology downturn in 2001. When I joined Tata, within six months the global downturn happened and we saw a 40% drop in our revenues in the steel industry, so I'm used to challenging situations.
But I wanted to use a lot of the international corporate experience that I had in Northern Ireland in the communities I live and work. When the Translink opportunity came up, I felt it fitted what I wanted to do and fitted my skills set - engineering, operations and a good commercial business sense.
Q. You said you are used to challenging situations - this is surely another one.
A. It is. Translink is facing difficult challenges. We've had our funding cut in the last year by about 20% - that's a £15m cut - and difficult decisions have had to be taken to address that.
But at the same time I'm very optimistic about the future of Translink and public transport. We're looking at a lot of innovations, and I think technology will play a big part in how people view public transport going forward.
For example, Translink already has a real time information system, so on Metro and on rail you can look at an app and it will say when your bus or train is coming. I'd like to extend that out to the rest of the network. We have 180,000 downloads of our app.
We've also introduced mLink, which is a ticket on your mobile phone. You can buy it on your mobile and then just show the phone to the driver. We've got that on rail and we're now introducing it to Metro.
Q. The Assembly's Public Accounts Committee recently examined public transport. They claimed that £1bn had been invested during the past 10 years but with few results. Do you agree with them?
A. I don't think that's a fair characterisation of what has happened in public transport over the last decade.
There has been investment in rail, Metro buses, Ulsterbus services, Goldline and so on. We've also invested in park and ride. We have about 7,000 spaces which are about 80% full. You also have bus lanes, which have helped to grow public transport.
The real growth area has been in rail, which has doubled in the past 10 years. We've now got close to 15 million passengers on our rail services.
Metro has grown by about 25% in that time, and there has been a reduction in the number of cars coming into Belfast. These two factors weren't taken into account wholly in the Public Accounts Committee report.
In our rural services - one of our biggest networks is our Ulsterbus network - there has been a lot of change in the movement of people, and that affects the number of people using our services.
Also, passenger numbers grew to about 80 million up to 2007/08, and after the recession they dipped to about 75 million. That has been growing steadily again, back to 80 million last year. So you have to take the recession's impact into account.
Q. You say that passenger numbers are growing. Do these include concessionary fares, because the Public Accounts Committee said Translink's growing numbers were driven by these.
A. Fare-paying passengers have grown during the same period. There is no doubt concessionary fares have had some impact, but fare-paying passengers have also definitely grown in that time.
Q. The Public Accounts Committee found a 5% fall in fare-paying bus passengers over five years, which, given the level of investment, is not what you would want.
A. I think there has been a return in all the areas I've mentioned. If you take the whole number, you've got the rural effect on our Ulsterbus services, which, without a doubt, has had an impact, but that is not where the big investment has been - the big investment has been in the city, the train services and the Metro services. Where the investment has gone in, we've seen a benefit.
You can look at the Public Accounts Committee report on an overall level, but you've got to drill down and understand where the investment went and where we got the benefit.
Q. The same report also claimed Translink was over-managed. Is that fair?
A. Every organisation has to look at efficiency improvements. Just before I arrived there was a review of overheads. Translink has about 4,000 staff. Around 3,000 of them are bus drivers, train drivers and other frontline staff.
In terms of management overheads, there has been about 20% taken out in the last year to 18 months, with over £3m in cost savings achieved.
Q. We've seen cuts to services, but have any routes disappeared?
A. No, we didn't take any of our routes out. We changed the frequency, and even from September 1 we have listened to people and we've made adjustments where we could.
Q. Could there be any further cuts to services?
A. We're not planning any further cuts to services. We only have a budget from the Government for the current year, but that would be the absolute last thing that we would want to do.
Q. What about fare rises - can we expect another hike anytime soon?
A. A big chunk of our revenue comes from fare-paying passengers, while some also comes from concessionary fares.
We also have a portion - an increasingly smaller portion - of funding that we get from the Government. We've had that funding cut significantly over the past year and we'll have to look at what the budget tells us for next year, and at our costs and revenues, and ensure we've got a balanced budget.
Q. So you can't rule out fare hikes in the future?
A. I don't want that used as a headline. What I would say is that we have to look at everything once we see what our budget is. My personal preference would be to look at our efficiencies more than anything else. But until we actually get our budget for next year, it is very difficult to comment on this.
Q. In July, your predecessor, David Strahan, described Translink as "technically insolvent". What did he mean by that?
A. It is about whether you have a negative balance on your balance sheet.
You could have a negative balance from an accounting perspective, and that is what he means by technically insolvent.
From an accountant's perspective, you could say that you don't have enough cash to run the business.
That is only generated by an accounting term relating to our pension arrangements.
We have had to do an accounting adjustment to our balance sheet based on our pension evaluation, but that's not real money.
Translink is not insolvent. It has enough cash to run its business. It is purely an accounting term.
Q. Mr Strahan also raised concerns that Translink was running at a loss and could go out of existence. Is that really the case?
A. Again, from a purely technical perspective, if any company trades at a loss on an ongoing basis, then it will eventually run out of money.
Having said that, Translink has a public service contract with the Department for Regional Development (DRD). That contract runs for five years, and there is a certain amount of surety, at least around that period.
My plans would be to continue looking at efficiencies, growing revenues - and there are lots of options for us to do that - and finally to give a really high-quality product to the public. I think that will ensure the future of Translink.
Going forward, looking at congestion and the growth of population, a good-quality public transport system is needed to move people around the city for social inclusion, to improve the economy and to improve the environment.
We currently have a good system, but it needs investment to move with the times. One of my goals is to champion public transport for people who don't typically use it.
Q. How do you get to work every day?
A. I use park and ride and get the bus. All the meetings I've had - Antrim, Bangor, Lisburn, Dublin and so on - I've used public transport, and it has worked very well.
Q. Work on the Belfast Rapid Transit system finally got under way earlier this year. What will this actually mean for the city?
A. It will provide a high-frequency corridor from Dundonald park and ride into the city centre, and from the city centre to the Falls Road. And there will also be a run-out to the Titanic Quarter.
It will be high-frequency, bus-priority and will have a different look and feel. It will be like the Luas in Dublin and will go into service at the end of 2018.
The Belfast Rapid Transit system will transform how people view public transport, getting them to see it as a fast, efficient way of getting into and moving around the city centre.
Q. The cost of the Coleraine to Londonderry rail line has spiralled. Do you think it gives value for money?
A. Leaving aside the controversy about the cost, we are putting in a passing loop at Ballarena. This will increase capacity on the network because trains will be able to pass each other, enabling us to put two trains on at the same time.
In addition, we're also refurbishing all the signalling along the whole line, which is needed for safety.
Q. You say leaving aside costs, but the bill has jumped from £20m to £46m.
A. Costs increased due to signalling costs. The original estimate was set out a number of years ago, and between then and now the cost of signalling has gone up quite significantly.
That is partly because of the growth of investment in rail in the UK. Network Rail is spending billions on the rail network, and that has sucked in all the signalling resources.
Therefore, the process of getting someone to bid for the signalling work needed on the Derry/Londonderry to Coleraine route was very difficult, and the costs went up.
Q. Translink has been criticised for fuel hedging - effectively gambling on buying fuel at a fixed price - which led to £7m in losses last year. Why do it?
A. All transport companies hedge their fuel prices, and the main reason for doing so is to create stability.
You don't want fuel costs going up from one quarter to the next and then having to increase fares to address that.
We benchmarked this right across the UK and the south of Ireland, and the hedging mechanisms we use are very similar to what other companies use.
Anything like that has to be taken over a long period, and over the past five years Translink has saved about £1m by hedging. But it's more about stability than anything else.
And that £7m in the last year was an accounting loss rather than a cash loss.
Q. Belfast's bus lanes have caused a lot of controversy, especially recently. What is the rationale for them?
A. The road network is a finite resource - we cannot increase the roads around Belfast - and we have to find the best way to use them.
Our population is growing, and so is our economy, and the question is, how do we move people around Belfast?
Putting a bus lane in will move many more passengers than cars, which most times have one or two people in them.
It is really the only solution to deal with the finite resources that we have. We also have to reduce the number of cars that are coming into the city.
Most cities across Europe use bus prioritisation lanes to keep things moving, and from Belfast's point of view we really have to embrace it.
Q. Who decides where to put a bus lane?
A. We work in conjunction with DRD, but it is Transport NI who actually implements putting in a bus lane.
We will identify if bus lanes will be helpful to particular areas because we know where the congestion hotspots are. Ultimately, it is Transport NI's decision as to where to put them.
Q. Do you want to see more bus lanes?
A. I would like bus lanes to be used in a prioritised way, along with cars, to ensure that we get the best public transport and best mobility in our city.
We've got to look at where you are getting congestion and where you're getting problems.
The mobility in the city changes, depending on where people are moving to, and you need increased mobility to improve the economy.
If we are going to develop an industrial park somewhere, that might move the mobility issue to a different area.
Rather than saying we want more, it's about an ongoing review on what is the best way to move people around the city.
Bus lanes, bus prioritisation and park and ride are key elements of that.
Q. So the bus lanes are here to stay then?
A. There's no other solution for Belfast. If we just keep growing the population and try to do it with cars alone, then the congestion will just grow and grow.
If you've got a finite resource, you have to find an efficient way to use it, and the efficient way is bus lanes, because they carry more people down that stretch of Tarmac than a car will.
Q. Some have queried if privatisation is the way forward for Translink. What do you think?
A. We have a number of routes and products that are very profitable, and we take the profit from those and use it to fund the parts of the network which aren't profitable, such as our rural network and town services.
A fully privatised model would mean that a private company would come in, run the commercial routes profitably and keep the profits.
The Government would have to lease out the less profitable routes, and put funding into those to make them work. The model that we have works quite well.
Q. Do you think Translink is fit for purpose?
A. Absolutely. I've been here three months, and it's a good organisation with people who, operationally, know how to run a transport company. They deliver excellent customer service.
We want to improve that service and attract more customers onto our buses and trains.
We carry 80 million passengers - that is the equivalent of the population of Northern Ireland on a weekly basis.
When you ask me if Translink is fit for purpose, I would ask you, what would we do without Translink?