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Report on DRD: The Effectiveness of Public Transport in Northern Ireland

Session: 2014/2015

Date: 10 June 2015

Reference: NIA 255/11-16

ISBN: 978-0-339-60589-3

Mandate Number: Mandate 2011/16 Thirty-First Report

Report-on-DRD-Public-Transport.pdf (1.25 mb)

Download the full report here.

Executive Summary


1. Public transport has an essential role to play in the economy and community of Northern Ireland. An effective public transport system:

  • helps grow the economy by bringing workers and jobs together;
  • improves the environment by promoting a more sustainable form of transport, which can reduce pollution and congestion; and
  • provides a lifeline for older people, people living in rural areas and those with disabilities.

2. In this regard, the Committee recognises the key role played by those who work on our buses and trains, and would pay tribute to them for the level of customer service provided.

3. Over the last decade or so, public transport has enjoyed significant investment, which has included providing new fleets of trains and buses. Despite this, however, public transport remains relatively underfunded compared to Great Britain.

4. The growth in rail travel in Northern Ireland, from 2002 onwards, represents a clear success story, however, this has not been repeated in buses. The majority of overall passenger growth in recent years has resulted from concessionary fares and the number of fare paying passengers has fallen. In addition, there has been a failure to achieve the aspiration of the Regional Transport Strategy for a modal shift towards public transport. The car remains the dominant mode of transport in Northern Ireland.

5. Translink has recently integrated its management structure, bringing together bus and rail operations. While the Committee welcomes this move, it feels that this should have happened many years ago.

6. The governance arrangements for public transport have not provided enough scrutiny and transparency to drive value for money relative to the sums of taxpayers money involved. There has been a marked complacency in the scrutiny applied by both the Department and the Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company (NITHC) – Translink’s Board. Much more should be done to challenge inefficiencies. The governance failings have been compounded by the existence of a public transport skills gap in the Department.


7. More innovation is needed among those key to planning and delivering public transport in order to increase the numbers of fare paying passengers. Some success has been achieved in growing public transport passenger numbers,however, the expansion in rail passengers has not been replicated on buses. Indeed, Ulsterbus, the largest element of public transport in Northern Ireland, has experienced a worrying decline in passengers. Much of the recent increase in passenger numbers has been generated through concessionary fares and there has been a fall in the numbers of fare paying passengers. The delay in the introduction of rapid transit in Belfast, in the Committee’s view, represents a missed opportunity to grow passenger numbers further.

8. Translink must improve what it offers to its customers. Review of comparative customer satisfaction identified that rail customers were relatively more satisfied than bus customers. The Committee’s enquiries also highlighted a number of areas where customer satisfaction needs to be strengthened, including: greater understanding of customer needs; greater integration of services between bus and rail; between rural and town services, and with other modes of transport.

9. There is a need for stronger vision and leadership in order to achieve Modal Shift. The Regional Transportation Strategy (RTS) was underpinned by a strategic commitment towards greater sustainability, within which public transport provides an alternative to the car. However, the RTS failed to recognise the importance of modal shift. As a result little or no progress has been made in getting people out of their cars and onto public transport. There has been no real increase in the public’s tendency to use public transport. Proportionately more people travel to work by car than a decade ago.

10. The Department’s failure to address inconsistencies in public transport policy such as the availability of car parking, and its unwillingness to apply demand management measures more stringently, in the Committee’s opinion, have contributed to the lack of progress towards modal shift.

11. The Department needs to show greater commitment to public transport in its funding allocations. While there has been a significant investment in public transport over the last decade or so, public transport in Northern Ireland remains relatively underfunded compared to the rest of the United Kingdom. In addition, the proportion of overall public spending directed towards public transport has fallen short of that intended under RTS. Focus, in the Department, has been on road building, and, as a result, there has been little progress in rebalancing funding towards public transport.

12. For too long, public transport has been the poor relation to roads where funding is concerned. In the Committee’s view, real growth in passenger numbers and meaningful modal shift can only be achieved where the Department shows greater commitment to public transport in its funding allocations. This will be hampered where budget cuts are met by a loss in bus and rail services.

13. There is a need for improved challenge and scrutiny of public transport to encourage greater efficiency and innovation within Translink. It is essential that the public transport structures put in place by the Department provide appropriate levels of challenge and scrutiny of Translink’s operations. The persistence of excessive levels of management within Translink, and the Department’s acknowledged lack of awareness of it, are indicative of a lack of commitment towards efficiency and innovation at Translink, together with a lack of challenge on the part of both NITHC and the Department. There is a need for greater rigour in the Department’s scrutiny of Translink. The NITHC Board also needs to be more proactive in its drive to achieve efficiencies.

14. There is a need to address the public transport skills deficit within the Department. In order to properly carry out its public transport functions, including that of scrutinising the performance of Translink, the Department needs appropriately experienced and qualified staff. However, comparison with other public transport bodies clearly demonstrates a shortage of public transport skills within the Department. The Committee finds it difficult to comprehend how such a position has been allowed to arise in a key and on-going aspect of its responsibilities. This skills gap, it believes, has contributed to the failings in the Department’s challenge of Translink’s performance.

Summary of Recommendations

Recommendation 1

The Committee recommends that, alongside targets for overall passenger numbers within each Translink subsidiary, the Department needs to set challenging targets in relation to the growth of fare paying passengers.

Recommendation 2

The Committee also recommends that the Department should seek regular analysis of the use of concessionary fares from Translink and report on the level of usage by various eligible groups.

Recommendation 3

In order to deliver services that customers actually want, and thereby improve the attractiveness of public transport, the Committee recommends that Translink strengthens its arrangements for surveying passenger needs. It is also important that its measurement and reporting of customer satisfaction covers areas such as staff helpfulness, cleanliness, comfort, information provision and value for money. This should also involve the setting of more meaningful performance targets with a greater emphasis on outcomes in terms of customer satisfaction and value for money.

Recommendation 4

The Committee recommends that Translink examines its train timetable on the Belfast - Dublin line with the objective of providing commuters with the ability to be at their business destination for 09.00 a.m.

Recommendation 5

While welcoming the planned introduction of a new ticketing system from 2018 to facilitate the integration of bus and rail services, the Committee recommends that Translink does more in the interim to facilitate greater integration of the services it provides, together with the integration of its services with other modes of transport.

Recommendation 6

We acknowledge the Department’s stated intentions to introduce modal shift targets and recommend that these should be implemented as soon as possible. They should cover a suite of indicators including those travelling to work using public transport, rural and urban targets, and progress should be reported on regularly.

Recommendation 7

The Committee recommends that the Department should seek to build the necessary public support to enable it to introduce further demand management measures. In particular, the Department needs to reconsider its policies around car parking availability (for both its employees and the general public) to ensure that they complement, rather than conflict with, policies designed to promote public transport. In this regard, the Department and Translink should re-examine Translink’s ownership and operation of publicly available car parks, with the ultimate aim of phasing them out.

Recommendation 8

The Department of Finance and Personnel should also undertake a review of the provision of free car parking facilities for public servants in Belfast in order to ensure that this provision is not inconsistent with and does not undermine the wider strategic aim of raising the profile of public transport.

Recommendation 9

If the Department is to deliver its objectives of growing passenger numbers and achieving modal shift, this will require an appropriate level of capital funding. The Committee recommends, therefore, that the Department commits to a rebalancing of funding levels towards public transport.

Recommendation 10

The Committee recommends that the Department carries out more regular and rigorous benchmarking of Translink operations and performance. It also recommends that the Department carries out an immediate review of the NITHC Board’s effectiveness and reports its findings back to the Committee.

Recommendation 11

The Committee recommends that, before consideration is given to reduce bus and train services, the Department should ensure that it is satisfied that Translink has undertaken a thorough and evidenced review of operational and administrative expenditure to identify potential savings.

Recommendation 12

The Committee recommends that the Department develops the public transport expertise it requires as a matter of priority. While the use of specialist consultants supplements transport planners, the Department should maximise the level of knowledge transfer associated with their use. The Department needs to secure adequate budget cover for the recruitment and on-going activities of its public transport planning team. In this regard, the rebalancing of funding towards public transport, called for by this Committee, will be necessary.

Download the full report here.

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