The Earth's Corr: Why are we paying through the nose for substandard public transport?

Is anyone else ripping our public transport fares are rising again? I understand the fact Translink are not getting enough money to deliver the services we so badly need - and I don’t totally blame the Department for Infrastructure for that.

The fault lies squarely at the steps of Westminster who are not providing nearly enough dosh for much needed public services in Northern Ireland. While news of an election may provide some hope things could be about to change for the better - I’d hazard a guess it will be some time before we really see our lives improve.

But what do we do in the meantime to cope with yet another blow to our already empty pockets - and with an Executive that clearly doesn’t prioritise public transport investment as a major route to lowering the countries carbon emissions?

READ MORE: 10 train stations between Lisburn and Belfast Lanyon closing for two months

READ MORE: Translink announce fare increases for bus and rail passengers

Train fares are rising another 10% and bus tickets will cost you 6% more. It follows previous hikes on all services in 7% in March 2023 and rail fare rises in November 2023.

Peter McClenaghan, Director of Infrastructure and Sustainability at the Consumer Council says the move will “disproportionately affect low-income passengers” and he’s right.

But even on what’s considered an average wage in NI, people will struggle to meet yet more rising costs on our buses and trains.

According to NISRA, the median salary for a full-time employee in NI was £32,900 in 2023 - lower than the UK median of £35,000.

When I was in Manchester just a few weeks ago, a daily ticket on their Metro service, costing £4.90 took me right across the city, from its outskirts at Manchester Airport to Whitefield almost 19 miles away, back into town for a gig with a return to the outskirts later that night. If you covered those same miles here on a train or a bus, you would be paying a small fortune for that service.

Their wages there are higher and yet their daily costs are so much lower when it comes to the likes of public transport, plus they are much better served than we are.

Manchester trams come every 15 minutes and can take you to most parts of the city - while one return ticket from Holywood into the centre of Belfast and back again will set you back £5.30 right now - with a 10% hike coming on June 3.

To add insult to injury, DfI announced this price hike just a few weeks after we reported major disruptions to train services across the city with one station already shut and another nine due to be closed for two months to get Grand Central linked to the line.

The whole thing beggars belief and people should be absolutely fuming - but this latest kick in the gut is one of so many bruises delivered down through the years, people have run out of energy to fight or hope things will get any better. It’s a joke.

We elect politicians to make our lives better - not worse.

Some might say here, Manchester is a bigger city with more money - but the major difference is the investment going into their network with another £1.07bn from City Region Sustainable Transport Settlements announced this year on top of £170m in local investments following tens of millions in recent years.

The SDLP’s Mark H Durkan says this latest price blow in NI highlights sustained failings from the NI Executive to invest in our public transport systems and that it could threaten the future viability of the network.

The Foyle MLA added: “The Executive’s persistent failure to adequately invest in our public transport system is unforgivable. Not only is the public footing the bill for their failure but it’s completely counterintuitive to the aim of encouraging people to use more sustainable modes of transport.

The Glider -Credit:Translink
The Glider -Credit:Translink

“This neglect not only undermines the quality and reliability of services but unfairly burdens commuters with higher fares. The consistent failure to prioritise public transport has forced the Translink to rely on unplanned in-year budgetary contributions to stay afloat.

“The battle to keep public transport viable in Northern Ireland is a particularly galling when just across the border, the public transport network is flourishing with Budget 2024 ensuring that families and young people can access cheaper fares. Commuters will also benefit from a further reduction in Transport for Ireland fares by an average of 20% across bus, rail and tram services.

“It’s frustrating to see the Executive and the Department, serve as a case study of ‘what not to do’ in terms of public transport investment and management. If we’re serious about tackling the climate emergency, we need to take steps to make cleaner modes of transport more accessible. These continued price hikes are entirely the wrong direction of travel. It’s imperative public transport is prioritised to ensure it remains a viable and affordable option for everyone.”

Peter McClenaghan at the Consumer Council said: “It will disproportionately affect low-income passengers, who have no travel option other than public transport and who are already struggling with the ongoing cost-of-living crisis.

“Northern Ireland Government funding of public transport must be adequate to maintain as a minimum the current level of service, but also fund incentives to increase passenger numbers where possible.

“This fare increase contrasts with initiatives elsewhere, such as the £2 bus fare cap in England and the 20 per cent discount for passengers in the Republic of Ireland that recognise the benefits of public transport to society and the environment.

“This Translink increase could restrict growth in the number of people using public transport and conflicts with Government policy to increase the number of people using public transport.

“We welcome Translink’s stated intention of moving to a flat fare in the Belfast Metro area as this is easier for passengers to understand. However, the introduction of some flat fares has resulted in some price increases above the average on certain ticket types.

“Therefore, we urge Translink to introduce solutions that would offset these price increases, such as a weekly cap on contactless payments, as soon as possible to help address this.”

It’s all well and good to hear ministers and officials waxing lyrical about the new stations at York Street, where lift outages no doubt made it unusable for some very recently and Grand Central which is expected to open later this year, when the very basics are not right.

What people want from their transport services is buses and trains that operate on time and often enough to make them a viable option when they don’t have a car or want to reduce their carbon footprint.

They are not getting it right for people trying to ditch the car.

On Thursday I was in Dublin for work - and a delay to the Enterprise back to Belfast meant I missed my connecting service to Holywood by a few minutes. I asked why, when they knew there might be people relying on that link on the Enterprise, they didn’t delay the Bangor service by a few minutes and the answer was - we understand your frustration but we don’t operate on a connecting service basis.

Delaying it just a few minutes would have meant people who needed to get the Bangor train didn’t have to wait another half an hour - but common sense does not seem to prevail when it comes to public transport here and it is doing more harm than good in the fight to lower Northern Ireland’s emissions. It’s a small thing, but all these things add up and when you’ve been on the go since 5am, making it easier for people to connect to other services will encourage more people aboard.

We need real investment in public transport and we need it yesterday, Minister O’Dowd. Were doomed to fail on cutting transport emissions, helping people travel more actively and in a way that will curb obesity and improve their health, if you don’t start making active travel and public transport a priority.

I just hope the new Regional Transport Strategy, which will set out DfI’s vision for the transport system in NI, placing climate change and connecting people at its heart, isn’t another disappointment.

How much does Translink need?

According to DfI’s equality impact assessment on its budget for 2023/24 - Translink’s Forecasted Resource Requirements were £150.9m compared to £234m for roads.

The same document highlighted how DfI needed a total of £690.9m for the latest budget - but was provided just £523.4m. It added: “However, the 2023-24 allocation to DfI does not recognise the necessary steps taken in 2022-23 to balance a budget, including the one-off decision to use Translink’s reserves to help maintain services.”

Does this mean Translink's reserve was used to fund other DfI responsibilities? I’ve asked DfI that question as well as how much of Translink's reserve was used and how much they have been allocated for 2023/24.

We also asked Translink how much they need and how much DfI has given them. A spokesperson responded: "Translink are currently preparing their annual accounts which are being externally audited and will be laid before the NI Assembly in July."

For all the latest news, visit the Belfast Live homepage here and sign up to our daily newsletter here.