Bus use in England’s metropolitan areas declined 3.1% in 2015/16, but Northern Ireland’s capital saw a marginal increase. Rhodri Clark reports

 

belfast_mapBelfast’s Metro bus services carried 85,000 more passengers

 

Belfast’s Metro bus services experienced a growth in passengers last year, primarily driven by investment in the Belfast Rapid Transit scheme and promotional campaigns.

The 85,000 increase in passenger numbers in 2015/16 amounts to only a 0.3% increase in patronage, but contrasts with a 3.0% decline in London over the same period, a 3.1% decline in English metropolitan areas – and a 2.5% decline in Great Britain as a whole (PT137).

“A number of our Metro corridors have contributed significantly to this growth,” Damien Bannon, Metro area manager, told Passenger Transport.

“For example, the Metro 4 service which operates via East Belfast experienced growth of 5.8%. This is attributable to factors such as bus priority lanes and the introduction of a new park and ride site at Dundonald.”

Service 9, in South Belfast, experienced a 4.5% growth in passenger journeys during the year.

Bannon said audio-visual (AV) announcements were introduced across the entire Metro fleet in March 2016. This had been welcomed by visitors and other passengers. “In addition to innovation such as AV and a new real-time journey planner app, innovative best value promotional campaigns, both network wide and corridor specific, were introduced, which have contributed to passenger growth.”

Further bus lanes have been added since the financial year ended. On June 27, peak-only bus lanes were introduced on the Upper Newtownards Road for Belfast Rapid Transit, which crosses the city east to west. Completion of the bus priority infrastructure for BRT was originally due in autumn 2017 but has been deferred to summer 2018.

Translink, which operates Northern Ireland’s bus and rail services, also saw growth at Northern Ireland Railways during the year. NIR and Metro, combined, carried 165,000 more fare-paying passengers in 2015/16 than in the preceding year.

Translink’s overall passenger journeys reduced from 80 million in 2014/15 to 78.7 million. Translink said the large reduction at Ulsterbus, which covers inter-urban routes, rural services and local routes outside Belfast, reflected “a strong performance in light of service adjustments”. Concessionary bus passenger numbers were stable on Ulsterbus and Metro routes.

Ulsterbus made a loss of £8.8m during the year, while Metro recorded a profit of £700,000. The group’s overall loss of £10.5m for the year, before tax and statutory adjustments, was funded from cash reserves, now reduced to £39.7m.

After freezing fares for almost two years, in February 2015 Translink increased most Metro fares by 10p. The average increase on Ulsterbus was 4%, and on NIR 4.5%.

Translink’s financial loss for the year is almost equal to the annual funding it lost when Fuel Duty Rebate, equivalent to BSOG (Bus Service Operators’ Grant) in England, was withdrawn in November 2014. While it is focusing on passenger growth and cost efficiencies, Translink says it can only return to break-even with a restoration of Fuel Duty Rebate, which was approximately £10m in 2013/14.

The Department for Infrastructure’s baseline funding for Translink has reduced by approximately £16m, or 20%, since 2013/14. The valuation of the group’s pensions deficit reduced from £152m to £120m.

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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