Northern Ireland Assembly
Tuesday 27 June 2000
The sitting begun and suspended on Monday 26 June 2000 was resumed at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
I beg to move
That this Assembly notes with concern the poor state of the public transport system in Northern Ireland and proposes that the Minister for Regional Development should urgently implement a comprehensive and integrated public transport policy to redress this problem.
There is a great debate among the public about the state of public transport. Over the past week the depth of the underfunding crisis in public transport — in particular, the railway network — has been brought into sharp focus by the media, including the ‘Belfast Telegraph’. The severity of the problem has been highlighted, as Members are aware, by Translink’s managing director, who has warned in a letter to employees of Northern Ireland Railways (NIR) that most of the North’s railway network may close down — the exception being the Belfast-Dublin Enterprise line — with the loss of 700 jobs, because of the gravity of the crisis.
This has served to illustrate the gross disparity between Government funding of Northern Ireland’s public transport system and their funding of Britain’s, which is the accumulated result of years of sustained neglect by successive Governments, both Labour and Conservative.
In Northern Ireland, 30% of households do not own cars. The continued fall in the standard of public transport provision is an issue which goes to the heart of the core principles of social justice and our obligation to create a new society rooted in inclusivity, equality of opportunity and access as described in the Good Friday Agreement.
Unfortunately, the present Labour Government’s attitude towards public transport in Northern Ireland is particularly disappointing. It is totally at odds with their own stated policy and their commitment to ensure that public transport becomes a more attractive and accessible option.
The Government’s White Paper on the future of transport, entitled ‘A New Deal for Transport: Better for Everyone’ and published in 1998, stated that there was consensus for a radical change in transport policy. The Deputy Prime Minister and Minster for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, John Prescott, said that motorists would not be prepared to use public transport unless it was significantly better and more reliable.
However, in the comprehensive spending review which followed, no extra resources were provided for public transport in Northern Ireland. Public transport is now a devolved matter for which the Assembly has responsibility. It is the remit of the Department for Regional Development to implement for this region a public transport policy which is balanced, sustainable and socially inclusive and has clear and realistic objectives.
The Department’s draft regional strategic framework for Northern Ireland marks an important starting point. It acknowledges that a strategic focus is needed for future transport development. It correctly recognises that the greater travel choice offered by car ownership is not enjoyed by all. The lack of a car can contribute to social exclusion and reduce access to work opportunities and services, particularly for those in rural and disadvantaged urban areas. However, we appreciate that there are no easy solutions to this problem. The Regional Development Committee has been discussing the issue over recent weeks.
Real change in Northern Ireland’s public transport system will be achieved only if more money is made available and can be allocated within the context of a public transport policy which is receptive to other sources of revenue. It must also be sustainable and integrated with the public transport system on the island as a whole to maximise the most efficient use of scarce resources. It is this sort of comprehensive and balanced approach to public transport which will not only improve the economic regeneration of the region but will also — and this is important — protect the environment and enhance the quality of life of the population generally. We had a better railway system at the start of the twentieth century than we have at the start of the twenty-first century, because of the number of lines that have been closed.
As someone who comes from Omagh, I remember when the railway from Derry through Strabane and Omagh to Portadown closed in 1964. I contend that that brought serious disadvantage to our area.
The state of our railway network dramatically underlines the extent of the current problem. According to several public surveys, customer satisfaction with the quality of service still leaves much to be desired. For example, the spring independent monitoring update conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers on behalf of Translink revealed a decrease in the performance ratings for NIR with respect to overall customer satisfaction with both trains and the conditions of stations. Trains are now running with fewer carriages, and passengers are travelling in overcrowded conditions. Although at the moment Translink operates a relatively safe railway network, this cannot continue indefinitely given the present lack of investment. There is a risk to public safety. Recently Translink commissioned a report into safety. The reality is that our railways are safe, but only because trains move quite slowly.
Back in March the British Government announced a massive £52 billion investment in Railtrack over the next 12 years. Similarly, the Government in the Republic followed the advice in a report produced for them by International Risk Management Devices and acknowledged that £500 million was needed to upgrade safety systems on the CIE network.
Public subsidies in other EU member states are also significantly higher than those in the North of Ireland. For example, the level of subsidy in Germany’s rail network is more than 10 times the amount accorded to NIR. There is a glaring gap between the Government’s rhetoric on public transport and the reality of the issue. According to Translink’s submission to the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee, Northern Ireland Railways sees only a fraction of the financial support given to the privatised companies in Britain. For example, in 1997-98 the rail network in Britain was subsidised to the level of £33·20 per capita, whereas the level in Northern Ireland was £5·50 per capita. Other comparisons show further disparities. For example, in 1998 NIR received 5·28p per passenger mile, by comparison with Scot Rail, which received 22·1p per passenger mile. Railways operating in the Cardiff area received 35·8p per passenger mile, those in Liverpool 41.5p, and those operating in the Isle of Wight 64·5p.
Overall, the public money payable by the Government to NIR has declined by 3% in recent years from a low base. The impact of this lack of investment upon the rail network is far reaching and has serious implications for the quality and safety of the service that Translink is able to provide. The report commissioned by Arthur D. Little, experts in rail safety, which was published in March, contained 121 recommendations. It concluded that £183 million was needed for new passenger rolling stock, trains, repairs to bridges, sea defences and new signalling and safety equipment. Almost half of the rail network needs to be relaid. The sum of £72 million is needed for new trains and six new bridges; other structures are needed at a cost of £67 million; and £25·5 million is required for the modernisation of signalling equipment, safety systems and the upgrading of crossings.
The financial position of NIR is stark. Northern Ireland estimates for the year 2000-01 allow only £8·27 million for capital expenditure. According to Translink, it cannot afford to purchase new trains and is allowed to spend only £3·4 million on the minor refurbishment of carriages, which will extend their useful life by approximately three years at the most. Taking into consideration the withdrawal of trains for repairs — and it is Translink’s stated policy to maintain services — this will mean running trains with only two or three carriages, instead of the normal five, and less frequently. Inevitably, this will cause disruption to services and, in the long term, could result in the eventual closure of part or the entire rail network, except for the Dublin-Belfast line.
The effects of the closure of the railway network on Northern Ireland’s overall transport system would be enormous. Every year approximately six million passengers use the train to get to work. Traffic volumes in Belfast are already increasing by 4% per annum. If sufficient investment is not forthcoming, thousands of cars will be added to our roads. It is estimated that over the next 25 years 70,000 additional cars will be on Northern Ireland’s roads if the present trend continues. It is estimated that every morning an extra 3,000 vehicles would be added to the M1, the M2 and the Sydenham bypass. Closing the Bangor-Belfast line would add an extra 1,000 cars onto the roads at peak times.
Closure of the railway network is not a viable option. The people of the North of Ireland deserve a better deal. The railways task force, which is due to publish its interim report in July, can come to no conclusion acceptable to the wider community other than to recommend a substantial programme of Government investment. This is needed to address the public safety requirements and to ensure the survival of the network.
Although in not quite as severe a crisis as that afflicting our railways, Northern Ireland’s bus services also suffer considerably from a lack of investment. In recent months we have had fare increases of an average of 4·5% — almost twice the rate of inflation — and services have been cut by 3% or 4%. This increases the sense of isolation, particularly in rural areas, among disadvantaged groups, such as the disabled, the unemployed, students and the elderly, who may not own a car, and causes even more traffic congestion in urban areas. Approximately 71% of commuters still opt for a car instead of a bus or train.
I ask the Member to bring his remarks to a close as there is a substantial list of Members wishing to speak.
The crisis in public transport is such that we in the Assembly must work with the Department of Regional Development and the Executive to face up to the stark reality. I hope that when this debate is concluded there will be successful negotiations to try to bring about a long-term resolution and to develop a strategic framework for public transport in Northern Ireland.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Perhaps you would confirm that the real nub of this debate — finance — cannot be put to the Assembly because of the legislation that governs the matter of moneys here.
I am grateful to the Member for raising this question. It is clear that there is not always a full understanding of what matters may be tabled and what matters may not. As Members may recall, section 63 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, upon which the Assembly is based, makes it clear that no sums may be required from the Consolidated Fund and that no sums may be appropriated by vote, resolution or any other means, except with the approval of the Minister of Finance and Personnel. Therefore, in the event of a motion being laid, or an amendment to a motion, without the approval of the Minister of Finance and Personnel, the Assembly could not vote upon it if it would increase a sum that had been appropriated or require funds to be brought forward.
I can understand that Members may regard this as a restriction when dealing with such a matter, as has been said by Mr Byrne. However, it is the legal basis upon which we must function. The Member is right to draw it to the attention of the House at this time.
Before we move on, may I draw two or three other matters to the attention of the House. All Members will have had circulated to them the text of a private notice question in the name of Mrs Mary Nelis. Private notice questions are taken immediately before the Adjournment debate, which under Standing Orders begins at 3 o’clock. The only way we can square that circle is, in effect, to stop the procedural clock at that point to allow that private notice question to be taken. It is taken in the usual fashion: the question is put, the Minister responds, a supplementary is taken from the questioner, and other supplementaries are permitted for a time.
I mention all this because this is the first private notice question we have had, and, of course, it is not on the Order Paper. I also want to remind the House that there is a statement from the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety on the fire service. That will be taken at a convenient time, after a number of other debates and before the debate on the Equality Commission this evening. The time is difficult for me to estimate; it will depend on the rest of the discussion.
That takes me to the question of timing for this debate. At the start it was not possible to indicate timings as I did not know how many Members wanted to speak. In the course of the proposer’s speech it became clear that the number is very substantial. Therefore I have little option but to restrict the time available to five minutes for each Member who will speak, 10 minutes for the Member who proposed the motion to wind up, and 20 minutes for the Minister to respond. The Minister will, of course, be given the opportunity to respond at the usual point, which is at the end of the debate, prior to the winding-up speech.
I will have to keep Members to five minutes. If more Members come forward they will not necessarily be able to speak. I may not even be able to get through the list I already have. However, we will do our best.
Members will know from listening to the radio in the morning that traffic is a problem in the Province. All will be familiar with Sandyknowes, Tillysburn, the Westlink and the M1. Every single morning there are reports of congestion at those points.
Traffic conditions are getting worse all the time. Car ownership in the Province has increased by 400% since 1960, and there are currently over 700,000 cars on the road. Ninety-eight per cent of goods are moved by road. Those who have recently travelled by train will know that most of our trains are old, shabby, prone to breakdown and, certainly on the Bangor line, extremely crowded. From this one can deduce that transport is in crisis, and this has come about as a result of a sustained lack of funding over a number of years. When times got tough transport was regarded as one area where money could easily be saved. We can ask for more money, but, sadly, although there may be some relief in the short term, there probably is not much more available, so we have to look at other solutions.
We need a plan, and, indeed, there is a plan. A regional strategic framework and an integrated transport policy are on the go, and it is to be hoped that they will be with us by the end of the year. Of course, there is a price to pay, and we and the Minister will, I suspect, have some hard choices to make. The regional strategic framework sees a settlement network of the hubs of the two cities, Belfast and Londonderry, with a series of hubs and clusters — the main towns and villages — in a key transport network which will link all these areas, allowing people to move from one to the other quickly on the key transport corridors and, of course, the gateways that lead from the Province, the ports and airports.
Over the next year there are terms you will learn to know and love, because they will govern how most Departments will be dealing with regional matters. For example, the strategic framework includes planning and housing and social development, as well as a number of other areas.
There is a need to reduce car usage and pollution. Government policy accepts this, as was evidenced in a recent report which recommended a 60% reduction in greenhouse gases within 20 years. How do we get out of our cars and into some other form of transport which is less dangerous in terms of pollution? It is very difficult. In rural areas we are, perhaps, looking at small buses, a subsidised taxi system or some other better way of providing rural transport. What happens to school buses during the day when they are not collecting pupils? We are paying for them. Could they not be put to better use? In rural areas people have to use their cars, but in the Belfast travel-to-work urban area it is different.
Here is an opportunity to look seriously at some form of public transport. Every day people travel from Larne, Antrim, Lisburn and Dromore to work in Belfast, and a rail system would be logical; a fast, rapid transport system could be provided which would get people to work quickly and in comfort, allowing them to leave their cars at the station. This happens elsewhere in the United Kingdom and in the Republic, but until we introduce a public transport system that people want to use, they will not abandon their cars. It is a chicken-and-egg situation. The answer is either leasing or some form of public/private partnership. That is the way we must go.
Mr R Hutchinson:
I welcome this opportunity to speak on the steady decline and lack of investment that has become all too apparent in the public transport system and the roads network throughout Northern Ireland. Roads funding has declined. Real public expenditure on transport has fallen at a rate of 14.5% over the last five years. Independent analysis has revealed an estimated shortfall of £40 million per annum in structural maintenance.
Today’s society simply cannot function without roads. In the last 10 years traffic volume has increased by an average 2.8% per annum. This is reflected in traffic volumes on many of our roads. This morning I drove the A8 Belfast-Larne route, on which traffic varies from over 18,000 vehicles per day near Corr’s Corner to approximately 10,500 vehicles per day south of the A757 junction. That does not include freight traffic from the ports of Larne and Belfast. It is staggering that, by 2005, car ownership in Northern Ireland will reach one million. There is a need for an improved roads infrastructure and transport system Province-wide.
Northern Ireland has a £13 billion roads network. That is one of our most valuable assets. Major structures such as bridges, which make up 10% of that asset, are inadequately funded. The structural maintenance of that network is of paramount importance to the economic and social well-being of our Province. There is a need to identify, maintain and develop our main commercial routes, giving priority to the key transport corridors. There is no doubt that substantial investment is required in order to promote economic growth and to improve road safety by bringing about a reduction of one third in the number of fatalities and serious injuries that occur on our roads. Higher priority must also be given to the needs of pedestrians, cyclists and those using public transport, particularly in a climate of spiralling fuel costs and increased taxes on car users.
However, it makes little sense to encourage motorists off the roads and on to an inadequate rail system. Lord Dubs, a former Environment Minister, described Northern Ireland’s rail system as a complete shambles. Concern has grown over declining levels of service across the Province. This week’s fact-finding exercise by the railways task force will no doubt confirm the public’s lack of confidence in the current provision. Miles of track needs to be relaid. Many trains are 30 years old. It is anticipated that 29 train sets are needed to maintain existing services, but by the end of next year only 24 will be available, thus resulting in a reduction of services and the possibility of line closures.
Talk of the truncation or withdrawal of railway lines such as we have had in recent weeks conjures up negative images of this important medium of transport and reinforces the idea that the public perception of the rail system is very negative. A D Little’s safety report tells us that the Northern Ireland railway system is just about safe. It also says that there is a need for an investment of £183 million to be phased in —
Order. I fear that your time has passed.
Mr C Murphy:
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. When I heard the discussions about this debate on the radio this morning I was worried that the issue of whether the DUP is in the Executive — and the impact this could have on funding — was in danger of obscuring this vital debate on the crisis in public transport.
I raised this issue with the Minister of the Regional Development Committee at the start of the year. I was encouraged to hear that he was initiating a comprehensive 10-year strategy to tackle the issue of public transport instead of the ad hoc approach which has been adopted by direct rule Ministers in the past. There is no doubt that there has been massive under-investment in public transportation over many years. This is in contrast to patterns both in Britain and in the South. The draft regional development strategy does not give enough consideration to the operating of the railway network, or to the provision of bus lanes, bicycle lanes, or park-and-ride services. There is an absence of achievable targets for shifting transport patterns from cars towards public transport. In the urban areas in particular, restrictions on car use would enhance the demand for public transport.
The knowledge that car ownership will double here in the next 25 years should give a sense of urgency to this. The free transport system piloted in the Castlereagh and Newry and Mourne council areas, and which also exists on the North/South line, should be quickly extended to the remainder of the Six Counties. Public transport must be easily accessible to disabled persons and to parents with small children. Attention should be given to the upgrading of rural public transport systems in the draft strategy, and any future public transport strategy must be integrated on a North/South basis. These policies should also take into account the particular developmental needs of the west and south of the Six Counties — something that appears to be lacking in the regional strategic framework.
A Cheann Comhairle, the current traffic congestion and the anticipated traffic nightmare over the coming years dictates that a grooming of the public transport system must take place as a matter of urgency. I look forward to an imaginative public transport strategy being produced by the Minister and to its early implementation. Go raibh maith agat.
I welcome this debate, and I congratulate Joe Byrne on putting forward the motion. In his introduction he mentioned the needs of rural areas. As somebody whose summer holidays used to begin with a trip on the GNR to Newtownstewart, I agree entirely with the need for decent public transport in rural areas, as found in his constituency.
He also mentioned the needs of deprived inner-city areas. He actually left some areas out of the equation — areas which are, to some extent, suffering the greatest problems of congestion at the moment. I am talking about suburban areas like my constituency in South Antrim. It is absolutely clear that we will not have a decent system to enable people to commute into Belfast from areas like Newtownabbey and Antrim unless a decent public transport system is developed. There is supposedly a good motorway connecting this constituency with Belfast, yet all Members who live in the north or the north-west complain about the congestion at Sandyknowes, which they experience every morning coming here. These problems have been exacerbated by the development of housing in commuter towns and in suburban areas without any commensurate increase in the public transport infrastructure.
I have a few suggestions which I would like the Minister to consider. He has heard a few other suggestions from me and will doubtless hear a few more over the coming years. There is a fundamental problem with the way the Treasury operates. I know we are not supposed to be talking about that this morning, but I will get my cheap jibe in anyway. The fact that Translink is handing cash reserves back to the Treasury at a time when it cannot buy buses and trains is a scandal. That is the only conceivable word for it. It is time that we in the Assembly decided whether we have the power to judge those decisions. We need to tell the Treasury that we think this is a scandal, and we need to do so with a united voice.
We clearly need to move much further with regard to integration. Combined bus and rail tickets should not be too difficult for Translink to introduce. Last week a senior officer of the Assembly said to me in Donegall Square that it was nice to see a public representative using public transport. However, like most of us, I am a bit of a hypocrite because I do not use it very often. I discovered last week that to come from Templepatrick on a Ballymena express bus and go back to Templepatrick on an airbus requires two tickets. One cannot use a return ticket on the two different services. It is really time that Translink introduced integrated ticketing to include railways and all bus services and put an end to this ludicrous situation.
We need to stop giving lip service to the public transport system and start getting real about the problems of private cars. We seem to run frightened of the roads lobby, but we need to go out and talk to our constituents. There are plenty of houses, I know, within my constituency with two cars sitting outside.
The people wish that they did not need both the cars — one staying at home during the day for family use, and the other being used to get to work in Belfast.
There is no doubt that until we start to provide an element of the stick alongside, and preferably slightly behind, the carrot of improved quality of public transport, we are not going to deal with that issue. We need measures like quality bus corridors, but we also need to tackle the issue of congestion charging by parking charges or other means. We need to consider some of the ideas that people like Transport 2000 have advanced on the issue of out-of-town shopping centres and the associated major problems of free parking and the destruction of town and city centres.
I have one specific suggestion to put to the Minister, and I understand that it is entirely within his remit. It is time that public transport policy be no longer regarded as an adjunct of the Roads Service. It is time for the Roads Service to be an agency administering an integrated transport policy, or part of an integrated transport policy, for his Department. It should not be something in which buses and trains are subservient to the car. We need to get the mindset right, and Members in the Chamber should start doing something about it. If we do not, we will be a little hypocritical in preaching at others. We need to set the example.
Some time ago I visited Berlin. The whole road and rail infrastructure was being rebuilt following the collapse of Communism in the east. Roads and railways were being linked up again to create a modern network, bringing immediate economic and social benefits, and protecting the environment from the pollution of the past. Above all, the new investment was designed to target the social needs of the east, which had been so neglected under the communist system.
In Northern Ireland much has been done since the ceasefires. Border roads have reopened, and the new Enterprise trains have transformed rail travel between Belfast and Dublin, with obvious advantages for the towns in between. The City of Derry Airport is slowly but surely building up new business which is adding to the value of the north-west as an attractive place in which to invest. However, there is a downside. Officials from the Department for Regional Development are currently touring council chambers showing a set of slides to elected members. The slides would be an embarrassment to any Government Department. They tell the sad tale of a rail and road infrastructure in serious decline and, in some cases, literally disappearing. They show rusty old trains, with matching tracks and bridges, and roads that are breaking up without the money to replace or repair them.
Councils are being asked for their views in helping to pay for these. Are we back to the tollroads of the medieval past, or is someone going to get serious about the problems confronting us? Why can Northern Ireland not build up its infrastructure that has been so badly neglected under 30 years of direct rule? Why does the Minister for Regional Development not have the same vision for the future as the people of Berlin? Why is he not sitting down with his fellow Ministers in the Executive? Why is he refusing to take part in the North/South bodies with his Colleagues from all parties, so that, together, we can begin the process of creating a new, modern road and rail infrastructure that will give life to our economic and social development strategies for the future? Instead, he is creating uncertainty by telling us that he will resign from his post. Of course, we have now learnt that even if he wants to stay the newly appointed "Pope" will sack him anyway.
How can this nonsense help the people of Northern Ireland, who have a right to expect political leaders to rebuild what has been destroyed or neglected? A modern transport system is vital to the country’s future. We cannot deliver on our promises to target social need, create equality or protect the environment if large parts of the North are suffering from serious decline. The Belfast to Derry line is critical to the success of the North and the north-west. There is a strong case for developing fast and modern road transport corridors between the west of Ireland and the North. We need to do what the people of Berlin did and seriously begin to rebuild and develop what has been neglected.
Yes, there was a time when it was customary to boast of the modern roads of the North and to scorn the winding, twisty roads of the South. But that is the past.
The Republic of Ireland is currently spending £2 million per day on roads alone. Most of the money is their own; it is not European Union money. They are planning to upgrade their railways to the highest European standard, because they know that that is the only way to build a modern economy — one which addresses social need and delivers prosperity to everyone. We can do it too, but we cannot afford the luxury of a Minister who is hopping in the corner, or worse still, out in the cold. Let us take a leaf out of the book of the Germans or, indeed, of the Irish, and get real. We have lived in the world of pretence for far too long.
I welcome the opportunity to address this motion. For reasons already pointed out, it is of particular interest to myself and anybody living in the North Antrim constituency who needs to travel to Belfast. As we look forward to the reopening of the Bleach Green line, it would be a great shame if the opportunity for a faster rail link to the north and north-west — which would appeal to many people — were not properly seized because of the poor state of the rest of the infrastructure relating to it. However, the possibility of greater demand for that service would lead to the prospect of extra revenue being generated, which in turn would help ease the obvious capital spending problems. Those of us who live north of the dual carriageway build line on the A26 are acutely aware of the attraction of being able to use the railway as an alternative.
I suspect that the Minister, in his response to this debate, will be quite tempted to start with the refrain "Well, if you have the money, I have the time," because essentially we are looking at a capital spending problem. We have to be aware, however, that should more money become available for capital spending, there will be immediate competition between all the capital spending departments to get their hands on it. Therefore the prospects for the transport system would be much better if that Minister were present to fight his corner in the Executive Committee. For that reason I think that it is incumbent upon those Ministers with major capital spending programmes to investigate all the avenues of private finance to see what can be done to stretch the public purse further. The fact that there is a bottleneck of commuters coming from the north into Belfast creates an opportunity in itself. I believe there is now a sufficient volume of people trying to travel in and that there is a commercial opportunity to provide an alternative — probably on rails, but possibly by bus — that deserves serious investigation.
Another aspect of the transport issue relates to some of the points raised in yesterday’s debate on the Industrial Development Board. The Minister, Sir Reg Empey, made the point — and it needs to be made again and again — that it is not, and should not be, the business of the Government to tell business where it should go. Business makes that decision for itself. What government can do is to enable people to go to where the business, the jobs and the opportunities are, and that is a key role of transport policy. Take as an example the world’s most successful economy — the United States. Perhaps the defining characteristic of that economy is the complete mobility of labour. People go to where the work is; they do not expect work to be brought to them. We should take the same attitude in Northern Ireland. That does not mean that there are not opportunities to create work more widely throughout the province. I believe that there are. It is a question of being able to move the other ingredients that are required in and out of those areas. That is the job of transport policy.
Finally, I wonder whether this Assembly should set an example in relation to flexible working hours. In other cities where I have worked, that is one of the ways in which bottlenecks have been dealt with. There has been a willingness, particularly in the service industry, which has the scope to do this, to offer people different working days and different start and finish times. I have referred to this before in debates in the Assembly. The Assembly and its staff frequently have to work on Sunday as a consequence of the rather optimistic start time on Monday. This causes great difficulties for your office, Mr Speaker, and for the Whips’ office. I wonder whether the Assembly should not contribute to easing the rush hour problems by starting later and finishing later.
I support the motion. We were all elected to the House a few years ago. Most who came here were councillors, and some of us still are. The underfunding of our roads and our public transport system is no surprise to councillors. It was only when we came here that we realised the seriousness of the underfunding. When Roads Service officials came on their annual visits to councils we lobbied them for more funding for our areas, and rightly so.
The Roads Service has a budget of £163·3 million for this year, and that only represents 50% of what is needed. That is very serious. We have significant growth in car ownership and funding has been decreasing for many years. We need to look seriously at the development of our main commercial routes and give priority to key transport corridors in Northern Ireland.
We were told a number of months ago that a lot of these projects right across Northern Ireland could only be funded by the sale of Belfast port. We should congratulate the Minister and his Department. Decisions have not been made on Belfast port, but nevertheless work is about to start on some of the projects and others are included in the programme.
Our public transport system is in a serious crisis, and the Minister for Regional Development has been making the Regional Development Committee aware of the seriousness of the situation. He has been to the Committee on a number of occasions. Many documents have been drawn up over the last number of years on funding public transport. The Little report has been mentioned, and it is going to take £183 million for some of the recommendations in that report to be funded. We are now waiting for a report that was commissioned by the former Minister, which was a total waste of time — we have had enough documents. We know what needs to be done, and we can only get a properly funded public transport system in Northern Ireland through additional funding.
Over the next months difficult decisions will have to be taken on raising additional funds. We will have to explore other ways of raising funds, and Members will find that to be painful.
I am afraid that your time is up.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I wish to speak in favour of the motion. The subjects of roads and transport are interlinked with investment, economic development services, health, hospitals and equality of access for the disabled and the aged, and I make a case for the area west of the Bann against a mindset that seems to believe that the world ends at the M1.
There is a need to decentralise, rather than centralise, jobs and industry to allow an equal spread of investment and jobs right across the area. We face an increase in population to 1·7 million by 2025. We have one of the fastest growing regions in Europe and the most youthful population in Europe, with an estimated increase of 180,000 persons by 2025. An additional 100,000 jobs will be required. There will also be a corresponding demand for services, infrastructure, jobs, housing and hospitals. The number of vehicles will rise to over one million by 2025, with an accompanying impact on the environment, traffic congestion and the quality of life. Traffic in Belfast is rising by 4% year after year.
In the west, the strategy for development is relevant to a cross-border area of around two million people. Indigenous industries such as agriculture and textiles have been eroded. Local jobs are needed to counteract this with development hubs at county level. We need investment in infrastructure as the car is a necessity in rural areas. There is no choice. No other type of transport is available, and it is unlikely that there will be any in the future.
While bids for funding have been made for railways, there are no railways in the west. My Colleague Pat Doherty has been working to try to develop something of this nature via the South. If jobs are not to be located locally, can we have the option of the west as a commuter belt? Is this what we want: a region in the west that is dormant, and another in the east that is overdeveloped? Or do we want a society where people have real choice and equality?
Fermanagh’s seriously underfunded roads budget for both maintenance and major projects — although we have had no major projects there for many years — is £150,000. This compares with about IR£8 million per year for Cavan, which is just across the border. Fermanagh has more miles of roads than any other of the six counties. All we are asking for is our fair share — that is all that we expect. There are cross-border strategic gateways and corridors that could be funded collaboratively with the Southern Government.
In conclusion, we need to achieve a balance of sustainable development through a strategic approach to the future. Fundamental to the overall success of a regional development strategy is the need to develop a modern integrated transport network. It is important that this strategy provide, through implementation of ‘Shaping our Future’, a balanced spread of development that meets the needs of everyone, east, west, urban and rural.
The Minister for Regional Development, Peter Robinson, broadly endorsed the strategy published in ‘Shaping our Future’, but he needs to ensure that it will be implemented equally across all the areas, east and west. Although he does not sit in the Executive, I ask him, since it is his job, to ask those in the South for any funding he can obtain. Councillors are making similar types of bids.
That is the direction in which we should be going. We should be looking for funding from any source that can help us to provide gateways and corridors which access border and cross-border areas that are relevant to us all and which will make the budget go that much further. Go raibh maith agat.
I support the motion, and I publicly endorse all statements describing the dire state of our public transport network and the dire need for urgent action to allow us to catch up on 30 years of serious, unacceptable and dangerous neglect.
I could raise many issues this morning, but because of time limitations I prefer to focus on a prime example of the type of neglect I have described. That, not surprisingly, is the Bangor-Belfast railway line.
A few months ago I attended a public meeting on the rail crisis in Bangor. I was shocked to hear the extent to which passenger needs have been totally disregarded.
The stories involved schoolchildren left waiting in the dark when the train broke down — we are not talking about minutes, but hours. Worried parents did not know where the children were. There were also stories about overcrowding and serious delays, sometimes on a daily basis, and about the lack of communication with passengers when problems arose.
The most important criticism is the serious compromise to the standards of safety posed by outdated, outmoded rolling stock that has been running longer than 99% of the cars on our roads. Is it any wonder that thousands of commuters travelling from Bangor to Belfast every day prefer to use their cars, rather than public transport? You have only to look at the Bangor road at rush hour to see the result — cars bumper to bumper, traffic jams and many of those cars containing only the driver. There is something wrong with our system.
The Roads Service is building a cycle lane on the Bangor-Belfast road, and I welcome that. However, those cyclists will soon be wearing oxygen masks as they travel up and down the road.
When we talk about the need for better public transport I do not need to remind anyone of the dangers that traffic congestion poses in terms of road accidents, fatalities and the devastating effect that it has on the environment. We need a major injection of funding for all public transport systems. I am not just referring to the Bangor to Belfast line. We need to open up other routes, reinstate old routes and have, as has been suggested, integrated transport networks, integrated ticketing, innovation, and new ideas coming into this system.
The public must be encouraged to use public transport. It should be fast, efficient, clean, cheap and accessible to all — a simple recipe. The use of European funds has been mentioned, but I believe that our public transport system should have the support of direct government funding. These matters should not be left to Europe alone. It is true that, when it comes to public transport, the continental Europeans understand people’s needs. I was in Barcelona recently and I took a train at 11.30 pm. It was packed with young people, and classical music was being piped to them.
Why do we always have to accept second best? We deserve better. This issue undoubtedly unites the Assembly. Our Regional Development Minister has the power and the ability to do something fast and do something now. Let us go for it.
The Chairman of the Regional Development Committee (Mr A Maginness): Undoubtedly, public transport has been the Cinderella of Government policy for the past three decades. When we look at how public transport has been treated — the severe underfunding — and at the result of under-investment, in terms of road congestion and severe transportation problems, we see a baffling history of neglect on the part of Government. We see how short-sighted Governments have been in relation to public transportation. Public transportation was starved of adequate funding. It was by deliberate Government choice. It was not accidental — it happened because Governments wanted it to happen. Governments emphasised the private motor car at the expense of a proper public transportation system.
We have an opportunity to put right that historic wrong, given our new Assembly and Administration. We can create a state-of-the-art transportation system — the most modern public transportation system in this part of Europe — if we put our minds to it and if we get the necessary funding.
We have heard about the underfunding of our transport system. We know that it will take at least £183 million to bring our railway system up to an adequate standard. We need at least another £40 million for new buses and we need more money on top of that. We have a real problem with funding, but it can be done if we bring an imaginative approach to the whole problem of transportation. That is the task that the Department for Regional Development should set itself to, ably assisted by the Regional Development Committee, and I hope we can persuade the Administration to provide the necessary funding. If we do not do that we will create an even worse situation in the future. We need a good public transportation system because it is pivotal for economic growth in our society. It is not a luxury, an add-on or an extra. It is vital to economic growth.
However, I am disturbed by a number of things. First, the European money that has been earmarked for Northern Ireland does not seem to include an allocation for transportation, whether public or otherwise. I view that matter with grave concern. Secondly, the inherent conservatism in the Regional Development Department in relation to dealing with the problem is also of concern. Thirdly, I regret the fact that, under present accountancy rules in the Department of Finance and Personnel, moneys are clawed back from Translink — that is absolutely and utterly wrong.
We need a novel approach to those accountancy rules and a more imaginative attitude to the whole question of leasing, which is vital to the development of our system. The task force has blighted the development of our public transport system. I shall end by saying —
Order. I am afraid the time is up. I must be extremely strict with everyone.
Mr A Maginness:
Mr Speaker, I was going to say —
Could the Assembly give the Member leave to finish his speech?
No, it would not be correct to say that the Assembly may give such leave. The decision on time allocation was made at the beginning of the debate, and we must stick to it.
I should like to begin by congratulating the Minister on the start that he has made in his Department. As previous Members have said, given the lack of Government funding over the past few years, it is good to see a home-grown Minister in that Department.
I should like to endorse the thrust of the motion, particularly its emphasis on the integration of transport, not only so the left hand knows what the right hand is doing but to anchor transport within a holistic approach to regional development.
A transport debate may not set the Assembly alight in the way that other issues can, but it is an essential element in realising the goal of a more prosperous Northern Ireland that pays ever more attention to the preservation of natural habitat. Over the past few years, Northern Ireland has had to cope with the twin problems of a decline in our traditional industries and the effects of terrorist violence on economic investment. Diversification will counter the worst effects of the former, and we trust that we shall see a permanent end to the latter one day soon. However, if our inherent disadvantages as a peripheral region of the United Kingdom and the European Union are to be minimised, local industry’s competitive costs must be maintained. An aim, for which the realisation of an efficient transport network is key.
We should value the integration that already exists between the bus and rail networks under the Translink umbrella. I dread mainland privatisation being visited on us here. The bus and rail systems must be built up to improve the use of public transport, and improvements to the road network should not be seen as an alternative to public transport, but as complementary to it. In particular, I am conscious of the Belfast metropolitan area’s poor performance with park-and-ride schemes compared with the performances of cities of a similar size elsewhere in the United Kingdom. I hope that the Department at least, will look at parking provision at railway stations so that an entire journey need not be made by car.
Like other Members, I have priorities for transport spending, and I realise that there is no bottomless pit of resources. As we all know, in my area of Lisburn we have been very supportive of alternative funding mechanisms to pay for necessary improvements. We can no longer expect the public purse to provide all the improvements we wish to see. Companies in Northern Ireland must provide cheap, quick access for business to ports and airports to facilitate the import and export of goods and raw materials, particularly from east to west. The easiest access to ports and airports is also essential if we are to enhance Northern Ireland further as a tourist destination.
In particular, we should be paying more attention to the role of our ports and airports in addressing the economic, transport and environmental needs of the Province. To make the best use of them we need to see more integration between travellers and public transport systems. For instance, although the main airport at Aldergrove is well situated in terms of the economic hub of Northern Ireland, it is poorly served by public transport. Equally, roads and rail links to our main ports are in need of further improvement.
I am sure we would all encourage the wider use of the public transport network. However, I am glad that there is at last a growing realisation in Government circles that the needs of rural and urban areas are different. I am convinced that through increased integration and more use of private finance, Northern Ireland can maintain its economic progress and meet the needs of its rapidly growing population.
I support the motion, and I trust that the Department will pay full attention to the views expressed by the Members here today.
The subject matter of the motion has been much reviewed. There have been at least five reports since 1995. We have had ‘Transportation in Northern Ireland: The Way Forward’, which was followed by ‘Developing an Integrated Transport Policy’ in 1997. In 1998 we had ‘Moving Forward’, a Northern Ireland transport policy statement, ‘A New Deal for Transport: Better for Everyone’, and then ‘Shaping our Future’, which also refers to transport issues. There have been many fine words and, of course, many laudable objectives, and the problems have been well and truly identified.
Nevertheless, public transport in Northern Ireland is still in a state of crisis, and as the motion before us says, it is in a poor state, no matter how you look at it. The infrastructure is poor, existing roads need upgrading and trunk road links are required. There are 210 miles of track that need to be upgraded — the system is now reduced to five lines. There are 58 railway stations and halts that need to be upgraded, and additional premises are required. I welcome the investment in the A1 outside Banbridge. I thank the Minister for that but remind him that a railway halt is required at Craigavon, and station improvements are needed at Portadown and Lurgan.
Not only is there poor infrastructure; there is also poor equipment. Due to chronic under-investment the railway system is literally falling apart. One only has to look at Northern Ireland Railways’ background information to the railways task force to have that confirmed. The position is dire. Safety is at risk, and it is imperative that we do something and do it soon.
As well as poor infrastructure and poor equipment, there is also poor service. I have complained about unreliability — trains arriving late and not being able to make the connections — and dilapidated furnishings. Some of the trains are dirty, and there are timetabling problems. All these issues have to be addressed. Of course, people in rural areas do not have these problems because there are no trains running in some of those areas. The people there are disadvantaged.
There have been five important transport publications by the Government, and there is another one in the making. All have identified the need and concluded that further substantial investment is required. For instance, the 1998 document ‘Moving Forward’ noted that
"substantial further investment will be needed in the strategic roadwork in the first quarter of the next century."
We are now in the next century and still we need to get the funding in place. The underlying thrust of the motion is that additional funding is required. Doing nothing is not an option; we must move from policy into reality. An integrated, sustainable transport strategy will only succeed when viable, efficient, alternative modes of public transport are available, and this will only come about with substantial investment.
There are, of course, a number of other contributory factors which, if implemented, will assist in the delivery of an integrated sustainable transport system.
A fundamental part of the strategy should be to reduce the need to travel by planning developments closer to services and amenities, by using brown-field sites and by encouraging a willingness among employers to accept, and indeed promote, flexible working arrangements, including working from home.
The key to improving public transport systems is the funding issue. The 1998 ‘Moving Forward’ document refers to better buses and services, better railways, better transport for tourism, better movement of goods, better taxis and better access to transport by air and sea. This cannot happen without substantial investment. We have thought about this, written about it and spoken about it — it is now time to act.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Chomhairle. In addressing this issue, it is clear from the comments made today that there is considerable common ground between all of the parties on each side of the Chamber. We are clear on the problems that we must address. We are of the view that we are adequately served, at present, by the continuing development and expansion of our seaports and the international and regional airport system. It is when we come to the question of the road infrastructure and the rail systems that we can see the consequences of years of neglect and underfunding.
The Minister for Regional Development has recently commented that the transportation system is simply unacceptable. Whether or not this is the first occasion, I want to state publicly my agreement with that view. The infrastructural deficiencies are strangling our economic potential, and that has been commonly reflected in all of the contributions this morning. We are all only too aware of the significant capital funding and revenue issues that arise while we are discussing adequate responses to this. The Minister has a genuine difficulty in formulating an effective response within the spending limitations.
The problems in our public transport systems are longstanding. In my view, they emerge from the old Stormont regime. There was an inadequate pattern of regional development policy at that time. That is clear when we consider the history of the development of the motorways. However, that is in the past. Consistent underfunding and under-resourcing during the subsequent period of direct rule has exacerbated these problems.
If all parties indicate a common assessment of the problems, and given the effective capping of capital investment by the British Treasury, then new thinking is required. I urge the Minister, as my Colleague did, to acknowledge the unacceptable nature of the public transport system. He should be prepared to engage in some lateral and innovative thinking. I urge him to take an early opportunity to meet with his counterpart in the Irish Government, to discuss a partnership approach and a strategic development plan for a public transport system for the entire island which would serve the interests, economic and social, of us all. Such a creative and innovative approach would provide unique and effective leverage to access the European Union funding that has been set aside for this specific policy area. I urge the Minister to consider that. That is not meant to be provocative. It is meant to be a reasonable, legitimate and constructive suggestion about how we can resolve this problem, which, we all agree, is strangling our potential for growth. Go raibh míle maith agat.