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.
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.
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.
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 —
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.
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.
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 —
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.
Many points have been covered today, and I do not want to reiterate them. I do, however, want to lend my support to some of them, particularly those that Mr Ford made. There is no question that we need an integrated transport policy; the question is how long we have to integrate it so that we can meet the objectives and have them written into Assembly policy. We need to focus on a ten-year period for achieving this, but we could make a start, and quite quickly too, as David Ford said, with ticketing. Mr Ford came up with the good example of the Ballymena express at Templepatrick, but this is not just about buses. We should also be able to get a ticket that can be used on buses and trains. If those were dovetailed, it would be quite good.
The Little report talked about needing investment of £183 million. What shocked me about that £183 million is that it was for safety measures alone. To improve the railway system overall, we need £300 million, not just £183 million. That is a point we need to look at.
I talked to a colleague of mine from Coleraine who travels by car and by train. He tells me that if one travels from Coleraine to Belfast, it takes two hours or more on the train. The same journey can be done by car in one hour and twenty minutes. I do not know whether that involves breaking the speed limit or not, but at least it is in the comfort of one’s car. He also tells me that the train is cold, damp, unattractive and uncomfortable.
We continually talk about wanting to get people out of cars, but how can we do that? We need to have attractive alternatives. I suggest that we need adequately funded public transport. We need priority bus lanes and dovetailing timetables so that public transport can work.
In south Belfast a few weeks ago, Translink decided to introduce new bus stops and a new timetable. The new timetable showed the new bus stops, but the old ticket prices. People got irritated when they found out that they were going to have to pay another 20% per ticket. Also some of the timetables were old ones, so people were at the wrong places at the wrong times. These are just some examples of the problems. There are things that we can do at the very beginning.
We also need to do something about our airports. It has been said that our airports are strategically placed in economic terms, particularly Aldergrove. However, to get from Aldergrove to the city of Londonderry, I understand, is difficult. If one wants to get to Belfast, one can go by the airbus, which is quick. The Minister needs to talk to the management of the airports to find out if they are prepared to pay some of the costs. I think that they would be interested in looking at the costs and at putting some of their money into a rail link. We could have rail links with, for example, Londonderry airport and also the airport at Belfast harbour. We need to pursue those sort of things that would not just help businessmen, or the people who live in Northern Ireland, they would also encourage tourists — many tourists find it hard to get around the Province.
This is an interesting debate, and I thank Mr Byrne for bringing it forward. Some Members seem to want to use this debate as a "whinger’s charter". I refer in particular to Mr Dallat’s very poor and inept contribution. He seeks to blame the Minister for the problems that the railways and roads have had over the years.
We might as well blame Minister Rodgers for the BSE crisis, Minister Farren for the tuition fees, and Minister Durkan for the lack of money from the British Exchequer. I do not intend to go down the same silly line as Mr Dallat. It is time that he got real, grew up and moved away from council-chamber politics. He should realise that he is now in a place where he can make decisions, not just whinge and moan about what is going on.
We need to back up what we are saying today. We can tell our local newspapers that we spoke in support of public transport, but did we? Do we support public transport? Are we prepared to put it on the record that we will not take the money that John Prescott will allocate to Northern Ireland for its railways and distribute it to health, education, agriculture or some other budget? Are we prepared to earmark that money for the sole purpose for which it was intended, or are we prepared to let it be diverted to other areas? Do we make a statement today but not back it up? I believe we would be failing in our duty if we were to do that. It is evident that public transport needs massive investment — £2 billion over the next 10 years for the railways alone — and one would then have to look at the bus service.
We have a lot of space in Northern Ireland for the development of our roads and public transport. We cannot do without the roads network. Another £200 million a year is needed to maintain our roads in their current condition — never mind carry out major improvements. Are we prepared to pay for this? Are we prepared to do what is required, or are we going to sit back and blame the Minister? There is a saying in our part of the world that you cannot whistle without an upper lip. The Minister needs the money if he is to deliver a good rail network and a good bus service, not only for taking children to and from school, but one which will be used by people travelling back and forward to work. If you want decent roads throughout the Province, the Minister needs the money to implement this. [Interruption] He definitely can whistle. I welcome the commitment to major safety improvements and the undertaking that the railways will not operate unless they are safe. Safety issues are important and the general public may feel that our railways are unsafe. They are not what they should be, and we need to look at safety management, safety culture, operations, structures, the permanent way, signalling and telecoms, level crossings and engineering. All these matters need to be dealt with and improved.
I would like to find out how much terrorism has cost the railway service over the years. I vividly recall, morning after morning, switching on the radio to hear that the Belfast to Dublin line was not running that day because either a device had been planted at Killeen or the trains had been attacked at Lurgan. Various attacks have been carried out over the years, and I would like to know how much it has cost to replace all the buses that were burned out during riots in Belfast and other places.
I would also like to know if this task force serves a useful purpose. My Colleague indicated that there have been five reports over the last five years — it is not reports we need, it is action. Does the task force serve a useful purpose, or did the previous Minister for Regional Development introduce it as an excuse not to make the decisions that needed to be made?
I want to support the motion, but we need more than that: we need the money to back it up.
Many points have been raised during the debate. If I cannot touch on all of them in the course of my response, I shall, of course, do so in writing. I welcome this debate and am grateful to Mr Byrne for availing of the opportunity to raise this issue and start a debate in our community as a whole about this vital issue.
There is common ground among all Members. We have inherited a transport system that is in an appalling state. I am determined to bring about major improvements in public transport and to provide Northern Ireland with the system that it needs and deserves. Substantial additional resources will be required. Members will play an important role in ensuring that public transport receives the necessary share of the Northern Ireland cake. I will return to the matter of resources later.
First, I want to differentiate between funding for buses and for trains. Bus transport receives a relatively low level of subsidy, whereas rail transport requires to be heavily subsidised. This is the case, not just in Northern Ireland, but in Great Britain, the Republic of Ireland and throughout Europe. My Department gives grants to the bus companies to cover fuel duty payments and 50% of the cost of new buses. Our aim is that vehicles be replaced as they reach their target replacement ages: 12 years for coaches, and 18 years for buses.
Over a period this would give average fleet ages of six and nine years respectively, which would be similar to the English average fleet age target of seven and a half years. Our problem is that currently we do not have sufficient resources to grant-aid bus replacements at the rate needed. Consequently, the bus companies have to keep buses in service long after they reach their target replacement age. This is clearly unsatisfactory in terms of customer comfort and bus reliability. In the current year my Department has only £1·7 million for bus purchase grants, while over £20 million would be needed to meet our objective. That gives some idea of the shortfall.
Turning to the more intractable problems of the railways, I am sure that all Members have known for some time that the railways face serious problems. The release of the A D Little review of railway safety last March brought home the scale and immediacy of these problems. Briefly, the review said that while Northern Ireland Railways was currently operating at not unreasonable safety risk levels, an estimated £183 million, plus or minus 30%, would be needed over the next 10 years to maintain safe operation. The review went on to say that most of that £183 million — £117 million, to be precise — would be needed in the next three years. To put these sums in context for Members, last year Northern Ireland Railways — [Interruption]
Last year Northern Ireland Railways received grants and subsidies of just under £20 million. Now we are looking for £117 million over three years. Obviously, if we are to keep the current railway network operating, the Assembly will have to allocate substantial extra resources to it. I will come to the Member’s point in a minute.
When my predecessor, Mr Adam Ingram, was presented with the A D Little report last March, he decided to establish the railways task force to identify the costs and benefits, both monetary and non-monetary, of a range of options for the future of the railway network in Northern Ireland. I suspect that Adam Ingram was wearing his finance and personnel hat, rather than his regional development hat, when he devised those requirements. Be it Adam Ingram or Mark Durkan, the Minister of Finance and Personnel would require any Minister to make a business case for any proposal they were bringing forward that required such substantial finance.
The work of the task force includes a large-scale public consultation exercise, which is currently under way. There have been some complaints about the limited period allocated for the consultation exercise, but Members should realise that the task force must complete its work in time for its conclusions to be considered in this year’s spending review.
The stark reality is that if we do not succeed in obtaining more resources for the railways in the spending review, then a large proportion of the railway network will close down in a piecemeal fashion. Northern Ireland Railways has repeatedly said that it will not run trains unless it is satisfied that it is safe to do so. It has my full support on that.
Unless more resources are allocated to improve the infrastructure of the railways, it will become unsafe to run trains on many lines. Unless Northern Ireland Railways can purchase new trains, the level of service will deteriorate as old trains repeatedly break down and are taken out of service permanently. The motion calls for a comprehensive integrated public transport policy to be implemented. I am in complete agreement with this sentiment, and I will explain the steps I am taking to deliver such a policy.
The preparation of the regional development strategy is nearing completion. It has become clear that the provision of a modern, sustainable, integrated transport system which will facilitate the rapid, efficient, predictable and safe movement of people and goods is a key factor in the successful implementation of the strategy.
Within the Department for Regional Development I have established a dedicated regional transportation division which is tasked to formulate a 10-year regional transportation strategy. I agree with Mr B Hutchinson’s remarks. It is essential that we do this on a 10-year basis, which gives us the opportunity to implement decisions taken by the Assembly. The transportation strategy will set out a bold vision for transport, including the expected outcomes and the necessary steps required to achieve these. The strategy will serve as a daughter document to the regional development strategy. Subject to the ultimate approval of the Assembly — and necessary resources — it will have the potential to transform transport in the region, to get the public back on public transport and to provide a modern integrated transportation system that will strive to rival the best in other comparable regions of Europe.
I have alerted the Regional Development Committee to the fact that a sum in the region of £2 billion over the next 10 years — additional to the wholly inadequate current budget of just over £200 million per annum — will be required to transform transportation in the region. This is in the context of a comprehensive presentation which I gave to the Committee on 14 June. My Department will happily provide copies of this to Members on request, particularly to those who are seriously interested in tackling these important issues. I have allocated significant departmental resources to service the railways task force established by Adam Ingram. Some 21 sub-committees are working on the completion of an interim report, which I will receive at the end of July.
With regard to the future of railways let me be very clear. I have a presumption towards rail. It is an important strategic regional asset, but I will not compromise on the safety of the travelling public and Northern Ireland Railways employees. Either the Assembly will decide to have a modern and positively subsidised rail service that we can all be proud of, or we will, de facto, end up dramatically curtailing that network. The days of indecision are over. The A D Little review simply confirmed what we have known for years. It is time to put up or close up. For our part we will ensure that the Assembly has the earliest opportunity in the autumn to consider the importance of the railways task force interim report. I trust that the remarks made in support of rail in the House today will, by that time, have been translated into practical action.
I will respond to some of the comments made during the debate. Mr Byrne, happily, set the scene so well in moving the motion that he has enabled me to leave out many elements of the transport issue as he had already covered them. He made a strong case. He outlined a history of neglect which many Members have agreed with. Under both Labour and Conservative Governments, the money that should have been going into our public transportation system has gone elsewhere. Now we face the consequences of 30 years of neglect of the system.
I acknowledge the important role that the Assembly Committee responsible for the scrutiny of the Department for Regional Development has played in regard to this issue. I trust that it will continue to do so as we deal in detail with transportation policy.
The Member referred to the possibility of an additional 70,000 vehicles being on our roads over the next 25 years. It is going to be something like 10 times that. It will be about 700,000. In the next 20 years we expect the number of vehicles on our roads to double. If people consider that there is congestion now, then let them imagine, as the Member for North Down did, what congestion will be like in the future.
Mr McFarland referred to the congestion problems that presently exist. He also wisely related the issue of transport to the regional strategic framework. He pointed out the conundrum that we all face in wanting to get people out of their cars and onto public transport, but that they are not going to get onto public transport until we provide them with a comfortable, regular and dependable service. That requires funding. The Member for East Antrim, Mr Roger Hutchinson, brought us back to road issues. He was right to do that, because the majority of our public transport users use buses and the road system and that, therefore, is a key and vital issue. It is an issue that must figure prominently when it comes to the necessity for funding. He mentioned one of my predecessors, Lord Dubs, referring to the shambles. I do not think that a much more appropriate word could be found for what exists, although I can imagine the effect that it had in the Department when he used the term.
In relation to the railways, the Member for East Antrim was right to say that the trains are 30 years old, that in many cases the lines need to be relaid, and that if this did not happen, a reduction in services would result.
I welcome the debate. I also welcome the £15 million for the A5 road. The SDLP and its cohorts in Sinn Féin grudgingly did not acknowledge it. They said it was only a line on the map. I welcome the provision of the Toome bypass. I further welcome the fact that the A5 is to include the Strabane bypass, the Newtownstewart bypass and the Omagh throughpass, which were all predicted not to happen. Thank goodness for a progressive Minister.
I am glad that I gave way. [Laughter] I shall be quite happy to give way again if anybody else wants to make similar comments.
The Member for South Antrim, Mr Ford, made a very useful contribution. I agree with him entirely that, on one hand, I am looking for more funds for railways and buses in Northern Ireland, and, on the other hand, through the Chancellor’s initiative £25 million is being clawed away from the Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company and Translink. It just does not make sense, and clearly that issue needs to be addressed. However, I think that the Member will recognise that the emphasis of the Chancellor’s package was one of putting money into roads. The whole emphasis of what I am doing is on telling people that we need to get off the roads and into public transport. Mr Ford also gave me a very good cue when he referred to quality bus corridors.
In the early hours of this morning, while the Member was still in his bed, I was travelling by bus along a quality bus corridor. I recommend it to all the people on the Saintfield Road. The Saintfield Road is the fourth busiest road into Belfast, after the two motorways and the Sydenham bypass. We had a very smooth run on the most up to date transport in a new, quality bus lane. I hope that the public will take advantage of this method of getting into Belfast cheaper and faster than by car. That is the only way that we are going to get people onto public transport.
I thought that some of Mr Dallat’s remarks dragged the debate down a little, and I will leave them to the side. However, I will deal with his comments relating to transport and the comparison with the Irish Republic.
Proportionately, I wish I had the resources to put into public transport and roads that my counterpart in the Irish Republic has. Do not take the colour coding as being indicative of anything else, but I am green with envy at the funds that are available. It is probably the kiss of death to have a Sinn Féin Member saying that he agrees with me during the course of the debate and I will probably be cross-examined by my party leader afterwards.
Mr Dallat raised a number of issues about public expenditure. In the Irish Republic, public spending is supplemented by European structural funds, and a substantial amount of money comes in from the private sector. If I had had more time I would have gone into that issue and how it has contributed to our situation in Northern Ireland.
As regards the issue of being in the Executive, let me make it clear to Members — and I know they like to make party political points — that the neglect that we have had for 30 years comes as the result of Ministers who were in joined-up Government. It did not help them in the past. Perhaps we need somebody outside the Government blowing the whistle, saying what needs to be done on the railways and not being compromised by loyalty to other Colleagues in the Executive. Perhaps Members should rejoice in the fact that they have a Minister who is not tethered by responsibilities to Colleagues in an Executive.
One of my Colleagues asked a question about the cost of terrorism. Apart from the emotional cost to the staff and employees of Translink, £300 million has been lost as the result of the destruction of buses, trains, and bus stations. That is without even touching on the issue of the cost of disruption and the loss of money that would have come in using those services. That money would pay for A D Little, and you would have plenty left over to buy buses as well. It is an important matter.
The issues involved are complex, and the cost implications are considerable. The immediate public transport funding problems can only be solved by increasing the public expenditure allocation from the Northern Ireland block. In this year’s spending review I am seeking an additional £250 million for public transport, and that will be necessary for each of the next three years. Expenditure on this level will enable us to start improving public transport from its current poor state, and set us on our way to providing a public transport service of a standard which the people of Northern Ireland desire and deserve.
Within weeks the United Kingdom Government will announce the 2000 spending review figures, which will likely signal a significant increase in funding for transport. There has been press speculation that up to £140 billion will be made available over the next decade, half of which might come from the private sector. It is essential that we advance the Northern Ireland transport agenda in tandem with any new priority in Great Britain. We must insist that Northern Ireland at least receives the Barnett hypothecation. Northern Ireland must secure the maximum possible benefit from any such public expenditure decisions taken at national level to advance transport. On the assumption that the Barnett hypothecation can be secured for Northern Ireland, those funds must be allocated for the purposes envisaged and not diverted elsewhere. This autumn we will begin to rectify the years of under-investment in transportation and we will thereby reinvigorate our railways, modernise our bus fleet and services, and improve our strategic roads network.
After reading the motion, it is clear that the proposer has managed to get round the constraints, which you referred to earlier, about financial matters. That is because the motion contains a commitment to follow a comprehensive and integrated public transport policy. The commitment is contained in the word "implementing". The motion does not ask for the preparation of a policy because the Member knows we were preparing it. It does not indicate anything about an amount of money because the Member knows that. It calls for implementation, which is the putting in place of financial funds to allow the Minister to carry out the task.
I would like to thank everybody who has spoken in the debate. I think there is a consensus of support for the sentiments of the motion. There is no doubt about it, every one of us here and the wider public are extremely concerned about the current state of the public-transport system.
A number of common themes have run through the debate, the most important being public safety. Many referred to the Little report and the areas of concern it flagged up. Translink have stated that on the Bangor to Belfast line, trains that should be able to do 70 miles an hour currently cannot travel at that speed for safety reasons. They are currently restricted to doing 50 miles an hour, and by the end of next year, if there is no new investment in that line, that speed will be reduced to 30 miles an hour. That is the extent of the crisis on one line. Our railway network is small — we have railway lines from Derry to Belfast, from Belfast to Bangor, from Larne to Belfast and the southern line to Dublin — and if it were to be reduced further, it would be a joke.
Public transport is currently very much in vogue. Members and the public at large are talking more and more about the quality-of-life issue; they are talking about the environment, and they are talking about traffic congestion. Several hundred thousand new cars are going to be adding to this congestion over the next 20 years, especially in the Greater Belfast area, and so I am glad that this sort of debate is now opening up and that we are beginning to focus on the real issues.
As someone who comes from a constituency that has no railways whatsoever, I could be asked why I get involved in such a debate. I am the regional development spokesperson for my party, and there is an onus on all of us to consider the problem throughout Northern Ireland and not just in our own home patch.
Northern Ireland’s economic potential was referred to by a number of Members, and I fully agree that if we are going to develop this regional economy, then having an adequate, integrated public transport system is essential. Inward investors are greatly influenced by communications and by transport networks, and those of us who live 75 miles from Belfast know the handicap of having a poor transport system in our part of the region and appreciate how that affects us.
A number of Members, including the Minister, made reference to the regional development strategy. This is the most crucial issue that has been raised in Northern Ireland over the last 10 years. We are beginning to look at the future. ‘Shaping Our Future’ is the phrase that was used on the original document. There is an onus on the Department and its civil servants to listen to the issues and the concerns of elected representatives, be they councillors, Members of this Assembly or, indeed, MPs. Reference has been made to this dichotomy between bus and rail. Many Members, including David Ford, mentioned the fact that there needs to be a common ticketing system between rail and bus services — something which should certainly be feasible, since Translink owns and manages both. I hope that that is something they could introduce.
Jane Morrice mentioned the problems that passengers have on the railways, and I fully endorse her comments. Many people have said that timetabling is difficult and that there is no co-ordination between bus and rail. Again I hope that this is something Translink could improve upon.
However we need to pay tribute to Translink, who have been operating for 30 years with very little public investment. They have been doing a stitch-up job in managing to keep a system going despite 30 years of the troubles, during which buses and trains were bombed. We should, therefore, pay tribute to the Translink staff who managed to keep a public transport system going through the bad times.
There has been much discussion about funding, and we all recognise that massive public investment will be required to address the needs of the public transport system. I contend that, in the past, Ministers in charge of Northern Ireland’s public transport did not fully reflect the concerns and wishes of people who wanted to see greater investment in it. We now have a new devolved Assembly, and this is something that Members will have to face up to.
Mr Robinson is the Minister with the luxury of this job, and no doubt he will be the person who will have to lobby strongly for the necessary investment. The Regional Development Committee is convinced that we need investment in public transport, but we do not have executive authority. It is the Executive Committee and the individual Ministers that have to make the case and lobby for this funding. I hope that that will happen and that the funding will be achieved.
A number of Members mentioned the many reports on transport that have been produced, and I fully accept that. Mervyn Carrick said that there have been five reports since 1995. One could almost say that we are suffering from "reportitis", since there have been so many. But every Member is looking for action.
It is remarkable that the only part of the railway network that has improved has been the Belfast-Dublin railway line — the Enterprise. It has received substantial investment over the past 10 years. The moral is very clear: if there is adequate investment in the railways and buses, more people will use them. With the necessary investment, there is the potential for more people to use public transport. People need to be encouraged to get out of their cars and use public transport, but they will only do that if the alternative meets their needs and is attractive.
We all know — this is especially true of those of us who live in rural areas — that the public transport system is inadequate. For many years I have commented about five bus fleets — education and library board buses — that are largely idle. They are only used in the mornings and evenings, and it seems to me that this is rather wasteful.
A number of Members, including Mitchel McLaughlin, mentioned North/South co-operation. That is one of the benefits of real co-operation on an economic and social level. We cannot run our public transport in isolation, especially those of us who live in the border areas. There needs to be greater co-ordination between services in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland so that they complement each other, and it will require much greater collaboration to realise that.
The amount of resources required is probably our biggest challenge, but since Mr Prescott is the Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and since the Labour Government regard the use of public transport — the previous Government’s policy favoured road transport — as a desirable policy, we should be able to make a strong case. I hope that the Minister can get together with other Ministers in the Executive, including the Minister of Finance, Mr Durkan, and make this strong case. We are all looking for equality of treatment, and, if the application of the Barnett formula is around 40-1, surely we can make that case.
The European Union was referred to in the context of the structural funds, which are extremely important. The Belfast-Dublin railway line was upgraded largely because of European structural funds, and I believe that the Belfast-Bangor line is going to be improved with 75% grant aid from them. I hope that there can be some examination of the transitional programme’s application to Brussels, something else that will require the presentation of a strong, co-ordinated case. I thank Members for their support.
Question put and agreed to.
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.
The sitting was suspended at 12.30 pm.