Translink has advised that, in addition to its two Enterprise-class rolling stock, which are used between Belfast and Dublin, it currently has a total operational fleet of 28 train sets. The fleet comprises nine three-car 450 castle class and 19 class 80 sets. Translink also expects to add eight-car train, which formerly operated on the Gatwick Express route, to its fleet shortly. By early 2002, Translink should, therefore, have a total operational fleet of 31 sets.
Translink’s bus fleet comprises, as I said earlier, 1,459 buses, 1,195 of which are in service with Ulsterbus and 264 in service with Citybus. Not every train set or vehicle can be operational at the same time given Translink’s rolling programme of repairs and servicing.
I was pleased to hear, in response to Mrs Robinson’s question, that the Minister is considering extending the scheme to include some type of transport concession for those with disabilities. However, it does not matter what concessions are made if transport is not accessible in the first place. Will the Minister tell us how many buses and trains are accessible to people with disabilities, especially in rural areas?
I agree with the Member’s point. I am glad that my Department’s bid for funding for buses is gaining me so many friends and supporters. As the Member might expect, only the newest buses will be suitably adapted to accommodate those with disabilities. I stress the point further by saying that the average age of the bus fleet in Northern Ireland is 13 years. The average age in Great Britain is eight years, and it is 4·7 years in the Republic of Ireland. Therefore, there is considerable catching up to be done. If we are to have buses that are accessible for the disabled, we must improve and renew the bus fleet regularly — every year — at a significantly higher rate than we have been doing thus far.
Will the Minister tell us how Northern Ireland’s trains and buses compare to those in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland? Will he also confirm the cost Translink has incurred as a result of vandalism? What percentage of its budget goes towards trying to address that spiralling cost and drain on its resources?
A couple of weeks ago, I noticed a report that said that the United Kingdom was falling dramatically behind the rest of the civilised world as far as roads and transport were concerned. As I said in response to an earlier question, we are falling behind the rest of the United Kingdom in that regard.
I am informed that the average age of the Republic of Ireland’s Expressway coach fleet is between four and five years. However, the average age of its city service fleet is around 2·5 years. That is a remarkably new fleet. The Transport Minister in the United Kingdom has set clear targets for an average age of eight years. At present, Northern Ireland’s average is 13 years. However, we are asking for buses that are 18 years old and coaches that are 12 years old to be replaced. We cannot meet that target even under present Budget arrangements. No doubt, increased bids must be made to the Minister of Finance and Personnel.
I hope that I can draw on the support of the House for a successful outcome to those bids. With regard to the Member’s comments about vandalism, the Department faces an uphill struggle with public transport in Northern Ireland. It is a disgrace that valuable resources are being wasted to repair damage caused by vandalism rather than being used to upgrade and update the fleet.
I refer to the Minister’s earlier answer, in which he confirmed that the refurbished Gatwick Express trains could be entering into service in Northern Ireland early in 2002. Will those trains be utilised on the busiest commuter routes, such as the east Antrim line, in order to benefit the maximum number of commuters and further encourage the use of public transport?
The House will be aware that the Department recently conveyed to Translink its approval for the purchase of 23 new trains at a total cost of £87 million. The tendering process has been completed. The three tenders received are currently being evaluated. Translink hopes to be able to award the contract to a supplier in early 2002. Delivery of the first batch of 12 train sets for testing is envisaged by February 2003, and delivery of the remaining 11 sets by September 2003.
Where those train sets are used when they become available to Translink is an operational matter. I hope that they would be used widely across the Province and that everybody would see the benefits of the new trains. Consistent with the regional development strategy and, I expect, the regional transportation strategy that will soon be published, in Northern Ireland we are tasked with encouraging people to use public transport. That will not be possible unless public transport is upgraded and people are offered comfortable and regular services.