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Rail Services: East Antrim

Adjournment – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:45 pm on 13th October 2015.

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Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Speaker 4:45 pm, 13th October 2015

The proposer of the topic will have 15 minutes and all other Members who are called to speak will have approximately 10 minutes.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to bring forward this Adjournment debate today. This issue has been greatly exercising my constituents in my local offices in Carrickfergus and Larne. I take this opportunity to thank the Larne Line Passenger Group for its work in holding Translink to account and seeking to develop and encourage the use of the line for the future. The Larne Line Passenger Group's commitment stands in stark contrast to the commitment shown by Translink and the Regional Development Ministers. Clearly, the Minister, by her absence, does not see it as a priority today. With the exception of Mr Beggs, that applies also to other Members from East Antrim.

In September, Translink downgraded — there is no other description for it — its service to the people of east Antrim.

The new timetable means that trains now run less frequently, fewer stations are serviced and, ultimately, it makes it downright awkward to use the train in East Antrim, driving commuters back to their cars.

The timetable changes were brought in following a so-called consultation exercise that was wholly inadequate. In fact, it has been described by many as nothing short of a farce. Section 75 obligations were not met as required by the Northern Ireland Act 1998, no indication of the scale of cuts was given, and the surveys that were conducted were inappropriate and questionable in their methodology. In response to correspondence that I had received on the matter, Translink said that passenger surveys showed that passengers preferred a less frequent service to a complete cut of service. I find that an inane and ridiculous point: of course someone would prefer a reduced service to no service at all. What the people of East Antrim truly need is a good, efficient and frequent service to encourage people to leave the convenience and comfort of their car and use our new, quality trains.

I have been informed that the passenger figures that Translink used to justify the cuts may have been taken from a week that included a bank holiday and when schools were off. That is hardly a representative sample of passengers using the line. That only adds to the overcrowding on trains during the morning and evening rush hours, with passengers, including schoolchildren and commuters, being forced on to fewer services with less hope of getting a seat on their journey home. All of that has happened in the context of higher fares.

In recent weeks, in an attempt to assess the scale of the impact of the cuts on the Larne line on my constituents, I have run a survey on my Assembly website. The results make for sobering reading. Of those who responded, 71% said that the changes had impacted on them negatively and made journeys less convenient. Of those, 64% said that they had had to seek alternative means of transport. Unsurprisingly, the chief alternative means is the car. Therefore, we have a ludicrous situation in which Translink is pushing more traffic onto the roads, clogging our motorways and Belfast city centre in the morning and evening rush hours. Ultimately, travel by car is, by most people's perception, faster, cheaper and more convenient.

It is far from surprising, therefore, that, in my survey, only 16% rated the service as good. Further to that, a massive 75% believe that the service is getting worse. As may be expected, 80% identified frequency as an issue; 45% said crowding; and 42% said cost, with others expressing concern about punctuality, station amenities and park-and-ride.

Let us look at some of the particularly illustrative examples of the inconvenience and lack of sense that is seen in the timetable. First, there are early and late trains to Dublin that residents of East Antrim simply cannot access by train or even bus any more. In fact, it is now impossible for residents of Carrickfergus to reach Belfast city centre before 7.00 am via public transport. That is simply unacceptable. Meanwhile, on the opposite side of Belfast lough, residents in Bangor, a town which is two miles further from Belfast Central than Carrickfergus, can reach that station as early as 6.37 am. Larne Harbour is unique in its proximity to a passenger ferry port, a potential benefit that Translink appears to have ignored altogether, as it terminates many of its services in Larne Town and even runs a two-hourly service after 7.20 pm. Indeed, it seems that, bit by bit, Translink is starting to abandon the Larne line by reducing services to Larne, Whitehead and even Carrickfergus.

We need a sensible approach to connections, rather than salami-slicing services. Translink should look for areas of development to encourage a greater use of the Larne line and, ultimately, increase its revenue. Translink's policy is to cut services to the bone, cram passengers in and push them back into their cars.

I turn to what I believe should be done instead and what I envisage Translink and DRD need to do to develop the Larne line for the future to increase passenger numbers, get people out of their cars and stop the line becoming an afterthought. As we will be aware, the York Street road junction is due to be upgraded to a free-flowing junction in the coming years. This development in road infrastructure will be a one-off-in-a-generation chance to dual track the Dargan viaduct, which travels from Yorkgate to Central station on the Larne line. Translink and DRD must act now to ensure the future development of the Larne line for the people of East Antrim. I am informed that, if only the roadworks proceed, the railway line will never be able to proceed. The engineering works must proceed hand in hand.

There is a major opportunity for expanding rail use in the provision of park-and-ride facilities at commuter stations. Such amenities have produced major benefits at stations such as Greenisland, Whitehead, Larne and Carrickfergus, but many more could benefit from park-and-ride, most notably at rural halts where the only practical means to reach the station is your car. Ballycarry is a case in point. This is the most accessible station to practically all of the Islandmagee peninsula and Ballycarry village. However, it is, by and large, accessible only by car, although it is practically impossible to park anywhere near the station. A park-and-ride would open up an entirely new region for train travel. Furthermore, with the opening of the Gobbins path as a tourist opportunity, it would provide a more efficient way to move tourists to the new attraction. I appeal to Translink and the DRD to look at this with genuine urgency, as they are clearly missing an opportunity at Ballycarry.

I also think that consideration should be given to the reopening of certain halts along the railway line, particularly that at Whitehouse in Newtownabbey. The halt there closed in the 1960s, but, with the construction and expansion of the Abbeycentre from the 1980s onwards and the general up-use in rail usage, a stop here is clearly in demand. Previous reasons given for not reopening the halt included the poor quality of rolling stock that found it difficult to start or stop. With the new trains, that should no longer be a problem. The opening of a halt at Whitehouse Abbeycentre would help to reduce congestion on surrounding roads, particularly at peak times such as the busy Christmas shopping period.

I recently had contact with the Regional Development Minister, when we actually had one, about the possibility of electrification of the line and utilising it for freight to and from Larne. Many may say, "Why on earth would we electrify the line?", but, actually, there is a major project in Europe called TEN-T that is delivering exactly that, right across Europe, from very many small countries to some of the largest. Such proposals may be far in the future and may not even be economically viable today, but Translink needs to have ambition. European initiatives provide financial support to such schemes, but there is no evidence from DRD or Translink of even starting to seek to access such funding. Again and again, we hear that it is just too difficult and too expensive for us to have an integrated ticket or live bus route information system. Our buses in Belfast got that only last year, years behind the rest of Europe.

We need a bold strategy to develop the Larne line and Northern Ireland's rail network. DRD needs to fund this accordingly. We know how difficult are the financial times that we are in. Much of the massive rail infrastructure is sourced in Europe. I think that we will all agree that the current use of the car is neither sustainable nor desirable. The timetables that sparked this debate have been a farce from the beginning, and it is time for Translink to put that right. Instead of slicing the service ever thinner, I call on Translink and DRD to restore the previous timetable. The people of East Antrim do not deserve a second-class rail system. We should be developing and investing, not trying to push passengers out. Thank you very much.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I thank the Member for bringing the debate forward. It is healthy to have a debate about the Larne line, to highlight its successes and the improvements that there have been but also the difficulties that have arisen, particularly with the recent reduction in services.

It is disappointing only two of the six East Antrim MLAs are present to share their views on the subject. I welcome a third Member, Daithí McKay, who is with us.

The Larne line has received significant investment over the past decade. We have had highly successful park-and-ride facilities and must not underestimate their success. Carrickfergus now has over 300 car parking places and, frequently, they are full. That is a great success and has eased traffic congestion. It has also eased the travelling costs of those who had to park in Belfast and the frustration of people who had to queue to go to Belfast and then, ultimately, to come back home.

A successful park-and-ride facility at Whitehead is fully occupied, and there is another at Whiteabbey. There are also improved facilities at Greenisland. We need to look at where additional park-and-ride opportunities can be created. I recognise that there are difficulties in locating space close to stations. Nevertheless, that must be attempted. I note and support Mr Dickson's view that Ballycarry should be considered as a park-and-ride facility, given that Whitehead is at full capacity and there are few other options in the area.

We have to recognise that the other success has been the complete relaying of the rail track and the welded rail. That, together with the new trains, has transformed the rail service from something of the 1960s to something of the modern era. On top of that, we now have Wi-Fi, which is very popular. You can see many of those who travel by rail using their smartphones, reading their books and partaking in other activities.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Certainly.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

By way of information, I happened to travel on the train from Greenisland to Great Victoria Street on Friday, and I assure Mr Beggs that, sadly, the Wi-Fi was not working. That is one of the many complaints that people bring to me. I accept that it is a benefit, but only when it works.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I agree entirely with the Member that it is vital that any new service works. If it does not, there will be many, many complaints. I hope that the message goes through to Translink and that it resolves any difficulties that have occurred.

The investment has supported the growth of the Larne line — a line in which there had been a dearth of investment for many, many decades. In fact, at one stage, it was clear that some officials wished to end the line at Whitehead. I am pleased that, even in recent times, that was not the case. <BR/>The Glynn river railway bridge has been renewed with further investment. I perceive that as an indication of continuing recognition that this service should continue, and rightly so.

We have a new timetable, but there are some problems with it, and I will come to that later. I have engaged with Translink. I went to its consultation at Larne town station, but it struck me as being more of an information session and an opportunity to tell people about alternative trains than a true consultation. I certainly got a sense that the change was a fait accompli. The new timetable may even have been printed at that time. I think that indications were being given of the new timetable, which was about to start in a few days' time.

One issue raised with me by Translink officials was the cost of providing rail transport in Northern Ireland. The figure thrown at me was £18 a kilometre, so, if you want to run a train, you need a critical mass of paying passengers so that it can provide the service. That consideration has to be taken on board. We also have to recognise that public transport in Northern Ireland generally receives less funding per passenger mile than its counterparts in Great Britain and that the subsidy provided from the public purse has been cut. I have a certain sympathy for Translink in that it has had to ensure that it continues to provide a service and yet remain financially solvent. I welcome the fact that it is reducing the sizeable war chest that it had built up, which was much too high — it was over £50 million at one time — and that, as a result of those changes, public money will be put to better use.

I appreciate the efforts of the Larne Line Passengers' Group to improve the service; it has frequently highlighted difficulties and made suggestions for improvement. The sooner issues that are going wrong are addressed, the better it will be for the travelling public and, indeed, for Translink, which will be able to retain its travellers.

One of the issues highlighted recently is the lack of capacity on the 7.30 am train from Whitehead to Belfast. Frequently, passengers have had to force themselves onto trains, and occasionally the train has not even stopped at Whiteabbey station. I understand that that has largely occurred when a six-car set has not been dispatched. It is clear that, on that particular service, there is demand for a larger train. It is vital that Translink have the resources and the ability to ensure that it is dispatched reliably all the time, because you cannot provide a bad service and expect to retain passengers. It is vital that there is a reliable service. If passengers turn up at the station and cannot get on a train and get to work, their jobs could be at risk. They cannot accept that. It is not acceptable. It is vital that it does not happen. I understand that it is no longer a problem. I hope that that is the case. It certainly should not have happened, but there are pressures nevertheless.

One of the changes brought in has been to cut the two early-morning train services from Larne to Belfast; both the 5.48 am and 6.25 am services. Now, the first train leaving Larne is the 6.50 am service, which does not get into Central Station until 7.45 am; it gets to the City Hospital at 7.55 am and Great Victoria Street at 7.58 am. That is much, much too late. Many people have to get to work in Belfast at an earlier time. There has to be a rethink of how those services can be reinstated so that those who need to get to work in Belfast earlier can do so. Of course, the Ulsterbus alternatives equally cannot get those people to Belfast particularly earlier. I think that you can get in about 7.15 am, but that will of course be to Glengall Street bus station. You have to travel on from there to your place of work, which may not be possible depending on where exactly you work.

With regard to the late-night service, similarly, if passengers want to return on the Larne line by train, they must depart from Belfast at 10.45 pm. Very few people who travel to Belfast for some form of entertainment would be able to get back to the station for 10.45 pm. Frequently, that is too early, and it is not a practical train. Again, there needs to be a rethink on that.

As has been said already, some of the services are two-hourly, particularly at weekends. There is great risk with a two-hourly service: will passengers recognise it as a deliverable service? If you miss your train, how will you cope with waiting another two hours? That is a huge length of time. There are risks in going to such a service.

Whilst many would wish the retention of the timetable, given the costs, I am fearful that that may not be easily achievable. If not, I ask Translink to say what it will do, how it will build the numbers and work with Ulsterbus feeder services to build those numbers and provide a public transport service so that more and more people will be able to travel earlier — and later for that matter — and get to their work or place of entertainment. I thank the Member for bringing the topic forward. It has been worthwhile.

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Speaker

You are in danger of missing your train.

Photo of Daithí McKay Daithí McKay Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the proposer of the motion for raising this very important issue. I give apologies for my party colleague Mr Oliver McMullan, who has to attend a medical appointment this evening.

This is an issue that you could replicate in a lot of constituencies but the general issue that always comes back is that there is, in government, a car-centric attitude that needs to be addressed. Of course, I recognise that there are many good examples of people in Translink and DRD who see the need to improve and build on our rail and bus infrastructure, but much more needs to be done. We are lagging behind much of Europe and, whereas traditionally there has always been a great focus on investment in our major roads, we can realise a lot more savings and reduce congestion on some of our main roads by improving our rail and bus infrastructure.

A good example of that is the park-and-ride facility that the proposer of the motion mentioned earlier. There is a park-and-ride in Ballymena in my constituency that has been extended again and again, such was the demand for people to simply park their car and put their feet up on a bus for the trip to Belfast. The demand is there, and that is what is very frustrating; we want to see a good public transport system but where we fail again and again — this has come up in some of the Public Accounts Committee's reports — is the fact that we have not invested enough in public transport to get the return that we are looking for.

There should be greater investment in the Larne line and there should be more common sense when it comes to the timetables. If we want to improve the night-time economy in our towns and cities, we need to have a late-night train service. As Mr Beggs said, the service could operate much later than 11.00 pm because anybody who is going for a night out and is going to spend £30, £40 or £50 in a restaurant might want a later service to ensure that they do not leave their function earlier than they have to.

We need to apply a bit of common sense but we also need a bit of ambition. The park-and-ride facilities have been a success where there have been bold initiatives — we built it and they came. If you build the park-and-ride infrastructure around the train halts, increase the uptake of the service by increasing the number of halts and increase the electrification of the line in the longer term, you will have a better service with better choice and you will have more people using the railways.

You only need to look at the line to Derry, which almost reached the end of the line in recent years. It is a great success now; I have used it many times. It goes through Ballymena, Ballymoney and Cullybackey, right through my constituency, and it is a huge asset. It has not a bad Wi-Fi service, I have to say; it may be better than the service on the Larne line but it is a great way to travel. It is good for people's health as well, because being stuck on the M2 at Sandyknowes or Toomebridge is not a very pleasant experience when you have to do it each and every day. The train service is something that we need to improve on.

We have very little infrastructure as it is. Everybody who watched the television programmes that Barra Best did about the old railway lines will be shaking their heads and saying, "If only we still had those railway lines going up through the glens of Antrim and Armoy to Ballycastle today, we would have a completely different and much better infrastructure." It is such a crying shame that that was done away with. It also, of course, produces other opportunities. We are exploring trying to change those old railway lines into greenways for cyclists in rural areas. That is something that the Department needs to look at as well.

I will keep my contribution to this debate short. The Larne line needs investment, and the other lines need investment. We need a change in the general approach from the Minister — or the ex-Minister or the soon-to-be Minister — for Regional Development in that, when she does return to her desk, she needs to ensure that we see an increase in the percentage of funding that goes towards public transport because, increasingly, it seems barmy that we are spending money on road maintenance. If you spend the money on public transport infrastructure, you get people off the roads, so there is less need for maintenance of the roads. It makes sense economically, so we need to see a greater commitment and bolder moves to increase spending on public transport. We need to see better buses and better trains.

I do give some credit to the previous previous Minister for Regional Development, Mr Kennedy, for some of the things that he did around cycling and public transport, but I think that we need to put on a European head in regard to this, not only in terms of the culture but in availing ourselves of and drawing down funding, which every other country seems to be good at. I do not see why, here in the North, we cannot do the same for our local rail commuters.

Adjourned at 5.16 pm.