Chairman Pip's Railway Thoughts

Be a little bit wiser baby…

Posted in Business, Infrastructure, Ireland, Politics by Chairman Pip on 1 May 2012

A story caught my attention last week that, to the best of my knowledge, didn’t get much national coverage. It seems that Translink, the state owned public transport company in Northern Ireland, will likely go into the red next year, with the probable result that bus and rail fares will go up by around 3%. This is in spite of the Department for Regional Development providing the company with additional funding, as apparently there are a number of factors pushing Translink towards deficit – rising costs (both fuel and wages), increasing numbers of subsidised fares and less income from its school transport operations, due to falling numbers of pupils. Given the size of Northern Ireland’s population, and the fact that, along with the rest of the UK, it is getting older, the chances of the situation reversing itself is unlikely. Which means that Translink will have to come up with ways to aggressively keep its costs under control while at the same time maintaining its service level:

Per capita funding for public transport from the public purse is lower in NI than any other region on these Islands yet service provision is higher. We will be working with the DRD to understand the future public transport policy in light of this reduced funding. Our current operational model is efficient and has made over £12m of savings over the last few years.
Translink spokesperson

In light of this, I had a thought. In March, I wrote about the Irish government’s decision not to apply for a new derogation from the European directives on open-access on the railways. Well, the British government has decided to do the same thing in regards to NI Railways (as it was the British government, which remains responsible for all foreign policy, that did this for Northern Ireland). This means that NI Railways will have to be split up, with one body responsible for the operations and another for the infrastructure. While setting up a company solely to deal with maintaining the infrastructure would seem to be the logical thing to, given that the network in Northern Ireland amounts to just over 200 miles it would likely be the sole responsibility of the DRD. So, the way I see it, there are two options to avoid it this;

  • Transfer the infrastructure management to Network Rail; NR could set up a Northern Ireland subsidiary that could be part funded by the DRD. This would potentially allow a degree of integration with NR’s management of the British network.
  • Form a new, All-Ireland infrastructure body, paid for in proportion by the DRD and DTTS, which has the responsibility for the entire rail network on both sides of the border. This body (Gréasán Iarnróid Uile-Éireann?) could then have responsibility for track access to the entire network, which potentially could lead to improvements to most importantly the freight infrastructure, both north and south.

The question I suppose is how committed the governments on both sides of the border are to removing the derogation and allowing genuine open-access. Of course, this is unlikely to happen for passenger services to any great degree, as the population of the entire island is too concentrated in a handful of areas to be especially profitable. Of course, this could change if someone were to come up with a (privately funded of course) idea similar to that espoused by Brian Guckian that opened the north-west to rail. But to have increased freight in the Republic, as well as restoring rail freight access to Northern Ireland, could well be economically valuable.

“Bus and rail fares may rise again as Translink faces huge loss”

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