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01/09/2011 | Channel:
Championing the concept of integrated transportation in Northern Ireland, Translink NI Railways is maintaining momentum with the roll-out of its network investment programme
Running from Londonderry through Belfast and down into Dublin, Translink NI Railways is one of the few UK rail operators to offer crossborder services in partnership with Iarnrod Eireann. And this is just one way that the organisation distinguishes itself as a unique model in the UK rail industry. Not only does Translink offer vertical integration as manager of its network infrastructure, as well as the trains themselves, but it also provides horizontal integration through its system of local and inter-urban bus services.
With Northern Ireland boasting a number of combined rail and bus stations, the
complementary nature of these services demonstrates a real benefit to passengers. And particularly given that over the last financial year Translink NI Railways carried its highest ever number of passengers since the 1960s, it would appear that this strategy is garnering results. “This growth is being driven by a number of different factors,” explains Catherine Mason, group chief executive of Translink.
“We have invested in our infrastructure such as new rolling stock, track and improved stations, but also in other aspects such as timetable development and customer service. These improvements have a real impact on a customer’s journey experience. In order to reach these passenger volumes, clearly we have had to attract new people into the system, so it is important that we recognise these new customers and help them make their journeys seamlessly.”
In recognition of other cost pressures, and to continue to encourage passengers onto the Translink NI Railways network, the organisation has recently introduced a fares freeze. This secures prices at the 2010 level right through to 2012. “This decision
recognises the improvements in efficiency we have made in the way that we manage our business. With many households facing more difficult financial times we are very keen for people to use our services more often and for some to take their first rail, or bus, journey for a while and see the changes that have been made, ” highlights Catherine.
At the heart of this investment is Translink NI Railways’ New Trains Two Programme, which sees the introduction of 20 new ‘class 4000’ trains from Spanish manufacturer CAF. Three new trains have now been delivered and are currently undergoing testing and building up mileage prior to being placed into service in the autumn. “We are looking to introduce the new rolling stock on to the Larne line first, which didn’t receive any new trains during our last investment programme, with ambitions to have all 20 new trains in service by autumn 2012,” explains Catherine.
“Although our customer research indicated that passengers were happy with the standard of train that we offer, we have continued to progress the design of the new fleet in terms of environmental considerations. As a result,these trains are five tonnes lighter than our previous trains, and are fitted with driver eco systems and a more fuel-efficient transmission system. We have also changed our saloon lighting to LED and are reducing exhaust emissions, in line with our targeted initiatives. In this respect, we not only look at the rolling stock itself, but also how we manage our business in order to deliver both a carbon and cost saving. This is demonstrated by the fact that although we substantially increased our passenger miles last year, we also reduced our carbon footprint at the same time. Indeed our efforts in this area recently won a National ‘Big Tick’ for Climate Change.”
Another aspect of Translink NI Railways’ environmental strategy is the redesign and upgrade of its Antrim station with the support of the European SusStation Project. As an integrated bus and rail station, as well as a heritage site, passengers at Antrim will benefit substantially from vastly improved customer facilities. Whilst retaining its attractive architectural characteristics, this new station will also boast a range of sustainable environmental features.
The delivery of the new trains has also provided Translink NI Railways with a key opportunity to review the nature of its timetable. In particular, the now expanded fleet will enable the organisation to revise frequency, and respond to areas of growthHowever, as Catherine elaborates, exterior factors are also influencing this work: “Unfortunately we have had to postpone our programme of capital renewal on the Coleraine to Londonderry line, as a result of the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review. Consequently, we also have to adjust our timetable to accommodate the changes that we are making on that part of the network, as well as the necessary speed restrictions that have to be put in place.”
Alongside the New Trains Two project itself, Translink NI Railways is also progressing ahead with supporting initiatives such as platform extensions and a modern maintenance facility to maintain the new rolling stock. In many ways, these works are laying the foundation for the network’s continued growth, as Catherine explains: “At present we are seeing some really high levels of growth along some of our lines, and this requires us on occasion to increase our trains to six car sets.
“However, we are currently limited in our ability to offer this enhanced service through our existing fleet and platform infrastructure. As such, the New Trains Two Programme, where we are purchasing 20 three-car sets to replace 13, will give us greater capacity, and the platform extension works will ensure that we have the infrastructure to use longer trains across the whole network. The nature of the system in Northern Ireland means that we take a much more long-term view in looking to integrate the infrastructure and operational aspects of the business and ensuring that we maximise the benefit to customers of any investment we make.”
When you consider that only a decade ago there was talk of closing the railways in Northern Ireland, the current vibrancy of the network is testament to Translink NI Railways’ proactive approach to its market. Despite the organisation having made major gains in recent years, as demonstrated by its record passenger numbers, Catherine remains committed to ensuring the long-term sustainability of the network: “Our current fares freeze is an important step in our strategy to maintain a low fares environment. In order to achieve this, we need to ensure that we continue to attract new passengers and therefore increase our revenue, as opposed to gaining revenue through raising fares as much as possible.
“We have a long-term vision to continue to develop the network, particularly those parts that require remedial activity having not been re-laid in some time. There is also a large portion of the network that is still single track, so we are looking into the potential for passing loops, and even dualling in the future.
“One of our biggest opportunities is our Enterprise Service between Belfast and Dublin, where we have ambitions to move into a higher frequency service. These are all steps towards a sustained future for the network, but we need to continue to invest to ensure that it is also a sustainable future.”