Translink Annual Report – #freepublictransport

Andrew Leonard sent this link: Translink Annual Report 2010-2011 Much of the report is given up to Translink talking about new ways they have introduced to incrementally reduce the cost of transport including weekly, monthly and annual tickets, maintaining a network of 900 top-up points across the province and tax incentives. All of this expense … Continue reading “Translink Annual Report – #freepublictransport”

Andrew Leonard sent this link: Translink Annual Report 2010-2011

Much of the report is given up to Translink talking about new ways they have introduced to incrementally reduce the cost of transport including weekly, monthly and annual tickets, maintaining a network of 900 top-up points across the province and tax incentives. All of this expense and effort could be wiped out with FreePublicTransport.

They include this diagram on Page 7.

Meaningless stats

Without numbers and context, this is ultimately meaningless. If anyone can tell me the difference between “Will Be Delivered” and “A Little Behind Target But Likely To Be Delivered”, I’m all ears.

On page 10, we’re assaulted by some more statistics. First of all – CSAT numbers are meaningless for a government-subsidised monopoly. The people surveyed likely have no choice and they have nothing to compare it to.

Translink reports there were 77 million passenger journeys in 2010/11. This sounds like quite a lot. According to NISRA, of 686,644 working persons (aged 16-74) in Northern Ireland, only 47,719 took the bus or train to work. But they’re likely to have worked probably 250 days a year, maybe more, resulting in around 2.4 million journeys just for work assuming they only took one instance of public transport to work and one instance back. My mother in law, for instance, takes two buses to work and two to return home even though she lives and works in Belfast. Add to this schoolkids, unemployed persons, the retired (who get free transport) and you can see how this stacks up. Considering that Translink is only attracting less than 7% of the NI workforce speaks about the impact it is having on the economy.

Research on a sample of key corridors shows even with bus priority measures, over a ten year period (2001-11) bus speeds have reduced on average by 12%.

Considering that the average bus speeds are much lower than they need to be (see diagram above), Translink is not a viable option for most workers in the current form. This is going to be mostly due to road contention so the question is – how do you make buses run on time during rush hour? The easy answer? Less cars on the road. So how do you get 490,260 people who currently drive (or car pool) to work to consider using the public transport network? And that doesn’t include 16,011 people who use a taxi.

On page 56, we get into the meat of the report. The issue I have with the punctuality reports is that there is no context. Ulsterbus may have a 95% on-time record but that number is meaningless without context. You can expect all of the services which run between 10 am and 3 pm to run on time. And all of the services after 6:30 pm probably run on time. But the time critical services, during rush hour for work and school runs, are where the most major impact is seen. Why not strip those figures out? Because they’re bad?

I am also amused that ‘On time’ for bus services defined as within 7 minutes of timetable; for rail services within 5 minutes (local)/10 minutes (long haul). So, even if the bus or train is late, it’s still on time.

It’s obvious that our public transport system is not busy. This indicates to me that Translink is facing a death spiral where costs will continually increase while passenger numbers dwindle (even while population increases). Translink is simply not cost effective when you take into account the relative inflexibility of public transport systems.

Translink also complains that due to the economic downturn, passenger numbers decreased. Is this not the exact opposite of what you should expect for a public transport system? I would assume that cars mean financial independence and security and that trying economic times would drive people away from the increasing costs of cars and into the welcome arms of public transport. But, it would seem, the opposite occurs.

This is quite encouraging, a small loss on a large revenue. Perfect. But that’s not the whole story.

So, Translink had turnover of £187.8 million pounds and then received an additional £130.4 million to keep the service running. Considering that government is currently paying for for 41% of Translink, it’s not a stretch to imagine that they could start to pay for 100%. Especially after they realise the reduced costs in no longer needing to collect cash, issue and advertise multiple redundant promotions to sell tickets and start to monetize the service through smarter ways. And yes, we have some ideas about that.

Turning the amount of advertising Translink puts out there to advertise it’s own services into opportunities to advertise third party products to their captive audiences and, at the same time, sell premium services, seems to me like a no-brainer.

The flexibility and convenience of a car cannot be matched by public transport. This is obvious. Even when you consider the rising costs of fuel and the recent rise in parking fees, cars remain extremely competitive in the face of our heavily subsidised public transport system. For a public transport system to be used by the general public,

I want to challenge the assumption that public transport competes with private transport. It’s a different thing entirely. But there must be a way to both increase usage of public transport and convince people to use their cars less.

The question being: has anyone in government investigated this? And if not, why not?

0 thoughts on “Translink Annual Report – #freepublictransport”

  1. Very interesting idea – I like it.
    There may need to be significant capital investment in more buses, to cope with the uptake (and ideally in town at least, to link the ‘fingers’ of the in-out transport corridors to truly increase mobility within the city).
    There would be skilled jobs associated with this in terms of drivers and maintenance, and it would certainly free up a large chunk of personal budgets to spend on other things… people will spend the money they have… is it better for the economy to be frittered away simply moving around (in this case to a company that cannot sustain itself anyway) or increased spend on local goods, produce and services?

  2. Thanks for the comment, Craig. Considering most of our buses currently operate at less than 50% occupancy, I don’t think significant capital investment is needed yet but yes, it would end up expanding the demand, creating more jobs for drivers and, as a side effect, increasing the mobility of the workforce, ensuring that people in places like Limavady, Newry, Lisburn are not disadvantaged in getting jobs in places more than 10 miles away because the cost of transport can often mean selecting employees from a much smaller pool.

    There needs to be a serious look at it all. The problem is that I don’t believe any of our MLAs have looked at it, seriously or otherwise.

  3. I dread to think the cost of a long commute: I got a bus to Newcastle on ‘Sunday’ and it was £13 return, taking 1hr20m to go about 30 miles. That would probably cost just under £10 diesel for the average car and half an hour quicker each way.

  4. I have to admit Matt then when you started talking about free transport I thought it was a mad idea, but I am starting to warm to the idea. If the train was free, or the maximum fare was £2.00, I would use it instead of taking the car to Belfast.

    From the darkest depths of my memory, I remember getting on a bus once where if your journey started from outside of the city, you had to pay, but as soon as the bus reached the city boundary, people getting onto the bus did not have pay to travel on the bus.

    The logic behind it was that because the bus was travelling along that road anyway to get to the city, it just picked up a few more people along the way, if the bus was full it didn’t stop. The next bus picked them up..

    The other plus side of free buses is the journey times would actually be quicker, because the driver doesn’t have to take money and issue tickets.

    Where I come from they have a guided busway – the bus drives around the villages/town on normal roads and then joins a dedicated busway to take it to the next town. It ensures buses run on time and are not affected by congestion – cheap alternative to railways. The buses even have wifi and on-board power –

    Perhaps we could replace the railways (except the Dublin to Belfast line) with guided busways over a 10 year period. It would help reduce congestion and stimulate our construction industry.

    The cost of the construction was something like £6m per mile (25 mile long track), sounds a lot, but not when you see how much money the N I Executive contribute to Translink.

    Before anybody says anything, Cambridge has far less residents than Belfast.

  5. Oy vey.

    I’m all for low cost public transport. I remember being so pissed off by the public transport system just between Lisburn and Belfast (which is probably one of the better served routes) that I investigated what it would take to start an alternative – as usual the biggest issue was capital outlay to get going, but the business model itself was pretty sound. And it didn’t need £130M injected each year to keep itself profitable and providing low cost fares.

    The lack of competition, combined with Northern Ireland’s accept-whatever-shit-is-sent-our-way mentality is really why Translink can do whatever the hell it feels like and get away with it.

  6. Andrew, trains attract passengers in a way that buses don’t – there is a heck of a lot of cynicism about the Cambridge Guided Busway, which ran millions over budget, months over time, and goes near a hospital, but that’s a whole other story. It would also be a heck of a waste of the £89 million spent on new trains and a new maintenance depot in the last two years and in the future.

    It’s worth pointing out that the £61.5 million capital support is exceptional, being largely for the new trains project – Translink is quite close to covering its operating costs net of PSO for rail (still falling) and concessionary fares (attempting to be frozen.) Once the last train is delivered this autumn and the new depot at Adelaide is complete, the capital injection into Translink is going to fall dramatically, even with the forthcoming work to the Coleraine-Derry railway line.

    That £187 million turnover includes all revenue subsidy (check the P&L and note 3 in the accounts.) In reality, that means that only £112 million comes in via the fare box (and private hire) and £5.5 million via Hi-Park, In-Shops, Donegall Quay car park and the Europa car park. I was surprised to note that Translink had enough reserves to fund £30 million of capital works, as historically it hasn’t brought in enough income to fund any capital work on its own reserves – of course, we can partly blame the Treasury for recouping £25 million set aside in the 1990s for new trains which they wouldn’t let them order without wasting time on PFI! If ever there was a waste of time and money…

    For the time being, that £112 million is what you are looking to replace, but as I noted via twitter earlier, it would be useful to budget for twice that because we want to expand, not stay steady.

    As I also noted earlier, all stage carriage/express bus operators in Northern Ireland, including Lough Swilly, Eamon Rooney, Tiger Coaches etc would have to be included for journeys within NI or, if not extended to the whole country, the defined area where free travel was available, for reasons of equitableness – if Translink could let passengers travel for free, private operators would have to be supported to do likewise, or they would go out of business, which is in nobody’s interest – Eamon Rooney’s Belfast-Rostrevor service is brilliantly popular and would be badly missed (cheaper than Ulsterbus, no change in Newry!) Notional fares would have to be determined for that purpose on an ad hoc basis based on actual cost of running the service.

    As I also noted, there would be issues with cross-border services, who would only be able to charge to/from the first stop in Northern Ireland. Ulsterbus and NIR offices, together with buses operating cross-border routes, would have to be able to issue tickets as agents of IE or Bus Eireann for that purpose, including charging passengers to travel from Newry to Dublin.

    I’m not convinced that zero fares are necessary, although Ed Simpson thinks that fares set as low as 40% of their current rate would be uneconomic to collect. My concern as an economist is that the demand curve for public transport is not a straight line – as fares fall, demand builds up very slowly (in the same way as when fares rise, it is relatively inelastic because we don’t have a choice other than to pay), but is then followed by a considerable increase in demand as it becomes a real option. As fares fall towards zero, though, the impact of a fall becomes less. If it were economically viable, I’d argue that fares around 33-40% of current levels might attract the same number of passengers as reducing them to zero at less cost to the regional rate.

    Of course, my model would require fare controls, otherwise known as solely inflationary increases year on year rather than hikes (!) if even that, any other increase in costs having to be justified in detail to DRD as they would be meeting the shortfall in full.

    I’m going to pick up on one thing Aidan said, and it’s a fallacy that is oft repeated. Competition doesn’t reduce fares, and it doesn’t challenge Translink. In reality, competition drives down fares on the competed routes, but the fares need to be raised on other routes to make up for it. So you might get cheap fares Belfast-Lisburn, but then have to pay over the odds to go on out to Annahilt.

    In reality, GB has very little competition. Buses tend to stay in their own areas, and when they don’t, it’s to price another operator off those routes, to extend local monopolies which don’t benefit from economies of scale. Open access train services are rare.

    On top of that, the private operators are subsidised to the hilt – one study I read reported the case of a company which refused to operate a particular socially necessary bus service as it wasn’t economical, so the local council had to tender it. The same company won the tender, and was paid over £100k a year to operate it – much of which will have gone in dividends to shareholders. I wish I could find it again.

    There is also a very bad habit, particularly witnessed in railway privatisation, but no less prevalent in bus privatisation, of specifying a minimum service less than that provided by the public sector predecessor – in too many cases, the company has reduced the service to the minimum because it could, and then used the excuse that too few passengers were using it to withdraw it altogether at renegotiation, ignoring the fact that the passengers disappeared because services were at the wrong time.

    Competition and privatisation weren’t the subject of the blog, but the cost of both in GB is a salutory warning. I’d be interested to see how gross bus and rail subsidy in GB has changed over the last 20 years.

    Going back to the point, if the Assembly is serious about addressing congestion, it needs to consider radical solutions like this, coupled with accountability, that will get people who don’t need to drive onto public transport, leaving the roads clearer for those who will never have a public transport route which approaches direct (like you, Matt – although your kids could change school, and you could drive to the train station… theoretically!) and those who have to drive to complete their daily duties (on occasion that does include a dedicated car pooler, cyclist and public transport user like me) or are professional drivers. To do that will improve bus speeds – cars on the same routes as the buses are usually as slow, because buses get to use bus lanes but cars don’t have to observe bus stops.

    This would need an increase in the regional rate, but as I always observe, we are not paying for other people to use public transport, but rather we are paying so that when we can’t avoid driving we can have a more convenient journey without wasting fuel and time in traffic jams.

    Do we know how £200 million would translate into the regional rate and how much it would be per month for the average household?

    (PS – the difference between “on time/will be delivered” and “a little behind but likely to be delivered” is that the first has either been completed or is running to schedule, and the second won’t be delivered as soon as it should be but should make it by the end of the period or shortly afterwards. The red blob of course means “hasn’t a hope in hell!”)

    1. Hm, £112m via fare box and £130m via subsidy. That’s even worse. Means the service is 54% subsidised rather than 41%

      So remind me why we don’t have to pay independent operators a dime when the service is 54% subsidised but we’re expected to pay them off if it is 100% subsidised? Because so far it just reads like nay-saying.

      The great thing about all of the stats in the annual report is that they are utterly devoid of context and meaning. Once you accept that Translink is a sham, it makes you even more determined to put them in their place.

  7. £112m via fare box and £130m via subsidy, against cost of sales of £173m, admin expenses of £10m, and capital investment (not in P&L) of £93m, totalling £276m makes total subsidy only 47% of total expenditure.

    If you want that figure more sensibly, revenue subsidy is £75m of £187m turnover, or 40%. Nowhere near your 54% figure, which includes money that doesn’t go through the profit and loss.

    I also have to remind you that £33m of that £75m is in concessionary fares. Take that out, and you’re down to subsidising 17.6% of turnover to keep the company going – even then, some of the “other” subsidy is fuel duty rebate, again payable to all bus companies. There doesn’t seem to be any PSO for buses, which essentially have to pay their own way.

    If we want Translink to carry passengers for free, we have to enable independent operators to do so too, because otherwise they could not compete.

    Independent operators do receive Government subsidy for concessionary fares (paid at 80% of the cash fare foregone, same as Translink), and also I think fuel duty rebate plus any money paid for running socially necessary loss-making services. Otherwise, they only operate on routes where they can make enough money to make it worth their while, and that’s why no other subsidy is paid.

    If independent operators had to charge fares for stage carriage/express operations in NI and Translink did not, they would probably sue the Assembly – and win, because of predatory pricing and unfair competitive practices.

    Trains attracting more passengers than buses: plenty of empirical evidence for this. Every time that buses replace trains, whether temporarily or permanently, fewer people travel. The 1960s showed that bus services provided to replace closed railway lines simply didn’t carry as many passengers.

    The collapse of the Malahide viaduct saw Enterprise passenger numbers slump because passengers drove instead of taking the bus substitution or travelling by coach the whole way. When there are engineering works on NIR affecting a whole railway line, fewer passengers take the substitutions and regular service buses than normally take the train and service bus put together.

    See also the Luas in Dublin, a light rail solution that carries far more people than had taken the bus, despite being dearer. Other light rail schemes have the same result: they may be more expensive than bus solutions – in the case of Belfast, so much more expensive as to not be an option for the “rapid” transit schemes – but carry more passengers than buses in similar bus-based schemes.

    It’s particularly noticeable in that context how many people choose to pay NIR’s fares rather than taking the bus. Trains don’t suffer from the same problems as buses with congestion, but passenger numbers have increased through the recession. I personally noticed this when I lived on the Lisburn line – in February 2011, there were considerably more passengers on any train I caught than a year and a half previously.

    Re Cambridge Guided Bus, Railfuture was very much opposed, and members watched with considerable glee as the busway encountered delay upon delay (it opened 28 months late) and mounted up expenditure well over budget (up to £50m on a £90m budget.) One wonders how much money could have been saved by reconditioning the existing railway line instead and reopening it to passengers.

    It was also opposed by the Lib Dem opposition on Cambridgeshire County Council; a local opposition group CAST.IRON also existed (google both). It remains to be seen if passenger numbers will keep up.

    1. All I see are excuses and conjecture. We’re subsidising a huge percentage of a large company – it doesn’t matter if it’s 41%, 47% or 54%. And it’s our public transportation system that is, by any measure, failing. Empty buses and trains. Addressing 7% of the commuting workforce.

      And at the same time investing millions in expanding our road network to cope with the extra cars people are resorting to because our transport network is failing.

      I don’t think the trains/buses conjecture is relevant. We don’t have the rail network *anyway* and Belfast is unlikely to build (uh, re-build) a trams system like Dublin or other cities.

      All of this stuff about alternative operators ignores the realities of business. Businesses can make more out of a free or freemium model. In fact, specialist services like LS could do very well out of a freemium model building on a free main transport network just in terms of potential increase in passengers. Private services don’t have to be free and if you really think that LS is competing directly with (and would therefore be displaced by) a free public service then it says more about their flawed business model than anything else.

      I still wonder why you’re so opposed to the idea, Andy, it works elsewhere, even concessionary passes for the over 60s have shown to have increased community, mobility and economic activity in that demographic. Why wouldn’t this work for the rest of the population?

  8. I wish you would read my replies properly, you know, seriously?

    I’m not convinced that totally free transport would fly because of the law of diminishing returns. Start at free fares and think “hang on, if we were to charge *something*, not very much, but just *something* – would we have the same number of passengers? Can we ask the ratepayer to bankroll what people would pay *something* for?”

    I am not opposed to the principle in any way, and if you read my replies properly you’d realise that. To repeat my main point, push the burden from the passenger to the ratepayer in a big, radical way, whether 100% or 70%, reminding everyone that by paying through the rates, even if they can’t use the public transport themselves, they are paying for everyone else to get off the roads.

    For other companies – Eamon Rooney competes directly. LS and Bus Eireann passengers would demand to know why they couldn’t travel for free from just inside the border to Derry, and just use the free Ulsterbus, or drive if one doesn’t exist – in LS’s case this could be serious for their viability, and DRD would be under serious pressure to ensure free travel for all operators, legal issues aside. While Ulsterbus took over local operators in Craigavon and Portrush in the 1980s, there are still other isolated routes operated by indie firms which don’t have a Translink equivalent – again, passengers will reasonably want to know why they can’t have free travel.

    All I am doing is considering what would need to go in the business case – effect on other companies, lawfulness or otherwise of excluding other companies from free travel (together with debunking the idea that other operators don’t get any subsidy – if other operators want to carry over-60s, they are more or less forced to let them travel for free and reclaim money from DRD, or not carry them at all as even half fare cannot compete with free travel unless there is something really exceptional), arrangements for jointly operated services etc, other costs to be offset against the benefits.

    Anyway, to repeat my question from last night, would you be able to find out what the cost would be on the regional rate, because this is the key question, and what we have to set against the obvious benefits in congestion reduction and consequent productivity improvements? I haven’t been able to dig up how much DFP is expecting to receive from the regional rate this year to work out how a change of £200m would translate into the actual regional rate. The fact that not all of the £200m would be needed in Year 1 (or even for a couple of years) doesn’t matter for these purposes – it’s there to achieve the dream that we can have an excellent public transport service.

  9. And if you read my replies properly, you’d realise that just decreasing fares is a half-assed notion that would be doomed to failure. Never mind the fact that you would still have to invest heavily in advertising the service, checking tickets and handling cash (with all of the issues that entails), you end up with a minuscule return.

    We want several things.

    We want people to use buses. They need to be cheaper and run on time. To run on time we need to reduce congestion on the roads. To reduce congestion on the roads, we need to make the bus a better alternative than the car. At the moment, it’s more expensive, less convenient and less reliable than cars. To get people into buses and out of cars, we have to address these three points. We can’t make the buses be more reliable and run on time without getting people onto them so that’s not something we can control. Making them more convenient would mean expanding the service considerably which just means putting more buses on the roads. With the congestion we already have, that’s actually going to make the problem worse. The only thing we can control is pricing.

    The pricing currently means that it’s just about break even to take a car or get the bus for one person. If you have more than one person, it’s utterly skewed towards the car. This is wrong.

    Using monthly tickets (a saving of 1/3 on the daily ticket, we have people still not getting public transport. With the new promotions and tax incentives for buses and trains, we still have a pitiful percentage of the population using the bus. So price cuts have been tried and they’re currently NOT WORKING. We have the evidence right in front of us.

    Making the buses and trains free will change the mindset of the public. A car, through it costs money to run, is perceived as free because we pre-pay on the fuel, insurance and the rest. So we’re fighting against a perception with a charged bus service.

    This isn’t about compromising on a 20% or 30% reduction in fares which will slowly rise to their previous levels due to inflation and rising costs. This is about making a statement. It’s about taking a stand.

    We want workers to be more mobile. As it costs £1200 a year to travel from Bangor to Belfast by train using the cheapest monthly tickets, a commuter has to consider that into his pay packet. If the employers want to consider the widest possible net for employment, then we need to consider this. I know a few folk who can barely afford to keep their jobs and end up walking everywhere. Great for their cardio but when there are people WORKING in Northern Ireland who cannot afford the subsidised public transportation system then we are DOING SOMETHING WRONG. This doesn’t count a few people who simply cannot get to jobs because transportation is too expensive for them to even afford the bus fare for the interview.

    Yes, these are extremes but we have coasted far too long on being “a bit shitter than GB”.

    The thing that makes me angry about this is that it’s never even been considered. This could be a big attraction for tourism, it would help get more tourists out of the province. Our local transportation network has barely changed in 20+ years. New buses, new tickets but really there hasn’t been an ounce of innovation in public transportation since I was last regularly getting the bus as a child.

    So encourage your MLA to ask the question. Find out why parties don’t think this is a good idea. At the very least, supporting City of Culture should be a pilot that could easily be paid for. And if it works, well, we’ve just evolved our society.

  10. Andy B

    “and goes near a hospital” – it was meant to go near the hospital, as the hospital was being affected by patients being late for their appointments due to traffic congestion.

    Congestion is so bad there is even a dedicated road linking the M11directly to the hospital – traffic is monitored by anpr cameras to ensure those joining the road actually go to the hospital.

    I think you need to look at the background history to why the guided busway was built.

    The guided busway was built to service commuters travelling between St Ives/Huntingdon and Cambridge. Originally the A14 was created by duelling the old single lane A604, this resulted in people who worked in Cambridge locating to towns and villages along the A14. It came to a point where the A14 was almost at a standstill during rush hour, if there was an accident, the road was blocked with no real alternative route.

    As there is no train link from Huntingdon to Cambridge and only the route of an old rail line from St Ives to Cambridge – the guided busway was seen as a the cheaper and more flexible alternative.

    With regard to overspend – this is quite common with construction contracts, and after all, this was the world’s longest busway ever to be built.

    The busway has been so successful one operator has ordered EIGHT new buses to cope with demand.

    In its first year of operation it will have carried 2.5 million passengers ( )(catchment population circa 50k). Even the pro-rail group who were against it have acknowledged that “driving buses on concrete” works.

    One other thing, a busway is a cheap method of construction. The N. Ireland A5 widening project is costing circa £15m a mile – a guided bus way would cost £4-6m a mile). I know that a guided busway wouldn’t solve the A5 problem, but it is a good comparison on construction costs.

    Here is an interesting article comparing road and rail costs.

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