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Is Translink tone-deaf when it comes to implementing Active Travel?

Since last week’s blog we contacted Translink through various channels and received back identical replies to our suggestion that the restrictions on carrying bicycles before 9:30am should be reviewed and relaxed and tested by allowing bikes on trains before the peak of the morning rush hour over a three month period:

“We are delighted to advise that passenger numbers on peak train services are growing back rapidly, up 10% on last year, and fast approaching pre-Covid levels. In addition off-peak capacity is also much larger than before the pandemic. As a result regretfully we are not in a position to relax this policy, and it remains consistent with most other train operating companies in the UK.

Our emphasis in recent years has been to enhance our station/halt facilities for bicycle users. I hope this answers your query, however as before we will continue to review this policy for the greater benefit of rail customers.”

Let’s look at that curt response in a bit more detail: Commuters are again embracing the train – that’s a good thing. "Off-peak capacity is much larger" Semantically that word choice is probably incorrect and should read “demand” instead of “capacity” because there was no change in the number of scheduled train services on the Bangor to Portadown line.

The public data available to us on rail journeys in Northern Ireland unfortunately are not granular enough to focus on the line that matters the most to us so we will use province-wide data supplied by the Department for Infrastructure as a proxy. The official data do not tally with Translink's claim that passenger levels are "fast approaching pre-Covid levels": in 2019/20 there were 15.1 million rail passenger journeys. In 2022/23 there were 12.9 million journeys. Passenger numbers are still about 15% lower that pre-pandemic - leaving plenty of space for trialling bikes on rush hour trains.

Moreover, we would argue more rail travellers in the future would make a good case for increasing the service frequency on the Bangor to Portadown line. Perhaps Translink could contact us and let us know how many extra rush hour train services will be run on the Bangor-Portadown line from 2025 when there will be a doubling of capacity at the new Belfast Transport Hub (proudly touted as a "multi-modal hub")?

Last year Translink put into service 21 new carriages. How many of those will run on the Bangor-Portadown line in 2025? Or are they all used to service the North West Hub in Derry/Londonderry? If that is the case, has additional stock been ordered in time for 2025 for lines servicing the new Belfast hub? Also, is any of the new rolling stock future-proof and able to accommodate Active Travellers: can the new carriages take more bikes than the old rolling stock that is limited to four bikes per train?

I assume the new platforms at the new "Grand Central Station" will be twice as long as the existing ones to allow longer trains to be run in the future - or am I assuming too much? It is hard to tell from the aerial mock-ups.

What is obvious though is that there is no space left for building any additional platforms in the future. Again, Translink, feel free to clarify whether anyone involved at the planning stage of this £200 million project has given any thought not only to future capacity increases on the train line connecting Belfast to Northern Ireland’s largest commuter city Bangor - but also to taking the concept of a multi-modal hub a step further into the 21st century through the facilitation of Active Travel by providing additional bike storage on trains.

Getting back to Translink's response to our inquiry: we are then told that the company is not even considering the three-month trial we suggested. A trial is the only way to gather data on the demand for rail journeys from multi-modal commuters. Those data would provide incontrovertible evidence whether there are enough cycling commuters living in Bangor and Portadown and working in Belfast who would be happy to drop the car in favour of an Active Travel commute.

If it turns out that there is only half a dozen cycling commuters regularly availing of the opportunity to take their bikes on trains early in the morning, we will shut up and leave things as they are. I suspect the data would tell a different story though.

Stating that “our emphasis in recent years has been to enhance our station/halt facilities for bicycle users” is welcome yet also highlights that Translink is decades behind the rest of the UK when it comes to investing in accommodating multi-modal Active Travellers: to start, there still is no secure bicycle parking in Bangor…

In addition, no effort is made to educate passengers about bikes on trains: I lost count of the number of times I have had to ask passengers to move from the folding seats in the designated bike storage area so I could park my bike on the train. By now I have grown immune to the dirty looks and ignore any snide comments. All it would take is for Translink to attach a couple of stickers to the ceiling, asking foot passengers and parents with prams to accommodate bicycles, while reminding cyclists to be careful with their bikes, ensuring that they cannot fall over.

Translink has little to lose by running this trial. However, not even to consider a constructive proposal - an important first step towards improving Northern Ireland’s abysmal record on Active Travel - does nothing to improve its public perception and runs counter to its 2030 Better.Connected strategy which states that it wants to "deliver high levels of customer satisfaction" while supporting "sustainable infrastructure" and sustainable travel. Cycling is the most time-efficient sustainable mode of transport - why not accommodate it, Translink?

Decarbonisation is achieved by allowing more bikes on trains, not by building a 100 car Park and Ride facility at the NW Hub. Integrating Active Travel is key to Translink achieving its Climate Change goals. Ignoring bikes on trains is not the way to meet them.

Here is hoping that by this time next week the answer to the question posed in today's blog's title is an emphatic "No!"

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