Regular readers will be curious to learn what Translink’s rationale is behind not allowing a trial of carrying bikes during the morning rush hour. The good news is we now have an answer! The bad news is it does not appear that Translink has embraced Active Travel and multi-mode transport.
Responses to FOI requests are in the public domain so for ease of reference I have uploaded Translink’s response as a PDF file on our group’s Facebook page. You can download it from there.
Before Christmas, during a public meeting a senior Translink officer told one of our members that Translink does now have an Active Travel workgroup. We were surprised by that statement and asked Translink to confirm. In its answer to Q1 the company confirms that it does not have such a group. Moreover, its answer to Q2 implies that it also has no plans to embrace Active Travel.
Its answer to Q3 makes for interesting reading: here Translink reveals that its current bike carriage policy is now 19 (!) years old. The world and Northern Ireland have seen a lot of changes over those 19 years – we would argue that to keep abreast of Northern Ireland’s Climate Change targets it now is high time to reassess that policy. That the policy was agreed with Sustrans back then is well and good but no longer relevant: we will contact Sustrans and ask them to point out to Translink that Sustrans’ position on the carriage of bicycles on trains during rush hour has changed since 2005.
Responding to Q4, Translink confirms that it “reviews” its policy every six months. I should point out Translink does not clarify what that review process entails apart from “assessing passenger loading data” - have any discussions taken place during any of the post-pandemic reviews (during the weeks commencing 14 November 2022, 17 April 2023, 16 October 2023) with respect to either allowing cycles on trains during rush hour or running trains with more carriages? Do those reviews include anything about Translink’s long-term strategy to address its current capacity constraints, which, as we see in answer 8, are huge? I suppose the only way to find out is to launch another FOI request to see the meeting minutes of those reviews… Should we do that? Please comment below...
Anyway, we now know Translink’s data gathering activities include “all local trains, on all lines” (answer 7b) but nothing on bicycles: “cycle load factor data [are] not recorded"(answer 8 and 9b). Translink, why not start collecting some data on bikes? How can you hold on to an out-dated bike carriage policy without having any supporting data? Or are you afraid that the data will reveal that the current policy is no longer relevant and should be revised?
Answer 8 states “hourly breakdown data will not be provided” - that puts us in our place! We are left suspecting the true reason is that to do so would weaken Translink’s position with respect to allowing bikes on trains earlier than 0930, with a restriction required perhaps only between 0800 and 0900. Without concrete data we are left guessing.
Anyway, let’s look at the numbers we do have. The rush hour load factors as of the last survey taken (16 October 2023) for the different lines are as follows (I have substituted endpoint names for Translink’s somewhat cryptic abbreviations):
o Londonderry-Belfast AM Peak Period: 99%
o Belfast-Londonderry PM Peak Period: 98%
o Larne-Belfast AM Peak Period: 108%
o Belfast-Larne PM Peak Period: 126%
o Bangor-Belfast AM Peak Period: 97%
o Belfast-Bangor PM Peak Period: 104%
o Portadown-Belfast AM Peak Period: 111%
o Belfast-Portadown PM Peak Period: 126%
These numbers tell us that for all intents and purposes Translink’s current set-up is running at or significantly above capacity during rush hour. Earlier I highlighted that Translink is in the process of building a £250mm “Belfast Transport Hub” which doubles capacity – but for what purpose, exactly? The rush hour trains are already running with a load factor of 126% on one line: how are you going to squeeze another 74% of passengers into the existing rolling stock?
Will people sit on the roof of their train? Or is the planned doubling of passenger numbers only coming from more buses on the road? That would hardly contribute to improving Northern Ireland’s green credentials and Climate Change targets in a positive way.
In Q10 we asked Translink to explain why a trial to test how many bikes be taken on by train passengers before 0930 would have to be run across the whole network rather than on a single line. Following Translink’s logic any new clinical drug trial would have to include every human alive prior to the drug being approved. Translink responded, “In our experience, consistency of approach is vital. Having differing policies on different lines and different services (which connect to each other) is confusing for customers and can lead to altercations with staff and safety issues.” It appears that whoever wrote Translink’s reply failed to grasp the difference between a trial and a policy. We would refer Translink to the Cambridge Dictionary for clarification: “trial: a test, usually over a limited period of time, to discover how effective or suitable something is”. Is that concept so difficult to grasp at the corporate level?
Q11 asks about any comparative data analysis Translink carried out as it formulated its policy in 2005. It turns out it had no comparative data, only its own load factors (answer to Q11a). In case you’re wondering what “TOC” means, it stands for Train Operating Company. Put another way, Translink just copied what other (significantly larger) mainland operators were doing and decided that was good enough.
Translink, the world has changed and it no longer is good enough to wait and see what others are doing before copying them! Time to get busy: Northern Ireland needs everyone here to adopt Active Travel to meet its Net Zero goals. That includes the government-owned public transport provider.
Translink’s recalcitrance gets worse, unfortunately. In 11d the company tells us, “[w]e adopted a bike carrying policy applicable and specific to the NI Railways network in 2005. Passenger loading were (sic) such that the choice was either to ask some passengers to stand to accommodate bicycles on busy morning peak trains.” In other words, for almost two decades Translink has known that its network capacity and its bike carrying arrangements are insufficient to allow bicycles to be carried on trains during rush hour periods. It has done nothing over those 19 years to address those rolling stock constraints. Even more galling is that for two decades NI train passengers have suffered significant overcrowding during rush hour.
Translink goes on embarrass itself further by saying “In addition, the current NI Railways system does not facilitate reservations.” What a poor excuse: any IT system can be modified – unless Translink is also a Fujitsu Horizon customer. I thought I was jesting as I type this but after a quick Google I had an “Oh, wait: it’s all beginning to make sense now!” moment… I wouldn't be surprised if my joke were actually true.
Translink says, “[i]t is not our intention to change the policy presently however, like all other train operating companies and as demonstrated above, this will be kept under review.” We have already commented on the extent of Translink’s reviewing activities in its answer to Q4 – they leave a lot to be desired. We urge Translink to look at what the TOCs that I mentioned as being comparable in a previous blog on this topic (about ¾ of the way down the page) are doing and follow their lead. Stop prevaricating!
In closing, Translink tells us, ‘[o]ur policy remains to encourage cyclists to use the enhanced cycle shelter facilities at stations where possible.” We’d like to point out that this policy precludes cyclists from using their bike at the other end of their train journey. That’s not what Active Travel is about.
Translink, to do the right thing and run a six week trial on the Bangor-GVS line where you allow bikes to be carried on trains during the morning rush hour, perhaps only not between 0800h and 0900h. Collect data on the number of passengers and of bikes carried. Also look at ways to maximising the space that is allocated for carrying bikes outside of the rush hour: you could easily treble the carrying capacity by installing hooks so bikes would be carried vertically rather than horizontally.
Engage with us: we have more ideas. You can contact us here. We'd love to help you improve your Active Travel credentials!If the one-section trial confirms that the proposed policy change is workable and can be extended across the whole network, fantastic! If it doesn't work out, we'll get out of your hair.
But you will never know until you try!