Belfast Rapid Transit System

 

Status
Construction scheme (current)
Where
To construct a bus-based rapid system in Belfast running from the city centre to the east and west of the city, and to Titanic Quarter
Total Length
In total approx 24.5 km / 15.2 miles of which:
  WWAY - approx 9.8 km / 6.1 miles
  EWAY - approx 8.8 km / 5.5 miles
  CITI - approx 2.8 km / 1.7 miles
  plus a common city centre loop - approx 3.1 km / 1.9 miles
Dates

Strategic Outline Case published 8 Apr 2008

Scheme given approval 27 Nov 2008
Public consultation ran 12 Oct 2011 - 6 Jan 2012
Outcome of consultation published - 24 Apr 2012
Outline Business Case to be published - 22 Nov 2012
First construction tender released - 23 Oct 2013
First construction tender awarded - 28 Mar 2014

First actual work commenced 19 May 2014 (Dundonald park-and-ride)

(changed from "late 2013" as of Dec 2013; "during 2012" as of June 2010, and "by 2011" as of Nov 2008)

System due to be operational Autumn 2017 (as of May 2014)

Cost

£98.5m as of Nov 2012
(changed from £150m as of Nov 2008)

Photos
See below
See Also

Official web site for scheme
Wrightbus web site

Public Information Leaflet - Roads Service
Rapid Transit Enabling Measures for city centre - on this site

Since 2008 Belfast has been formally exploring the idea of a rapid-transit system. This quickly settled down to be a high-quality bus-based system, although with modern vehicles with a tram-like feel with off-vehicle ticketing and fast journey times that hinge on the use of a dedicated traffic lane that is not used by general traffic. The ultimate ambition seems to be for  routes running from the city centre to the north, east, south and west with an additional line to Titanic Quarter. The plan is to build three initially and to have them operating by 2017/18.

The scheme is included on this web site as it will involve the construction of new dedicated roadways, and the modification of the existing road network to create segregated routes for the buses.

As of November 2012 these routes are confirmed to be:

  • CITI - Queen Elizabeth Bridge > Queen’s Quay > Queen’s Road to Titanic Quarter and returning to the city centre via Queen’s Road > Queen’s Quay > Station Street > Bridge End > Queen’s Bridge.
  • EWAY - City Centre > Albertbridge Road > Upper Newtownards Road to park-and-ride somewhere in Dundonald
  • WWAY - City Centre > Divis Street > Falls Road > Andersonstown Road > Stewartstown Road to a park and ride site near Dairy Farm and/or McKinstry Road Roundabout

More detailed maps of the routes can be downloaded from this page.

The Regional Development Minister said in November 2008 that he expected the scheme to run at five-minute intervals at peak times and attract 5.5 million passengers per year. He also said that he would be seeking additional funding from the private sector, although the recession has since ruled that out. It seems likely that the buses will be supplied by Wrightbus, based in Ballymena, who are a global leader in this technology.

Although work had been due to begin by 2011 back in 2008, the scheme was put on the longer finger after the budget cuts of January 2011.

Historical Background – The Financial Case for a Bus-Based System

In April 2008, the DRD released figures that they say shows that a bus-based system is more economically viable than light rail. These figures are shown below and were sourced from this press release. Certainly the bus based system is much cheaper to both build and run, although it is likely to attract less patronage. Most of the criticism of the decision not to build light rail has been to do with the international "prestige" of light rail and the fact that it is seen as "better" by many users. In April 2008 the DRD said "The study found that bus based rapid transit produces positive economic results but light rail does not. This is because the likely numbers of passengers do not warrant the extra cost of light rail. There will be the option of migrating to light rail in the future should the demand increase."

BUS BASED SYSTEM
Capital Cost £m
Annual Operating
Cost £m
Passengers in Morning Peak (estimated)
East Belfast Scheme
£106
£0.67
1292
West Belfast Scheme
£35
£0.41
608
Titanic Quarter Scheme
£6
£0.36
1279
TOTAL
£147
£1.44
3179
LIGHT RAIL SYSTEM
Capital Cost £m
Annual Operating
Cost £m
Passengers in Morning Peak (estimated)
East Belfast Scheme
£282
£3.65
1633
West Belfast Scheme
£217
£1.86
708
Titanic Quarter Scheme
£91
£1.27
1464
TOTAL
£590
£6.78
3805

Photos

A Wrightbus "Streetcar" being used on York's FTR bus-based rapid transist system in April 2007.
Belfast's system is likely to look very similar. The copyright on this image is owned by RobertG and is licensed for reuse under the GNU Free Documentation License version 1.2. See this image's original location on Wikipedia Commons.

Updates

19 Jun 2014: The DRD has now re-launched their web site which now features details on each element of the scheme and progress on it. That page is likely to be kept more up-to-date than I can keep this page updated (!) so it would be a useful one to bookmark. It also features an informative section of Frequently Asked Questions. It confirms the timetable for the first four elements as below. This means that the second element of the scheme will kick off on the Upper Newtownards Road on Monday 23 June.

  • Dundonald Park and Ride - UNDERWAY - commenced 19 May 2014, due to be completed Dec 2014. Will initially be served by Metro buses, switching to Rapid Transit vehicles in 2017.
  • Upper Newtownards Road, Sandown Road to Knock Road (1km - see map) - localised widening, relocating drains and upgrading pedestrian crossings - to commence 23 June 2014, due to be completed November 2014.
  • Falls Road, Grosvenor Road to Whiterock Road (1.3km - see map) - localised widening, relocating drains and upgrading pedestrian crossings - to commence August 2014, due to be completed July 2015.
  • Andersonstown/Stewartstown Road, Finaghy Road North to Upper Dunmurry Lane (Michael Ferguson Roundabout) (1.9km - see map) - road widening to create a citybound bus lane (presumably there will be no outbound bus lane), and upgrade of traffic signals.

7 Jun 2014: Since the last update, the second construction contract has been awarded. This one is the works to adjust the layout along 1km of the Upper Newtownards Road from Sandown Road (Ballyhackamore) to Knock Road (the Outer Ring) to accommodate Rapid Transit. It was awarded to White Mountain Quarries Ltd on 21 May 2014. The estimated value of the contract is £1.43m. There is no immediate sign of work beginning at the time of writing. Meanwhile, at the Dundonald park-and-ride site, where work has been underway now for almost three weeks, a lot of site earthworks are very evident indicating good progress. There has been no work as yet on the associated improvements to the Upper Newtownards Road / Dunlady Road junction which are part of the scheme. The third contract that is in the pipeline has still to be awarded.

19 May 2014: Work finally began today on construction of the Dundonald park-and-ride site, the contract for which was awarded to Lagan Construction on 28 March. Since this is the first element of Belfast Rapid Transit to go to actual construction, today marks the official commencement of the construction phase of the project. For this reason, it was accompanied by a press release and media coverage. The press release notes that procurement for the 40 Rapid Transit buses is to begin, with £20m being allocated for the task. The Minister estimates that the whole process of procurement, construction and delivery of the vehicles will take three years, with the three routes (WWAY - from Stewartstown Road, EWAY from Dundonald and CITI from Titanic Quarter) to open for business in autumn 2017. The press release also notes that two further construction contracts are due "to start next month", ie June 2014. This presumably refers to the two sections that have been out to tender for some time (here and here) but have yet to be awarded. This incarnation of the BRT scheme was first announced in the 2002 Regional Transportation Strategy, so it is exciting that it has finally reached the point of construction. Listening to the radio and discussing it on Twitter suggests widespread public ignorance of even the existence of this scheme, let alone the route it will follow and impacts it will have. So hopefully the next three years will see a proactive public information campaign to raise awareness.

4 Apr 2014: The first tender for Belfast Rapid Transit - the construction of the Dundonald park-and-ride site - was awarded to Lagan Construction on 28 March 2014. As contractors tend to be keen to start work as soon as possible, I would expect to see work beginning imminently. The estimated value of the contract is £1.57m. It will primarily involve the construction of a 521 space car park with a terminal building, sited here in Dundonald. However, it will also require changes to the adjacent Dunlady Road, and alterations to the Dunlady Road/Upper Newtownards Road junction. This will include lengthening the right turn lane when coming from Newtownards as many more vehicles are anticipated to want to turn right here. As this is the first Belfast Rapid Transit contract, until the whole scheme is completed the park-and-ride facility will by served by conventional buses. The estimated duration of the works is 8 months, so we could expect to see it completed by early December 2014. Meanwhile, two other tenders are still to be awarded (see previous update below).

22 Jan 2014: These are exciting times for supporters of this scheme, as it edges ever closer to actual construction. In the previous update three months ago I noted that the first actual construction tender (for 3.8km of WWAY, about 40% of the bit in West Belfast) had been advertised. This tender has not yet been awarded, but the closing date was 28 November 2013 so surely it cannot be far off now. Since then, the second tender has also been advertised - the construction of the Dundonald Park-and-Ride which will form the terminus of EWAY, the bit in East Belfast. This tender was released in December 2013, earlier than expected, with a closing date of 3 February 2014. The third tender, for a 1km stretch of EWAY from Sandown Road to the Outer Ring, is due to be released imminently. At this rate of progress, and barring any difficulties with the tender process, I think it is likely that we will see work commencing on WWAY before the summer. The whole Rapid Transit system (consisting of EWAY, WWAY and the CITI link into Titanic Quarter) is due to be completed by 2017/18. Presumably some work will also have to take place between now and then to tweak the new city centre bus lanes to accommodate Rapid Transit. This has always been the intention, but it will require a bit more work - perhaps additional traffic signals, the construction of several rapid transit "halts", and certainly some meaningful enforcement of the bus lanes which are woefully enforced at present.

28 Oct 2013: Work seems to be rapidly gearing up towards a commencement of the Belfast Rapid Transit project. The first tender for construction of the road infrastructure was advertised on Wednesday last week. This contract covers two sections of WWAY (the bit in West Belfast): the 2km from Grosvenor Road to Whiterock Road; and the 1.8km from Finaghy Road North to Old Colin Road). Together these constitute roughly 40% of WWAY. It's not clear when work would begin, but the first tender closes on 28th November and I would expect that work would be likely to commence, therefore, during the first half of 2014. The project is scheduled to take 11 months, so would be completed by early 2015. They will probably initially operate as normal bus lanes while the rest of the project is completed.
Information on Roads Service's own web site suggests that this tender will be followed in January by two more: a 1km stretch of Upper Newtownards Road from Sandown Road to the Outer Ring, representing just over 10% of the EWAY route; and the Dundonald park-and-ride site. Combined, these three projects account for about 20% of the total length of Rapid Transit and represent a good start.

23 Sep 2013: While it now looks unlikely that any work on the ground will begin during 2013 as hoped last December (see below) work on this project is definitely progressing. The first two planning applications (that I am aware of) are now in - with thanks to Gary Potter over at Future Belfast for alerting me to these. The first one is for the terminal park-and-ride at Dundonald, which we now know is to be sited in the grounds of the former Lidl supermarket at Dunlady Road in Dundonald. It is to have 521 parking spaces. Click here to see a PDF of the traffic flow assessment, which includes a map of the proposed facility near the end. Both the WWAY (West Belfast) and EWAY (East Belfast) routes will terminate at such facilities, which are considered vital to their operation. Dunlady Road is a better place for a park-and-ride than the earlier proposal at Quarry Corner, since Robb's Road is a natural point of divergence – this will help traffic flows on the main Upper Newtownards Road which will have to reduced from two to one lanes from this location into the city centre. This is also likely to the the most unpopular part of the plan. The plan for the park-and-ride involves lengthening the right turn lane from the main A20 citybound into Dunaldy Road, and also adding new traffic lights at the Dunlady Road/park-and-ride junction. The second one is for localised road widening on Divis Street to allow for the provision of dedicated bus lanes in both directions at this point. Although more modest in scale than the first planning application, this one is also vital as the bus lane must be continuous, as far as possible, to provide the journey times needed to make it attractive to travellers. At this point in time it seems likely that at least some work will begin on the ground during 2014, with all three pilot routes (WWAY, EWAY and CITI [Titanic Quarter] due to be operational by 2017/18).

12 Dec 2012: In a talk at the PLACE Architecture and Built Environment Centre today, Ciarán de Búrca (the head of the project) stated that work to implement the necessary infrastructure for Rapid Transit would begin on the ground at the end of 2013, ie in one year, and that the system would be finished and operating in 2017. He also confirmed all three routes would be opening simulatneously. He also said that the dedicated Rapid Transit lanes would not run straight through the Outer Ring / Upper Newtownards Road junction due to its sheer importance to strategic traffic. Finally, he confirmed that cyclists would not be banned from the bus lanes once the Rapid Transist system was operating.

1 Dec 2012: Further to the last update, where I commented that the location of the proposed park-and-ride site in Dundonald was not specified, I have heard a rumour that the DRD has made an offer for a piece of land in Dundonald for a 400 space site. I don't know what site this actually is, but the reference to 400 spaces would be consistent with the size of this vacant site. There is also some vacant land at the site of the old Rolls-Royce factory here.

23 Nov 2012: The DRD yesterday published a summary version of their Outline Business Case. You can access it, along with an updated map of the proposed routes, from here and the press release here. There is a lot to read here, but as this web site focuses on the impact on the road network, I'm mostly restricting my comments here to that aspect of the plan. Of note are the following points:

  • The decision made a year ago to route WWAY along Grosvenor Road, rather than Falls Road has been reversed, due to public pressure expressed in the last public consultation. WWAY will now run along Falls Road, as can be seen from the map linked to above. I've updated the text at the top of this page with the most recent route corridor information.
  • The remainder of the routes remain largely unchanged from what was previously publicised.
  • There will be a park and ride on WWAY "near Dairy Farm and/or McKinstry Road Roundabout".
  • There will be a park and ride on EWAY "in Dundonald". Although documents last year indicated this would be at Quarry Corner, this is no longer being specifically mentioned. The new map is shows it at Ballybeen Estate. This may just be indicative, however.
  • The scheme has a calculated cost-benefit ratio of 3.4, which would be considered good value for money, ie over the assessment period (usually 60 years) will will bring 3.4 times more benefit than it will cost to build. It is not anticipated that revenue will be sufficient to cover the investment costs within the assessment period.
  • The total cost is estimated to be £98.5m, assuming it opens in 2017/18. This is actually less than the £150m estimated in 2008. Of this, £12.5m is already allocated up to 2015. Proceeding with the plan to be open in 2017/18, therefore, will require an additional £86m to be allocated between 2015 and 2017/18. Yesterday's announcement that the scheme has secured Executive approval suggests this is likely to be forthcoming.
  • BRT is predicted to increase public transport patronage on the route corridors by between 43% and 75%, and reduce public transport journey times by 30%.
  • BRT is predicted to reduce general traffic levels on the route corridors by 20%, of which half is modal shift from car to BRT and 10% by cars switching to other parallel routes. Journey times for general traffic are predicted to increase by 8% generally, but up to 40% in certain locations.
  • On-street parking will be reduced in areas where BRT is built.
  • Each of the park-and-ride centres will have space for 500 cars plus secure cycle facilities.

30 Jul 2012: According to the minutes of a DRD Board meeting held on 2nd July, there has been a discussion between Geoff Allister, the Head of Roads Service, and Ciarán de Búrca, the Head of the Rapid Transit Division. The discussion seems to have focused on the issue of "traffic disruption/increase in car journey times forecasts". This is because the scheme will see key arterial routes reduced from two to one lane each way, most notably the A20 Upper Newtownards Road which is not simply a commuter route, but also part of the Strategic Road Network, linking the Ards Peninsula to the rest of Northern Ireland. It has been agreed that there will be a re-assessment of the current status of the A24 Saintfield Road. This is presumably because the A24 is also a strategic road, and a similar reduction in capacity was implemented there when the bus lane was opened a few years ago. The disruption to strategic traffic on the A20 will be one of the most sensitive aspects of the Outline Business Case.

1 May 2012: The DRD have published their Consultation Report into last Autumn's public consultation (along with an Equality Impact Assessment) on 24th April. The main findings of the consultation are:

  • 62% of people thought that the most appropriate routes had been considered. The main objection was to the choice of Grosvenor Road over Divis Street for WWAY. There seems to be a broad consensus that the Comber Greenway should not be used for EWAY.
  • 88% felt that the proposed system would be a "high quality public transport system".
  • Quite a few people felt the system ought to be expanded to cover other parts of Belfast.
  • Concerns about the level of fares and impact on 'regular' buses.
  • The importance of good park-and-ride facilities.

The report concludes by noting that an Outline Business Case will be published late in 2012 that will consider the emerging design more specifically, especially the impact on specific junctions and property along the route. There will be another round of consultation after that. Although there is a question mark over when funding will be available, it does seem as if development of the scheme is progressing well.

Personal comment: While supportive of the scheme in principle, I did make a submission to the consultation outlining my concerns about the 'pinch point' that will be created citybound at Quarry Corner (similar to that at Greenisland).

15 Jan 2012: I have just realised that I did not write an update for the official announcement that I mentioned in the previous update - apologies. The Route Options for the pilot phase of Belfast Rapid Transit were announced on 12 October, and the public consultation ran from then until 6 January. The report is accessible here. Although the consultation was about "route options", in practice the report  goes on to reject all but one option for each of the three routes and therefore would be more correctly described as a "preferred route" announcement. The preferred routes are as follows (the route in Belfast City Centre itself is not yet finalised):

  • CITI - City Centre > Queen's Quay > Queen's Road
  • EWAY - City Centre > Albertbridge Road > Upper Newtownards Road to Quarry Corner park-and-ride
  • WWAY - City Centre > Grosvenor Road > Falls Road > Andersonstown Road > Stewartstown Road to McKinstry Road roundabout park-and-ride

These are bold proposals, in that they will require significant reallocation of roads space from general use to public transport. The most controversial element (in my view) is the decision to route EWAY along the stretch of Upper Newtownards Road from the Outer Ring to Quarry Corner, as this is part of the strategic road network, unlike the remainder of the system. This decision has been made due to significant public opposition to the use of the Greenway route. Advocates of Rapid Transit have raised concerns that DRD may be tempted to save money by downgrading the quality of the vehicles used on the system, and so we hope this does not happen. Meanwhile, measures to prepare the city centre for rapid transit are well underway, with Phase 2 of the enabling measures already underway (and Rapid Transit Enabling Measures planned). The DRD is still being vague on when exactly construction work on the Rapid Transit system itself will commence. It is currently planned to be in operation by 2017 (see update 12 Sep 2011). There is no update on cost, which was last estimated at £150m four years ago.

8 Oct 2011: Information leaked by the BBC yesterday indicates that the plan to use the Comber Greenway has now been abandoned, with some kind of announcement expected in the coming week to coincide with the commencement of a public consultation on 12 October. The reason given is "cost", although there has been significant public opposition to the proposal. Watch this space.

12 Sep 2011: The new "Transport" Minister today offered some more information on where we are with this scheme during the first session of the Stormont Assembly of the autumn. He noted that there would be a three month consultation exercise, beginning next month (October 2011). An "outline business case" will then be completed "in 2012" at which point the planners will seek permission from the Executive to proceed. He confirmed that there are no plans to commence major construction work before 2015, but did comment that the budget for the period to 2014-15 does include money "for the planning and commencement of initial implementation measures", presumably the detailed design, etc, and possibly some minor works such as adjustments to road junctions that will be affected. Finally, he said that "the target date for the operation of the system is 2017" but went on to say that "that is very much an aspiration and is subject to available finance". So I don't think we can say anything firm about if or when this scheme will be implemented.

14 May 2011: My scepticism about the timescale for this project (see previous update) seems to have been well founded. Speaking at the Annual Dinner of the Chartered Institution of Highway Enginners Northern Ireland, the Permanent Secretary of the Department for Regional Development Malcolm McKibbin said "funding to begin to implement [the Rapid Transit System] will not be available until at least 2015" (quoted in Plant & Civil Engineer, May 2011). So this means that we are probably at least four years, and possibly more, away from work actually beginning on the ground.

7 Mar 2011: The Minister answered a question on the status of this scheme in the Assembly three weeks ago. He did not give any dates, but did say: "this project is identified in the Programme for Government as a key project for Belfast, and we want to keep it live and on the books. Although I would prefer that we were much further ahead with the capital commitment to rapid transit, we will continue with the preparatory work." This does not sound like the description of a project that is likely to start on the ground next year, as was being said last summer. It sounds more like a project that is on a longer finger, awaiting funding or more progress on design work. We shall have to wait for more information to see where we are with this scheme.

14 Jan 2011: The DRD published their draft budget for 2011-15 yesterday. Despite savage delays to many schemes, this scheme appears to have survived. The budget states that "The spending proposals would also allow the Department to fund the development of a bus based Rapid Transit system on a pilot network of three routes connecting East Belfast, West Belfast and Titanic Quarter with and through the City Centre." It's not clear, however, if there will be delays. Currently work on the first scheme is scheduled for the end of 2012 (see previous update).

15 July 2010: Roads Service have released a public information leaflet about the scheme. It doesn't say much that we don't already know, but it does say that commencement of the first route is now expected "during 2011". However, this is contradicted by the DRD's own End of Year Report issued a few days later. In relation to the scheme it says "We have been advised not to undertake public consultation on the preferred routes whilst this process is ongoing. This has resulted in a delay in taking forward the project by 9-12 months. The three routes set out in the Strategic Outline Case will now be taken forward in a single Outline Business Case. This includes further route options which will require full public consultation. The revised target date to commence work on site for the CITI-route is end of 2012." CITI is the route connecting the City Airport and Titanic Quarter, and is likely to be the first one built.

28 Mar 2010: In the Assembly earlier this month, the Minister said that the public consultation into the details of the three routes of the proposed rapid transit system have been deferred until "early 2011". This is apparently due to the existing public consultation on the legislation that will allow rapid transit to operate. He said "there was a possibility of confusion arising if the public were also being consulted on the details of route alignment options during the enabling legislation process." This has not prevented debate about the route - the most controversial part is the plan to route the rapid transit system along the Greenway (a former railway line and current cycle/foot way) through east Belfast. Such is the strength of feeling locally, that it has spawned a campaign group - Greenway to Stay. The DRD has already spent considerable sums on the Greenway proposal, and has even bought a site related to the scheme, but it seems if a route along the Upper Newtownards Road will also have to be considered. At the project launch in November 2008 it was stated that work on the rapid transit system would begin "in 2011". With a consultation into routes not planned to begin until early 2011, this timescale seems increasingly unlikely to be achieved.