Belfast’s rapid transit bus system a bargain at £90m but will the Glider fly?

The crash of Stormont almost 20 months ago put most major developments on hold in Northern Ireland but one that got through was the £90 million Belfast rapid transit bus project, which after some initial public annoyance and frustration, as well as hope, is about to start moving.

It is estimated that a Belfast light rail system would have cost £1 billion compared to the £90 million price tag for Glider. From today, Monday, when it officially starts, Belfast will learn whether Glider will fly.

Currently, Belfast city centre is the hub with services radiating from the centre. With Glider, commuters can travel east to west and vice versa through the city centre with spurs to the developing Titanic Quarter.

The articulated Van Hool Glider buses can carry 105 passengers – 63 of them standing – compared to single and double deckers which respectively carry 54 and 74 passengers. “One 18 metre Glider bus is the equivalent of a half kilometre of cars,” explained Ciarán de Búrca of the Department for Infrastructure, outlining how the system can ease congestion.

Translink has 30 Glider diesel/electric buses with two more on order. Services are scheduled to operate between 5am and midnight with high-frequency services every seven-eight minutes during the working day.

Commuters pay at ticket machines at the Glider halts rather than on the buses, which also will assist in reducing travel times. Anyone cadging a free journey could be confronted by “customer revenue and protection officers” imposing £50 fines.

There have been hitches. The new cross-town east-west routes involve the creation of special designated 12-hour bus lanes and the painting of many double yellow lines where hitherto people could park their cars.

In August, motorists in east Belfast complained of “horrendous” tailbacks on the Queen’s and Sydenham roads after one of the new restricted bus lanes was introduced.

The holdups got so bad that the Department for Infrastructure had to suspend the lane indefinitely.

There were also mutterings about people having to walk too far to get on board the new distinctive violet-coloured buses as “halts” are about 400m apart. This means a reduction in bus stops on Glider routes by about a third.

Last Wednesday, People Before Profit West Belfast Assembly member Gerry Carroll organised a public meeting where people could vent their irritation at the new system.

On Thursday, Mr Carroll joined parents when some of them illegally parked on the bus lanes in west Belfast as they left off their children to school. People who park in such areas face £90 fines. There were no fines on Thursday but motorists who flout the rules can expect to be penalised in the future.

Private taxi drivers also complain that they can’t use the routes although Belfast’s black taxis, the bigger bus-type taxis, cyclists, motorcyclists and the emergency services can.

Ciarán de Búrca of the Department for Infrastructure, and Robin Totten of Translink which runs 95 per cent of Northern’s bus and rail services, were expecting such “teething problems” and have appealed for public patience.

They say Glider isn’t just about transportation, and that there is an important social and political dimension to the changes.

That was reflected, said Mr Totten, during the week when some elderly women took trial Glider services from the Falls Road in nationalist and republican west Belfast to Dundonald in predominantly unionist and loyalist east Belfast.

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