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In other news, Colin Town Centre transport hub - the only bit of BRT infrastructure not yet finished - is due to be completed this month. Translink and DFI have long talked about a possible "phase 2" of Gliderwhich would see Glider extended north to Glengormley and south along the Ormeau Road, perhaps to Cairnshill. Such a development is, of course, very dependent on phase 1 being a success and so that is a key thing to determine first. If work were to begin in phase 2 could be open during in a best-case scenario.
It has been a month since the last update and there have been a lot of developments, which I shall mention in chronological order. Firstly, the Titanic Quarter controversy.
The bus lanes on Queens Road and Sydenham Road in Titanic Quarter became operational on 13 August and it was immediately clear that there were issues. It caused considerable tailbacks which not only generated a lot of unwelcome publicity right before the launch of Glider, but caused excessive delays to other traffic journey times that had been 5 minutes became 30 to 60 minutes long.
At one point Translink even stopped running buses to Titanic Quarter because the buses could not get through the traffic. DFI tried various modifications to traffic signals, but eventually decided to deactivate the bus lane on 21 August. It is telling that this application was submitted for planning approval on 23 Julyie a month before the bus lane became operational.
This implies that DFI were aware that the new bus lane might have this effect, but probably decided to go live anyway on the principle that you "might as well try". There is some talk that the bus lanes were planned using traffic data from several years ago, whereas TQ has experienced considerable growth in that time.
In any case, I'd expect the bus lanes to come back in due course, hopefully without these impacts. Secondly, Glider as it is branded, became operational on Monday 3 September.
There was a lot of fanfare in the first week with lots of events and publicity. DFI did a good job on making people aware of how to use Glider, with assistants available at every stop in the first week, videos online and a well-attended Twitter feed for questions.
There were also bun giveaways,and everyone who used Glider on the first day got a souvenir "first day" ticket. Some photos taken during the stakeholders' launch at City Hall on 31 August are below. Thirdly, the Glider has now had two weeks of operation. I have perviously said that something of this scale it will inevitably have teething issues, and that we need to give the system two to three months before drawing meaningful conclusions.
So what I list below are "teething issues", of which there have unfortunately been several. It is definitely much too soon to write the system off and so I would again urge everyone to give it until, say, Hallowe'en to give DFI a chance to tackle the issues. I have been keeping an eye on Twitter and it should be said that there has been a lot positive said about Glider. I have seen qutie a few people saying that they've tried it and love it, praising the vehicle and the wifi and charging ports and saying that they will use it again.
Even the bus lanes - outside Titanic Quarter, and one school on the Falls Road anyway - have not really generated much negative comment. The main criticisms levelled so far have been: From what I can tell, then, the vehicles themselves seem to be generally a hit, the bus lanes are relatively OK but the key teething issue is that the public are not finding the service "reliable". The indications are that there are an insufficient number of Glider vehicles and that the timetable is overly optimistic.
DFI are, I am sure, aware of this and will be planning ways to alleviate it. Purchasing more Glider vehicles is one option, though they would take a while to deliver and this would depend on somehow finding more cash, tricky without an Executive. Another option - which they are already doing - is to direct more Gliders out to the termini during the morning peak, by using the Sydenham Bypass on the eastern section. Failing that, a third option would be to put some standard Metro buses on to serve the Glider routes they could even paint them purple.
There's no practical reason why this could not work, due to the off-board ticketing, but it would be a compromise since the iconic vehicles are one of the system's selling points. Glider is a genuine attempt to do something new. Given all the work that has gone into it to date, I think the system deserves to be persevered with in an effort to iron out these difficulties. DFI will have a busy few weeks!
Scene on board one of the first Glider runs, 31 August The project is now in its final weeks, and the bus lanes have finally gone live. This was probably one of the riskiest moments for the whole project as it was the moment that the travelling public finally face the reality of long, 12 hour bus lanes they will generally operate from 7am to 7pm Monday to Saturday. The bus lanes on EWay east Belfast went live on 30 July, again with a grace period that has just ended.
The bus lanes in the city centre and Titanic Quarter will become operational tomorrow, 13 August. The launch in west Belfast went well, with not an excessive amount of negative feedback and similarly in east Belfast. However, there has been more negative feedback about the Titanic Quarter lanes even before they went live with complaints about very long queues there, so this is one area where DFI will probably need to do some investigation and tweaking.
As schools will go back either that day or the Friday before, this is a second danger point for DFI as traffic will be returning after the summer lull. It is a genuine attempt to do something better with a limited budget, and as with all major schemes it will inevitably have teething issues and will not be perfect. It also involves a change in focus of transport in the city after 50 years of focusing mostly on cars, and that too will be a big transition.
I suggest that we give the system 12 weeks to bed-in before drawing meaningful conclusions about it. DFI themselves have also promised a full review after 12 months of operation. And if you do have cause to travel along any of the routes, give it a go and see what you think! As this is a sensible question, I asked someone in DFI and they said that enforcement would focus on people actually driving down the bus lane, or parking in it, but that someone who nips into the bus lane merely to pass a vehicle turning right, and immediately leaves again, would not be penalised.
My understanding is that provided you clearly only enter the bus lane for that specific purpose, and provided you are in the bus lane for less than ten seconds, you should be OK. I realised tonight that I have not updated this page for three months, which was not intentional! A lot has been going on on Glider - the brand name for BRT.
The scheme is due to open in a matter of weeks currently the word on the street is that it will be the second or third week of September and progress does seem to be matching this timescale. On the EWAY the works have reached Dundonald, probably the most disruptive part of the works, creating heavy congestion at peak times. Work in the village will continue through July but should be completed during August. Meanwhile on WWAY, the schemes on the Falls Road and Stewartstown Road are both almost completed and should be finished this month, as should the works in the city centre and Titanic Quarter.
The Colin Town Centre Transport Hub is under construction but will not be finished for the launch of Glider, instead due to be completed in November. Many road users will have spotted the Glider halts which are almost all in place now, and I include two photos below.
They look very well. The Glider vehicles are mostly delivered, and many will have seen them out and about being tested and drivers trained. It's possible they may have to lose their nice wheel covers due to regulations, but hopefully that will be the limit of any issues.
This video shows you more. Since the launch of Glider will undoubtedly create traffic disruption, especially in the early months as it beds in, two things are vital to its success - one is public information, and the second is enforcement of the bus lanes. DFI is working admirably on the first, with a very active Glider Twitter feed and an ambitious sequence of public information events designed to make the public aware of what is coming, how to use it and the advantages that it will offer.
These events are happening now, so for the latest information look at this page. One thing that would be great to see online is a map showing the location and names of the actual Glider halts. As concerns enforcement, my own view is that the current level of enforcement of bus lanes in the city is very inadequate, with the white bus lane car doing a good job but is limited by being only one vehicle.
Journey time is critical to the success of Glider, and so I think ramping up enforcement significantly is critical to its success and acceptance by the travelling public. Finally, I would say that "yes, it's a bus" as I am regularly told. Nor is it perfect. But it's still the most serious and ambitious attempt to improve public transport in the city since World War Two and I really do think it deserves to be given a decent chance.
I would encourage people, therefore, not to be too cynical about the whole thing until we've given it a few months.
It is rather reminiscent of the Luas ticketing system in Dublin. The scheme is now just 6 months away from opening, and the final pieces of the jigsaw do seem to be falling into place.
DfI Roads current tenders | Department for Infrastructure
DFI say that the halts needed for the scheme are being built at a rate of 3 per week since at least the end of Four components of the bus lanes are still under construction, with all due to be completed by June or July, plus the Colin Town Centre Hub whose completion date has been pushed back slightly to August The two photographs below were taken on the Upper Newtownards Road section of BRT the focus on this stretch is because it is the only bit that I drive regularly!
On this stretch works began at the A55 Outer Ring junction in June last year and have been working their way east, and have recently reached the Ulster Hospital. Presumably the next 3 months will see work adance through Dundonald village to the terminus at the Dunlady Road park-and-ride.
More substantial work to build dedicated right-turn lanes at Stoney Road and Comber Road is ongoing, but the latter is causing considerable delays as the existing road has been reduced to one lane, meaning that even a single vehicle waiting to turn right blocks the entire eastbound A The situation would greatly benefit from a basic timing adjustment to give a longer right-turn sequence to countrybound traffic in the evening rush hour.
Hopefully this situation will not remain for long. Legal orders to bring the new bus lanes into effect still need to be passed, but as of two weeks ago clamp-and-tow finally came into effect. So from now on, a vehicle parked in a Clearway or bus lane risks having it towed away and clamped.
Belfast Rapid Transit works on the Upper Newtownards Road at the Comber Road junction, viewed citybound, where a right-turn pocket is being created. At the mintue it is leading to lengthy delays in the rush hour. The widening works have been completed here and the road resurfaced.
The kerb on the left is interesting - this appears to be a site for a future halt which hasn't yet been built but the higher kerb shown seems to be intended to make it easier to get onto the Glider vehicles. I have included several of these photos further up this page.
Most notably, it has been revealed that the vehicles will be branded "Glider", presumably instead of the working title "Belfast Rapid Transit". So this means that you will talk about "getting the Glider into the city" rather than "getting the BRT", which rolls off the tongue more easily. There has been some talk on social media about why DFI seem so keen not to call the vehicles "buses" when that is essentially what they are.
I think the reason is that Glider legitimally sits between the categories 'bus' and 'tram', having features of both. It is a 'bus' in the sense that it is a road vehicle with tyres operating on asphalt roads.
However, it operates more like a 'tram' in terms of the level of service - fewer stops of a higher-standard and off-board ticketing are more typically associated with trams.
DFI are keen to ensure the public understand that this is a higher level of service than you get on a typical bus, and are hence avoiding the term — I think there are sound reasons for doing so.
The press release gives more information on the features: Each Glider vehicle will carry passengers and will feature real time passenger information, audio next stop and destination announcements, CCTV, free Wi-Fi, USB charging facilities and air conditioning".
In other news, construction of the Glider halts is now underway - I regularly drive on the Upper Newtownards Road and have seen a number underway or completed.
The same may be true on other parts of the route. So I think it's a case of "as you were". As predicted in the previous update, the Minister announced his intention to proceed with the York Street Interchange scheme on 15 November, though I have not had a chance to update the site until now. Four things were published on this date. Firstly, there is Inspector's report of the public inquiry which was held in November The inspector has basically recommended that the scheme proceed in its current form, with only minor tweaks, ie as a series of underpasses creating freeflow links on all four movements between Westlink and the M2 and Westlink and the M3.
DfI Roads future tenders
You can download the Inspector's report from this page. Secondly, the Departmental Statement was also published.How to Use Tinder (For Complete Beginners)
This is the DFI's official response to the Inspector's report, and sets out their reaction to each of the inspectors' recommendations. The Departmental Statement can also be downloaded from this page. Thirdly, the Notice to Proceed basically sets out formally that they intend to move towards construction. And finally, the Designation Order is a legal document needed to give TransportNI permission to build new sections of trunk road.
This is all well and good, but the one thing missing from the equation is the money needed to build it, and therefore also any timetable for construction. The procurement process is technically underway, but currently on hold. The decision to put the tender award on hold resulted in a lot of debate in October, most notably in the Assembly in late where you can see a range of written questions on the subject. The Minister clarified his position on 20 October in a press release and it worth quoting him at length: Unlike structural funds, this is a highly competitive funding programme with member states required to submit applications as part of a formal bidding process.
This is implemented by a series of calls for funding. The next call for major projects is anticipated for early As a result, the funding stream for this project goes beyond the timeframe set by the chancellor [who guaranteed to cover EU funding up to the date of the UK's departure from the EU].
To clarify the position on procurement of the York Street project specifically, the bidding exercise has now been extended so procurement decisions can be made in line with future funding allocations. So the position of the Minister is that the scheme will go ahead, but that the earliest possible date to apply or EU funding is early That may well be true, and I have no reason to doubt the Minister, but something doesn't quite add up in my head here.
On 15 March the then-DRD Minister Michelle McIlveen released a press release announcing the start of the procurement process and stating that "Construction is programmed to commence late in and be completed by the end of ".
This press release has mysteriously vanished from the Executive press release archive but it was reported by the BBC the next day. Both the above press release and folks I spoke to in TransportNI in this period seemed to be working on the assumption that it would begin in late and that there would be EU funding. However, the new DFI Minister is now quite clear that the earliest possible date to even apply for EU funding is early If that is true, then commencement in late was surely never on the cards?
So I continue to hold the view that there is something more going on here than the mere availability of funding. Time will surely tell. Yesterday TransportNI issued their updated "procurement plan" for the current financial year. This document is mainly for the benefit of contractors and allows us to see what contracts have been awarded, are to be awarded and which are yet to go to tender. The tender process for this scheme is currently underway and has been since March when the proper tender process began but tellingly, York Street Interchange is listed in the procurement plan "on hold", the only scheme in the list to say this.
This is yet another indication that the timescale of this scheme is now much less certain. This evening InfrastructureNI tweeted the clarification: Until then, procurement on hold".
The former, likely influenced by the latter to some extent, is the likely reason for the tender process now being put "on hold". TransportNI had previously said they wanted the scheme to go to ground in Autumnand this seems unlikely now. That said, the scheme has not been cancelled, merely delayed. The tweet by InfrastructureNI is correct that there is to be a budget announcement sometime later in the autumn which could potentially release additional funds for York Street Interchange.
So if those two stars align the scheme could still go ahead. However, my expectation is that the Minister will announce before too long that he has decided to proceed with the scheme, but on a longer timeframe than hitherto anticpated. After my rather pessimistic assessment last week see previous update below there was some welcome positive news for this scheme this week. The UK government has extended its guarantee to cover any EU funds lost as a result of Brexit from those offered up to the Autumn Statement this year until those offered up to the date of the UK's final departure from the European Union, which we know is at least two years way.
So that removes a bit of uncertainty from the funding side of things. This does not necessarily mean that TransportNI actually have to BUILD it in that timeframe though we may have to have started it but provided we have the offer then it ought to be covered. So this does seem to add some concrete to the scheme - if you can excuse the pun - though still doesn't allow us to conclude much about when it might actually happen.
The Finance Minister is due to make funding announcements in the next few weeks which will allow the Infrastructure Minister to make more solid plans. He went on to say "I plan to make an announcement with regard to the Public Inquiry within the next few weeks and this will inform the progress towards construction for this project".
Now this scheme is currently out to tender and TransportNI have previously indicated that they want to be in a position to begin construction in just over a year's time, in late And although the tender process is underway it's vital to understand that the Executive has currently given NO funding to allow York Street Interchange to proceed to construction.
Because my feeling is still that the Minister does not want to commit any funds to this scheme before he funds schemes on the A5 and A6, in my view the "announcement" is going to be publication of the Inspector's Report and the Departmental Statement, plus a well-publicised decision to proceed, but nothing more, ie no funding and no actual commencement of construction.
So expect a press release that says something like "Minister decides to proceed with York Street Interchange" but is vague on when this will happen.
This update is to put in writing something that I have suspected since the election, namely that the future of this scheme is looking very shakey. Given that I have long had the impression that this scheme is regarded as the highest priority scheme amongst TransportNI engineers - and is in fact out to tender as we speak, with commencement of construction said to be just over a year away - this would be quite a turnaround.
There are two reasons for me thinking the future of the scheme is shakey. The DfI Minister, Chris Hazzard, said in an interview in the Irish News last week "There is no doubt that some of the projects that this department and myself would have been looking at [primarily York St Interchange] would involve additional funds from Europe. These are the challenges we face over the months and years ahead if we want to move on and develop our infrastructure — how are we going to make up the funding gap?
I am also getting the distinct impression that the new DfI Minister is lukewarm on York Street interchange anyway. I first noted this in my blog before the EU vote, where I observed that it was really strange that Mr Hazzard's list of upcoming schemes did not even mention York Street, given that it was one of the highest profile schemes in development.
His tendency to say little or nothing about York Street has continued since then, contrasting sharply with Danny Kennedy's comparative enthusiasm. Why might the Minister not be keen on York Street interchange? Well, in June he issued a press release that explicitly said that his priority would be "to deliver infrastructure projects to connect people and address the infrastructure deficit west of the Bann", which he explained meant upgrades of the A5 and A6.
He went on to say that "Construction of the first phase of the A5 Western Transport Corridor, from Newbuildings to north of Strabane, is due to begin in However, I am currently looking at how funding could be increased to expedite delivery of the A5 scheme" emphasis mine.
My theory - and it is just a theory - is that Minister has nothing against York Street in principle, but he wants to throw all the resources TransportNI have at the A5 and A6 and get as much of those upgraded before any more road upgrades take place in Belfast.
I doubt very much that the senior engineers would agree with this approach, but the Minister is the boss, and rightly so because he is an elected public representative. And that, if this is indeed his plan, the Brexit vote will have made his job in selling such a decision to the road-using public much easier. So I am going to go out on a limb here and say that in my view there is very little chance of York Street interchange actually getting underway in late as stated by TransportNI in March and that it could, in fact, be delayed by several years beyond then.
Just before the pre-election purdah period began, the DRD Minister released a press release on 15 March announcing "the start of a tender process to appoint a contractor" for this scheme.
Actually the tender "process" has been underway since November when the pre-tender phase began, during which contractors are allowed to express interest in tendering. Once that's completed, it enters a second phase where selected contractors them submit their tenders.
Presumably the press release was indicating that the second of these phases had begun. This will depend on the outcome of the public inquiry that took place last autumn, though I think it's very unlikely that they'll not proceed at this stage given how much of a priority it has within the DRD and almost universal support across the mainstream political spectrum.
The contract for the second phase of the project, construction, is then due to be awarded in July and will involve detailed design and then construction of the junction. The press release also states that "construction is programmed to commence late in and be completed by the end of ".
This is true, but the key missing piece in the jigsaw is funding - which the Executive has not yet granted. Without this, the scheme's "programmed" commencement date doesn't mean anything, so we would need to see some announcement on this within the next 18 months for this to happen.
The Minister was more explicit on this point when she answered a question on the subject in the Assembly on the same date: The development and construction of the scheme to the programme that I outlined is very dependent on the availability of finance. A full economic business case will have to be approved by the Department of Finance and Personnel before any commitments can be given to start construction.
She said that the scheme "is one of very few schemes to be pre-identified for future [EU] funding. The proposed construction programme of November to December aligns the funding profile expected for the next call.
DfI Roads current tenders
Therefore, the scheme will be in a pretty good place to have a good strong bid. Officials have successfully negotiated for the interchange's inclusion as a pre-identified project in the corridor work plan. The DRD will now examine the report and decide if they are going to change anything in their plans as a result.
Once this work is done they will publish the Inspector's Report and their response the "Departmental Statement" simultaneously. The Written Answer suggests this will happen in "spring ", ie within the next four months. This is very quick indeed by contrast the DRD has still not published these documents for the A6 Derry-Dungiven scheme despite having had the Inspector's Report for almost three years and proves that this scheme is indeed a very high priority within the DRD.
She added that the aim was "beginning construction toward the end of " adding that "this programme dovetails with the requirements for EU funding". There is currently no funding for the scheme despite these positive words. Meanwhile, work is well underway on the preparatory "York Street Interchange Advanced Works - Storm Chamber" project which is underway adjacent to the M3 flyover. It involves the construction of underground wastewater infrastructure within the York Street junction that will ultimately be used to take rainwater away from the completed junction.
The image below was taken yesterday about here and shows the top of a vertical shaft in a car park under the M3 flyover. I don't think this is the storm chamber itself, but rather an access shaft that the contractor, Terra Solutions, is currently using to carry out their work underground. The work is being carried out using "trenchless" technology, which presumably means they don't need to dig up the entire length of the pipework.
The top of a vertical shaft that has been constructed for the "York Street Interchange Advanced Works - Storm Chamber" project that is currently underway in and around the M3 flyover. Taken 10 Feb [Wesley Johnston]. The tender process to appoint a contractor to build York Street Interchange is currently underway.
The first phase to create a shortlist of contractors that will go on to phase 2 ended on 12 January but phase 2 will take place out of the public eye.
These things take quite a while, so I don't expect to hear of a contractor being appointed until maybe mid I'm not anticipating any difficulties in that regard. The second reference, to "necessary funding being made available" is a much bigger "if". Funding allocations for the next five years were unveiled by the Executive on 17 December made no allocations at all for York Street interchange for the period up to That does not rule out money being made available - the 17 December allocations were not the ONLY money that can be made available for roads in the next five years, so there is still hope that some money will come through for York Street Interchange in that period.
In its favour is the fact that this scheme will likely benefit from EU money to quite a significant degree - assuming there isn't a Brexit in the meantime of course! With a three year construction period, that means the earliest possible completion date with everything going like clockwork would be mid The next two things to look out for are 1 the Inspector completing his report of the public inquiry which will not be published until a later date however and 2 the appointment of a contractor.
In the update in September below I noted that the DRD was issuing a tender for a project called "York Street Interchange Advanced Works - Storm Chamber", which appears to involve the construction of an underground drainage chamber adjacent to the M3 viaduct. To be clear, although this appears to be required to facilitate the York Street Interchange project, it's not part of the main construction tender which has only just commenced.
A "storm chamber" is usually a large underground chamber designed to hold water running off a road or other surface in the event of high rainfall to prevent it overwhelming local water infrastructure. I do know also that an arrangement has been reached with NI Water that the drainage infrastructure to be built as part of the York Street Interchange will also take runoff from surrounding land too.
So the contract might be related to this. Terra Solutions are a Newry-based firm specialising in trenchless civil engineering work. We will probably see evidence of this work taking place within the York Street interchange area over the coming months.
The Public Inquiry has now ended, after lasting three days approximately one week, plus some site visits. I managed to attend a couple of hours of the Inquiry out of personal interest - it was quite a lively affair, and the transcript will make for interesting reading in future years. Two alternative proposals were put forward to the Inspector, both claiming to offer fewer impacts on the local area, which the Inspector will now consider along with the more specific objections.
Meanwhile, some exciting news - the initial phase of the construction tender for the scheme commenced yesterday. This is a two-phase process to appoint a contractor. This first phase, which closes on 12 Januaryis to allow contractors to express interest in tendering for the scheme.
Those who appear to be credible enough to carry out the work will then be invited to submit their actual tender. This second phase will be done out of public view, so after 12 January we will hear nothing more until the announcement that a contractor has been appointed, sometime later in The "contract duration" is given as 53 months, which is about four and a half years.
Since we know actual construction will only take about three years, this presumably also incorporates the advanced design phase. A few points need to be stressed here.
Firstly, this does not in any way prejudge the public inquiry - contracts like this are always worded in such a way that there is a break between the completion of design and actual construction, so if the Executive or the DRD decide not to proceed to construction, there is no contractual problem. Secondly, even if a contractor is appointed, construction will not take place until the Executive funds the scheme.
So it's possible that - like has happened on the A6 from Randalstown to Castledawson - that the contractor could be appointed but no work actually take place on the ground.
The DRD seem to be keen to begin work on the ground within 12 months - it remains to be seen whether the Executive will provide funding to permit this. Given the large scale of this project and the number of issues it raises I would expect it to last for a number of days.
It remains to be seen whether it will attract much media interest.