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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Shaun Woodward): I congratulate the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) on securing the debate. There may be significantly fewer Members than we would like in the Chamber, but the matter will receive appropriate attention in the broadsheets of Northern Ireland.

I know that the hon. Gentleman has considerable interest and expertise in this subject. That is not least because, as he said himself, he was Minister for Regional
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Development during devolution in Northern Ireland. In that capacity, the hon. Gentleman brought forward the 10-year regional transportation strategy for Northern Ireland, on which I congratulate him. It was, as he said, agreed unanimously by the Northern Ireland Assembly in July 2002.

We continue to welcome all-party agreement wherever we can find it. The hon. Gentleman said that it is Government policy, and he is right. It is still Government policy. The regional transportation strategy presented a range of initiatives. If implemented, those initiatives would make a significant contribution to achieving the longer-term vision for transport that is set out in the regional development strategy 2025. To remind the House, that goal is of a modern, sustainable and safe transportation system which benefits society, the economy and the environment, and which actively contributes to social inclusion and everyone's quality of life.

The hon. Gentleman, as Minister for Regional Development, knew that it was an ambitious strategy. In looking back at the minutes of the regional transportation strategy meeting of June 2002, I see that he noted that the then First Minister had raised questions over the deliverability of the transportation strategy, but felt that it was

The hon. Gentleman pointed out that there would be no great problem if the RTS were achieved in 11 years rather than 10.

I comment on that because, when considering the urgency with which we are asked to address this issue, I remind the hon. Gentleman that at the time he recognised that it was an ambitious strategy, that getting there in the end would be better than not getting there at all, that it might be better to regard the priorities immediately ahead of him as ones that needed to be achieved, and that that was not, for one moment, to put the rapid transit project to one side.

The regional transportation strategy is the basis on which all transportation initiatives are now taken forward. It provides a framework for the development of transport plans which contain detailed programmes of major schemes and transport initiatives. Transport plans link with development plans and provide the region with an integrated approach to transportation and planning. The regional transportation strategy, the hon. Gentleman will remember, identified a requirement for £3.5 billion of expenditure from 2002 to 2012 to    address deficiencies in Northern Ireland's transportation infrastructure and to work towards realising a long-term vision for transport. The regional transportation strategy included an estimate of £100 million to start a rapid transit network for Belfast. That was to be taken forward in the context of the Belfast metropolitan transport plan, which was published last year. The hon. Gentleman suggested that little progress had been made, but I believe that the transport plan demonstrates considerable progress. However—and this is an extremely important point—the regional transportation strategy makes it clear that the level of available funding from public expenditure
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would have to be determined through normal budgetary processes. According to the minutes of the meeting in which he took part in a ministerial capacity in 2002, he pointed out that the funding was not complete and that it would be

Furthermore, commitments to proceed with major schemes cannot be given until, as he will recall, appropriate economic appraisals have been considered and any statutory procedures concluded. I will return to the issue of economic appraisals, which the hon. Gentleman takes seriously. It would be foolish to launch an economic appraisal in the certain knowledge that in the next two or three years there would not be money in the budget to fund the £100 million scheme.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Department for Regional Development published the Belfast metropolitan transport plan last year. It supports the draft Belfast metropolitan area plan published by the Department of the Environment's planning service. The proposals in the transport plan set out the way in which the regional transportation strategy will be implemented in Greater Belfast, and outlines transport schemes and projects until 2015, all of which would be subject to statutory processes and the normal budgetary processes. The Belfast metropolitan transport plan confirmed that rapid transit is a component of a series of proposals to improve public transport in the Belfast metropolitan area. As the plan states, there is a clear requirement to improve the quality of public transport services in the metropolitan area so that there is a modern, integrated and accessible public transport system that extends travel choice for all.

The Government want public transport to be a viable alternative that replaces many journeys currently taken by car, particularly by commuters, and to provide a high standard of transport for people who do not own or have access to a car. The transport proposals in the plan aim to bring about a step change in the quality of public transport services involving the improvement of the commuter rail network, the creation of an extensive network of quality bus corridors, the provision of high-quality park-and-ride facilities in each main transport corridor, and the development of a rapid transit network for the city.

Turning specifically to rapid transit, the Belfast metropolitan transport plan indicates that the pilot stage of a rapid transit network could be implemented by 2015. It confirmed last year that EWAY remains the preferred option for the pilot—a selection that recognises the need to supplement conventional bus services in that transport corridor, which has not had a rail link for decades. The choice was strongly influenced by issues of practicality, as much of the land for the scheme was already in the Department's ownership.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that EWAY emerged from work by Translink in 1998–99, which examined a wide range of transport options for the Newtownards corridor. That work concluded that any future public transport system in the corridor should be bus-based, as forecast levels of demand were not sufficient to justify more expensive rail-based systems, as the hon. Gentleman said. Furthermore, economic analysis showed that the best-performing schemes
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would use the old railway line as a busway, a road or a combination of the two. Those studies contributed to the development of the transport initiatives included in the Belfast metropolitan transport plan.

The hon. Gentleman will remember that work was undertaken at the same time to examine the technical feasibility and costs of EWAY. The preferred option, which emerged from that work, involves building a new road between Quarry Corner and East Link road for both rapid transport and other traffic. A park-and-ride site at Millmount would have access by new link roads to both the Newtownards and Comber catchment areas. For 5 km of the route, the rapid transit system would run along the former Comber railway on a dedicated busway using kerb-guidance technology. The design of that section would also incorporate provision for walking and cycling. Any delays owing to general traffic on the section between Holywood arches and the city centre would be minimised through the implementation of bus priority measures.

I know that many in Belfast wanted a more aspirational transport system such as a tram system or a light rail system like those in Manchester or Sheffield. The hon. Gentleman has recognised that that would be very expensive. Work carried out by Translink and the Department suggests that the type of system that best meets overall objectives is one that uses guided-bus technology. The hon. Gentleman will be familiar with such systems. Indeed, he referred to his exploratory visits to France and Australia when he was Minister for Regional Development. Advances in vehicle design mean that newer vehicles, which make bus-based solutions even more attractive to the travelling public, have come on to the market.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the Secretary of State's visit this week to the constituency of the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley). The Secretary of State took the opportunity to visit the Wright Group, which has developed a suitable vehicle, the streetcar, in Ballymena. That vehicle, which is almost 20 m long, looks like a modern tram, but it is free from the restriction of having to operate only where there are rails on the road. It can carry more than 100 passengers; it is fully wheelchair accessible; it has high quality seating; and it has other facilities such as screens providing passenger information.

The success of the pilot EWAY scheme will dictate the extent of further development of the rapid transit network for Greater Belfast. The Belfast plan identifies three other possible routes, and implementation has been proposed for after 2015. The three routes include a rapid transit route from Belfast city centre to west Belfast, a new route linking Belfast city centre and Belfast City airport through the Titanic quarter of the Harbour estate in the Bangor corridor, and a super route in the Downpatrick corridor.

Moving from the vision to the reality, there has been a steady decline in the number of people travelling on public transport in the Belfast metropolitan area. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the trend began long before the publication of the regional transportation strategy. The good news is that last year the figures began to rise for the first time, but they have still not returned to the baseline level on which the regional transportation strategy targets were based.
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Translink has being working on a programme of change for the future, ensuring that new and better services are provided for more people now. For example, the launch of Metro signalled a radical change in the delivery of bus services in Belfast and Greater Belfast. The Metro network in Belfast is operated by modern, accessible low-floor vehicles. Translink is committed to the ongoing improvement of its Metro network to maximise the performance of its services for its customers, and a second phase of improvements to Metro services is being developed. In the forthcoming months, Translink will undertake a fundamental review of the Metro network in conjunction with the General Consumer Council.

These are early days, but the results are encouraging for the people of Belfast and Greater Belfast. Passenger numbers on Metro have increased by 7 per cent., which represents 27,000 extra passenger journeys every week. In addition, passenger numbers have continued to grow on Translink's Goldline services, which are showing a 16 per cent. increase. Translink is also working hard to deliver better Northern Ireland railway services. The new state-of-the-art trains and the new timetable have increased capacity by up to 50 per cent. on the Portadown-Belfast-Bangor corridor and have attracted new passengers. Ongoing infrastructure improvements at stations and the completion of the Larne line relay will further contribute to this step change in Northern Ireland railway services, which will ultimately deliver significant benefits to passengers in the Belfast metropolitan area and across Northern Ireland.

To that end, Roads Service and Translink are working together to establish a quality bus corridor programme to complement the operation of high-frequency accessible bus services on the Belfast Metro network. Quality bus corridors involve improving traffic management and providing bus lanes to ensure that buses are able to run on time, together with more bus stops, shelters and service information for passengers.

Let me turn to the immediate priorities for my Department. EWAY sits within a 10-year plan. For now, however, it is essential that we make hard choices and decide on the significant priorities that we must set across the whole transportation programme for Northern Ireland. As the hon. Gentleman said, transport investment decisions are crucial to the economic success not only of Belfast and Greater Belfast but of all Northern Ireland. EWAY has a crucial future role for Greater Belfast, but for the moment we still have to set our priorities within the Department.

The successes that we are now seeing in public transport have resulted from these correct priorities being set and continuing to be set in the immediate budgetary processes. Let me give one or two examples. With the Department's support, Translink has completed the purchase of 190 new buses and is being assisted to provide more than 350 vehicles to replace some of its ageing bus fleet at an overall cost of nearly £50 million. Other capital investments include the relay of the Bleach Green to Whitehead rail track at an estimated cost of £25 million, the provision of an £11.4 million train cleaning facility at Fortwilliam to accommodate Northern Ireland Railways' 23 new trains, and budget cover of £11 million to improve bus and railway stations. We have also been able to provide £93 million over the 2004 budget period for the
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development of the core railway network. The budget for the concessionary fares scheme is some £19 million per annum. The scheme provides free and concessionary travel to several categories of people, including children, older people and people with disabilities. That is a recurring and increasing commitment for the Department as more concession pass holders are attracted to use better quality and accessible public transport services.

EWAY is a large, complex and expensive concept, and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, there have been concerns about its immediate affordability. The estimated cost of implementing the pilot EWAY scheme is £96.2 million. The planning cost of the other rapid transit schemes is estimated at several millions more. The implementation of the EWAY proposals, as with all major schemes, will be dependent on, and subject to, detailed economic appraisal, funding availability and statutory processes. Initial and limited economic assessments of the scheme were not conclusive, but indicated that there was a realistic possibility that a bus rapid transit might have a positive net present value.

The future of a rapid transit scheme depends on the budgetary climate at the time, competing priorities, the procurement process used, and perhaps the level of risk that can be transferred to private sector interests. The Strategic Investment Board is fully involved in the consideration of this major infrastructure project. It recently commissioned a report to provide high-level guidance on issues that need to be addressed when considering rapid transit options. The Strategic Investment Board's skills and expertise are being used to advise and assist the Department in identifying private finance opportunities.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the idea of an EWAY transport group. I find that interesting and I believe that we should explore it. At the beginning of his speech, he referred to the importance of all-party consensus on the initiative. If he would like to pursue the idea—I believe that we should do so—perhaps he would consider whether it is possible for him to chair an all-party transport group about it. It would be extremely effective and important for the people who live in Greater Belfast.
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The opportunities for expanding such schemes are obvious. The hon. Gentleman rightly referred to the advantages for the economy in Belfast and it would be a great shame if the skill and expertise that he amassed as Minister for Regional Development were lost. There is a genuine opportunity for him to become involved in that. However, an all-party basis is essential. The hon. Gentleman rightly made a virtue of the fact that he achieved agreement when he was Minister for Regional Development by bringing about cross-party consensus in the Assembly. I believe that, if he were prepared to consider chairing such an all-party transport group, it would be a constructive way forward.

We may wish to consider other proposals. We had explored the scheme in the context of an overall investment of £100 million in one go. I have been discussing with my officials proposals for considering breaking up the scheme into several components. For example, we have been examining the park-and-ride scheme and whether to consult bus companies about its use. We might be able to consider building the Millmount park-and-ride scheme and perhaps find a bus company that was prepared to work with that. If the hon. Gentleman considers chairing an all-party transport group, he will want to examine whether that, among other ideas, is a runner. The idea of building the Millmount park-and-ride scheme as a separate project from the overall scheme should not be lost on the hon. Gentleman. I do not believe that it would be lost on several people who want to commute in Greater Belfast. The scheme has considerable merit.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether it would be possible to introduce more private sector money. We have explored that and we will continue to do so. We are in some consultation with bus companies about the extent to which they would consider being involved in putting up preparatory moneys to explore the matter.

There is no doubt about the merit of EWAY for Belfast, Greater Belfast and Northern Ireland. In the compass of the Belfast metropolitan transport plan, I hope that EWAY becomes a reality by 2015. I can think of no finer individual than the hon. Gentleman to help us to ensure that, with all-party consensus, it is achieved.

Question put and agreed to.

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