Speaking in an Adjournment debate at Stormont, TUV MLA Jim Allister argued strongly for a new combined bus and rail station and extension of the park & ride facilities.
In the course of his remarks Mr Allister said:-
Mr Allister: It is doubtless that there has been a significant upsurge in the use of public transport that passes through the station, particularly the trains. We now have a regular problem of oversubscription. The fundamental problem is that we have not seen an upgrade in facilities to match the upsurge in use and we are left with facilities that are way below par in meeting need. It is regrettable that that is the case, and it should spur us on to rectifying it as speedily as possible.
One of the suggestions made to me is that part of the reason why there has not been the coordinated push to upgrade a combined centre is because of some foot-dragging and resistance by the management side of Ulsterbus locally. If that is so, it is very regrettable. A combined facility is needed. I trust that, if there is an issue there, it will be dealt with.
Part of the manifestation of the success of the train usage is, of course, the fact that the park-and-ride facility is now beyond saturation point. It is generating other unwelcome local parking problems. I respectfully suggest that the answer lies closer than Cullybackey. There is a significant site on Princes Street that is presently in the form of a scrap yard. It is my understanding that, on commercial negotiation, it would be available to Translink. That would be an ideal means to extend the park-and-ride facility at Ballymena. It is sufficiently close to be viable and is reasonably sizeable in its opportunity. I trust that this is something that might be looked at with regard to meeting, in the relatively short term, the park-and-ride needs that exist.
There are other issues in the station. The Minister will recall that, some time ago, I vexed him with questions about why Translink was reducing staff there and why there was reduction at a time of growth. The number of station staff that there are, particularly at peak times, is something of a problem, as is the lack of services and facilities for users. That is something that Translink embraced in a very shortsighted way without thinking through that, in a rising market, it needed to look at more, not less, provision. That is not helping the customer experience for those who use the trains.
The over-subscription of the trains means that coordinating and getting in place the extra carriages that are often needed is also a problem. I am told by staff at the station that there have been incidents when, although the carriages were produced, even though they have to be brought in the main from Belfast, there was no conductor and the carriages could not be used. A situation can occur where only three carriages are available for passengers who could all but fill six carriages, were they available. Therefore, the overcrowding is substantial and gets worse as the train nears Antrim.
I was told by a conductor that, even this morning, on the 10.00 am service, which is a non-peak service, over 30 people were standing all the way to Belfast, some of whom were going to outpatient appointments at Belfast City Hospital. That is not the sort of facility that we should be offering our public transport users.
There are many things that could be done, but we need a substantial upgrade and a new combined bus and train station. We need a significant increase in the park-and-ride capacity and we need to get to a point where, when we need extra carriages, we can provide them and man them and, therefore, continue to grow the service. I trust that the Minister will take some of those points on board.