TRANSLINK has shelved a plan to cut the number of rail services between Larne and Whitehead.
The temporary reprieve is a victory for the local Use It Or Lose campaign led by the lobbying Larne Line Passenger Group (LLPG), which set out to persuade both the transport company and Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy to maintain present service levels in the hope that modern C4000 trains will persuade more people to make greater use of the railway.
Outgoing member of the Stormont regional development committee Roy Beggs Jnr learned of move when the new public transport programme was released last week.
“Although fares are set to increase by an average of three per cent, the proposal to reduce services between Whitehead and Larne has been put on hold, with Translink continuing to monitor usage now that new trains have been introduced,” explained the East Antrim Ulster Unionist MLA.
“Of course it is disappointing that Translink are planning fare increases, although it must be recognised that there has been no increase in public transport fares for two years despite hikes in fuel costs and inflation,” he added.
Mr Beggs said of the latest proposal on Larne-Whitehead services: “Translink is still working on a new timetable and is continuing to monitor usage. This is very welcome news and should encourage increased use of the excellent new trains which are being rolled out on the Larne line. The Use It Or Lose it campaign is working and must continue.”
A Departmental paper on Translink’s business plans was presented to the committee last Wednesday. The brief given to MLAs stated: “(Translink) confirmed rail services will be maintained or improved on all lines. There will be expansion of services on the following lines: Coleraine to Belfast, Whitehead to Belfast.”
Mr Beggs, who was attending his last DRD committee before joining the Finance and Personnel scrutiny committee commented: “Faced with tight public finances, it is surely better to have modest fare increases rather than cuts to public transport services. I would encourage continued use of the rail option for commuters in the Larne area.
“If you have not used the train for a while, I would urge you to give it a try. The new trains which have come online make the daily commute to work by rail much, much more appealing. At the same time, with the increased costs of petrol, road tax and parking charges, using the train is a far more cost-effective option.”
LLPG chairwoman Elena Aceves-Cully told the Times she was delighted with the decision to postpone the cuts and vowed that the pressure group would continue to push for improvements to be made to services on the Larne line.
She added: “We are very pleased that Translink has taken on board the views of local people, who do not want to see services diminish on the Larne line in any way.
“These cuts were originally due to come into effect last March, but with our lobbying we persuaded Translink to postpone them. The LLPG has been working hard to achieve this and it is great news for local rail users. But we will not rest on our laurels and will strive to ensure that services between Whitehead and are secure in the long-term.”
A fortnight ago, the Times reported that LLPG had submitted a petition to Translink calling on train bosses to provide additional services on the Larne railway line. The petition contained 1,000 signatures and Mrs Aceves-Cully hopes that the rail company will bow to LLPG’s request and implement the changes to coincide with the launch of the new timetable later this year.
Larne Lough Councillor Mark McKinty, who has been an avid supporter of the LLPG campaign, also welcomed Translink’s decision and described the rail link between Whitehead and Larne as “vitally important to domestic users and to businesses”.
However, the UUP representative reiterated that the onus was now East Antrim residents to continue to make use of trains to help secure future services on the Larne line.
He added: “We will only be able to guarantee the long-term survival and investment in our railways if people continue to use them for work, social travel, and if they are marketed effectively for tourists visitors to the region.
“We have been thrown a lifeline and won this battle, but that is not to say Translink could determine sometime in the future the service has got to go. It is now up to everyone who values this essential public transport link to start using it more frequently and indeed up to local politicians and the Government to make sure the service offered meets with customer demands.”
Cllr McKinty also believed that the three per cent hike in Tranlink’s fare prices could potentially result in lower commuter demand.
“I acknowledge there has been no fare increase for the past two years, and the proposed three per cent increase falls well below inflation over that time. However, while we all need to be conscious of the effects of rising operating costs, we also need to keep to the forefront of our minds value for money and wider economic implications at the loss of such a service,” he added.
East Antrim MLA Stewart Dickson felt that the recent LLPG petition had “undoubtedly” influenced Translink’s decision to put the proposed cuts on hold.
He said: “The LLPG’s enthusiasm and positivity has brought great benefits to our area and I want to congratulate its members on their success and for their superb efforts.
“It was a privilege to be involved in the campaign as promoting sustainable public transport is one of my primary goals. Alliance has consistently argued for greater investment in this area and we backed the LLPG’s campaign from the start.
“I encourage them to keep campaigning to increase passenger numbers on the line, which will ultimately shape future decisions made by Translink. I also encourage residents to consider ditching their cars and do as Translink suggests in its current campaign and try the train by making use of the superb new trains now running on the Larne railway line.”