PASSENGER numbers increased by 200,000 on the once-threatened Larne Line in the past year, leading to a call for longer trains.
Transport Minister Danny Kennedy welcomed the 2.1 million passenger journeys, up from 1.9 million last year - a view echoed by his Ulster Unionist colleague, Roy Beggs Jnr, but he also warned that Translink may be in danger of becoming a victim of its own success.
Responding to a question on passenger use from the East Antrim MLA, Mr Kennedy told the Assembly: “A total of 2,119,960 passenger journeys were made on the Larne railway line up to the middle of February this year, compared to 1,923,416 in 2011/12. This is a significant increase and these figures are evidence of the quality and choice that public transport offers to the travelling public.
“Statistics show that Translink has experienced a significant increase in passenger journeys on its rail and bus services across Northern Ireland. We have invested heavily in buying new buses and trains to make public transport a more attractive proposition for the public. I am pleased to see that this is paying off, with more and more opting to use train and buses when planning their journeys.”
Mr Beggs commended the “significant increase” in Larne Line users, and went on to suggest that Translink should move swiftly to increase the use of six-car train sets on express services, to accommodate more customers.
He credited Mr Kennedy for the change for the better after years of under-investment in public transport, adding: “The new trains and facilities on the Larne line have led to a significant increase in passenger numbers using the railway line. Figures given to me as an answer to a question I placed in the Assembly show that the latest monthly passenger numbers for the Larne line have increased by nearly 21,000 compared to the equivalent time period just one year ago.
“I always said: ‘Provide the service and the passengers will return’, and so it has proved.”
However, Mr Beggs also cautioned: ““Ironically, with the increase in rail passenger numbers, Translink could become victims of their own success.
“I am getting reports from constituents of there being standing room only on some peak services. Therefore, in light of the newly published passenger figures, and the platform extension programme at stations along the Larne Line, I am calling on Translink to move swiftly to introduce six-car sets to increase capacity on peak network services.”
The introduction of modern, reliable and comfortable C4000 trains has transformed rail travel on the Larne Line in the past year and is encouraging more people to get on board. However, there are still concerns that not enough Larne people are using the service, with services between Larne and Whitehead cut late last year.
Larne Line Passenger Group (LLPG) is lobbying Larne Borough Council to do more to promote rail, but the council itself suffered a reversal recently when its call for a platform extension at Larne harbour to facilitate rail freight was rejected by both Translink and the Port of Larne, who said there was no demand this side of the Irish Sea.
Meanwhile, both the Council and LLPG are pressing for a park ‘n’ ride facility at Ballycarry station. Roads Service has told the council it only builds such facilities to promote bus journeys, indicating that their next stop should be at Translink’s door.