Electrifying Translink

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The first of Translink’s latest delivery of electric buses was handed over on 30 May at the Wrightbus factory in Ballymena. JONATHAN WELCH

Translink has started taking delivery of its latest batch of 100 Wrightbus electric buses for Metro, Foyle Metro and Ulsterbus routes, reports Jonathan Welch

When talking about major operators in the UK, it’s easy to think of the big groups, or maybe Transport for London or Transport for Greater Manchester and forget to look across the Irish sea to Northern Ireland’s Translink, the trading name of the Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company. The publicly-owned corporation operates bus and rail services, including Belfast’s Metro-branded city services which wear a pink version of its corporate livery, Foyle Metro services in the city of Derry~Londonderry, which carry a red livery, and blue-coloured Ulsterbus services which cover the remainder of the country. Translink also operates Northern Irish rail services, as well as Goldliner-branded regional express coaches.

Translink is a large operation: its buses and trains facilitate over 1.5m passenger journeys per week on around 12,500 services operated by a fleet of 1,400 coaches, buses and trains. Between them, they cover some 44 million miles per year, supported by around 3,800 members of staff. The operator has already begun its zero-emission journey, and has both electric and hydrogen buses in service. By June 2023, it celebrated 1.5 million miles of emission-free bus travel in Belfast, helping towards its target of a net-zero fleet by 2040.

With over 100 zero-emission vehicles in service by that date, Translink currently has around 150 zero-emission buses in

its fleet. It is continuing to take delivery of more, including building on its a city-wide bus renewal project for Foyle Metro services in Derry~Londonderry, making it among the first cities in the UK and Ireland to operate a fully zero-emission urban bus service.

The majority of the delivery will be for Ulsterbus and Metro, but five are destined for Foyle Metro services in Derry~Londonderry. JONATHAN WELCH

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Locally-built buses

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the zero-emission fleet is being supplied by local manufacturer Wrightbus, based in Ballymena. The Wrightbus factory was the location for the formal launch of the latest batch of 100 new electric buses on 30 May, which included the first electric double-deckers for the Ulsterbus operation which is receiving a mixed fleet of 40 double- and single-deck electric buses for use in Derry~Londonderry, Limavady, Strabane, Coleraine and Portadown. The remaining 60 will join Belfast’s Metro fleet, taking it to 50% zero-emission vehicles.

The launch event was attended by Northern Ireland’s Infrastructure Minister John O’Dowd, Chief Executive of Translink Chris Conway and Wrightbus Chief Executive Jean-Marc Gales. Funded by the Northern Irish Department for Infrastructure, Translink says its new buses will improve the passenger experience and meet enhanced accessibility standards with digital audio-visual next stop announcements.

Speaking at the launch, Translink Group Chief Executive Chris Conway said: “These are exciting times with our zero-emission fleet set to transform bus travel across Northern Ireland, helping to attract more people to stay better connected by bus. We are proud to play our part in delivering a cleaner, greener and more sustainable society.

“We have ambitious plans to be climate positive by 2050 and the roll out of these buses is another huge milestone in our journey to achieve this. We have collaborated with Wrightbus and a range of stakeholders including energy suppliers, other vehicle manufacturers and universities to develop the region as a centre of excellence for zero-emission technology supporting the local green economy and creating new jobs.”

Wrightbus Chief Executive Jean-Marc Gales with Northern Ireland’s Infrastructure Minister John O’Dowd and Translink CEO Chris Conway chat before taking part in television interviews. JONATHAN WELCH

Benefits for the economy

Wrightbus Chief Executive Jean-Marc Gales added: “Wrightbus has worked closely with Translink on the development of these buses reducing carbon emissions in Northern Ireland, helping attract more people to travel by public transport. Together we have created market leading technology which is now sought the world over supporting the region’s manufacturing sector creating and sustaining highly skilled green jobs.

“We are honoured today to have Translink and Minister O’Dowd with us, and to be delivering 100 buses. You don’t do that every day, so we are very honoured and it is a fantastic day for all of us. This is massively important for jobs. A year ago we had 900 people and now we have around 1,800 highly-skilled green jobs that contribute to the local economy.

“It’s not only the 1,800 jobs we have in Ballymena working for Wrightbus, it’s also that every single job in Wrightbus creates another three jobs in the supply chain within local communities. We have 20% decarbonisation of the bus fleet for Translink and we are hoping to go up to 100% with them by 2040.

“There are many more steps to follow there. We believe that buses are the most straightforward way of decarbonising the environment. One electric bus eliminates 40,000 litres of diesel per year that a diesel bus emits. It’s the fastest way to de-carbonise.”

Fleet split

The new buses for Foyle Metro services consist of one double-decker and four single-deckers, adding to the 38 electric buses delivered there in May 2023. Meahwhile, Ulsterbus is receiving three double-deck and two single-deck buses for services in Derry~Londonderry, six of each type for services in Coleraine, and 12 double-deck and six single-deck buses for routes in Craigavon where they will be the first such buses to enter service, once the installation of charging Infrastructure is completed in the autumn. Three single-deckers from the Metro delivery will be dedicated to Airport Express service 600 to George Best Belfast City Airport, which is currently operated by Optare Versas, whilst the remaining 57 double-deck vehicles for Metro will be delivered in 2025. In total, the latest order includes 79 double-deck Wrightbus Electroliners and 21 Wrightbus GB Kite Electoliner single-deckers. As well as making 50% of the Metro fleet zero-emission, the new Ulsterbus vehicles will account for around 20% of that operator’s fleet.

Speaking about the challenges of getting the infrastructure in place to support the new fleet, Chris added: “It’s something we’ve become very proficient at now. We’ve been doing this for over five years. We’re lucky in that we’re an integrated company with bus and rail, so we have a team in place which can help us with the infrastructure. We use Chargepoint as a charging infrastructure supplier. It’s important to have really good partners. The days when you could just go and buy a bus are gone. You need to have strong partnerships with infrastructure providers.”

He added that adding more hydrogen buses to the fleet isn’t being ruled out for the future, though it may be further down the line.

Guests at the launch event were treated to a tour of the factory, which is currently producing buses for, among others, the city of Oxford and London operator Metroline, as well as Translink and Transport for Ireland.

‘Smile for the camera’; Wrightbus CEO Jean-Marc Gales speaks to Northern Irish Infrastructure Minister John O’Dowd at the launch. JONATHAN WELCH