As someone with a bus stop outside my home in east Belfast I have a vested interest in the future of public transport in the city.
Despite living next to a halt – or perhaps because of it – I regularly vent my frustration at not being able to find enough change for my bus fare, leaving the house just as a bus is driving past, or the age-old problem of waiting ages for a bus only for three to turn up at once.
It is welcome news that a large investment has been made in public transport in some key areas of the city with the £90m introduction of the Glider buses, which will be launched officially on Monday.
I was able to hop on one of the new Gliders and make a journey across Belfast from east to west. The Titanic Quarter is also served by the new transport system, but I will save that for another day.
The pay-in-advance ticketing system should mean the ‘bendy’ buses with room for 105 passengers will only make an extremely brief stop at a halt. Those who have not paid before boarding are liable to a £50 fine.
Passengers can pay for their journey in advance using cash or card, or by topping up their smartcard (old cards can still be used on the new system). Journeys can also be paid for remotely via the Translink website and tickets picked up at the relevant halt.
What this means is that when the bus pulls up passengers will be able to enter via three doors and have their tickets checked by a conductor when they’ve taken their seats. The system aims to eliminate bus stop queues and – much like the train model – leaves the drivers to do the driving while a conductor looks after ticketing.
As for the Glider bus itself, it does cut a rather impressive shape as it pulls up to the halt.
The interior continues the purple theme (violet according to Translink), and despite using such a bold colour the overall look is one of elegance.
As the Glider departed from Lanyon Place (formerly Central Station) there was nothing to report. And I mean that in the best possible way.
The take off could not have been smoother, which was a blessed relief coming from someone used to being jolted forward upon acceleration in some of the older models of NI buses.
The fleet of eco-hybrid Gliders along with a previous £5m investment in the city’s Metro buses to meet Euro VI emission standards, means Belfast has a fleet of the most fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly buses in the Province.
So how much will we have to pay to use the new system?
The good news is the Glider will cost no more than the current fares.
Early indications are that journey times will be reduced as the bus lanes will only be available to bus and coach operators, public-hire taxis and bikes.
However, it would be ignoring the elephant in the room not to mention the single biggest issue people have with buses – when they don’t turn up on time.
Even if the new system brings with it faster buses, smoother journeys and speeds up ticketing issues – which it clearly has the potential to do – it will be irrelevant if people are left waiting at a state-of-the-art halt for a state-of-the-art bus that never arrives.
To this end, I think the ultra-modern set-up that Translink have in place will help in cases where a bus is running a few minutes late.
I’ve never been one to trust a timetable so the digital displays which inform you of the progress of your bus along with weather and news updates will be both a welcome addition and distraction.
The fact that Gliders will be running every six to eight minutes at peak times along these key routes in Belfast will be an incredibly welcome frequency if it can be sustained.
As ever, though, events beyond anyone’s control can often lead to traffic chaos, for example Tuesday’s rerouting of traffic around the city due to the fire at Primark.
There is no doubt there will be gripes and teething issues as the buses bed in, but the overall vision is one based on boosting connectivity and helping the environment.
I never thought I would be singing the praises of a public transport system, but the Gliders are something the people of Belfast and beyond can take real pride in.
Just as London has its red double deckers and New York its yellow taxis, Belfast’s bendy purple buses could well become iconic.