Posted by: wesleyjohnston | July 25, 2014

Farewell Roads Service

Those with any interest in transport in Northern Ireland cannot fail to have noticed the term “TransportNI” cropping up more and more often over the past year. What’s this about?

Currently the Department for Regional Development (DRD) is responsible for various things, including strategic planning, the road network, public transport, water and sewage services. Maintenance and enhancement of the road network has fallen to a body called Roads Service since control of the road network was centralised in 1973. Before 1973 numerous local councils were largely responsible for roads. Roads Service is the DRD’s dominant function, constituting over 80% of DRD employees.

In April 2013 there was a fairly low-profile statement by the DRD Minister Danny Kennedy. He said:

I have agreed that in line with a number of other jurisdictions, there should be a single organisation within my Department responsible for the delivery of roads functions and securing public transport services.

In other words, it was felt that the planning and running of the “roads” functions by Roads Service were not sufficiently linked to the provision of public transport services, currently under the auspices of the less-well-known Public Transport Finance and Governance division of the DRD. This body is responsible for planning public transport services and securing their provision – for example by bodies such as Translink.

The idea is presumably that by combining Roads Service with the Public Transport Finance and Governance functions at the highest management levels, planning will become more efficient and lead to better co-ordinated thinking between the various forms of transport out there.

Time will tell how effective this proves to be. TransportNI, as the new body is called, has 2064 employees. In practice, almost all of these staff are former Roads Service staff, meaning that TransportNI is really just Roads Service + some extra public transport functions + a new name. It’s not a merger of two equally-sized bodies, but rather the absorption of some extra functions into an existing large body, and a new name. However, the significance is greater than a rough comparison of employee numbers suggests.

The real point here is to merge the planning of public transport with that of the road network, and to that end a merger of the type we have seen is of major symbolic significance. It is likely designed to counter the impression that Roads Service is really only interested in cars, an accusation that probably did have merit back in the Thatcherite 1980s. Whether the creation of TransportNI succeeds in countering this impression will depend on the actual results it delivers, and public transport and sustainable transport lobbyists will be watching closely to see if it makes any material difference. Such differences are likely to include tying together public transport services more effectively with things like bus lanes and park-and-ride facilities, and including public transport options at the earliest stages of planning solutions to things like bottlenecks on the road network.

TransportNI officially came into existence on 15 April 2013, but since then the name has been fairly low profile. However, over the past year the name has been creeping outwards. For example, the four Roads Service Divisions have now been re-named as “TransportNI” Divisions, and some Roads Service branded lorries have now been re-branded as “TransportNI” lorries. Wording has also been changed in some references to Roads Service elsewhere on the web. The DRD’s own corporate structure now omits reference to Roads Service. At the same time, the term Roads Service is alive and well in other places, such as in the most recent council reports and still features prominently at the top right corner of the DRD web site.

Nevertheless, it does seem that the Roads Service brand is eventually going to disappear. The most recent Summer issue of “On the Move”, the DRD’s official magazine, states that “The familiar Roads Service brand…. will soon be disappearing” and goes on to say:

The Roads Service brand no longer reflects the full role that the organisation plays in facilitating the safe and convenient movement of people and goods throughout the province. As a result, it was decided that now is the appropriate time to replace the Roads Service name with TransportNI.

Thus it seems that the well-known name of Roads Service really is to be consigned to the history books after 41 years. We have to be clear that we are not seeing Roads Service itself disappear, just its name. But there is a certain sense of loss that a body that managed to both maintain and expand the road network during some of the darkest episodes of Northern Ireland’s history is to lose its name after four decades, and I do regret that.

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Responses

  1. Of course, Transport NI was not exactly born free of controversy. Firstly, it was supposed to be separate from the public transport functions, as it had been when first promised to the Committee for Regional Development, and secondly at the time there was little sign of the public transport planning staff required being appointed. It’s all in their review of Translink, which criticises the Department much much more than Translink itself.

  2. […] For more information on the handover, please see my friend and local roads expert Wesley Johnston’s blog. […]

  3. I fully endorse your final paragraph. It is par for the course today that sentiment plays little or no role in what today is termed ‘progress’. For me this means that there is nothing that is not disposable and therefore of not of reduced or little value. But those of us who are alive and remember the valiant, yes valiant, efforts of the roads service ( and of course, the other public utilities ) in helping keep the province functioning during the troubles, it is we that will always owe a debt of gratitude that no civil service mandarin will ever erase.


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