Saturday, December 2, 2023

Belfast Grand Central Station: £200m transport hub on track to open late next year

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Bidding is underway for retail space at the £200m facility, which will boast 26 bus stands and eight train platforms when it opens next October or November.

New pictures show that steel lift shafts and escalator structures are already in place as Translink prepares to accommodate 20 million passenger journeys at the station every year. Once completed, it will be Ireland’s biggest integrated transport hub.

Translink CEO Chris Conway said doubling the number of rail platforms will “significantly enhance” the capability of public transport across Northern Ireland by providing up to 2,000 extra seats at peak travel times.

“The key benefits for NI are increasing the capacity of our bus and rail services, allowing us to get more people using public transport,” he said.

General views of the new Grand Central Station on November 21st 2023 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph).

“That’s a significant benefit in achieving net zero in terms of climate action targets and improving air quality. You’ve got the regeneration benefits to Belfast, which will be a major opportunity to redevelop this part of the city.”

Mr Conway confirmed that the flagship project of the Executive is on schedule and on budget.

The new home of the Belfast-Dublin Enterprise service will be fully completed in 2025 and includes the creation of a wider development called Weavers Cross, which will boast up to 1.3msqft of office, residential, retail and leisure space.

Staff have been working around the clock to ensure that existing bus and rail services at Great Victoria Street station run smoothly.

Duncan Mcallister, who is heading the project, promised minimal disruption as he revealed that a huge logistical plan is in place for when construction workers have to break into existing infrastructure in the summer months.

A 12-week blockade will be imposed, shutting down rail services into the current hub beside the Europa Hotel, with substitute bus services to be put in place while work is finalised at the new site.

Mr Mcallister also insisted that Translink has engaged with and listened to the concerns of the local community – including fears that heritage will be sacrificed in the name of progress.

Plans to demolish the old Boyne Bridge caused outrage when planning for the redevelopment project got underway in 2015.

General views of the new Grand Central Station on November 21st 2023 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph).

“On that particular aspect, we did a lot of outreach with the local community,” Mr Mcallister said.

“We spoke to the Order of the Black and Orange Lodge. The bridge back in the 1600s, which is the historic bridge, is actually buried up further into Sandy Row and that goes untouched by this development.

“We took some soil samples and cores into the bridge itself. We got those analysed and we did a couple of outreach programmes in local community centres to explain the history.

“The bridge that is outside at the moment was built in the 1960s and it was passionately named the Boyne Bridge, but it is the Durham Street Bridge which is owned by the Department for Infrastructure.

“Unfortunately it is not DDA (Disability Discrimination Act) compliant, so it is not possible to retain it. It will become a new access need route for buses, cyclists and pedestrians, which means the bridge has to come to (ground) level to create step-free access into the station.”

Mr Mcallister is confident that “proper engagement” by the public transport provider has maintained good relations with nearby residents.

“We got a unanimous vote for outline planning last August – that has never happened in Belfast City Council’s history,” he said.

“That was due to the team educating the councillors and the local community as to what economic benefit this will bring. So we have support. We are never going to please everybody, there are always going to be issues that people feel are not being addressed, but we are always listening and taking all views into consideration.”

The scheme has created 180 jobs on-site, with an additional 60 staff based in the office.

It has also provided a significant boost to the local supply chain, with 75% of materials sourced within NI. Only around 5% of products have been imported from outside the UK and Ireland.

General views of the new Grand Central Station on November 21st 2023 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph).

Further economic benefits are in the pipeline, with local, regional and national retailers vying for space in the new station. They will be confirmed early next year when procurement has been complete.

“There are around a dozen spaces of varying size and scale, so there will be a variation of what that looks like. You could have coffee, food, retail and entertainment outlets. It really depends what the market demands,” Mr Mcallister said.

Moving the Enterprise service from its current base at Lanyon Station is expected to shave minutes off journey times from Dublin and reduce walking time into Belfast city centre. It will also allow for hourly departures.

Signalling and track infrastructure has been enhanced from Lisburn to make rail services more efficient, with digitalisation of the network expected to help cut journey times.

It is hoped the lengthening and widening of platforms, and other safety enhancements, will aid the accommodation of six carriage walkthrough trains and help futureproof Translink for the next three decades.

Mr Conway said the project will be a catalyst for future electrification and line speed enhancement schemes which seek to improve journey times further.

However, the ambitious plans – which also include connecting NI’s airports to the rail network – will require further investment from Stormont.

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