WE report today that work on the much-heralded new Belfast Rapid Transit system is to begin in West Belfast in August. The new system has an impressive title, no doubt, but when you strip it right down it’s clear we’re not going to see anything nearly as visionary or as exciting as Dublin’s Luas service, for instance.

Far from it – in fact, the work that’s due to get under way in a few short weeks, while not inconsiderable, is relatively straightforward. Existing bus lanes are to be realigned and reshaped to cater for the new rapid transit vehicles, which won’t be futuristic electric vehicles whispering by, or atmospheric clams swishing past with the clang of a bell. They will be diesel-powered, admittedly looking rather different from the Metro vehicles that ply the West Belfast routes today, but nevertheless carbon-fuel-guzzling buses they remain.

While that may come as something of a disappointment to many who see electric vehicles or hybrids as the way forward, it’s worth remembering that electricity doesn’t magically appear and that here in the north it is made almost exclusively by burning coal and oil – the generation of electricity remains a massive drain on the planet’s rapidly dwindling carbon reserves.

The new system, therefore, should not be measured in terms of how it is powered, for no journey is made without making withdrawals from our energy bank. Rather it should be judged by three criteria: one, the number of people using it; two, the speed and efficiency with which they are delivered to their destinations; and three, the value for money offered to users.

The first option is wholly dependent on the second two. If the service is quick and reasonably priced, then, to paraphrase a famous movie quote, when the Department for Regional Development builds it they will come. And perhaps a little confusingly, at the same time the second two are wholly dependent on the first.

What is crystal clear is that transport systems, no matter how they are powered, can only be made less hostile to the environment (despite the rhetoric, no system is environment-friendly) if they are made to be financial successes. For financial success is driven by more people on fewer, quicker buses, and more passengers on fewer, quicker vehicles means less pressure to raise fares and less emissions being pumped into the air.

The question is then, can this new system deliver the ‘rapid’ journey that its name has promised us? Well, the fact is that this is not, of course, an

‘express’ suburbs-to-city-centre service. The route remains peppered with stops – more than at present, in fact – where passengers must get on and off and when payment must be offered and accepted. No change there, then, if you’ll pardon the pun. So can the changes being made to the existing bus lanes be so practical and effective as to make a significant difference to journey times? The answer is that we just don’t know because so far the DRD has been long on rhetoric and short on detail.

We can only hope that they can, because while a small number of commuters are so attached to their cars and privacy that they will never change, most will quickly make the switch if they see buses sweeping by them in the morning and afternoon and if they know those buses are cheaper than their slow-moving cars could ever be.

While the bus lane work begins soon, the new Rapid Transport system will not become operational for another three years. Plenty of time for more thinking to be done by all concerned.