Geraldine McAteer, the Sinn Fein councillor for Balmoral invited people to attend a Belfast City Council consultation on replacing the green steel barriers on Finaghy Road North railway bridge.
I went along to see what was planned. Would it address any of the problems around Finaghy Road North: the rush hour congestion; the lack of cycle infrastructure; the poor access to Finaghy railway halt; the dangerous junctions of Finaghy Road North with Diamond Gardens and Orchardville Avenue.
To cut a long blog short. No, these plans concerned themselves only with the look of the bridge:
There was a choice of cladding for the bridge sides, paving slabs or tarmac and lighting options.
Early in the day people expressed a clear preference for sides that allowed people to see the trains, and didn’t offer a blank canvas to graffiti “artists”.
Also, people wished to have the bridge reinforced with a containment kerb and rail. This is understandable. The local environment, with a high traffic volume is threatening.
One, unintended, consequence of a containment kerb and rail is the narrowing of footpath space. Some of the path width will be recouped from removing the green barrier. Narrowing will be bad for pedestrians and cyclists.
The road itself is very narrow and doesn’t allow cyclists easy filtering past the queue of traffic. Most cyclists will continue to use the footpath, but with less space, more conflict seems inevitable.
After the Great Heck Rail Crash in 2001 railway bridges across the UK were assessed for safety. The crash near Selby was caused by a sleep deprived driver plunging his Land Rover and trailer, loaded with a Renault 21, off the M62 onto the East Coast Main Line. The southbound early morning Intercity service from Newcastle to King’s Cross hit the Land Rover and was pushed into the path of a freight train travelling in the opposite direction. 10 people died and 82 were injured.
The bridge at Finaghy was identified as in need of most upgrading in Northern Ireland.
Very soon after the “upgrade” local politicians called for the “ugliest bridge in Ireland” to be improved. We can only hope the current consultation is the beginning of the end for the green walls of Finaghy.
There is no budget for major, meaningful improvements. The current consultation is simply looking at replacing the green containment wall with a prettier arrangement.
No plans exist to making the bridge safe for cycling. Many cyclists choose the footpath rather than go on the road. The bridge approaches and nearby junctions are outside the project’s remit.
The footpath is not much better; the area is blighted with pavement parking and dog dirt.
- Finaghy and Andersonstown are car-centred neighbourhoods
- Finaghy halt is accessed through a pub car park;
- Access to the station for people using mobility aids, prams and bicycles is circuitous;
- There are steep steps leading up to the road;
- There is no footpath on both sides of the road;
- There is no protection for cyclists;
- Drivers make walking from the station hazardous at the junctions of Finaghy Road North and Diamond Gardens and Orchardville Avenue (below)
- Finaghy Road North is used by through traffic; it is a favoured route for taxi drivers to and from Belfast International Airport to south and east Belfast.
This part of Belfast does not see much cycling. The 2011 Census shows the share for cycling at around 1% – about Northern Ireland average, but below areas to the northeast, closer to the city centre.
Few children cycle to school; the majority of primary school age children are brought by car. And all because the car is given priority.
Any solutions for this bridge should put the interests of pedestrians, cyclists and public transport above that of car drivers.
Changing the environment
Despite there being 3 primary schools, 3 secondary schools, a health centre and library within walking distance to Finaghy cross roads, the light sequence massively favours cars. In a 3 minute light sequence only one phase of 20 seconds are allocated to pedestrians. This is not quite enough to cross diagonally. Though some try:
The nearby side streets are rat runs and they should be bunged:
With BRT coming to the northern end of Finaghy Road North, more should be done to dissuade residents in the area reaching for their car keys when they need to go out. Stopping rat running and inappropriate through traffic will increase road safety in the area, which will enable people to walk to the train or bus, to work and school.
Incentives need to be offered to residents to discover for themselves how good and convenient public transport or cycling can be for them. Most people reach for their car keys, because the other options are simply not familiar to them.
Solutions – Cycling
The Belfast Bicycle Network Plan reaches Finaghy Road North by way of the private school grounds belonging to Malone College and Cranmore Integrated Primary School (red on the map below). Which is strange, because the school gates close when the last member of staff leaves in the afternoon. During the day visitors to the grounds using the back gate at Musgrave Park are buzzed in.
A better solution here is to take the network cycle path along the railway straight to the station (green on the map below). The railway embankment and grounds are wide enough to accommodate a path. I suspect at some stage there were sidings here.
Finaghy Road should have cycle tracks running its entire length. It would enable more pupils cycling to school. The principal of Cranmore IPS welcomes more pupils coming to school on foot or by bike, but the road environment simply makes it impossible.
A solution for the look of the bridge should be sufficiently flexible to allow for the construction of cycle tracks at a later date.
Solutions – station access
What is amazing is that the bridge over the railway never had a footpath on both sides, as this view of Finaghy Lane in the 1930s shows.
However there was an access to the railway down a set of stairs on the south side. It appears the land immediately below and beside the bridge is still owned by Translink and gives access to the station forecourt via an arch. Why can this lane off Ardmore Avenue not be used for vehicle access to the station, rather than crossing the pub car park?
Giving the station its own access might stop this kind of thing happening:
Solutions – Pedestrian access
The station is currently reached by steps from the road level down to the platforms. For people using mobility aids, prams and bicycles there is a detour to a ground level path leading to the southbound platform and the halt’s forecourt.
Not having a footpath on both sides of this urban distributor road is not acceptable; it discriminates against those who have difficulty crossing roads. The lack of a footpath adds to the bridge being perceived as a barrier.
Simply because a footpath was not there in the 1930s is not a good enough reason to not have it there 80 years later. The area has changed beyond recognition.
Pedestrian walkways can be added to each side of the bridge with ramps leading straight down to platform level on both sides of the road and railway line.
The replacement of the ugly green barriers is long overdue. It detracts from the area and makes the walking and cycling environment even more hostile.
Narrowing the footpath to install containment kerbs will increase conflict between pedestrians and cyclists.
None of the areas traffic problems are addressed and no budget is available to put pedestrians, cyclists and public transport first.