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The long read: Translink before and after Tricia Massey

During my recent visit to Belfast, which incidentally was also my first-ever visit to...15 min

During my recent visit to Belfast, which incidentally was also my first-ever visit to Ireland, I decided to fully embrace the tourist persona and jump on a city sightseeing open-bus tour. For a relatively small place like Belfast, which albeit densely populated spans just 115km2 – roughly the size of Manchester city – the ‘hop-on, hop-off’ service was an obvious attraction: at 23 stops, the hour-and-a-half-long tour provided a comprehensive overview of the historically rich and culturally diverse capital.

One of the most remarkable stops – which saw all the other tourists, jam-packed on the second floor of the double-decker, scram to power on their digital cameras – was the Europa Hotel, both for its appearance and the story behind it. Opened not long ago, in 1971, on the site of the former Great Northern Railway station, the 51-metre-high hotel has already gained the reputation of most bombed hotel in Europe after suffering more than 30 attacks during the Troubles. It doesn’t sound great at first, but its sheer sophistication as it towers over Great Victoria Street makes its rocky past all but a blip in what remains a staggeringly breathtaking example of Northern Irish architecture; one that has even played host to many presidents, prime ministers, and celebrities over the years. Admittedly, it is made all the more impressive by its front-door neighbour, the quirky Crown Liquor Saloon – a Victorian gin palace originally named The Railway Tavern and later rebranded and refurbished in 1885. (I may or may not have paid a visit.)

But the pub’s maiden name and the Europa Hotel’s infrastructural predecessor are not the only railway legacies that linger in the area. Right behind the hotel, situated at the heart of Belfast, sits Translink, the capital’s public transport giant – a trading name for the parent Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company, which is itself a banner for NI Railways, Ulsterbus, and Metro. Both figuratively and literally, Translink is what keeps Northern Ireland moving.

Originally established in 1967, the organisation – differently from those of Great Britain – does it all: it’s responsible for providing vehicles, building and managing infrastructure, and handling day-to-day operations. This might come as a bit of a shock for those of us who are used to the franchising system, but the company must be doing something right. Its latest independent performance monitor, undertaken by PwC, showed some impressive statistics. For the Metro, 100% reliability, 100% punctuality of departures, and 97% punctuality of arrivals, with customers reporting a 90% satisfaction rate. For the Ulsterbus, 100% reliability, 99% punctuality of departures, 91% punctuality of arrivals, and an impressive 97% satisfaction rate.

NI Railways came out on top across several key factors when bench-marked against GB regional railways

And then there’s rail. PwC’s review reported an almost unbelievable satisfaction score of 98%. Nestled under this was 100% reliability, 100% punctuality of departures, and 96% punctuality of arrivals. I don’t even have to tell you how this compares to numbers in Great Britain, regardless of what period or franchise we’re looking at. As Ian Campbell, Translink acting director of services operations, put it in the report’s foreword, NI Railways came out on top across several key factors when bench-marked against GB regional railways – including staff helpfulness, value for money, cleanliness, and punctuality.

Widespread regeneration

If it all goes to plan, these statistics are only set to get better. That’s because, five years from now, the windows of the Translink building will overlook a major new transport hub which, at a bargain of just £208m, will set the standard as one of the biggest capital projects Northern Ireland has ever seen.

The Belfast Transport Hub will act as the main gateway for rail, coach, and bus connections to all parts of the country and beyond, including Dublin. The new integrated station will feature 26 bus stands, eight rail platforms, bus maintenance and parking, track and signalling enhancements, cycle and taxi provision, a new concourse, and highway and infrastructure improvements to boost production in the region, with the hub forming a key part of the brand-new, eight-hectare Weavers Cross neighbourhood.

The planned Belfast Transport Hub

The area, whose name is a nod to its linen industry heritage, will boast a vast number of mixed-used developments, including homes and offices. This will all be tied together by Saltwater Square, the focal point of the project and future home to lively entertainment, public art and culture, and leisure activities. Think New York’s Grand Central, but bigger and better.

All in all, it’s a fitting scheme to complement a city whose transport network has experienced absolutely unprecedented growth in the past decade, with 81 million passenger journeys recorded just last year.

Behind every great project is a great woman

Albeit not the mastermind behind the project – she has only been at Translink for two years, though her mark on the company suggests longer – one of the main forces behind the Belfast Hub’s governmental approval in late March was Tricia Massey.

Tricia, who joined the Translink team as its head of procurement in early 2017, has been at the helm of the company’s purchasing division, and looks set to reap the benefits that naturally come with green-lighting a project so large it will have no shortage of supplier opportunities.

The service is fantastic, there’s no question about it. You could set your watch by the train

She was also there when Glider, Belfast’s brand-new rapid transit system, began operations in September last year. In fact, she remembers this as one of the most remarkable experiences in the job so far.

“You feel so proud. A number of us were involved in the Glider launch, and we were out in the hub at 7:30am helping passengers get on the vehicles because it was so new to everyone in Northern Ireland,” Massey told me. “It was such a fantastic experience to be a part of.”

Likewise, with rail: while there hasn’t been anything as tangibly shiny as new Gliders christening Northern Ireland’s permanent way, Tricia was there in December when Translink secured a £50m contract with Spain’s CAF that will see the supply of 21 new carriages in 2021. But even before the new rolling stock comes online, the existing rail network already makes Tricia proud to flaunt her lanyard when out and about.

“The service is fantastic, there’s no question about it,” she said, elated. “The trains are so clean, they’re always on time, and it’s always a smooth journey and a really good experience. Being in some of the trains in GB, depending on who the provider is and what area you’re travelling in, the Translink trains win hands-down. You could set your watch by the train, they’re that good.”

This, she reveals, is a testament to the entire team: the investment they have managed to secure to improve track and signalling, the superb staff training and CPD schemes, right down to the people working in stations day in, day out to keep things moving.

One Translink, One Team

But her procurement team, working from behind the scenes, has been no less significant to the overall success of NI’s rails. In fact, since Tricia came in, there have been sweeping changes across the department to make it even more effective for keen suppliers. At the end of the day, Translink is kept afloat by its revenue; because fare income is what drives the bottom line, procurement is an area that can provide the utmost support in encouraging efficiencies.

“We try to be as commercial as we can within the constraints of public procurement legislation,” she explained, “which sometimes isn’t easy, but we try our level best. We’ve completely restructured the procurement team within the function, and we have brought in a number of people into that function who are specialists that have come from the private sector and have been heavily involved in managing supply chains. That has come with quite an extensive level of commercial acumen.

“Coupled with other members of the team, who have either come from the public sector or have worked for Translink for a number of years, it’s a really good mix in terms of trying to get good value for money and drive efficiencies.”

Just 20 months ago, the procurement team was much smaller, and functioned in a “very different way” to how it operates now. Tricia has brought in a category management approach to the department that essentially assigns team members to certain areas of the business, and every single person is fully integrated in what they do. For example, team members will often spend a couple of days out and about, embedded in workshops, to help them better understand their internal customers. “This is absolutely vital in order to know what they need and when they need it,” stated Massey. “And also, to manage their expectations in terms of what the procurement function can actually provide for them.

“Out ethos is ‘One Translink, One Team,’ and we in procurement obviously try and promote that in terms of ensuring we are an integral part of the customers’ teams when we’re out there. It’s only by doing that that we can understand their business, how things work, and what we can do to make that better.”

I have the advantage of being able to see things as the supplier sees them, and that’s absolutely crucial

While I can’t speak for the rest of her team, Tricia already brings a lot of that personal touch to her everyday job. Throughout her career – which was mostly shaped by a nine-year stint as head of purchasing at Queen’s University Belfast and, later, as boss of her own procurement business – the Translink chief has learned to see things from all perspectives.

“I worked for public authorities, but I also did a lot on the supplier side. From that point of view, I have the advantage of being able to see things as the supplier sees them, and that’s absolutely crucial. Unless you’ve been there, unless you’ve actually seen what they see and experienced the difficulties and constraints that they experience, you can’t really understand what it’s like when someone is trying to get a tender through that closes at 3pm and at 2:30pm they’re having problems with the system,” she remarked. “I can totally empathise with suppliers, so that has been really great; I can speak their language, if you like, so if they’re having problems I know exactly where they’re coming from.”

Getting to know each other

It’s no coincidence, then, that Tricia was at the forefront of a massive supplier event hosted at the striking Titanic Museum in Belfast in late February. The daytime gathering, which brought together hundreds of buyers and suppliers under the same roof to get to know each other and pitch new solutions, was large enough to fill out the entire top-floor conference room of the venue. For those of you who have seen the rather imposing Titanic building in person, you will no doubt agree that speaks volumes about the event’s resounding success.

The headline purpose behind the inaugural conference – which Tricia hopes to repeat every three years – was to link up business users and interested suppliers, from microenterprises to SMEs, essentially helping to bring companies to the foreground. This is particularly important when dealing with low-value purchases: any contracts under £50,000 don’t have to be published, so business users will naturally favour the suppliers they already know when issuing invitations to tender.

Feedback in that respect has already been positive, with several Tier 1 contractors reporting having follow-up meetings, discussions, and even supplier presentations that helped them find their perfect match for an upcoming framework. “Sometimes, people don’t follow up because they don’t have any existing opportunities at that particular time, but they will still keep that information. But in actual fact, what has happened this time is that there has been quite a number of examples where it just so happened that the companies which suppliers were speaking to were just about to go into market for things,” explained Tricia.

“Feedback from our internal users has been fantastic, too. They told me they never would have realised that so many people are interested in supplying to their area. We’ll probably have even more people from the business there next time. We have almost 4,000 staff, and over 200 live projects ongoing at any one time – whether that’s building a park & ride, refurbishing the front of a station, or working on the North West Hub. There’s lots and lots of different opportunities to get involved.”

How to stand out

Another driver behind the event – which featured breakout sessions to supplement the main networking piece – was to encourage suppliers, especially smaller ones, to submit high-quality bids (a significant part of which includes knowing how to use the e-tendering system.)

“As far as the actual bidding process is concerned, a good-quality bid, to me, will be very clear, concise, and succinct in terms of how the bidder is going to address the requirements. It will be ticking all the requirements of the scope and specification, making it very, very clear, in a short way – that’s the most important thing – how they’re going to deliver the service,” noted Tricia. “And of course, cost is very important as well: the commercial aspect needs to leave no stone unturned.”

High-profile clients like Queen’s and Translink tend to attract suppliers who actually want to be a part of projects

But the burden is also on Translink to make sure its tenders are clear enough in the first place. This means having in place transparent and simple documentation that makes requirements as clear as day. “Ambiguity leads to clarification requests, which could then potentially lead to a process being delayed,” she explained. “If things aren’t clear, you could have inconsistencies in the evaluation process if two suppliers interpret something in a different way.”

The Titanic Centre and Museum in Belfast

Since joining the team, Tricia has set in motion extensive changes to standardise the company’s purchasing approach. Now, documentation is the same no matter what you’re bidding for.

“We also have a clarification process: if someone raises a query, it’s responded to as soon as we possibly can – and if the response is of interest to all the bidders, that is shared with them as well,” Massey continued. “We provide extensive feedback, too. We provide their scores alongside comments as to why their bid wasn’t as good in certain areas – the idea being that the next time the supplier submits a bid with us, they will have taken that onboard and get in a really good-quality bid.”

Luckily for Tricia, notable architecture isn’t the only thing that connects her current job to her former role at Queen’s (famously housed in the red-brick and Giffnock-sandstone Tudor-Gothic-style Lanyon Building, constructed in 1849.) Both organisations are lucky in that they are so established in Northern Ireland that suppliers actively want to get involved.

“From the research and teaching side [at the university] it was very different from dealing with transport. But certainly, from a public procurement point of view, there’s very little that I haven’t encountered over the years,” she explained, “because high-profile clients like Queen’s and Translink tend to attract suppliers who actually want to be a part of projects. They want to be a part of dealing with someone who has such a presence in Northern Ireland, if you’d like.”

Make way for growth

In five years’ time, the Belfast Transport Hub should be up and running, with private-sector involvement ensuring that the surrounding area is continuously fuelled by new investment. As Tricia put it, it will be the jewel in the crown of the city’s transport offering, representing everything that is quintessentially ‘Belfast.’ But beyond that, in 10, even 20 years’ time, the future for Translink looks even brighter.

They want to be a part of dealing with someone who has such a presence in Northern Ireland

If Tricia has her way, the organisation will continue on its journey of becoming ever more commercial, in line with the company’s refreshed ‘Get on Board’ strategy goals. After all, the more suppliers involved, the tighter the competition, and the richer the final offering.

“The organisation will continue to grow, there’s no question about that,” she promised. “Our capital plan is growing year on year. Passenger numbers are increasing, so there’s a lot of activity around building more park & rides and buying more vehicles, for example. It certainly looks like things are on the up.”

If you’re ever up in Belfast, make sure you too hop on the sightseeing bus. For just a tenner, the unique experience will show you what is already best and brightest about the city – but, even further, what exactly is so appealing about its future.