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Wednesday 6 December 2023 Dublin: 8°C
Alamy Stock Photo A Glider bus outside Laganside Courts in Belfast.

The Glider: Could Belfast's tram-like bendy bus be the model for other Irish cities?

The system has been suggested as a kind of gateway to light rail infrastructure.

IN RECENT MONTHS, a series of public transport plans have been published with the future of others looking less certain.

Dublin’s long-promised Metro North project was given preliminary Cabinet approval, while the imminent increase in taxi fares was being touted as a way of boosting an increasingly pressurised sector. 

Also in the capital, there was confirmation that a late-night Luas service was not being considered, whereas in Galway there were tentative moves towards the western city having its own light rail system

Each of these developments come at a time of generationally high inflation, with sustainable transport solutions being seen as especially important amid rising fuel costs.

Speaking on a recent episode of The Journal’s The Explainer podcast, Brian Caulfield of TCD’s School of Engineering raised one solution that has proven successful in Belfast that may have an application in cities south of the border. 

“It’s about looking at bus systems in a different way. Belfast have a system called the Glider, the Glider is amazing,” Caulfield told The Explainer. 

It looks and feels like a light rail tram and I think something like that could be really beneficial for these the regional cities and perhaps Cork. When you put the Glider in you get the demand, you get the density, then you upgrade to a light rail. But the key thing is the density that’s required in the first place. 

The Glider service has also been raised by a number of The Journal readers who got in touch to suggest that it may be able to supplement services in Dublin or to replace services in other parts of the country. 

So what is this system? 

The Glider is the brand name for what is correctly titled as the Belfast Rapid Transit (BRT) system and has been in operation since September 2018. 

Each ‘Glider’ is an articulated bus, or ‘bendy bus’, that is 18 metres long and can carry up to 105 people. 

The Glider is a rapid transit system that operates a high-frequenccy service east-west across the city and into the Titanic Quarter. 

A public consultation process is currently ongoing as part of plans to expand the service to other parts of the city. 

Crucially to the system, the Glider operates by way of an off-board ticketing, so that users do not buy tickets or have them validated upon boarding, as is the case on a conventional bus. 

Instead, tickets are purchased using machines at the stops, with Smartcards validated here too, similar to the system that is in place for the Luas in Dublin. 

This feature, as well as the number of stops on the route, are what has led to the system being suggested as an alternative to light-rail. 

glider-bus-queens-square-belfast-northern-ireland Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Translink, which operates the Glider, told The Journal that the system “includes many of the features of a tram” but also has the “added benefit” of being able to be diverted in case of an issue.

It is of course a cheaper alternative, with the £95 million cost in 2018 being significantly less than the build cost of a light rail system. 

As Caulfield argues, the Glider may prove the viability of a light rail system without having to first lay down expensive track.


The Glider has also been described as a triumph of branding over infrastructure, with some commenting that it achieves much the same as a frequent bus route but is marketed like a tram. 

While this ignores the differences between the system and a traditional bus and even if there is some truth to the branding argument, Glider has certainly been effective in carrying more passengers. 

In its first year of operation before Covid (September 2018 – September 2019), over 2 million additional Glider passenger journeys were made in comparison to previous bus journeys taken along the same route – an increase of over 30%.

Operator Translink says this translates to around 1.67 million fewer car journeys, based on each Glider carrying the equivalent of 87 cars on average. 

National Transport Authority 

So has the Glider been considered as a potential option for transport strategies elsewhere on the island? 

In response to queries from The Journal, the National Transport Authority (NTA) said the option of a similar transit system was considered for Dublin before the BusConnects network was preferred. 

The NTA also points out that the Glider system has a maximum capacity of 1,050 passengers per hour whereas some bus corridors in Dublin can carry up to 2,500 during peak hours. 

“A Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) for Dublin was studied in detail a number of years ago called the Swiftway,” a spokesperson for the NTA said.

The conclusion of that analysis at that time was that a similar level of service in terms of capacity could be delivered by providing greater levels of bus priority throughout the network as opposed to the focus on a limited number of corridors. Additionally, conventional bus systems have a greater number of stops than BRT and therefore serve people more directly.

The NTA also said that the “street network in inner Dublin was unable to accommodate” articulated vehicles of that length.

“For these reasons, BusConnects emerged as the most amenable way forward for high-capacity public transport in Dublin, in combination with Luas and Metro on the highest demand corridors such as Swords,” the spokesperson said.


The BusConnects system is already being developed for Cork and the NTA’s overall transport strategy provides for its potential use in all cities “with service levels and capacity increasing in line with demand”. 

The NTA told The Journal that plan for Cork “similarly provides for enhanced bus services followed by light rail”. 

And what of other cities?

The NTA said that light rail is only currently proposed for Dublin and Cork but is not being ruled out elsewhere:

Light Rail is currently proposed for Dublin and Cork, as the assessments undertaken in the other cities to date have not shown sufficient forecast demand in future years due primarily to the scale and the low density dispersed patterns of existing and planned land use development in those cities. More recently newer concepts such as very light rail are emerging and the NTA continues to monitor the suitability of these for use in the regional cities.

“The NTA is open to the idea of service provision moving along the spectrum outlined above towards higher capacity bus systems in Limerick, Galway and Waterford, in the event that population growth and land use planning policy lead to sufficient demand being forecast on certain  corridors. Whether that leads to light rail at some point will depend on the growth forecasts.”

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