Irish Rail’s one-track mind on packed trains

Ireland’s railway carriages are often packed, sweaty sardine tins on wheels. Don’t expect that to change

Jammed in: commuters in India. Photograph: Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty

Jammed in: commuters in India. Photograph: Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty


Overcrowding on trains has been in the news this week. Here’s a letter to The Irish Times on the subject.

“If private car owners were found guilty of overcrowding they would be prosecuted. Is our semi-State travel service immune from such threats?”

Oh, hold on, that’s a letter from 1972. Try this one instead, about the Dublin-Cork train.

“From where I was standing I could count at least 28 people without proper seats in the one carriage alone. Two enterprising people sat in the toilets. I gather that this is not an unusual occurrence. There were tourists on the train; I’m sure they went home with some marvellous impressions of ‘Paddy’ railways. What of safety regulations in such a situation, or are there any?”

That letter was from 1981. You can see where this is going.

When a suburban train is packed – with “standing room” only if you consider standing to mean leaning into the closest armpit – you will see a great many people on the train. They will be in front of you. Behind you. Lurching into you at a sudden kink in the tracks. Nuzzling at your neck like newly discovered lovers.

They will be wedged into an impossible gap between you and the carriage door, squeezing past you at a station until they disgorge themselves from the train like toothpaste from a tube.

But the one person you probably won’t see is an Irish Rail employee. You almost certainly won’t see an inspector. They appear to stalk only the half-empty afternoon carriages that are the Orient Expresses to the rush hour’s cattle trucks.

“An extra carriage would not go amiss to alleviate dangerous overcrowding, especially at weekends.”

Letter to The Irish Times about the Dublin-Galway
train, 1991

When a railway service runs properly – when it is on time, when you get a seat, when nobody is running an impromptu session or cockfight on a weekend Intercity carriage – then the train is a great experience. When it is a sardine tin on wheels, passengers feel they are treated as tickets rather than as people. Stuck together in the stalled carriage, their frustrations fermenting, they feel abandoned.

And with good measure. The independent Railway Safety Commission is to carry out extra inspections of Dart and Intercity services – providing, of course, that those inspectors can squeeze themselves and a clipboard into a carriage – but in last year’s annual report the commission’s mentions of overcrowding on Irish Rail came to a grand total of zero.

In the dining car all 36 seats were full and there were 40 people standing. In the next carriage 73 people were standing and 64 were seated . . . The ticket-checker who had woken me three times on the 5.30am train three weeks earlier was nowhere to be seen. This has to stop. Are there safety regulations in operation in CIÉ?”

Letter to The Irish Times about the Dublin-Cork
train, 1997

Overcrowding is not new. Complaints about overcrowding are not new, even on the Dart, for which you can find similar problems going back to the mid 1990s. What’s more, Irish Rail’s response has an all too familiar quality.

Back in 2001 Irish Rail’s spokesman Barry Kenny argued that “standing in trains is a comfort issue rather than a safety issue, particularly on suburban trains, and limiting the number of people in carriages is to force people out on to the roads”.

And here he is just this week, talking to Today FM: “It is a comfort issue rather a safety issue. All the trains are certified for standing, but we don’t want to see standing.”

On Ireland’s railways there are usually only two lines, up and down. In Irish Rail’s approach to overcrowding there is only one: it is about comfort, not safety. It has been like this for a long time, regardless of the company’s current excuse of cost-cutting necessities. And even the mention of “comfort” is disingenuous. It is not about comfort. It is about horrible, suffocating, undignified, expensive discomfort.

Passengers could well be writing letters of complaint for another 40 years, because Irish Rail’s expectations of comfort are not yours. In 2012, when there was serious overcrowding on shorter Darts, Kenny said that customers may expect trains to be “fully laden to European norms”, but they were “nowhere near Japanese or Indian norms”.

So until Ireland has become famous as a place where we must employ people to push passengers on to trains, then don’t get too hysterical. Until there are people hanging from the roof, the passengers should just suck it up. No, literally suck it up. That way we might squeeze anther person into the carriage.

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