Is it time to put a stop to drinking on trains?

 

Despite the presence of private security, antisocial behaviour on trains is still rife

HERE’S AN alternative script for an Irish Rail ad. A woman steps on to a modern, clean train. She settles into a comfortable, pre-booked seat. Nearby someone starts playing an iPod through a set of speakers. The woman stands up and asks the young man if he would mind using his headphones. The music is switched off.

Seconds later a different man unleashes a torrent of verbal abuse on the woman. He stands up, eyeballs her at length and then personalises the threats and abuse. The teenagers laugh. The music is switched back on. The woman goes to another carriage where she can feel safe again.

This was my experience of a Friday-afternoon train journey. I love train travel, and know that it may not quite match the ad-land version of smiling people in sun-drenched serenity. But I didn’t expect this.

It is legal to get on to a train in the Republic with a slab of cans, crack them open and drink yourself into a comatose or belligerent state. If you become a threat to other passengers your drink may be taken by private security staff or the Garda may be called. But it is a grey area.

The train I was on was patrolled by security men in black body armour, members of staff of the private firm STT Security, an Irish company set up in 1993 by a former Army ranger. STT is used by Irish Rail and Veolia Transport, the Luas operator, to police trains, Darts and Luas trams.

Dr Mark Gleeson, a spokesman for the voluntary lobby group Rail Users Ireland, was on the Wexford train the same afternoon travelling out of Dublin. Shortly into the journey two drunken teens were walking up and down swinging beer bottles around. The train came to an unscheduled stop in Blackrock.

“Two security guys got on, and the Garda were expected, but they didn’t turn up,” says Dr Gleeson. “It was very frustrating, because the train was stopped and no one came.”

Gleeson’s group has called on the new Government to bring in two measures to improve safety on trains: banning people from drinking their own alcohol on the journey and setting up a transport police force. The alcohol ban could mirror the system in Northern Ireland, he believes, “where if you’re caught with an open container of alcohol you’re off the train”. This would get around the problem of people travelling with shopping that might include unopened alcohol.

Dr Gleeson says he has no problem with Irish Rail selling alcohol on a train, “because that’s a face-to-face transaction with someone who can judge the situation”. But he believes a ban on carry-on alcohol is needed.

Another recent rail passenger, who did not want to be named, was on the Belfast train last month, travelling from Dublin, when a crowd of youths carrying slabs of beer in cans got into the carriage and started drinking.

“There was a Japanese woman with an elderly woman and a child sitting in pre-booked seats. They had to move out of their booked seats because of the noise and shouting,” he said. “The thing that strikes you is that you can go up and approach them but then you’re stuck with them. You’re the guy who tackled them, and you’re all stuck together for the rest of the journey.”

A spokesman for Irish Rail says the STT guards have the power to confiscate alcohol from people on trains if they are posing a threat and there is a ban on alcohol on match trains. “A general ban is something we would monitor and have a relatively open mind on,” he says, adding that the ability to have a drink on board a train is one of the selling points of train travel. “We want to encourage groups to be able to go away together and enjoy themselves while trying to protect the majority.”

The spokesman says he has no figures on the number of incidents of antisocial behaviour on Intercity trains. “But it’s not something that’s dramatically increasing or decreasing.” He says there are communications buttons at the carriage ends, so that a passenger can contact the driver, who can slow down the train and activate the CCTV system. These buttons are outside the carriage so that a passenger can complain about something discreetly.

Irish Rail banned alcohol on trains on the Waterford line a number of years ago, he says, as a result of large numbers of stag- and hen-party incidents.

Veolia started using STT on Luas trams in April 2009 after a dramatic rise in antisocial behaviour on the two Dublin lines. Incidents of public disorder rose from 272 in 2006 to 886 in 2009. The STT security staff get on and off trams on the Red Line from 10am until the last tram and on the green line from 3.30pm until the last tram, a spokeswoman says.

The STT or Luas staff will approach anyone drinking on a tram and ask them to leave. If they refuse the Garda is called to remove them. It is a simple ban, because under current bylaws it is illegal to drink on a tram. The additional security seems to have had a positive effect on incidents. Last year the company recorded 633 incidents of antisocial behaviour, a drop from the 2009 level of 886.

Mark Gleeson believes antisocial behaviour is “not really a very big problem”, but one bad experience can put people off travelling at night or on their own. The improvement of trains means that people are no longer complaining to the Rail Users forum about decrepit rolling stock, or uncomfortable or unheated trains. But they are hearing about problems with bad behaviour.

“It’s localised to Friday, Saturday and Sunday and specific to certain destinations like Galway, Rosslare or Courtown in the summer,” says Gleeson. “The security they put on is very positive, but without legal backing it’s not enough.”