A small number of disability campaigners held a picket at Connolly Station this morning as Irish Rail rolled out its pilot scheme of accessibility improvements on the Dart network.
The new system will see customer service officers operate out of 13 hub stations in Dublin and Wicklow, from where they can be deployed to nearby stations to operate ramps upon request.
Irish Rail says this has allowed it to cut the period of notice that disabled and sensory impaired customers must give to four hours from the previous standard of 24 hours.
The pilot runs for a period of six months, and only applies to stations on the Dart line.
The changes have been denounced by campaigners including Dr Margaret Kennedy, a wheelchair user based in Greystones, who says the new system does not go far enough and that no notice should be required.
“What a lot of disabled people have to say is the fact that they have to give notice at all in their lives is not empowering them to have a free life or to have control of their life,” said Dr Kennedy, who says all stations should be staffed for assistance purposes.
She continued: “Any notice at all means that somebody else is controlling us. We want to be able to go down to the station, get on a train, go where we want and come back again. I think there’s a culture within Irish Rail that we have to have different rules.”
Irish Rail spokesman Barry Kenny said the new four-hour standard represents an improvement, and expressed his confidence that further improvements will be realised following the pilot period.
“We’re confident that in six months when this pilot is completed we’ll be in a position to deliver more improvements based on the feedback and experience,” he said.
Along with the four-hour notice, Mr Kenny said those who are unable to notify Irish Rail in advance of a journey can also expect a quicker response time for ramp access due to the hub system.
The company is developing a new app which will facilitate such requests, along with a dedicated phone line.
When asked if the rail operator intends to purchase any wheelchair accessible train carriages in future, he confirmed that it is in the process of requesting funding for up to 300 new carriages which may come equipped with automatic ramps.
Customer service officers will also be introduced to trains on selected Intercity routes, allowing for a "turn up and go" service on trains between Dublin and Cork/Belfast, Mr Kenny said.
Irish Rail organised a special departure from Connolly Station to Howth to mark the new accessibility improvements, with a group of disabled customers invited for the ceremonial journey.
Among the regular rail commuters present at the event on Monday morning was Mick Keegan, a wheelchair user from Ashington in west Dublin.
He welcomed the more efficient notice period for Dart trains, but will not gain full benefit of the new system as his local station at Ashtown is not on the Dart network.
He pointed out the issue that people who rely on ramp access are often left on carriages and miss their stop, even if they were given assistance to get on the train in the first instance.
“You might get on with a ramp there, but you also have to make sure there’s a ramp waiting for you at the far side and if it’s not there you’re stuck on the train,” said Mr Keegan, describing such experiences as “very, very frustrating”.
“It’s still 24 hours where I am. You may get a call asking you to go somewhere, and you forget you have to give notice. It doesn’t work, it really puts you off,” he added.