Life on the Luas: a tale of two tracks
We travel Dublin’s Red and Green Lines to learn about the different worlds they travel through
Dublin commuters travelling on the Luas. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
The Luas Green Line is currently being extended to Broombridge in Cabra. In December, the Luas will become an integrated network, and its two lines will meet in Dublin’s city centre. But for now, they remain separate. Patrick Freyne rides the Red Line and Rosita Boland takes the Green Line. Here’s what they encountered.
On the Luas to Tallaght a man named Karl is staring at me. “Are you writing down people’s phone conversations?” he asks. I explain that I’m riding the Red Line, asking people about their lives and what they’re up to. “Jaysus,” he says. “Asking people . . . what they’re up to? That’s a bit bogey, isn’t it?”
It is a bit bogey. I spend 16 hours over three days riding the tram in and out from the Point to Saggart and Tallaght and all stops in between. I eavesdrop. I ask questions. With my yellow anorak and notebook I may be developing a reputation as a sort of local character, like Bang Bang.
In one way it’s pretty predictable. People go in and out to work. Tourists visit the National Museum of Ireland’s Collins Barracks branch and the distillery in Smithfield. People shop. They go to hospital and to the train stations. Grandparents take grandchildren on trips. No matter how full the Luas is, it’s largely silent. People stare at phones or out the window or occasionally at books and never at newspapers. They listen to music. They cocoon themselves from all interruptions and are, in fact, taken aback by them. “That’s a bit of a personal question,” says a man called Rhavi when I ask him, at Citywest, what he does for a living.
So when Karl starts talking to me I’m pleased to have someone else do the running. He has a woman’s name tattooed on his hand and he has a nice smile. He’s getting off at Heuston to head out to Clonee, where his family keep horses. His eyes light up talking about horses. They have 14, he says, “trotters and heavies, and my nieces have Shetland ponies”.
He was an addict for a long time, he says, until seven years ago his brother-in-law showed him the horses. “Working with the horses keeps me away from the drugs.” He shows me a photograph of one of the trotters on his phone. “If you breed good stock you’ll get good money,” he says. “She’ll be ready to race soon.” Where do they race them? “Different places,” he says. “People race them on the motorways.” Is that legal? He just laughs.
In the mornings the Red Luas fills with people in work boots and work suits who clutch Thermoses and umbrellas and yawn and doze. At Heuston station, at the western end of the city centre, a throng try and fail to push their way on to an already full train headed towards the Point, to the east. “Let me in, I’m only small,” says a young woman, pushing her way in.
Crammed into the train, I can hear, somewhere behind me, a young man beatboxing quietly, unshowily, to himself. “I just do it to keep sane,” he says.
Later in the morning there are more prams and buggies on a more sparsely populated Luas. At James’s an older woman, a little worse for wear, sings to a little girl in a pushchair. They have not met before. The woman is wearing slippers and too-big jeans. She says, “Do you like this bracelet?” and clumsily wrangles a charm bracelet from her thin wrist and wanders across the carriage. Andrew White, the little girl’s grandfather, carefully lets the woman give his granddaughter the bracelet. At Bluebell the woman heads for the door, then, remembering the bracelet, turns and says, “Ah sure you can keep it.”
“I always attract them,” says White, shaking his head. “Maybe I look stupid. I don’t know. They tell me their life stories sometimes. All I do is listen. I believe they want to get something off their chest and they’ll talk to anybody.” He laughs. “But it’s usually me.”
White is a retired machinist, and he babysits his granddaughter, Katie (who is still clutching the bracelet), whenever his plumber son has work in Dublin. I tell him I thought he was very patient with the woman. “Ah, you’d have to be,” he says. “She meant well.”
After a while on the Luas it starts to seem obvious where some people are going. People with luggage are heading towards Heuston or Connolly station. And you imagine that the people who get out at St James’s Hospital look sick or that those who get out at the Four Courts have a case pending.
You become comforted by familiar sights and sounds: the stretch of colourful graffiti coming into St James’s Hospital; the swans at the Grand Canal at Drimnagh; the mural of people on horseback at Rialto; the way the recorded announcer says the destination “Belgard” twice because it’s the same in English and Irish; the car showrooms; the stretches of wasteland near Saggart; the plaster image of Mother Teresa, which looks like Ronnie Barker, on a suburban house in Bluebell.
At Jervis Street, on the way back into the city, a woman and her adult son get on with bags of shopping and takeaway food. They sit down and start eating, and as we cross the Royal Canal by Convention Centre Dublin she blesses herself. A moment later her son does the same. I can’t see a church or a funeral cortege, so I’m confused. I lean across to ask why she blessed herself. “My son Daniel died over there” – in the North Wall – “in a car crash,” says Patricia. “Four years ago. He was 23.”
“It was all over the media,” says her other son, Shane. A newspaper “wrote ridiculous stories about him”.
“It’s hard to get over something like that,” says Patricia. She’s trying. She has been shopping for a present for her niece, a My Little Pony toy. She shows it to me. Later on I look up her son’s story, and it’s sad and complicated. Shane and Patricia get out and walk to where they live nearby.
I get on a Luas going in the opposite direction, followed by a man who’s having an angry conversation with a customer-support line. “I told you, I didn’t try to install the upgrade, the television did it automatically,” he says. He’s trying to remain calm, but he gets angrier and angrier. Then he sighs. “I’m not annoyed with you. I’m annoyed with the company.”
Some orange-jacketed ticket inspectors board at George’s Dock. Three people in total, including the angry man (“Ah Jesus,” he says when he sees them) are asked to step off. I feel a sort of survivor’s guilt as we drive on.
The Luas slowly fills up again. A man sits beside me. He is wearing an immaculate white tracksuit, but he has small cuts on his hands, and his hair is matted in sweat. He’s agitated, scratching his head. He turns to me and, sounding very upset, says, “I’ve just heard that my sister has passed away . . . I need €28.50 to get the train” to a hospital outside Dublin “from Connolly, but my account is overdrawn.”
He offers me his phone and a wallet. “It’s Hugo Boss,” he says. I have €5 on me, and I give it to him. He asks three others for money, then he gets off the Luas at Smithfield.
It’s very quiet now. Each conversation seems like an event. At Kingswood, between Red Cow and Belgard, three apparently drunk women talk loudly about someone called Charlie, who is “some cowboy”. They’re beside an older woman who is sitting with several bags of shopping. The Luas lurches, and one woman, mid-anecdote, careens off her chair and down the aisle. Her friends laugh uproariously until she clutches her arm and starts to wail. Then they don’t know what to do. The older woman, a stranger to them, takes charge and helps the woman back into her seat. She gets her to hold her arm up and says, in a foreign accent, “See, it’s not broken.” Then she takes out a chocolate bar and gives it to her. “Eat and keep your strength up!”
This kind woman’s name is Jelena Domova. A former government employee, she came to Ireland from Estonia five years ago because her son lives here. She likes to help. Recently she found a “nice red handbag” on the Luas and, using the internet, reunited it with a Kerry woman who couldn’t believe a bag lost in Dublin would be found. She likes the Luas. “I hear interesting stories, [meet] interesting people. People go quickly, quickly. But I am a pensioner . . . I can go slower.”
At 4.15pm, heading back towards town, the Luas stops for a while at Goldenbridge, “due to an incident in the city”. Four children in school uniforms run on, and a woman tells them there has been a delay. “The driver’s probably having a Happy Meal,” says a small boy.
They debate what to do. The three boys decide to walk to the next stop. “I’m staying here,” says the little girl, and they tease her. As soon as the boys are gone the Luas moves. They race it along the canal, and the little girl sticks her tongue out at them as we pass.
Midweek, rush hour
The Luas flies back into the city, jerking left down the hill from James’s to Heuston. It’s rush hour now, and at Jervis Street the tram fills with people. A couple are watching loud UFC fights on a mobile phone. “Look at this,” says Tony Quinn, showing me the press event at which Conor McGregor slags Floyd Mayweather.
“McGregor all the way,” says Teresa O’Donovan, chuckling.
They point out interesting bits of footage and explain what’s happening. “His son does UFC,” says O’Donovan, pointing to Quinn. “He has lots of energy, and he needs to get rid of it somewhere.”
Will he do it professionally? “Well, he has some amount of medals and trophies,” says Quinn.
“Ah, you have to believe in him,” says O’Donovan.
At Connolly two Coloradan tourists, Mike and Pam Kelly, are lost, so I take them to Busáras, where they can get a Luas to their hotel. Pam is on a quest to find somewhere to eat boxty, but when she asks at restaurants for it “they look at me like I’m crazy”.
At Abbey Street Joe O’Brien, a retired garda, and his wife, Bríd, are waiting for a Luas to take them and their luggage to Heuston and then back to Clonmel, in Co Tipperary. They were just in Rome and saw the pope “in his automobile”. My questions cause them to miss a Luas, but they don’t mind. “Ah sure it’s a fine evening,” says Joe.
By 6pm the outgoing Luases are entirely full, and it’s nearly impossible to move around or talk to people. You start hearing end-of-day phone conversations. “Do we need bread and milk?” “There’s a key under the mat.”
At Blackhorse more orange-jacketed ticket inspectors come on, and this time I fall foul of one of them. “But I tagged on!” I say. The inspector asks me to step off, and he puts my card into the machine and sees that I’ve been tagging on and off all day. “It was a genuine mistake,” he says, and waives the fine, “just between me and you”.
Midweek, early evening
In a half-empty tram at Saggart, looking at the Wicklow Mountains, I feel like I’m really riding the rails and should whip out a harmonica. On the way back to town the Luas fills up again, this time with young people heading to the Red Hot Chili Peppers at 3Arena, at the Point. “Oh God,” says a woman from Wexford after five minutes’ talking. “I just realised I can’t be in this article. I’m pulling a sickie.”
Her friends crack up. “We don’t get the Luas much, thank God,” says Liam Squelly, who’s sharing a bottle of Buckfast with Seosamh Cash. “I lived here for a while, and around the time of the [Luas drivers’] strike I sat behind the driver and I couldn’t believe it.” It’s just “push a button, pull down the brake, push a button . . . The cheek of them, like.”
It doesn’t look all that easy. On Saturday a regular commuter tells me that the drivers sometimes have to stop the Luas to attend to sick addicts or deal with altercations.
At 9.45pm on Saturday two groups of teenage boys get on at Bluebell and take up position at either end of the train. They sit on the floor or hang from the handrails as if they’re monkey bars. A strange ritual ensues. An emissary from the teens at the far end of the carriage approaches, and there is a huddled conference. Then at Drimnagh, for reasons I can’t follow, they all jump out and start running, very fast, over the footbridge across the canal, yelling as they go.
Later, on a Luas out of town, the shoppers and commuters are gone, and the tram is full of sensibly sober and gently tipsy people heading home from nights out. I overhear two young men arguing about the number of stops between Heuston and Kingswood. “He says there are 11, but I say there’s about five,” Shane Mangan explains while Dylan Forde goes over to check the map. “My mam lives in Kingswood, and so I know it a lot better than him. We’re after betting €50.”
“Am I right?” he says to Forde when he comes back.
“I can’t tell,” says Forde. “It’s the Irish one.”
“He’ll never admit when he’s wrong,” says Mangan, shaking his head. “What’s Kingswood in Irish?”
“It’s Coill an Rí,” interjects a stranger, a young woman. “And it’s around 10 stops from Heuston to Kingswood.”
“See,” says Forde.
“We’re not listening to her!” says Mangan. “Just because she speaks Irish doesn’t mean she knows.”
“I get this Luas day in, day out,” says the young woman, whose name is Ava Brennan. She gives me a commuting tip. If you stand at the Jervis sign it lines up with the button to open a door when the Luas stops. “So if there’s a seat you’ll get it.”
It’s a minefield. You never know if someone is old enough to get up for or not. Will she be insulted? Is that woman pregnant or not?
Someone else says, “I have a favourite seat, right up the top on the right, so if someone who needs a seat gets on you don’t have to get up.”
“Ah, no!” says Mangan.
“But it’s a minefield,” she says, “You never know if someone is old enough to get up for or not. Will she be insulted? Is that woman pregnant or not?”
Forde, who has been trying to read the map, says, “It’s 10 stops.”
“He’s full of shite,” says Mangan. “Doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
I take the Luas in and out a few more times that night but have no major incidents to report. Every day people of all ages and ethnicities use it to travel across Dublin and go to homes, workplaces and shops. Most of them travel alone, thinking about their lives, looking at puzzle games and Facebook feeds and heavy-metal videos and texts. Some are participants in bigger stories we can only guess at.
At 8.30pm on Thursday three girls in school uniforms get on to the Luas at Fatima. I’d estimate them to be between nine and 12. The oldest is pulling two wheeled suitcases. One looks new; the other is battered and yellow. She also has a dirty blue knapsack. One of the other girls also carries a wheeled suitcase and a black plastic bag full of clothes. The smallest girl has two black plastic bags of clothes.
The oldest girl sits down across from a young man who’s on the phone and is looking around in confusion. “I’m not sure where I am,” he says down the phone line.
“You’re in Smithfield,” says the girl.
“Thank you,” says the man with surprise.
The three girls talk to each other in a mixture of Dublin-accented English and a language I don’t recognise. They laugh occasionally but mostly look sad. Then the older girl’s phone rings, and she talks into it. The only word I understand is “mama”.
They get off at Abbey Street, and so do I. I see them meet some adults and go into a bed and breakfast. That’s the only part of their story that I see.
Luas Green Line: Free graves, new towns and arrest warrants
It takes 40 minutes to ride the Green Luas line from St Stephen’s Green to the final stop of 22, at Bride’s Glen. There are also two ghost stations on the line, called Future Stops, between Ballyogan Wood and Carrickmines, and between Carrickmines and Laughanstown. The Luas doesn’t stop at these ghost stations, but it does slow down as it goes through.
The future of south Dublin is out there, at the end of this Green Line. At Bride’s Glen, the platform floats high over a building site with so immense and deep a crater that it puts me in mind of images of bomb sites.
This is wasteland currently in development by US property company, Hines. They are planning to build what will essentially be a whole new town, stretching from this Luas stop to Cherrywood, the next one along. The plan includes 1,269 apartments, and over half a million square feet of shops, restaurants, cafes, and a hotel.
At present, it is literally a muddy, vast, waterlogged hole in the ground, fringed with the dozens of plastic waterbottles and drink cans Luas customers have tossed down from atop the platform. “Deep excavations” read the signs. The construction spreads all the way to the next stop, at Cherrywood. I count 11 diggers, seven trucks and a cement mixer, and then lose my tally as yet more diggers hove into sight.
A free grave
Hungarian Zsanett Petroczi, who works in a coffee shop in Stepaside, has boarded at Cherrywood to visit friends in Leopardstown Valley. “I am going home for a holiday tomorrow,” she says. “There is no summer in Ireland.”
An older man called Oliver gets on at Laughanstown and sits beside me. He doesn’t wish to give his surname. Laughanstown station looks as if it is located deep in rural Ireland. This is what the Cherrywood and Bride’s Glen stops must have looked like before the diggers arrived. It’s all thistly fields full of gorse bushes, with scores of mature trees, and not a building in sight. There are even cows under trees.
“This reminds me of home,” Oliver says. He is originally from Kilmore, Co Wexford. I am taken aback when he announces to me, “If you’re from Kilmore parish, you’ll get a free grave.”
“A free what?”
“A free grave. The land was bought by a parishioner, and given to the parish. So if you’re from Kilmore and you die there, you’ll get a free grave.”
“Would you be tempted to go back?”
“Ah, I’m a long time in Dublin now,” Oliver says wistfully.
In the many times I ride the Green Line over three days, most passengers behave exactly the same, no matter what their age. They peck and scroll and stare at their phones, usually while listening to something with earphones. Very few people talk. A few read books.
The trams are always clean, and the inspectors, who appear to travel in groups of three, are vigilant. My ticket is checked four times over the roughly 15 hours I spend on the Luas, by staff in orange jackets with “Revenue Protection Officers” emblazoned on them.
Passengers tend to be in a kind of trance, but when the line crosses the motorway, they look down with relish, particularly at rush hour.
Passengers in trance
At Carrickmines, Brian McGillion gets on. He is a lecturer in strategic management at DIT and is going into town for a book launch. “This line is very efficient and very predictable,” he says. “The most trouble I ever had was a young lad throwing a bottle of water at me as I was getting off the Luas one day.”
The Green Line crosses above the M50 twice; between Ballyogan Wood and Carrickmines, and again between Central Park and Glencairn. No matter what time of day I am riding the Luas, the M50 buzzes with traffic beneath. Luas passengers tend to be in a kind of trance most of the time, but on the two occasions when the line crosses the motorway, they look down with expressions of keen interest, even relish, particularly at rush hour.
Beside Leopardstown Valley station is a pub called The Gallops, which is very Irish as The Gallops is actually the next station. Leopardstown Valley also has lots of billboards, advertising a partially-completed residential development adjacent to the station, called Clay Farm. The slogans read: “Near to nature, close to everything,” and “A lifestyle worth sharing.”
There is a road running between the Luas station and the apartment blocks, but the sound of construction is so loud, it drowns out the underlying traffic noise.
Brendan Dunne is standing on the platform, considering his next move. He has just missed a tram to Bride’s Glen. He has his relevant Dublin Bus timetables memorised. “I could go to Bride’s Glen and get the 7 to Dun Laoghaire, which goes at a quarter past and a quarter to, or I can get the 63 from here.”
He has a watch without a strap in his hand, turning it over and over, as he considers the fastest option to get to his destination; lamenting his lateness like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland
“Have you an appointment in Dun Laoghaire today?” I ask, as he frets over which bus to catch.
“I am going to Wetherspoons to have a pint of cider and watch the yachts, and then I will take a turn about the library,” he says, and takes off for the 63 bus.
A stitched-together journey
At The Gallops, a new development is also under construction, right opposite the Luas. The Elmfield hoardings advertising their apartments read, “You can’t get closer to the Luas than this.” “Incredible location.” “Simply stunning.” “Why look elsewhere?”
Mike Brough, a TV producer, is en route to RTÉ. “When the Luas lines join up, I will actually spend a morning exploring them,” he says. “It will be a chance to explore parts of Dublin we never get to. Dublin people are great for knowing their own area, but it takes country people to explore the city.”
At Glencairn, Lily Culhane, a UCD social science student, is going into town. “My debs is tomorrow, and I’m meeting my date for a coffee,” she says, with a big smile, as she describes her black and white dress to me. “I’m really excited.”
She has come in from Enniskerry, and is using the Luas for the last bit of her journey. Like many other passengers I talk to, Culhane stitches her journey together with a combination of first taking a bus and then the Luas.
The stop at Central Park, where there there is no park, runs right through a courtyard in the middle of a vast development of office blocks. Two bulky men in black “Transit Security” jackets get off, water bottles sticking out of their holster belts where their American counterparts would have guns.
‘It’s always busy’
Sandyford is the Limerick Junction of the Green Line, where tracks join up, and some trams terminate here while others continue to Bride’s Glen. It’s a big, busy stop with several platforms, and feels like it’s mid-way between two quite different kinds of Dublin.
From here on in to Stephen’s Green are the long-established suburbs of Dundrum, Milltown, and Ranelagh, where the tram runs behind red-bricked period houses, and construction of apartment blocks is far less evident.
“I love Fridays,” says a boy who gets on at Sandyford and sits beside me. He tells me he is 17. “Today is Friday.”
“It’s Thursday,” I say, and then realise he has special needs when he opens his backpack and shows me a primary-school maths text book, and other similar level-books. He is alone, and when he uncertainly gets off a few stops later, I find myself fretting about him as the Luas moves forward.
At Kilmacud, a station in a hollow, Eilis O’Sullivan, who has just finished a Masters in literature, gets on. She has errands in town. “I probably won’t go off exploring the stops on the new line,” she says. “I’m one of those people most comfortable with where they usually go, instead of new places.”
The Balally stop, which is the closest to the Dundrum Town Centre, is by far the most consistently busy on the Green Line. Dermot McMahon, a Luas driver having a smoke while awaiting his next tram, is on the platform. “Saturdays and Sundays, this stop is the busiest, but it’s always busy,” he says.
McMahon says the second-busiest station on the line is Charlemont, “Where there are lots of office workers.” He enlightens me as to why drivers slow down while going through ghost stations. “Safety.” The stations may not yet be open, but that doesn’t stop children being drawn to them.
It’s not just children who take chances crossing the Luas tracks. “Ya f**king idiot!”roars the tram driver, who rings his bell furiously at an adult passenger sprinting across the track as he pulls into Dundrum station.
Homeless in Milltown
At the Milltown stop, I get out for a while. The Milltown stop has a public path that runs off either side of it. While I’m there, a group of nine people, all men, bar one, cross the tracks and start walking together down the road that leads to Milltown Park. Some of them are carrying cushions. Others are lugging five-litre bottles of water. One or two have shopping bags, but it’s the cushions that puzzle me, and their oddly weary demeanour in the middle of the day.
Something twitches in my memory, and I Google “Homeless” and “Milltown”. Several stories come up about people living in tents close to the Luas line at Milltown, but by then, I’m back on the tram again.
At Cowper, Deirdre Connolly gets on. “I’m going into town to get my hair cut in Peter Marks and mooch around,” she says. “It’s madness to drive in town now; I always take the Luas in.”
The week I am out riding the Luas is the week the company starts its six-month pilot project of reporting anti-social behaviour on the line via text message (max 155 characters). There are posters of text messages up at stations along the route.
“Luas Milltown Stop students drinking on platform.”
“ Luas tram 5004 kids shouting on the tram at each other - v annoying.”
“Luas tram 5001 Sandyford Stop kids swinging out of bars on tram not happy!”
“Luas tram 5002 large group just got on at Harcourt v drunk still drinking do something.”
Charlotte, en route to Stephen’s Green from the Beechwood stop, looks up at the posters in surprise. “I had no idea Luas trams had numbers. Where are they displayed? Are people really going to be texting some security people about kids shouting at each other, who will probably get off at the next stop? It’s ridiculous.
“In my opinion, the Luas authorities would be far better off putting resources into expanding the Stephen’s Green stop, which is a total nightmare to board and disembark from, as everyone is penned in together.”
At Charlemont, which is easily the most scenic stop on the Green Line, Lesley Bergin is waiting for a tram to take her home to Dundrum, after meeting a niece on Baggot Street. “This is magnificent; beautiful,” she says, indicating to the Grand Canal that flows directly beneath the elevated station, and all the trees that line the swan-busy canal.
When I get on at Charlemont, I’m standing beside a nervy young man in a blue anorak, who is sitting down, and talking intently into his non-smartphone.
“Why don’t you go to Holland instead of England?” he says. “I can’t go to England. There’s a warrant out for my arrest there.”
I glance around the carriage, but this public revelation seems to go unnoticed, as everyone near him, bar me, is wearing headphones. He ends the call. His phone rings again. The conversation continues. “You can’t go to Holland because you’ve no f**king passport, is that what you’re telling me, you moron?”
We pull into Stephen’s Green, and the man, still talking on his phone to the same person, gets off the Luas and vanishes into the crowd.