It was already dark as the 6pm Sligo-Dublin train stopped at Dromod Station in Leitrim. The train waited for 10 minutes, in accordance with the timetable, and two teenagers used the opportunity to go on to the platform for a cigarette.
They had been in high spirits since getting on two stops earlier, and their mock fighting was beginning to irritate some of the other passengers. While on the platform one started banging the window of a middle-aged female passenger.
She looked exhausted. Asked if she knew the youth, she explained she had caught him trying to steal her purse from her bag the previous week. “I ran at him but now he shouts and curses at me on the train.”
As the train gets ready to pull off she looks out the window, trying to see if the two boys are getting back on her carriage. To her relief the teenagers go farther down the train and she goes back to reading her book.
Her experience of fear and discomfort is one shared by a growing number of passengers on Irish Rail.
There is a general consensus, supported by both statistics and the views of passengers and staff, that anti-social behaviour is becoming worse. “Irish trains are no longer safe for passengers or staff,” the head of the National Bus and Railworkers’ Union, Diarmuid O’Leary, said last June.
Even Irish Rail management agree it is an issue. "While the overwhelming majority of our 45.5 million annual journeys occur without incident, both employee reports and customer feedback do confirm that there has been an increase in the number of anti-social behaviour incidents over the past 18 months," a spokeswoman told The Irish Times.
The figures make for stark reading. There were 407 complaints of anti-social behaviour on Irish trains last year, up from 246 the year before. Incidents of intimidation almost doubled to 117, while vandalism complaints more than tripled to 70. Cases of theft and disorderly passengers, however, have fallen since 2015.
Incidents reported to gardaí also give cause for concern, especially regarding assaults and robberies. According to recently released figures there were 43 assaults reported to gardaí in 2017, up from nine in 2016. There were 26 assaults in the first five months of 2018. And the number of robberies reported on trains increased from three last year to 10 to date in 2018.
A mob in Portmarnock
On June 15th last, Liam Gallagher played to a capacity crowd at Malahide Castle. As is usual for major events, Irish Rail put on extra Dart services to get fans to and from the gig. As one train pulled in to Malahide the driver knew something was wrong when he noticed people on both sides of the platform screaming at each other across the tracks.
“Liam Gallagher had obviously been getting them riled up,” the driver, who asks that his name not be used, recalls.
He loaded the train with about 1,000 passengers and set off. The first stop was Portmarnock. A few people got off, and the driver waited for the little blue light to go on in his cab indicating all doors had safely shut and he could set off.
But there was no blue light. “I had to crawl back through the coach. They were like sardines.” He fixed the door that was causing the trouble and returned to his cab. “I pressed the button and got a blue light for a second. Then I lost it again. I looked back and they had started opening the doors themselves.”
The overheated passengers, tired of waiting in the cramped carriage, decided to take matters into their own hands.
The driver tried to close the doors but every time he did someone opened another one. Some of the passengers started to break windows while others spilled out on to the platform. “They were going bananas because the train wasn’t moving,” he recalled. “There was probably over a thousand people on that train. I was the only staff member.”
The crowd was becoming increasingly aggressive: “I was getting pushed and dragged. The girls were as bad as the boys. I said to myself ‘how am I going to get out of this mess?’”
“I knew I had to keep moving or I’d get decked and if I had been decked on the platform they’d all jump in and start kicking. I thought I was going to die that night. That’s how scared I was.”
Eventually he managed to get back to the cab and call for back-up. Gardaí and Irish Rail staff arrived within five minutes and helped restore order.
“When I got home after 3am I was actually shaking. But I went back in the next day. I thought if I didn’t go back in then I never would. But I was white as a sheet.”
Gang in Clongriffin
The mob violence of that night in Portmarnock is rare, but it has been seen elsewhere. The previous month a gang of teenagers boarded a Dart at Clongriffin and jammed a piece of wood in the door, preventing it from leaving.
Clongriffin Dart Station is one of the most modern and well lit on the line but this did little to deter the gang.
They graffitied much of the carriage with one youth reportedly running up and down the train deploying spray paint either side of him. The terrified passengers were threatened with blocks of wood before the gang started brawling among themselves.
Gardaí arrived quickly but the youths fled up the tracks. No arrests were made.
The violence is by no means confined to Dublin. Two of the most troublesome routes are Dublin-Sligo and Dublin-Cork, according to staff.
Every week we see it, and it's increasing," says Lucy Hyland who works on the Dublin-Cork route. In one recent week she had to call twice for gardaí to come on-board.
The first time involved a woman whom Hyland had spotted walking up and down the carriages. She became suspicious and asked the woman for her ticket.
“It escalated from there. She decided to threaten me. She called me the C-word, an F-ing bitch, at the top of her voice.”
When gardaí got on in Mallow she threatened to smash Hyland’s face in before spitting at her.
The second incident involved two separate families who started brawling, leading to the entire carriage being evacuated. “Glasses were being thrown, and the kids were stuck in between as their parents physically fought.”
When gardaí started to clear the carriage one woman, who had lodged herself under a table, bit a garda’s hand as he tried to remove her.
Drugs to Cork
Drugs are another major problem for Hyland, both in terms of consumption and trafficking.
“They’re going into the toilet on the train and injecting there. They might OD (overdose) in there. They might spray their blood around or leave their needles in there. Or they come out like zombies. They’re in the middle of busy commuter carriages, completely out of it.”
Hyland is also convinced drug dealers use addicts, many of whom have free travel cards, to ferry drugs packages from Dublin to Cork. “You actually see the drug dealers outside the station in Cork waiting for them.”
Keeping an eye on passengers as they board the train helps a little, according to Philip Conway, manager of Limerick Station, and some are stopped from boarding if they appear to be very drunk or on drugs.
The problem is when people take something at the start of the journey and are “out of it by the time they reach Limerick junction”, he says. “There’s not much you can do then.”
Intravenous drug use in the station toilets is a particular issue for Conway. At one stage staff were finding needles in there five or six times a week.
However, the situation improved significantly when an extra security guard was hired to keep an eye on things. “The security guards are local; they know the people involved. They can’t stop everything but there has been a dramatic turnaround.”
The extra guard was hired for a pilot period which has now expired. Conway hopes Irish Rail will provide funding to keep them on.
Security guards help cut down on drug use and public order incidents but they can themselves become a magnet for violence, he says. “They tend to be the focal point of any reaction. One security chap was assaulted a number of weeks ago in an attempt to remove people from the toilets.”
Westport stag parties
Such attacks on staff are a growing concern for Irish Rail’s 3,800 employees. “I’m not saying we’re heroes or anything. We’re not firemen but show me another job where you have to deal with 20 or 30 drunken men on a stag party terrorising an entire train,” says one staff member who asked not to be named.
“We’re on a thin metal tube speeding along just like an aeroplane. If you did half the things on planes that people do on trains every day, you’d be Tasered or shot.”
Stag and hen parties bound for Westport and more recently Carrick-on-Shannon can be a major headache for staff and passengers, including Sligo resident Declan Bannon. "They're usually half jarred before they leave Dublin. Most of them come from England so they're drinking on the plane over."
The stag parties are rarely violent, more “really annoying”, says Bannon who lives in Dublin during the week. “Especially if you’re going home on a Friday.” He takes out a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. “These help a lot.”
Information released to Shannonside FM last year gives a flavour of the problem. In one incident a group of men started to cause a commotion by shouting a phone had gone on fire. In fact they had set a piece of paper on fire; a stunt the men found highly amusing.
Special trains put on for major events can also be “a nightmare”, says Hyland. This year the rugby fans weren’t too bad, but the behaviour of some of the GAA fans coming from Cork to Dublin for games was “horrific”.
“They were extremely abusive on board. On one train young kids, as young as 15 and 16, were openly doing lines of cocaine off the table,” she says.
In response to the problem, Irish Rail this month extended a drinking ban that was already in place on some services to certain trains on the Dublin-Galway and Dublin-Westport routes.
The ban has yet to be extended to the Carrick-on-Shannon route, and according to Irish Rail there are no current plans to do so. “We recognise that the vast majority of people who either purchase or bring alcohol on board our intercity services do so responsibly,” a spokeswoman said.
“However, as the new restrictions demonstrate, we will act if we see recurring issues on specific services which are causing problems for other customers.”
Drink isn’t just a problem on board the trains, it’s also an issue for staff and customers in the stations, particular the major ones.
Hannah Fitzpatrick (19) spent the past summer working for Irish Rail as a customer service representative in Connolly Station in Dublin. The vast majority of customers were absolutely fine, she stresses. But when people were drunk, on drugs or just frustrated, things could turn nasty.
“You would be scared especially when it’s a male who is way bigger than me. I’m quite a small person. They stand over you and shout at you and make you feel really small.”
Fitzpatrick says she was never threatened with violence during the short time she worked in the station but one passenger did spit on her when she didn’t give him the answer he was looking for.
“Sometimes you don’t really know what to do. You can’t shout back. It can make you quite upset.”
Bricks at windows
For many station managers, especially those along the Dart line, vandalism is the main issue they face.
"Most of the stuff I see is vandalism and damage to stations," says John Donegan, the station manager at Sutton. Young people damaging lifts was a major problem a few years ago.
“They were kicking the doors and taking drugs in the lifts. For some people lifts are essential. It affects old ladies, families with buggies. It’s really frustrating, especially when we get bad press [in relation to] wheelchair accessibility.”
Donegan and his colleagues are braced for the issue to get worse as it always does when the evenings darken and Halloween approaches.
Sometimes the vandalism is far more than inconvenient. Mark Gleeson, the treasurer of passenger advocacy group Rail Users Ireland, says it has received reports of people throwing bricks at train windows as they pass by.
“Some of the windows shatter but the plastic film holds them together. But the sound is unmerciful; it would make you jump out of the seat. It’s just wanton thuggery.”
So what can be done? Banning drink on some routes is a start, says Gleeson but he’d go a step further.
“On a plane you can only drink the alcohol they sell you. If Irish Rail said you can drink only what we sell you, we wouldn’t be having these problems. Those trolleys don’t have enough beer to get anyone drunk.”
More staff on trains, even just ticket collectors, would also have an impact. On many intercity routes the only staff on board is the driver. Someone from a catering company operates the food trolley.
The Garda will have a greater presence on Dublin public transport as part of the capital's Operation Open City
If passengers feel threatened Irish Rail advises them to contact the driver via the intercom system. Gleeson is unimpressed with this advice. “Something kicks off in a carriage, you’ve got to get up, walk 10 metres and press a button. You might not be in a position to do that. It might aggravate the situation.”
Extra gardaí is also a common suggestion. Earlier this year the National Bus and Rail Union called for the establishment of a dedicated transport police similar to the one in the United Kingdom.
The establishment of a transport police in a small country with a limited rail network is probably not a realistic prospect but there are some signs the authorities are looking at the issue from a policing perspective.
An Irish Rail spokeswoman says “the possibility of a dedicated Garda unit is being assessed, we understand”.
A spokesman for the Garda says gardaí will have a greater presence on Dublin public transport as part of the capital’s Operation Open City.
"Other support includes a Garda presence on trains and trams to and from concert venues to prevent public order and crime. Where transport providers identify trends in antisocial behaviour, An Garda Síochána will arrange for an ongoing presence until such activity is resolved."
Other measures Irish Rail says it plans to take include an increase in security personnel on trains and at stations, enhanced monitoring of CCTV, and the introduction of “customer service officers” on intercity routes.
“While the focus is customer service, it will also ensure that issues are identified and addressed more quickly,” the company says.
Early afternoon on the train to Drogheda and it's quiet. A man with intellectual disabilities is confused and appears lost. An Irish Rail staff member is trying to help him call his mother. Another passenger is comforting the man.
There’s no violence, no low-level intimidation and no vandalism. It’s quite pleasant. As both Irish Rail and Mark Gleeson of Irish Rail Users say, this is what 99 per cent of journeys are like.
But it’s the other 1 per cent that are making passengers think twice about rail transport, and making some staff dread having to go into work in the morning.