Irish Rail: Was communications breakdown bigger than the mechanical one?
Major signal fault left a yawning information chasm for passengers, writes Jennifer O’Connell
Twenty thousand passengers were affected by the signal failure. File Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times
A ticket inspector on the 6am train from Waterford to Dublin Heuston on Tuesday morning said he was relying on his passengers for updates about the major signal fault causing gridlock on the country’s rail lines.
“We’ve been told nothing. I’m only hearing what passengers are telling me they picked up on social media,” he said, shortly before 7am, when asked about the extent of the likely delay that had been announced on Twitter at 6.09am. “We’re on time so far, so there’s no need for them to update us.”
The next two stops, Bagenalstown and Carlow, came and went, and more unsuspecting passengers embarked. One man who got on in Bagenalstown was surprised to hear about the delay. There was nothing up in the station, he said. It was another 20 or so minutes before the bad news finally came over the tannoy at 7.19am. “We will operate as far as Athy and then wait for further information,” it said.
The next few updates were equally minimal. At 7.48am: “The fault is still there.” At 8.06am: “We’re hoping for a clear run at it, but it’s very unlikely we’ll get a clear run at it.”
In the event, it was clear enough. The train pulled into Heuston at 8.50am, 50 minutes after its scheduled arrival time. The communications breakdown proved a bigger mess than the mechanical one.
For frequent travellers with Iarnrod Eireann, communication issues are a familiar complaint — from poor wifi, to rows over names not appearing on prebooked seats. But Tuesday’s lack of information took matters to a new level.
Heuston station was full of stories of meetings missed, appointments delayed, missed connections and a yawning information chasm. “In this day and age with computers and everything else, they should be able to tell us” when we’re going to arrive, said Marianne Morrissey from Waterford, who was running late for an appointment at Temple Street hospital for her daughter Emily-Jane.
Ntando Ndlovu was going to be at least 40 minutes late for her job in Ballsbridge, thanks to the delay of her train from Portarlington. “Nothing was said on the train. I just saw it online.”
Iarnrod Eireann’s corporate communications manager, Barry Kenny, was battling a communications crisis on two fronts in Heuston, having had his mobile phone stolen over the weekend. It was a minor headache beside “the worst fault we’ve experienced in quite a number of years, in terms of the severity and the time that it happened”. Twenty thousand customers had been affected, he said.
The organisation will now “review everything to do with this incident [including] the information provision right around the network. Certainly, if customers on any train were not informed, that’s something that’s not acceptable.”
But on my train, it wasn’t just customers who were in the dark; the staff didn’t appear to know what was happening either. “We are at the moment deploying more customer service staff on board, and equipping them with handheld devices, so that this type of live information can get to crew, and to customers as well.” Would this be the kind of handheld device that every adult in the country already has access to?
By the end of the year, there will be customers service agents on all intercity trains. Overall, there was “a good flow of information coming out of our central control, we were able to update websites, social media, media generally, AA Roadwatch, other broadcast outlets,” he said.
Just not the train driver, staff, or passengers? “As I say, we do know there are issues that need to be improved in terms of enabling our employees to give better information to our customers.”
The Mustains from Limerick — Dave, Antoinette, and their two daughters — finally disembarked at 9.50am, exactly two hours late, having boarded their train in Limerick at 5.30am. They had already missed a connecting train to Belfast, where they had prebooked on tickets for a 1pm slot at the Titanic Museum at a cost of £50. “Only for Twitter, I’d no idea what was going on,” said Dave Mustain.
“The public announcements were very bad. At one stage, they said there was only two stops left, so some passengers jumped off, thinking it wasn’t going on to Heuston. But they meant we were going straight to Heuston. I was half off the train myself.”