Rail passengers are facing potential travel disruption in the run-up to Christmas as train staff are set to ballot for work stoppages.
Members of the National Bus and Rail Union (NBRU) say authorities must act to protect rail workers from “anti-social behaviour and downright thuggery which has now gone well beyond a tipping point”.
The union is to ballot its members in Irish Rail from next week for a mandate to engage in industrial action including work stoppages "in protest at the lack of protection afforded to members" in this regard across the rail network.
In a letter to senior politicians including Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan and acting Minister for Justice Heather Humphreys as well as to top-level figures in Irish Rail on Thursday night, the NBRU said frontline rail workers were "having to walk the gauntlet of abuse, threatened assault, physical violence and constant harassment".
Rail staff, who have spoken to The Irish Times, maintained they were witnessing open drug taking, drug dealing, fighting and intimidatory behaviour virtually every day on train services across the country.
One rail worker said a day did not go by without gardaí having to be called to remove an individual from a train service.
Irish Rail said it had been "working extensively with our employees and trade unions, with An Garda Síochána, and our private security personnel to ensure we both proactively put in place measures to address anti-social behaviour, and respond to specific incidents, to ensure we have as safe a travelling and working environment as possible".
The company said: “The measures in place and those planned are yielding and will continue to yield results, and we want to continue working with our employees and trade unions to address the scourge of anti-social behaviour. Disrupting, through industrial action, the overwhelming majority of customers who are law-abiding and rely on our services daily will not achieve this.”
An appendix to the letter sent to the Taoiseach and other politicians sets out a series of personal, anonymised testimonies drawn up by train staff about their experiences in dealing with threatening and abusive passengers as well as other incidents.
Dedicated Garda division
NBRU general secretary Dermot O’Leary said the union had been calling for many years for the establishment of a dedicated Garda public transport division but this had not been listened to.
In the letter to the Ministers and senior Irish Rail figures, Mr O’Leary said there had been an ever-increasing number of incidents on rail services, but to describe them as anti-social behaviour “belies what is actually occurring on a daily basis on our trains”.
He said staff working in customer services were experiencing “hellish conditions” and had reached the end of their tethers. Many believed senior management were out of touch with what was taking place on the frontline of train services, he added.
The NBRU said it accepted that Irish Rail had increased its security budget and introduced new measures such as CCTV and text alerts of incidents. However, the union said the company’s actions had been almost exclusively reactionary and had not delivered “in terms of providing a safe and secure environment for train hosts, customer service staff, revenue protection personnel, drivers, station workers and the travelling public.”
“How do we expect people to return [to services following Covid lockdowns] and simultaneously encourage ‘new’ patrons onto public transport if not a week goes by without some incident or other form of anti-social behaviour being reported.”
The union contended that an enormous amount of lip service had been given to this issue. However, it warned that “something serious is about to occur unless we [all stakeholders] tackle this plague that has been visited upon our railways”.
Irish Rail said anti-social behaviour was a societal issue to which the railways were not immune. It said that, working with other agencies, it had significantly increased its security presence, with security resources up 50 per cent in the past four years. It had also established ongoing proactive joint patrols with gardaí, particularly on Dart, Heuston Commuter, and Cork routes, including specific programmes such as during the current midterm break and Halloween season.