The anniversary of the Dart

 

TWENTY-FIVE years ago this week, the first delighted passengers stepped aboard new electric trains running between Howth and Bray around Dublin Bay. The Dart – an acronym for Dublin Area Rapid Transit – had been inaugurated and, with it, a new era for public transport in the capital. It could not have been more welcome. After all, we had abandoned the city’s extensive tramway network in 1949, closed down the Harcourt Street railway line and the wonderfully atmospheric Howth tram in 1959, and came to rely on cars, buses and increasingly dilapidated diesel trains in the years that followed.

So the arrival of the Dart represented a quantum leap in the delivery of reliable public transport in Dublin – at least for those fortunate enough to live along the line. That the new service started in very grim times made it all the more remarkable, and it was also one of the early building blocks in helping to redefine Dublin as a European capital city.

Recession in the 1980s, combined with public spending cutbacks, put paid to CIÉ’s plans to extend the Dart to Tallaght and Blanchardstown, with the then Fianna Fáil minority government deciding that future investment in public transport would be limited to buses and diesel trains. This was unfortunate. Although this 1987 decision ultimately spared the Temple Bar area from demolition, it deprived Dublin of the possibility of acquiring a suburban rail network that would have served significant catchment areas of the city. Since its main rail stations were built in the mid-Victorian era, each by a different railway company, the city has been without the essential element of interconnection that would transform disparate regional rail services into an integrated system. This missing link is finally being addressed by CIÉ’s plans for “Dart Underground”– a tunnel linking Heuston Station with Spencer Dock, at an estimated cost of €2 billion. Even in these difficult times, this project must be progressed.

While Dubliners are waiting for it to materialise, perhaps in 2015, they can still enjoy what the Dart has to offer – not just for daily commuting to and from work or school, but also for leisure trips to the seaside at Malahide, Portmarnock, Howth, Killiney, Bray and Greystones. It is also by far the most attractive way of introducing visitors to Dublin Bay, with the Hill of Howth dominating panoramic views from trains between Merrion Gates and Dún Laoghaire. Dart’s cultural impact has been significant too, whether in popularising poetry or giving its name to a new type of accent peculiar to the southside that Ross O’Carroll O’Kelly would find awfully familiar.

Coincidentally, this year also marks the 175th anniversary of Irish railways. It would be ironic if the railway anniversaries this year were to be marked by a Government decision to accept the McCarthy Report’s recommendation to close three more lines, serving Ballina, Nenagh and every town between Limerick Junction and Rosslare, merely on the basis that they are “lightly used”.