Time to bring in the French to run the Enterprise?

[This is taken from A Note from the Next Door Neighbours, the monthly e-bulletin of Andy Pollak, Director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh and Dublin]

I make no apologies for returning to one of my pet subjects: the woeful state of the Belfast-Dublin rail service. We all know what happened on 20 August when the viaduct carrying the line across the Malahide estuary collapsed, narrowly avoiding a major disaster. We know something of what preceded that: as long ago as 1998 International Risk Management Services had identified sections of the viaduct as being the most unsafe stretches of rail track in the Republic, assigning them a 60% security risk on a scale where 5% is ‘best practice'(1) ; five days before the collapse a local sea scout leader had contacted Irish Rail to report erosion damage on one of the arches supporting the viaduct, along with “massive” increases in the water flows going under those arches(2).

What is not so well known – except to the passengers who have to travel on that line – was the chaos that ensued in the days and weeks after the viaduct collapsed. I am one of those passengers and this is my experience. In the 10 days after 20 August I travelled on the Dublin-Newry service (bus from Connolly station to Drogheda and train to Newry) three times, and the train arrived in Newry between an hour and an hour and 20 minutes late on each occasion (this was at a time when Irish Rail was telling the public that there would be, on average, 30 minute delays on the Belfast line).

The main problem was at Drogheda, where trains coming from Belfast had to take a circuitous route in order to refuel on the far side of the marshalling yards and then return southwards by the same route, circling around to pick up long-suffering northbound passengers. This could take up to an hour and a quarter. Perfectly serviceable local diesel railcars parked at the station were ignored. Their utility was shown on the return journey one evening about a week after the viaduct collapse when a smooth transfer from a Northern diesel railcar to a bus at Drogheda got us into Connolly Station precisely 18 minutes behind schedule.

It took two and a half weeks for a new timetable to be introduced (with so little advance publicity that the first time I turned up at the newly-opened Newry station on 8th September to take the last train to Dublin, I was told by the surly and unapologetic man at the ticket barrier that a revised timetable meant that my homeward train had left 90 minutes earlier).

Little wonder then that people are deserting the train in their hundreds to travel by bus and car. This time last year when I took the Dublin-bound evening train from Newry there could be up to 50 passengers – most of them Southern shoppers – waiting to board it. Now I am often the only person to get on at Newry. Similarly, when I took the early Monday morning train to Newry a month after the viaduct collapse I counted precisely seven passengers in the two First Class carriages, when before nearly every seat would have been taken. I dread to think how much money these lost passengers are costing Irish Rail and Translink. Many of those lost passengers are forced to take buses. Ulsterbus and Bus Eireann now provide an efficient, if sometimes crowded, round-the clock hourly service (including buses right through the night). This takes two hours 30 minutes to two hours 40 minutes (with ‘rush hour’ services taking two hours 55 minutes), similar times to the interrupted ‘bus connection to Drogheda’ Enterprise rail service.

However the cross-border bus service has its own problems. A Dundalk mother has written to us complaining that her daughter, who recently took up a new job in Belfast, will have to pay €4550 for 12 months of commuting to Belfast by bus (€87.50 per week). This is compared to €2600 if she was commuting nearly the same distance to work in Dublin, where she would be able to avail of a €50 Bus Eireann weekly commuter ticket. Her mother says such a ticket does not exist on the Dundalk-Belfast route, mainly because Ulsterbus uses a ‘smart card’ multi-journey ticket which cannot be ‘swiped’ on Bus Eireann buses.

This is utterly absurd. Is it beyond the wit of our transport companies on this small island to devise an integrated ticketing system for cross-border travellers? Such systems have existed for many years all over Europe. In fact, is it not time to radically recast the whole public transport system in the Belfast-Dublin corridor and integrate it so that buses and trains and tickets for both make connections and are interchangeable for the first time. My long experience of the Belfast-Dublin line is that Irish Rail and Translink are low morale, poor service operators who are constantly teetering on the brink of breakdown. Why not invite the French, who know how to operate a modern rail system, in to run our premier railway line? Veolia from France has made a great success of the Luas trams in Dublin, as well as of integrated rail, bus and even taxi systems all over the world. Let’s be smart Europeans for a change and get the economically vital east coast of this island moving again.

Andy Pollak

¹ ‘Quick fix might be a bridge too far as engineers consider complex repair job’, The Irish Times, 24 August 2009
² ‘Alert on possible bridge damage given five days before collapse’, The Irish Times, 26 August 2009