Increasing numbers of passengers let the train take the strain … apart from a 10 year decline on the Enterprise

Monday morning’s Belfast Telegraph splashed with the front page story that passengers numbers have fallen by 22% on the Belfast-Dublin Enterprise train over the last decade.

The ‘exclusive’ – based on figures in DRD’s Future Railways Investment consultation document [pdf] that was published in January – was picked up by Talkback at lunchtime as well as other news programmes.

The actual consultation ended in April, though this isn’t mentioned in the paper! And in some ways, it’s never too late to kick off a discussion about the state of the railway network and usage levels in Northern Ireland.

As a student, I travelled up and down from Lisburn to Botanic for three years, and the in and out of Great Victoria Street for work. The old bang door carriages which alternated between freezing cold and blazing hot were gradually replaced with brighter and swisher rolling stock, leaving the once so modern Enterprise carriages looking worn and tatty.

Some days I still manage to time the commute home perfectly, hopping on the Enterprise at Central, and arriving in Lisburn twelve minutes later. Otherwise it’s nearer twenty five minutes as the trail backs into Great Victoria Street, waits four minutes and then tootles down to Lisburn.

A friend’s father once told me that as a student some fifty or so years ago he used to commute home from Botanic to Lisburn every lunchtime – a trip of 10 minutes in those days – walk the five minutes up the hill home, grab something to eat and then head back into Belfast before the hour was out.

The train can be incredibly convenient.

NIR train line passenger numbers chart

The graph in the report – and the associated table – shows the change in passenger numbers from 2001 to 2011. Other than the cross-border service, passenger numbers across the other lines had mostly risen by 50% or more. Cross border services dropped by 22%. In fact, if it had been surveyed over nine rather then ten years, then the drop would have been closer to 35%.

NIR passenger numbers table

Passenger numbers on the Enterprise were fairly flat in the five or so years before the Malahide bridge collapsed in 2009. For years security alerts on the line and knock-on delays due to bus substitutions dented customer confidence in the cross border rail service.

There’s less need to let the train take the strain now that the whole M1/A1/N1/M1 has been dualled and made the drive to Dublin very fast and very predictable. There’s a competitive bus market – on the hour, every hour – down to Dublin airport and on into Dublin City Centre.

Yet a hundred or more railway enthusiasts have just finished their long railtour weekend, darting all over Ireland on steam and diesel trains. It’s an annual event run by the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland. Restored heritage locomotives and carriages have been winding their way through the normal NIR and IÉ timetables and countryside.

Railways are gentle, and when you’re not commuting to work they can even be romantic. The regular rhythm from the tracks is soothing. Goldliner buses and NIR trains now have free wifi. But no bus has a well-stocked bar and hot food available to order. Working (or sleeping) on a train is an altogether nicer experience than travelling on a bus. But in the case of the Enterprise, the service is less frequent, more expensive and feels less value for money.

The Future Railway Investment report notes on page 22 that:

Today, NIR costs are roughly double the revenue received through the fare box and via concession payment.

What would make the Enterprise more appealing?

£460m would apparently electrify the line from Belfast to the border, buy at least six new high speed trains, provide hourly services, increase the maximum speed to 125 km/h and cut journey times to 90 minutes if similar investment was made by IÉ. Politicians and commentators in the Belfast Telegraph agree that this money could only be found in Europe and would not be funded by the Executive. Annual NI Executive spending on railways is currently £44m.

The consultation paper moots the idea of upgrading the Great Victoria Street bus/train station to an “integrated Transport Hub” and moving the Enterprise away from Central Station.

Chris Ryder suggests that “there should be business lounges at Belfast and Dublin to attract passengers to Enterprise”. Offering wifi at the stations while you’re waiting indoors for your train to arrive would be a start – instead of leaving passengers needing a net fix standing on platforms hooking up to the trains waiting on other platforms.

The last train leaves Dublin Connolly at 2050, far too early if you’re wanting to come back to Belfast after dinner. A train really needs to leave an hour later.

NIR Central Station Euro ATM machine

For years Central Station had a cash machine that dispensed Euros. While there are cash machines at Dublin Connolly, it feels better to have them in your hand before you get on the train … knowing that if the machine swallows your card, at least it’s been lost in the jurisdiction you live and work in, a lot easier to retrieve that if you lose it in another country.

But the Ulster Bank Euro ATM disappeared from Central Station last year (though I only noticed last week). I understand it was removed by the bank for commercial reasons due to low usage. [The bank haven’t replied to my query last week.] Still, it is a small backward step that says rail travel is not valued and not part of the all island tourism strategy.

Rail will only ever pay if passenger numbers rocket. Across the entire NI Railways network, this generation of diesel trains may be the last. The NI Executive will face a choice between electrification or mothballing the entire railway network.

Someone better start asking Europe for the money before Cameron holds an EU referendum!

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  • It’s interesting that the graph shows that the year after the Malahide viaduct collapse, numbers actually picked up.

    I noted two things to Chris which bear repeating to a wider audience, and they both relate to Irish Rail.

    Firstly, the Enterprise waiting area is the second worst part of Connolly station after the toilets – it’s an absolute dump.

    Secondly, as I discovered a few years ago, Irish Rail charge significantly more for walk-up fares than NIR (an issue that also afflicts Bus Eireann – a few years I caught the 0300 bus to Dublin Airport, and had to pay the driver the sterling equivalent of €20 as advertised by Bus Eireann – the official sterling fare advertised by Translink was then £14, but because I was buying from one of Bus Eireann’s contractors…)

    Other reasons include perceived unreliability of the 201 class locos (replaced by DMUs at least once a week), and pathing issues – there is little as frustrating as crawling behind a DART all the way to Malahide and then speeding up behind a local passenger train the rest of the way to Drogheda before the driver can open up. I am told that the Enterprise takes precedence over commuter services, but the DART takes precedence over the lot, which is good for local punctuality, but absolutely rubbish for Enterprise passengers who find themselves running late every day. If it’s an express, passengers should expect to get priority when it’s running on time.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Translink have been actually blaming the Malahide viaduct collapse, which is rubbish. If the train was a compelling alternative to road travel, people would automatically prefer it. They’re also blaming the slack economy, which likewise doesn’t cut it. In a slack economy people would prefer to use public transport. Getting the train to Dublin should cost effective compared with travelling by car. Right now it isn’t.

    Andy, Translink and IÉ have addressed the problem of locomotive reliability (a problem caused by the terrible decision to employ locomotive head end power to supply three-phase power) by introducing generator vans. The fact that it took them 20 years to do this is what is farcical here. Would a private sector company have taken this long ?

    The standards of maintenance of the Enterprise stock is poor. The trains seem to go out in service full of isopon plugging repairs which presumably weren’t completed on time, so they look grotty. Inside they’re OK but frequently there aren’t enough seats which really isn’t acceptable for a service targetted at business travellers hoping to get work done on the trip. I was travelling to Dublin frequently quite recently and I ended up paying for an upgrade to first class out of my own pocket just to be sure that I could have a seat.

    The journey time is typically 2hr10 minutes or so, which is a full 20 minutes slower than the fastest timetabled service in 2000 after the Central-Central Junction relay was completed. Some of this is due to speed restrictions in the North but most of it is to allow slack for trains getting stuck behind the DART. Unfortunately, if you look at the Malahide-Dublin section on Google Maps, fixing this is not going to be straightforward. Really what is needed are a few platform loops to allow DART services to get off the main line to allow the Enterprise to pass, but installing these is likely to be expensive.

    The Enterprise is poor because government investment in the railways is far below that of the roads. Ultimately, that’s where the blame for all of this needs to be firmly placed.

  • Mick Fealty

    Have we got a good alternative business case to help improve it?

    Andy, let’s talk by email about that story you sent me?

  • iluvni

    More tired old rot about people using cars from Stewart Dickson yesterday.

  • David Crookes

    Tremendous posting, Alan, many thanks.

  • megatron

    I travel from Newry (sometimes Dundalk) to Dublin 2-3 times a week return. Always by enterprise.

    I am frustrated that its not quicker but it does exactly what it says on the tin. As far as I can see it is extremely reliable and arrives on time more than 90% of the time. I always get a seat.

    Certainly a later train would also be a help though my wife would probably disagree.

  • As long as I avoid commuter trains, I actually enjoy travelling to Belfast. The fact that it is completely free helps.
    But generally speaking its stress free. Although there is a 50-50 chance that I might have to stand on any train around 8am.
    I am surprised that numbers on the Enterprise are down because I travelled a lot last year and mostly had to stand. To be honest most of the passengers were old folk. As I recall last year (dont know about this year) cross border rail service was completely free to people over 65. But last year the fare for being over 60 was just £20 return from I presume any station in the North.
    I often find it convenient to travel for free to Belfast. And buy a return to Belfast and board the Enterprise there. That way I can always have a seat the whole way to Dublin.
    I actually find the waiting area in Connolly Station to be a big improvement on the old standing in line alternative and of course if you turn up about 40 minutes before departure and sit near the departure gate, a seat is guaranteed.

  • Comrade Stalin wrote:
    “Andy, Translink and IÉ have addressed the problem of locomotive reliability (a problem caused by the terrible decision to employ locomotive head end power to supply three-phase power) by introducing generator vans. The fact that it took them 20 years to do this is what is farcical here. Would a private sector company have taken this long ?”
    Actually, and disgustingly, almost certainly 20 years if ever. Remember they would be relying entirely on DRD and DOT to fund the conversions, just as Translink and IE do now. If it wasn’t in the franchise agreement, it wouldn’t get done at all.

    As it happens, I believe all four vans have been taken out of use due to suspected cracks in the bogie frames. Hopefully these can be replaced as other Mk3 coaches are scrapped…

    Finally for now (I’ll drop you a line later, Mick), what would help business travellers in particular would be something that became fashionable and then the norm after the De Dietrichs were built in 1995/96 – power sockets at each seat. I don’t know what the practicalities of retrofitting would be – and again you would be depending on funding from the Assembly and Irish Government to make it so.

  • Neil

    The Enterprise is poor because government investment in the railways is far below that of the roads. Ultimately, that’s where the blame for all of this needs to be firmly placed.

    Maybe but Translink gets funding enough. From BBC:

    Translink announced in 2012 it was facing £17m losses “the committee stated that the department would respond to Translink threats to increase fares with a bailout”.

    “We are proven to be right – almost £8m of bailout money was given to Translink by the department this past year,” he said.

    “However, the committee has now learned that Translink has also identified £5.8m in reserves”.

    So a private organisation begging for money or it’ll jack the fares up. It gets the money, finds almost 6m in their accounts and jacks the fares up anyway.

    I travel from the outskirts of WB, and to use the Park and Ride and train to Central costs more than Diesel and parking in the City Centre. Something wrong with that picture.

    1 million pounds per bus I heard, not sure how true that is, but those buses look very smart, wi fi enabled and luxurious. That money has to come from somewhere and so the passengers are hit hard to pay for the notion that what people want from public transport is comfort over value.

    I would gladly use public transport but the expense rules it out. To underline the point 43 quid for a return to Dublin on the train and the bus is packed solid at 8 quid one way. A business model? Stop squandering money and get the price down.

  • keano10

    Today’s local newspapers are offering £10 day return fares on The Enterprise between Belfast and Dublin. Whether this is desperation or a calculated response to financial realities, it still represents fantastic value for commuters. All is not lost perhaps…

  • Zig70

    It cost me £40 return and took 90mins to drive a 3l car to Dublin. Why would I ever get the train?

  • Comrade Stalin

    Andy,

    Not could that the gen vans are out of service.

    If the privatization were constructed right under the private sector (no guarantee of that of course) the rolling stock would be maintained by a third party who would be contractually obliged to have it fit for service.

    Neil,

    Railways aren’t subsidized to the extent that would permit a reduction in the fares.

  • anne warren

    Got a return ticket on the enterprise in February. Was much more expensive than the bus but much more comfortable, more leg room, could walk about , drinks and snacks available.
    Was with an elderly gentleman who appreciated toilet facilities and who refused to travel on bus for this reason.The elderly, like the very young, do have problems in that department that the rest of us usually don’t suffer from!!
    Was surprised at the number of “short-hop” passengers.
    But it’s no use if one is going to Dublin Airport.
    Maybe an Airport station might be an idea?

  • Anne, only reason why not is that the railway line is 2 miles away at Portmarnock. No connecting bus, which is quite a surprise, but road links are poor.

    Comrade, that’s unlikely to happen – the two fleets (NIR and IE) are too small to spin off separately from the operating company, and it’s not as if a leasing company could lease them to anyone else (or each other, as interoperability is constrained by the different regulatory regimes in UK and Ireland!) I’d also be concerned that the inevitable hard charging would artificially increase costs due to the leasing company being a third party.

  • Regarding the £10 day return fare, try actually booking one.
    The website doesn’t tell you which trains you have to get up and down so it’s trial and error. The offer is not for any train up or down or even most of them I can assure you. Plus you have to book 72 hours in advance. That’s really business friendly. Not!
    Three things that would make a difference. Transparent clear and reasonable pricing. Sockets at each seat (AndyB above), and an hourly service.

  • If I may, here is a direct comparison with the Bus offer.
    Price:
    Bus £8 single online bookable up to 5pm day before travel (Just print your confirmation e-mail) Simples. Journey time 2 hrs Max. No Loo. No Catering. Wifi. Hourly service 24 hours a day
    Rail. Could be anything really on price but if you book online, three days in advance because they POST you the ticket???
    Journeytime 2 hours 10 mins.Loo. Vastly overpriced catering.Wifi. Every 2 hours first arriving in Dublin after 9am or Belfast at 10am.

  • Comrade Stalin

    AndyB, I see what you mean about third party rolling stock being somewhat impractical. But I’m quite convinced that things can be done better than they are done at present. Translink don’t maintain their fleet well; the C3K trains are already looking grotty inside. And they splurge money on rolling stock (such as the Gatwick set and the DVT) and then seldom use it.

    The combined size of the C3K and C4K fleets far exceed the availability of the 450 and 80 sets they replaced, but service frequency hasn’t substantially changed to match so there are a bunch of sets lying unused.

    Bangordub, the online ticket offer with the Enterprise seems to be designed to discourage people from using it. The objective is clearly to optimize fare sales for peak and off-peak services but it’s out of date. The fact that you can’t even print out your ticket (as you can with the airlines) shows how daft it is; and buying a ticket in advance doesn’t even guarantee you a seat. Stupid.

  • There are track capacity reasons for that, and that they can’t afford to employ extra drivers (plus the usual running empty using fuel they can’t afford thing due to subsidy cuts!) The sets will get used to strengthen existing trains as demand increases subject to conductor availability, and eventually for the enhanced Derry line service.

    You’re up against one thing for the Dublin web ticket thing: money money money and lack of cash to innovate. It’s ridiculous, but it’s reality.

  • Hopping The Border

    The 72 hours prebooking scenario is a sham. NIR try to pass it off as having to post it out but you are given the option to collect at the station.

    Yet you can book up to three hours in advance on the Dublin side.

    Power sockets are a must and an hourly service desirable.

    Also, you can’t get into belfast for 9am, yet you can get in to Dublin 9.

    For anyone that has had a few drinks the night before it should be the perfect vehicle, but NIR’s ridiculous ticketing system makes it difficult and the timetabling doesn’t help.

  • pwrmoore

    Ulster bank’s reason for removing the Euro cash machine may be correct. There may have been low usage. But I wonder if there was an underlying cause. Over the past several years both my girlfriend and myself have tried to withdraw euros from that machine on numerous occasions using our Northern bank cards. We were NEVER successful and it wasn;t because there were insuffucient funds in our bank accounts.

  • crockaleen

    I was caught out by the 72 hour nonsense myself last month – since it doesn’t include weekends, for postage and all that.
    That said, even for £25 return from Portadown to Connolly, I thought it was reasonable value. Adding together fuel, parking and tolls, it was likely cheaper than driving. Even comparing it with the similar journey (distance wise) from Newcastle to York, £25 there and back would be a decent fare at short notice.

    Where the bus has the edge is the stop at Dublin airport, if there were a light rail connection from Connolly with a transferable ticket, it could be a game changer, although I’ll not hold my breath for that one. Then again, would many trust the Enterprise to get them to a flight on time? Unlikely.

    As for the wifi, I’ve never had much luck with that…

  • BarneyT

    Firstly, the enterprise is a must for many reasons, however I am not sure our existing infrastructure can accommodate much more improvement.

    I would argue that it does not correctly serve the business user. A 9:04 arrival at Connolly does not align with the standard business day, particularly if you have an onward connection or a significant stroll to work. It really should be hitting Dublin around 8:30.

    Of course, as it barely travels at 1 mile a minute, that would make the Belfast departure unacceptably early.

    They could replace the stock with the intent of doubling the speed or perhaps more, providing the tracks can cope. This would solve departure and arrival times. However, faster trains would clash with the commuter service south of the border and we’d be back to square one.

    We need an all-ireland strategy to install an improved infrastructure that allows both a commuter service and intercity service to run in parallel. Of course this would tear lumps out of the countryside and perhaps hit the rails (no pun intended) as the A5 project has.

    Its hard to make a business case for improvement given the limits of the infrastructure.

  • IJP

    Alan

    Great piece.

    I have long thought the real reason for the rise in passenger numbers was the quality of the actual train.

    The statistics back this up – the Larne Line was the last to receive the new trains and had the lowest increase; I wouldn’t be surprised if that increase comes into line with Bangor in due course now that the new trains are in use.

    By the way, this “comfort” point goes well beyond transport. If, for example, Irish League football stadiums were upgraded and made more comfortable, I have no doubt attendances would soar.

  • IJP – Comfort and ease of use. If ticketing was more flexible and straightforward – ie, smart cards didn’t expire quickly – I’d be much more likely to catch buses. As it is, I’ve been on 10 or 20 times the number of buses in London than in NI (used to commute from hotel to work in London on a bus rather than the tube).

  • Smartcards don’t expire quickly – they last a full year, and each time you top up, the expiry date is extended.

    I put 40 journeys on my city zone smartlink card before the fares went up, and if I still have some left in early May I can extend validity by simply buying another five before they run out.

    For all that, I would love to have a Smartlink card that I could load with cash and take on any bus (or train) to pay an intermediate fare – say you keep the normal smartlink fare for the regular customers, but you get a discount somewhere between the return and season/multijourney fare on any service in NI. Sounds like Oyster, and it would be fantastic.

  • Reader

    Alan in Belfast: Comfort and ease of use.
    Reliability and punctuality. As I see it that’s the main benefit from the newer trains.

  • Comrade Stalin

    AndyB,

    A local Oyster-style card would be great. Translink had the opportunity to do this a few years ago when they introduced the Smartpass, but opted not to. It seems to be to do with revenue protection, and as such they’re missing an opportunity to eliminate cash handling etc.

    BarneyT,

    The Enterprise stock is rated for 90mph operation and the locomotives can do 102mph. As I pointed out above, in the early part of the millennium the service (with the same stock and track) was timetabled for 1hr55 and I recall travelling on occasions where it met this timetable. If this timetabling were in place for the 0650 departure today, the service would arrive in Dublin for 8:45, far more business-friendly.

    The single biggest problem is the DART in Dublin. Since 2000 this has been significantly expanded; not only are the Malahide extensions now in place, but DART services are more frequent. For this reason any delay of any train between Malahide and Connolly, or a slight delay of the Enterprise itself, means that the Enterprise is likely to end up behind a DART which is going to be stopping all the way into the city. When this happens there can be no recovery. Accordingly the timetable has lots of slack built in for the Drogheda-Dublin part of the trip.

    The “nice” solution to this would be to install an additional track between Malahide and Connolly, along which the Enterprise and any other express trains could simply coast, but the cost of doing this would be significant as much of the land between the two points is occupied. A compromise would be to extend a few key DART stations so that local trains can pull off the main line to allow expresses to pass. Looking at the map, I can see a few opportunities to do this. Other points, for example Harmonstown and Raheny, have private houses backed up right against the railway line.

    There are, of course, other problems. The track on the Northern section is not great in places. Contrary to popular belief, the big cross border upgrade of the 1990s did not upgrade all the track, just certain key parts of it. Those parts which were not upgraded are now in need of renewal. There are several sections around Lurgan and Moira where drainage is a major issue and extensive reconstruction of the trackbed will be required.