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Nostalgic for the unexpectedness of rail

Stuck in the sticksShirley Clerkin 

 

Each day, as regular as the Luas, the ladies of the field head out of the gate and file down the road to be milked. Their hip bones and shoulder blades may jut out but they do manage a certain sashay past the cars. Cows on the road in Co Monaghan, where I live, are an obstacle that I don’t mind waiting for. It seems proper they should have the right of way on the ‘bó-thar’, which in medieval times the Brehon Laws declared to be a path wide enough for two cows to pass. A century ago when cows were more prominent on the road than today, I could have made my journey using a train and an iron road. How did we abandon the common sense and community of rail for ‘Cars R us’?

Perhaps we simply longed for a more fragrant journey. Or maybe we can blame Henry Ford for producing a shockingly desirably priced vehicle for the market. The quest for privacy and indeed escape from home perhaps explains the enthusiasm of some for long commutes. A generation ago a roads engineer in Dublin justified the penetration of the Liberties in Dublin by a new road on the ground that there was evidence that as “thoroughgoing democrats” we would all want a car. “Please God”, he said, one day we all would get one. Some too surely relish the politics of the office car-park: mine is bigger and faster than yours.

On the other hand, the cameo in honour of the railway engineer Brunel, at the London Olympics opening-ceremony, reminded me of what an achievement the creation of the rail network was. George Bradshaw’s Victorian ‘railway guidebook’ from 1866 included Ireland and described many of the small towns on the network, much like ‘Lonely Planet’ handbooks do nowadays. The railway “came” to towns and villages after years of planning, excavating, stone-cutting and bridge-building. People who championed it were early adaptors of a new technology. Sure it was faster than a shanks mare, a horse and carriage, or a chariot for that matter and there was a ticket price to suit almost everyone. I am always surprised they just stopped building them.

Worse, market and political forces caused over half of the Victorian railway lines to be closed one by one in the 1950s and 1960s. Visionlessly, no order was made to preserve the routes to protect them from development and sale. The border counties suffered particularly badly when Northern Ireland unilaterally decided to close services on cross-border lines in the 1950s, leaving unusable spurs in the Republic. It is spilt milk now. The remotest parts of Donegal, even around the back of Errigal, once had little train stations and lively platforms. In now railway-less County Monaghan there were once 14 railway stations and numerous halts, leading to faraway Dublin, Belfast, Cavan and – crucially – Bundoran for holidays. It would be wonderful to refill those carriages with surfers, their gear and paraphernalia, good humour and salty hair. The surf express.

Instead for the most part in rural Ireland, all we have are the cow roads – the bóthair, requiring regular top-ups of bitumen and dependent for use on the private car with its noxious fuel. The West-On-Track campaign aims to secure the re-opening of the western rail corridor from Sligo to Limerick, and had some success with the re-opening of phase 1 between Limerick and Galway in March 2010. Use of the line has been patchy and it’s unlikely that any new rail lines will be built in the foreseeable future. In July of this year, the government agreed to increase the subvention to CIE by €36 million to €278 million, which is close to its 2010 figure. This was necessitated by falling passenger numbers and increased fuel costs. It is to be supported by the sale of non-core assets by CIE. These apparently include property and land, some tranches of which are attached or adjacent to existing stations.

I have had the fortune to meet many absorbing people on train journeys, even on commuter trains full of weary workers. Clarke Railway Station in Dundalk has a railway museum on the platform and the remnants of a poetry project painted on its joists, reminding passengers that an unexpected encounter with a stranger could be a good thing.

 

At its peak in 1920, Ireland had 5,600 km (3,480 miles) of railway. Now less than half of this remains. Irish Rail has 1,944 km and Northern Ireland Railways operates another 357 km. A large area around the border area has no rail service.

 

Early years – construction

Irish railways were built between 1834 (Dún Laoghaire line) and the early years of the 20th century.

 

Decline

Between 1949 and 1967 the Ulster Transport Authority closed almost 80% of the railway system under its control and introduced diesel railcars to the rest. In 1962, CIE eliminated steam traction for good.

 

1970s and 1980s – further decline

The 1970s and 1980s saw a long period without substantial investment in the rail system, with a number of limited exceptions. Dublin’s coastal DART was opened in 1984 and has proved extremely successful – in spite of trenchant criticism levelled at it in advance of its opening by influential economists such as Colm McCarthy. The Dublin-Belfast service was also improved, operating as a flagship for both Irish Rail and NIR, despite frequent interruptions due to ‘the troubles’. And, in the context of the time, significant investment was also committed to freight rolling stock and depots.

 

Rail in Ireland…

1990s – revival

In the 1990s, the Celtic Tiger allowed substantial investment to be made.

 

2000s – further development

DART services extended in the south to Greystones in 2000 and to Malahide in the north.

Iarnrod Eireann closed its container rail freight business in 2005, saying that the sector had accounted for 10% of its freight business, but 70% of its losses.

In 2009 commuter trains began to run from Mallow to Cork.

 

2010s – Flux

The Western Railway Corridor (WRC) from Ennis to Athenry was reopened but shockingly carries only eight passengers per train on average as massive road investment has rendered it effectively unviable.

In September 2010 services began from Dunboyne to Dublin Docklands after the redevelopment of 7.5km section of the old Navan railway line which had been closed in 1963 from Dunboyne to Clonsilla on the Maynooth line. There are proposals for further development of this line to Navan as part of Transport 21 by 2015.

In 2010 the Rosslare-Waterford Line closed to passengers.

Dublin’s cross-city Luas line, the only major rail project sanctioned by the Government post-crash, is set to carry its first passengers in 2017. The Luas BXD will connect the Green and Red lines for the first time.

Soon after coming to office Minister Varadkar indicated that Ireland would not seek to renew its derogation from EU Directive 91/440, meaning that from March 2013 train operations and the maintenance of the lines will be accounted for separately for the first time; Northern Ireland is expected to undertake a similar reform.

Rail speeds are too slow – no train in Ireland exceeds 160 km/h. The vast bulk of the €36 million in emergency funding recently approved by government is going to sickly Iarnród Éireann which is seeking 450 redundancies.