Monday 18 December 2017

Customers railroaded by an out-of-date service

IRISH Rail is at it again. The price of some intercity tickets will increase by 13pc tomorrow after the State-owned company got permission from the National Transport Authority to hike 143 fare bands, reduce 66 and leave 15 unchanged as part of a plan to simplify fares.

There is nothing wrong with streamlining the weird pricing structure that includes a surcharge for people travelling return on Sundays and many other anomalies, but it is a depressing fact that Irish Rail originally asked for permission to raise all its prices despite the recession.

Most people don't use the railways, so it's worth saying here that Irish Rail offers a decent service to the thousands of people who don't have to pay fares because they are entitled to free travel. The problem is the price for those who do pay.

The last Fianna Fail administrations invested around €2.5bn in rolling stock and track over the past decade, but there has been very little investment in people which means that the service is still bedevilled by a defeatist management which struggles to introduce simple technologies, such as wireless internet on trains.

The most depressing example is the rail operator's attitude to tickets. Dublin's tram system (profit and passenger numbers rising nicely despite the bust) shows that passengers can be trusted to buy their own tickets, but Irish Rail insists on checking tickets when they are bought, during a journey and once again at the destination. This level of unnecessary oversight (one inspector on a train would do) is one of the reasons why Irish Rail is compelled to hike fares tomorrow.

You wouldn't know from Irish Rail, but this is a golden age for rail travel in most parts of the world. Super fast trains combined with wireless internet and high petrol prices make train journeys quicker, more productive and cheaper than cars in many countries. Back in Ireland, where most trains are still very slow, wifi is a pipe dream for most passengers and ticket prices keep rising faster than inflation, we can only weep with envy.

Still, things could be worse. An entertaining piece in last weekend's Irish Independent remembered a time in the 1920s when relations between management and staff were so bad that a traffic manager at Ballinamore, called William McFarland, was woken at gunpoint, marched to the station and forced to write a letter reinstating some workers who had been dismissed.

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