Sunday 25 March 2018

How Irish Rail left passengers in limbo on busiest weekend of year

When network suffered major bank holiday delay, there was neither information nor a staff member in sight

Paul Melia. Connolly Train Station, Amiens Street, Dublin. Picture: Caroline Quinn
Paul Melia. Connolly Train Station, Amiens Street, Dublin. Picture: Caroline Quinn
Paul Melia

Paul Melia

It's Saturday afternoon in Portarlington and an older lady has just been forced to find a quiet place outside the train station to relieve herself.

Nearby on Platform 2, a stag party is enjoying beers in the sun. A group of teenagers is singing an Oasis song, accompanied by an enthusiastic member of the stag, and I'm acting as a de facto train conductor, trying to find out why instead of being in other places, we're all in Co Laois.

We're among 5,000 passengers enjoying the summer sunshine in stations across the country after a train broke down, paralysing the network.

More than 25 trains leaving Heuston Station are delayed for a minimum of 30 minutes. I'm waiting on the Galway train, which ends up being three hours late.

It's the worst delay of the year, but Irish Rail doesn't feel the need to tell anyone what's happening.

In Portarlington, dozens are left stranded in a station with no staff, locked toilets, no food or drink and no information.

Songwriter Percy French knew a thing or two about delays. In 1897, he sued the directors of the West Clare Railway Company for loss of earnings after he and his troupe of entertainers were late for a performance in Kilkee following a five-hour delay.

Awarded £10 in damages, the experience resulted in 'Are Ye Right There Michael' which tells of his woes.

"Are ye right there, Michael, are ye right? / Do you think that we'll be there before the night? / Ye've been so long in startin / That ye couldn't say for sartin / Still ye might now, Michael, so ye might."

The day started well enough. I boarded the train just after 12.30pm at Hazelhatch in Kildare, which was due to arrive in Portarlington a half an hour later. There, I planned to connect with the 2pm Galway service, arriving at 3.43pm.

I came well prepared for my 50-minute wait, armed with newspapers, ham sandwiches, Tayto and a Thermos of coffee.

Portarlington is a fine station. Opened in June 1847, it's been remodelled and upgraded in recent years but retains its stone buildings and Victorian footbridge.

It's among the busiest on the network, serving trains between Dublin and Portlaoise, Cork, Limerick, Tralee, Galway, Westport and Ballina. Around 500 passengers a day board.

A lady and I struck up a conversation on the platform. She too was going to Galway, to visit a friend who lived in Spiddal outside the city. Another woman joined us, en route to Limerick Junction. She planned to stay overnight before flying from Shannon to the south of France the following morning.

A man had travelled from Portlaoise to connect with the Galway train, where he was planning to visit his brother. A 19-year old from Tralee had left his home at 8am that morning headed for Westport in Mayo. It would be quicker to drive, but more pleasant to take the train, he had decided.

We spoke about everything and nothing. About how nice the day was, and how good a service was provided by Irish Rail. About the cost of tickets (expensive), the GAA, farming and about how some English people were snooty. There was little employment in Portarlington, a local said, with most people commuting to Dublin and Athlone for work. "I'd say a lot of people moved down and now regret it," she added.

It was now after 2pm, and the train hadn't arrived. No panic. There was no end of services going in the opposite direction towards Dublin, and the Irish Rail phone app advised mine was running a few minutes late.

But those few minutes soon turned into a few minutes more, and then into a half-hour delay. A quick trip to the station to glean some information went unrewarded. No staff were on duty, despite it being the height of the tourist season. A phone call to Heuston Station in Dublin at 2.45pm was a wasted effort. All that was offered was a talking timetable.

There was nothing online. Nothing on Twitter that I could see. Nothing announced.

A group of lads, assumed to be on a stag, decided that if they were stuck, they might as well party. Two raced to the nearest pub, and arrived back shortly after, clutching cases of beer, to loud cheers.

And then the phone calls began. Just before 3pm, I called Portarlington (staff must be in the toilet, I reasoned). No answer. Someone else called Newbridge and Kildare. No answer. At 3.15pm I called the Mammy. She would be anxious at my late arrival, I thought. She wasn't.

The man going to Galway had some news. "The brother was on. He said it'll be here in 20 or 30 minutes," he said.

I had drunk about a pint of coffee at this stage, and needed the loo. Another lady said she too needed some relief and, leaving our bags in the care of one of our fellow passengers, we made our way to the station.

The toilets were locked. Deadbolted. There was no option but to find a quiet corner outside.

On our way back, my travelling companion confided that in her 70-plus years, she had never done anything like that before. We both agreed the day had turned into a marvellous adventure.

Back on Platform 2, the natives were restless. Not good enough. Disgraceful. Why don't they provide buses? Why are no staff around? Why can't someone tell us what's going on? But we all agreed it was a lovely day and great that it wasn't raining.

The 19-year old from Tralee was on the phone to his mother who, being a mammy, asked had he remembered his jacket and was he warm enough. His aunt, he volunteered, lived in Tullamore and was willing to come and pick him up and drive him on to Westport. Some aunt.

The teenagers started singing, quietly at first. One was on guitar, two others had drumsticks and tapped out a rhythm on a knapsack. A member of the stag, flush with drink and good humour, borrowed a pair of sticks and drummed along, singing 'Don't Look Back in Anger'. Apart from the lack of a train, it was all very pleasant.

At 3.42pm, more out of desperation than anything else, I tried Portarlington again. No answer. At 3.44pm, Portlaoise answered. "Hello", I said. "I'm in Portarlington station and my train is delayed. What's happening?"

"A train has broken down," came the reply. Asked when services might resume, I was told: "Haven't a clue."

The man going to Galway came up. "The brother was on. He said it'll be here in 20 or 30 minutes."

It was now approaching 4pm and we had been stranded for almost three hours. The lady visiting her friend in Spiddal decided she had to give up. Even if the train arrived, she would miss her connecting bus.

"I'm very disappointed, I was looking forward to it," she said, before crossing the platform to wait for a train home.

At 4.18pm, I tried Heuston again to no avail. Finally out of desperation, I called the Irish Rail press office.

The 1pm train to Cork had broken down near Monasterevin half an hour into its journey, I was told, meaning all services from Heuston were delayed.

A relief locomotive was en route, and the train to Galway would arrive just before 5pm. Trains to Limerick Junction and Westport, and other places, would follow shortly after.

I told my fellow passengers. The man going to Galway came up. "The brother was on. He said it'll be here in 20 or 30 minutes," he said. This time, he was right.

It turned out that 27 trains were affected by the delay, with large parts of the network brought to a standstill. The Galway train was the worst affected, delayed for 174 minutes, but when it eventually arrived at 5pm, there was nothing. No announcement from the driver until it pulled into Ceannt Station at 7pm - three hours later - and where an apology was made.

Unlike Percy French, I won't sue, but I've submitted a claim for a refund, despite my grand day out.

And it turns out the lady could have gone to Spiddal after all, as Irish Rail would have paid for a taxi due to the delay. But like everything else that weekend, it was never communicated. Too little, too late. Pity.

Irish Independent

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