I take trains because of the romance of a train journey.
Especially in Ireland. Nothing quite like sitting back and watching the countryside snake past as you traverse the country. Buses are far cheaper but I like the idea of working on my laptop at a table, a coffee in hand and a view a constantly changing green tapestry to look at. The problem is that, recently at least, the train journeys I've been on have been beyond painful.
Take my most recent trip to Belfast, just as an example.
Despite arriving 30 minutes early I couldn't secure a seat. I decided to sit on the floor so I could work on my laptop, but then the train filled up so much that I was forced to pack everything back up and stand wedged between a door, perched on the food trolley, and in a corridor smelling of piss.
I'm always conscious of losing my head over a once-off issue, mind. Maybe I was just unlucky. So I threw it around to the team in Lovin Dublin to see what sort of experiences they'd had.
Aidan, our editor, was a bit defensive of the whole system.
"I headed down to Wexford last weekend. I'd a four-seater to myself the whole way down, and space to read... and even do a bit of colouring, since that's the in thing these days!"
En route to Wexford, feeling like I'm eight again, and Nan is going to pick me from Cork station after the big tunnel pic.twitter.com/Z4E7Vurgol
— Aidan (@AidanCoughlan) September 5, 2015
And to be fair, Irish Rail did shout back to say they're upgrading their Enterprise (Dublin-Belfast) service. So I'm probably going over the top in thinking it's all doom and gloom.
— Iarnród Éireann (@IrishRail) August 25, 2015
But the rest of the team weren't so positive.
"They sell tickets for about €20 quid more in the station than online, which basically targets the elderly and tourists who don't know to buy on the site," said the socially conscious Marie. "I got a ticket lately but it was for two weeks ahead – I hit the wrong button. They couldn't give me a refund against another ticket and wanted to charge about €60 for a one-way journey.
"After talking to about three staffers, they told me to call and buy a new one over the phone because I'd save a fortune. Total racket."
"There's more chance of winning the lotto than actually getting working wifi – like why even bother advertising it when people have climbed Everest faster than it takes to load one email page," added Ed, with absolutely no sense of hyperbole whatsoever.
The problems aren't unfixable, but there sure are a lot of 'em...
- The trains are too full
- The trains are often filthy
- The trains often have passengers under the influence of whatever, who make the rest of us feel seriously uncomfortable
- The offer of free WiFi is misleading; it's unusable
- They're seriously overprices for what you actually get
Of course, while most of us ordinary joe soaps can put up with this, I think about the staff.
I listened into them and they had the same complaints the passengers did. They were friendly and dealt with the situation brilliantly – but then, when you have four grown men sitting on your drinks trolley and just a six-inch space to stand on, there's only so much you can do.
I also looked at the tourists. Many heading out West straight from Dublin airport or up to the North after a few days in Dublin. A pretty horrendous first experience of the country for many especially when they could be sitting having a cold wine and enjoying the most beautiful countryside in the world zip past. Many sat on their suitcases with drunk passengers squeezing up against them while they mumbled about pre booked tickets they'l never be able to locate.
I see and hear people complaining about this all the time...
— Stephen Magennis (@StephenWhiskey) August 26, 2015
— M I C H A E L (@michaelbosonnet) July 21, 2015
Not alone is @IrishRail train Dub-Kk €25 single but it's late has no alcohol no wifi & carriage is a mess! I will never bad mouth SNCF again
— Dermot Mulhall (@dermotmulhall) August 23, 2015
So what to do?
Irish Rail runs all the public rail services in the country, with the exception of the Luas which is operated under tender by Transdev.
Now we all know the Luas had its issues in how it was initially constructed – particularly the fact that they didn't connect up the fucking lines, but that was in part down to businesses throwing shit fits about having more streets dug up – but day-to-day it runs perfectly.
On time, clean as a whistle, security visible at all times and not overly expensive – to the point where you actually feel like you're getting value for money. The opposite, basically, to how I felt that day on the train to Belfast. And the way thousands of people feel every day.
For now, though...
I'll vote with my feet.
I've been an incredibly loyal customer for years. I've loved taking the train in Ireland and I understand that it'll always cost a bit more and there are huge logistical challenges involved in running a network like that.
The simple fact is that it is just too painful to keep using the service. The expense, the crappy space and cramped cabin as well as unruly passengers and poor wifi mean I'm going to go back to busses or driving again.
You can't blame this on the staff at Irish Rail but rather on a large bloated company that needs to be run like a proper business and not a large charity. Look at what Aer Lingus have done as a mostly private company. They've improved and caught up no end.
I love train but the simple fact is that it's impossible to love Irish rail in it's current format.