Westmeath Independent reporter Adrian Cusack gives his views on how to improve public transport in Ireland:
Two years ago, a friend was travelling on the Galway to Ballina bus. A woman, who had just heard of a death in her locality, boarded in Ballinrobe.
With a sense of relish at being first to reveal the news, she took out her phone and began working her way through the address book to let everybody know about the deceased’s passing in a series of loud phone conversations.
Ten minutes later, the young bus driver pulled into a lay-by, marched back to where the woman was sitting, and announced: “We don’t all need to know your business!”
As any regular public transport user will know, the unusual feature of that story was the driver’s response, not the fact that a commuter was blaring out potentially sensitive information at top volume on the phone.
This is just one of the small irritants that regularly catch your attention on bus or train trips in this country. As a non-driver, I am quite familiar with the quirks of Irish Rail and Bus Eireann.
Last month, Alan Kelly, the Minister of State for Public and Commuter Transport, caused a minor controversy by claiming public transport growth was being hindered by the slightly snobbish attitude of the middle classes to commuting by bus.
“Some people believe public transport is something that other social classes use and do not see it as the 'middle class’ thing to do. This is especially true for bus transport,” the Minister said.
“There is absolutely no doubt that class perceptions are holding back public transport usage in Ireland.”
Blaming snobbery and perceived class divides was a neat way of deflecting attention and responsibility away from practical, everyday changes that could make our public transport more inviting. These sometimes cost money, which is in short supply at the CIE companies. Better just to talk about something intangible and say it’s the reason why things are the way they are.
A European survey last year revealed that Irish people use public transport less often than every other country in the EU, bar Cyprus. Sorry, Minister, this is not down to class perceptions. It’s down to service, reliability, comfort and cost.
Here are suggestions for a few practical changes that would make travelling by bus and train more attractive:
1) Be punctual.
To encourage people to use public transport, you must supply them with a timetable they can depend on. Our trains are reasonably good in this regard, but, if my recent trips on Bus Eireann are any indication, its timetable is sometimes a vague guide rather than an actual statement of when a bus will come or go.
For example, I was recently scheduled to travel from Galway bus station at 8.20am. When that time arrived, a newly-installed digital information board at the bus stop cheerfully told us the bus had 'departed’. In fact, it sat there, awaiting a driver, for the next ten minutes. When the driver finally arrived, there was no apology and no sense of urgency.
2) Prevent overcrowding.
Train travel can be very pleasant - but not if you get on board at the weekend to discover every seat is taken, and the space between carriages resembles a scrum in a Six Nations fixture.
Irish Rail spokesperson Barry Kenny has repeatedly said that overcrowding on trains is “a comfort issue rather a safety issue,” but people who fork out their money for a train ticket deserve to know they will have seat. Making sure there are extra carriages on the busiest services is the obvious solution.
3) Scrap the automated announcements.
The lengthy automated spiel (in both Irish and English) between every stop on Irish Rail services is endlessly annoying. Towards the end of each round of announcements, the voice tells us to “have a pleasant and comfortable journey” - something we would be better able to do if such announcements weren’t there in the first place.
In my experience, trains in other European countries don’t include such lengthy roll-calls of stations, rules and regulations on every journey, so why do we do it here?
Ironically, the automated announcements always come through loud and clear, while important updates, about delays to a service, for example, are given by the driver on a manual intercom that is usually crackly and hard to decipher.
4) Have phone and alcohol-free carriages.
In the US, many Amtrak trains now include a 'quiet car’ which, the company says, provides “a peaceful, quiet atmosphere for passengers who want to work or rest without distraction.”
Quiet car passengers are not allowed to make or receive calls on their mobile phones. If a call must be made or answered, the passenger has to move to another car.
Introducing such a concept on Irish Rail may seem a long way off at present, but it would be nice to have this option. Banning booze on certain carriages would also be a step forward.
5) Stop increasing fares.
Perhaps the biggest barrier to increased bus and train usage is the cost, which has climbed to worrying levels over the last few years. The National Transport Authority (NTA) approved two rounds of fare increases in 2012, and further sharp increases were approved for customers of Bus Eireann, Irish Rail, Luas, and Dublin Bus late last year.
The increases were justified by the NTA due to the “challenging” environment facing the companies, with falling passenger numbers cited among the reasons. Continuing to put up prices will only make passenger numbers decrease further.