December 10, 2006
‘I can always tell the weather in Dublin by the annoying sound of wipers, swishing back and forth incessantly. It drives me mad’’.
So began a conversation with a businesswoman in Cork on Thursday night as we exasperatedly swapped traffic hell stories. She was explaining that practically all her calls to work in Dublin are taken by colleagues who are stuck in traffic, hence the wipers being the perennial background noise. ‘‘It should be the company theme tune.”
Granted the weather was appalling last Thursday; but it is Ireland, it is winter and we are likely to get rain. Yet, despite being forewarned for 20 generations, one bad morning causes havoc on the roads. In my case, this was only the start of a transport nightmare which was not straight out of west Africa, but west Europe. My objective, in the richest country in Europe – with the largest budget surplus in history – was to get from Dublin’s southside to the northside and then back into town to catch a train to Cork. Should have been relatively simple, don’t you think?
‘‘Let’s wait till about 9.30am, the taxi driver said. ‘‘By that time the traffic will have died down and we’ll get from Dun Laoghaire to Swords easily in an hour.” We stopped moving almost as soon as we started. Trucks, buses, juggernauts, cars and vans all piled up behind each other – and that was in the bus lanes. Where were the gardai, the marshals of operation free-flow?
It took two horrendously frustrating hours. We’ve all been through it. We’ve all lost the rag, missed meetings and shouted and roared at others who are in the same bind as us. This is an enormous added stress of living in a country where the state is so appallingly inefficient that it makes you wonder why there isn’t a tax revolt every Monday morning.
Last Wednesday, we had a finance minister who has been gifted, by us, the most enviable budgetary largesse and last Thursday we all faced the reality of Ireland’s transport infrastructure.
The economic inefficiencies created by poor infrastructure are enormous. The hours wasted, the environmental damage, the overtime charges – these costs must run into billions per week. What about the stress and anxiety caused to thousands of working parents who live in fear of their kids being last to leave the creche looking up with big sad eyes at mum saying: ‘‘I thought you weren’t coming.” These are real psychological and emotional costs which, if nothing else, reduce people’s quality of life.
So I made the meeting – an hour late. Apologies all round. Then the taxi driver suggested – given the dreadful traffic – that we should give it at least an hour to get down the bus lanes to Heuston Station. It took almost an hour to get from Dorset Street to Benburb Street.
Yes, I know I should’ve walked, but when you’re in that position, you tend to think that just past the next lights there’ll be progress. So I missed the train. Not to worry, CIE had another ‘special’ train that was to leave at 2pm. All was not lost. Now the fun really started. I had been kicking myself for not taking the Dart (although there is no station at Swords), but at least it would have prevented all the fuming. I began to curse myself and laud Irish Rail, vowing never again to drive anywhere. Relaxing, I thought, I’ll get on the train, have a snooze, something to eat and we’d be in Cork in no time.
Platform 8, the guard said and off I went with almost a spring in my step, prepared to put the morning’s horror behind me. Until I saw the special 2pm train to Cork. It was possibly the oldest rolling stocks till in use in the western world. The carriages were from the 1950s, possibly even older. The windows were wedged open. The wind howled through the rickety doors. The place was filthy. The loos were a disgrace, pestilent and hazardous. There was no running water. There was a thick film of black grease and dirt on the sills. This train had never been cleaned.
Worse, on probably one of the coldest days we’ve had all winter, there was no heat! Those passengers lucky enough to have muffled up earlier sat bewildered, with hats, scarves and coats buttoned up, shivering. It was almost comical. By Kildare, white smoke had started to emerge from the vents, terrifying my neighbour who thought the place was on fire. This eerie cloud enveloped the carriage that most of us had migrated to, on the basis that it was the only one whose doors actually closed tight.
I experienced a sensation that I haven’t had since I was a child. Let’s call it the ‘7A shoulder’. As a kid, I always remember coming home with one shoulder of my duffel coat sodden. The shoulder that was leaning against the bus window was always soaked from a combination of condensation and leaks.
It happened to me again on the 2pm special train to Cork on Thursday – 30 years later. Of course there was no food trolley. There wasn’t even a bar to get a cup of tea on the main ‘intercity’ service between Ireland’s two largest cities, the day after the finance minister told us that we were the most successful economy in Europe and a beacon for the whole world. What type of company treats its customers like that?
How dare they? What sort of management deems it professional to have such a train still in use? One passenger was so frustrated he went around the train getting a petition signed. All but the employees of the company signed. In fairness to Irish Rail, the Craven Car 1950s model was a mistake. They refunded everyone’s cash and apologised profusely. The train journey back up the next day from Cork was a pleasure and the new stock, just delivered from Spain, is state of the art. But this little story of everyday hassle in Ireland underscores the real inflation in our economy. We are stretched to the limits of our capacity. Inflation is not just a monetary phenomenon, it rears its head when there is far too much demand and not enough supply.
We need to get our act together and we have years to go in the area of public infrastructure before we even come close to European standards. For this, someone has to take the rap. Despite all the bluster of Wednesday’s budget, the buck has to stop with the government.