The DART station in Kilbarrack is a small concrete slab of a building nestled between housing estates.
At the entrance, two ticket machines stand next to two open turnstiles. Next to the turnstiles, the kiosk windows are covered with grey shutters.
Past the turnstiles, next to the southbound platform, a bright yellow ramp sits propped up against a wall. Employees use it to help disabled passengers on and off trains.
But there are no employees here.
When they need help, passengers have to contact Iarnród Éireann, or one of the 13 DART “hub” stations that are staffed, four hours in advance of their travel, to make sure someone’s there to position the ramp.
Some Dublin City Councillors took issue with the fact that some DART stations are unstaffed, like this one, at a meeting of the council’s North Central Area Committee last month.
They said it makes people feel less safe, forces people to pre-plan when they shouldn’t have to, and shows a lack of appreciation for the human, customer-service role that staff members play at stations.
No Staff, No Help
On this rainy Tuesday, Christine Connolly stands just inside the station, waiting for her train. She commutes this way every day.
“I think it’s a bit dangerous because I think all [stations] should have somebody there in case something happens,” Connolly says. “Also, for tourists not knowing what’s going on or where to go, there’s no one to ask.”
Other commuters huddling away from the rain say they’ve seen people walk through the turnstiles without paying. “They’re losing a lot of money,” says Ken Maguire.
Still others complain about the finicky ticketing machines.
Staffing at Kilbarrack station has been on Sinn Féin Councillor Mícheál Mac Donncha’s radar for the last few years.
He says he organised a petition, which several hundred people signed, to keep the station staffed.
Mac Donncha says unstaffed stations cause all kinds of problems. People don’t feel secure; and they don’t know what to do when ticket machines stop working.
Hubs and Satellites
At the beginning of last year, Iarnród Éireann announced its plan for 13 fully staffed “hub” stations and an increasing list of unmanned “satellite” stations.
The idea was that employees from the hubs would travel to adjacent satellites to assist customers when necessary.
The 13 hub stations are spread along the lines: at Bray, Dalkey, Dún Laoghaire, Blackrock, Sandymount, Pearse, Tara Street, Connolly, Killester, Raheny, Howth Junction and Donaghmede, Howth, and Malahide.
At the moment, six stations are unstaffed, according to Iarnród Éireann spokesperson Barry Kenny. Those are at Kilbarrack, Killiney, Shankill, Portmarnock, Lansdowne Road, and Clongriffin.
Any changes in staffing levels “are as required to ensure that hub stations are fully staffed”, he says.
“We anticipate that only a small number of stations could become unmanned during 2019, subject to the point above, but no decision has been made at this time,” he said, by email.
According to Kenny, removing staff at certain stations isn’t down to funding. It’s because over 90 percent of DART customers buy their tickets through automatic means – via season tickets, Leap cards, and ticketing machines.
“[W]e need to ensure that we have resources available to provide customer assistance across the network, rather than focus on ticket sales, for which the demand has reduced,” he says.
Damien Fagan stands waiting for his train to visit his dad.
“I’m travelling the DART since 1985. I don’t drive, so there’s nothing I haven’t seen on the DART. Do you know what I mean? Nothing,” he says.
He’s seen plenty of antisocial behaviour, especially in the summer, when kids are out of school and the weather’s nice.
“If a fight broke out here, anything could happen, and I’ve seen it happening,” Fagan says. “There’s a lot, security-wise, that could be done.”
A few seconds later, two women walk over.
“We need the station reopened. We need somebody there,” one of them says, motioning toward the closed kiosk with her thumb. They turn and bustle onto the waiting train.
Michael O’Brien, former Solidarity councillor for Donaghmede, says the obvious issue arising from unmanned DART stations is security.
“There’s not an expectation that ticket collectors would be intervening into public order incidents. But if no staff is present whatsoever, that can serve as a magnet for antisocial behaviour,” O’Brien says.
He mentions a high-profile public-order incident at Clongriffin last year – that station became unmanned in February.
Iarnród Éireann spokesperson Barry Kenny said the “overwhelming majority” of DART journeys happen without incident, but they “have seen an increase in anti-social behaviour incidents”.
Iarnród Éireann has a plan to tackle this, Kenny said. That includes deploying more resources for security.
He said the body expects to introduce a text-alert service later this month, which would allow customers to let them know about incidents of antisocial behaviour.
“This will be live-monitored, allowing us to direct security resources and seek the assistance of the Gardaí to address,” he said.
Iarnród Éireann is planning joint initiatives with Gardaí over the next few months, Kenny said, and it plans to install CCTV cameras in all the DART carriages that don’t already have them.
Dermot O’Leary, spokesperson for the National Bus and Rail Union (NBRU), says that organisation has been calling for a dedicated Garda division for public transport for a while now.
“We’ve been writing to ministers in relation to it over the last 12 months. We’ve been ramping up our campaign,” he says.
O’Leary compares the idea to the British Transport Police, which has a “visible presence at main stations”.
“People engaging in antisocial behaviour would know the [Garda transport division] exists, and that might reduce the urge to engage in that behaviour. We would see it as a deterrent,” he says.
Disability activist Sean O’Kelly says he’s lucky – his local DART station is staffed.
“But if a station isn’t manned all the time, you ring a head station and let them know where you’re coming from, where you’re going to, and then they come to you,” says Kelly, who started the “A Day in My Wheels” campaign.
In the past, he says, he had to give 24 hours’ notice, but now it’s four hours for the DART. It’s still 24 hours for intercity and commuter trains, he says.
O’Kelly doesn’t use the DART as much now that he drives – something that frustrating experiences on public transport spurred him on to do.
“I love having the freedom of going where you want to go, when you want to go,” O’Kelly says.
The waiting time is an imposition, says O’Brien, the former Solidarity councillor. And what about tourists, he says, or unscheduled journeys?
Last year, Ireland ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).
Clare Cronin, spokesperson for the Disability Federation of Ireland, says the CRPD promises people with disabilities equal rights.
“Any advance notice to travel by public train is not equal treatment. People without disabilities don’t have to give four hours’ notice, or 24, and neither should people with disabilities,” Cronin says.
Iarnród Éireann is in the initial stages of testing a passenger-assistance app, says Kenny. The aim is to reduce this notice period.
The Automation of Everything
At the Raheny station, one stop south of Kilbarrack, a DART employee sits in the kiosk near the turnstiles. He’s busy.
An elderly man buys a ticket from him for a journey the next day. Someone gets stuck at a turnstile and motions for help.
Back at Kilbarrack, Carol Conway says she remembers the man who used to work at her station.
“He knew everyone and was helpful. The DART staff were very good,” she says.
Councillor Alison Gilliland of the Labour Party says unattended DART stations are fine for mobile and fit commuters, but they don’t meet everyone’s needs.
“If somebody fainted, or a child got ill, or someone turned up at the DART station needing clarity about where to go … there’s no one there,” Gilliland says.
Every station should have personnel present during opening hours, to deal with problems, she says. But also, “somebody to say hello to you in the mornings”.
“It goes back to the human services thing and the automation of everything. I think we’ve lost something in that – human interaction,” she says.
Gilliland says she can’t see the policy changing. Iarnród Éireann doesn’t seem to be looking at the issue from “the perspective of offering a quality service that has a human interaction to it”, she says.
“I think we’re coming full circle, and the public sector and public services – those who arrange public services – really are in a powerful place to dictate a cultural change,” she says.