AFTER a decade spent reassuring passengers that it was "getting there", Iarnród éireann appears to have careered off the rails, sparking fears that the perennially dysfunctional transport provider could become the state's next Fás. As the company prepares to close the first railway line in over 30 years, the Sunday Tribune has uncovered an apparent culture of waste stretching to the top of the organisation, which has cost the taxpayer almost €500m in recent years.
The company has invested over €420m in a new Dublin railway expansion scheme, the Kildare Route Project, which company bosses have now decided is surplus to requirements.
It also has a fleet of over 100 modern carriages lying idle across the country which it refuses to use despite continuing overcrowding at peak times on Dublin commuter routes. On top of this, 5% of the city's Dart fleet – worth around €20m – is inoperable due to uncorrected manufacturing faults.
Meanwhile, the company is refurbishing a set of carriages especially for a trainspotters' excursion on the new western rail corridor. Its economy drive, however, looks set to begin with the axing of rail services between Waterford and Rosslare.
The revelations come as two senior executives are suing the company in court for unlawful dismissal and the firm continues to be probed over last year's Malahide viaduct collapse. There also remain allegations of procurement fraud at the company.
According to Mark Gleeson of Rail Users Ireland, the company's management has consistently ignored passenger needs and despite receiving €2bn in taxpayers' money over the past decade, passengers often experience slower journey times than those in 1999.
Meanwhile, overcrowding continues to be a problem given the company's refusal to use its Mark 3 fleet of carriages which are practically identical to those used in Britain on prestigious rail routes such as the Great Western main line between London and Bristol and the east coast main line between London and Edinburgh.
The fleet of over 100 carriages is currently decaying in railway yards across the country. Gleeson believes that the 20-year-old fleet should return to some intercity routes to free up extra capacity for commuter services.
"There is a desperate push within the company to eliminate all references to the 'orange' era and to create a new corporate image. While a fresh start is to be welcomed, passengers don't care how old a train is provided it arrives on time, the heating and lighting works and it's comfortable," he said.
"It is imperative that the fleet be restored for use. Iarnród éireann's withdrawal of the Mark 3 fleet has resulted in more cancellations, more delays and more unhappy passengers."
One such passenger is Kevin Callan, a barrister and the deputy mayor of Drogheda, a town which has been in constant conflict with Iarnród éireann over the level of service the company has provided to its residents in recent years.
A regular rail commuter, Callan characterises Iarnród éireann's service as unreliable and uncomfortable, despite the town being served by the company's latest commuter railcars.
According to Callan, many of his fellow commuters have abandoned the rail service in favour of private coaches in the wake of the Malahide viaduct collapse last August.
"They found that private coaches provided a level of comfort and quality of service that far exceeds what Iarnród éireann can provide.
"It is also very expensive to travel by rail compared with bus between Dublin and Drogheda," he said.
"Overcrowding is a particular issue in the evenings. In most cases, the Drogheda trains are full to capacity at Connolly and people are sandwiched into the trains. But there's no sign of anything being done to fix it."
In fact, in some cases, Iarnród éireann's actions have worsened the problem, particularly the new Dart timetable. Dublin's electric rail service has slashed the number of trains running at peak times.
The timetable introduced a standardised 15-minute gap between all services, even though peak services had previously been running around five minutes apart.
One of those suffering as a result is David Lafferty, an accountant who commutes daily between Shankill and Grand Canal Dock Dart stations. He normally leaves Shankill between 8.10am and 8.30am. Until last November, four northbound services served Shankill during that time. Now, there are only two.
"The train has become unbearable. There used to be a train every five minutes at that time. If the train was packed, you would just wait for the next one but now you don't have that option," he said.
"Shankill is the first stop after Bray but you often can't get on the train. It's like a concentration-camp train and it's exactly the same going home in the evenings".
The overcrowding has become so bad that the service Lafferty normally gets – the 8.15am from Shankill – is often delayed by five minutes once it reaches the city centre because passengers literally struggle to get on it.
According to Mark Gleeson of Rail Users Ireland, complaints about the new timetable have been met with "total denial" from Iarnród éireann.
"Irish Rail will never admit it is wrong and relies on the fact the general public are not sufficiently knowledgeable to disprove Irish Rail claims that insufficient capacity exists to run more trains," he said.
The capacity problems in Dublin haven't been helped by the fact that 10 Dart carriages bought in 2000 for €20.3m currently lie idle, having last seen passenger service a year ago.
Although they are officially undergoing heavy maintenance, they have proven consistently faulty and may never return to service – the company admits that it's struggling to source spare parts for them.
Other promises have also been broken: a third of the company's fleet of high-powered locomotives bought for over €80m between 1994 and 1995 are in storage, despite having a remaining lifespan of around 25 years.
The company bought them in a bid to cut journey times on the Dublin-Cork route to two hours. Fifteen years later, the average journey time has actually increased to three hours.
The company is now pushing the government to buy new high-speed trains for the route, a move its critics suspect is designed to conceal maintenance failings.
"The management's focus on 'new' has resulted in a failure to maintain what has already been done.
"The condition of the Dublin-Cork line has been allowed to deteriorate to the point where there were 24 temporary speed limits on the route in December 2009," said Gleeson.
Many of these limits stand at 25mph on a route which should be capable of top speeds of up to 100mph. To add insult to injury, passengers using the line are experiencing more cancellations because of the company's decision to ban the use of the Mark 3s.
Despite this, the company's chief executive Dick Fearn was unrepentant when questioned about it by the Oireachtas Committee on Transport last year.
"Our Mark 3 carriages... are close to the end of their useful life unless one spends a lot of money on refurbishment. However, a Mark 3 carriage in itself is inert and needs something to pull it, a locomotive. That is a very traditional way of doing things because, given the relatively short distances we have in Ireland, it means uncoupling the locomotive and putting it to the other end," he said.
The company is happy to continue tradition when it suits, however, and it is currently refurbishing a set of Mark 3 carriages for a trainspotters' excursion later this month. The carriages will be immediately mothballed once the event is over.
A company spokesman said that the event formed part of its annual charity drive for British charity the Railway Children and that a "modest spruce-up" of the carriages formed its contribution.
He also told the Sunday Tribune that Dart service changes had been introduced as a result of government cuts to the company's funding.
"In a situation where our subvention and revenue have seen a significant fall, we could not sustain the situation where services were bunched and there were irregular service gaps, resulting in Dart trains, even in the peak, operating with empty seats," he said.
He said that commuter services were designed to carry full loads, meaning that not all passengers would be able to get seats.
He said that the company's Mark 3 fleet was less cost-effective than the railcars it uses on most of its intercity routes. These railcars have other benefits, including a major increase in service frequencies on most routes.
The most dramatic example of this is the Dublin-Sligo route which is now served by eight intercity trains per day as opposed to three per day in 1999.
Average journey times have also improved on some routes: the slowest Dublin-Tralee train in 1999 took over four-and-a-half hours to reach its destination. By contrast, the slowest train on the route today takes just four hours.
But journey times on Iarnród éireann's key flagship routes, Dublin-Cork and Dublin-Belfast, have increased over the past decade and none of the journey times promised on those routes in 1994 have ever been achieved.
According to the spokesman, these promises were merely aspirational objectives "from a pre-investment era, where the funding was simply not available to deliver this".
"When significant capital funding did return in the late 1990s, it was directed to the crucial area of safety investment as the entire core network needed to be overhauled. Frankly, without this work, we would not be talking about routes in regard to journey times, we'd be talking about them in the past tense," he said.
These comments will provide little comfort to Wexford commuters, however – they will soon be speaking of the Waterford-to-Rosslare line in the past tense as they ponder whether any of the money used on dud Darts, unneeded capacity and the indiscriminate purchasing of new carriages could have saved their service.