Let’s talk about… The Irish transport system

Is public transport reform on the right track?

I ran into a friend in Roscommon train station one Sunday evening recently, both of us with bags in tow, set to head off back to our respective cities for the upcoming college week. I was going to Galway, and she was heading to Cork… so naturally we were both there for the Dublin train.

This is, of course, the accepted fate around travelling by train in Ireland considering how our rail network is laid out; all tracks lead to Dublin (or at the very least, they have since regional railway networks were slashed in the 1960’s). As such, any long route across Ireland seems to end up involving at least some stretch spent on that Heuston train, regardless of the detour it may cause. That Roscommon-Galway trip for me might’ve just meant a stop-over in Athlone, but those travelling with my friend from Roscommon to Cork had to go all the way to Dublin before making their changeover.

The inconvenience (and long-term waste of resources) that this flaw in our rail network inevitably leads to is one of the common complaints people voice when talking about Ireland’s transport system. It’s a clearcut example of how gaps in the current system and access problems are hindering us from making the push towards greater public transport usage that we should be aiming to make – for both environmental and fiscal reasons.

A sustained, across-the-board move by Irish citizens towards using public transport would not only serve to drastically lower carbon emissions and save people money, an increase in demand would lead to more resources going towards the system being even further developed. The problem is, even if a huge swathe of the population decided to ditch the car forever from today on, unless you’re living around Dublin, odds are that public transport alone simply won’t be able to get you around – or at the very least, it won’t be able to as effectively.

Dublin of course forms a central part of the conversation around Ireland’s public transport, from intercity transport to the all-roads/tracks-lead-to-Dublin aspect of our national transport network. But outside of the capital, it’s important to note the comparative lack of transport links between other cities, towns, and rural areas, and the lack of public transport options within other areas in general.

Even in Galway, one of our more populated urban centres, the inadequacies of intercity transport are blatantly apparent. Traffic congestion has always been a big problem cited about the city, with ever-contentious proposals to construct a ring road to bypass Galway often put forward as the solution. And in terms of public transport, the city suffers from a lack of bus lanes, which feeds into the general unreliability and frequency problems that already exist (I think overall, I’ve spent more time at Galway bus stops than on Galway buses).

However, disregarding entirely the obvious results that would arise from large-scale infrastructural investment such as constructing ring roads or bus lanes, there is much that can be done with less investment that would still have a significant impact – and that would lead to results soon, not a few years down the line once construction is completed. For example, while Galway would indeed benefit from designated bus lanes, simply creating more routes and adding more buses to existing routes would do a lot to improve accessibility, frequency, convenience, and reliability in the short-term.

It’s not as if people need a lot of convincing to opt for public transport more often. Sure, some people (due to preference or a lack of other options) are going to be inclined to travel by car no matter what, but by making small changes to improve accessibility, people will be much more inclined to use public transport.

We have seen this clearly post-Covid; in so many other countries, the amount of people using public transport has yet to recover after plummeting during pandemic restrictions, yet Ireland has managed to avoid that fate. According to figures put out by the National Transport Authority earlier this month, Ireland’s public transport ridership has returned to pre-pandemic levels, with some areas even reporting a slight increase in numbers, and this achievement is in no small part due to measures implemented in 2021 and 2022 to improve accessibility via enhanced Local Link and Bus Eireann services, and also the recent 50% cut in fares for under-24s travelling with state-subsidised public transport operators.

It’s no secret that the actual set-up of Ireland’s public transport system has much room for improvement, and in order to tackle this problem most effectively we do have to invest in more large-scale infrastructural solutions. However, we can’t deny the huge achievements that can be made by improving accessibility within the current infrastructure alone – doing exactly this is what enabled us to replenish post-restriction ridership so quickly when other countries couldn’t.

The more we improve accessibility in the short-term (making travel more affordable, convenient, etc.), the more people will opt for public transport. This in turn will lead to more money being pumped into the sector, which can go towards larger-scale infrastructural changes in the long-term. Right now, inaccessibility is possibly the biggest obstacle in getting people to use public transport, so this is where our focus should be, and it’s encouraging to see that this is a direction we’ve been prioritising more the past few years. If this continues, it would seem that Ireland’s public transport system, despite its flaws, is finally on the right ‘track’ towards improvement.