Off to Paris

I’m off to Europe tomorrow evening for a week; the main reason for travelling is to visit family in Geneva but I’ve had a hankering now for a while to take the TGV from Paris to Geneva and that’s what I’m going to do…three days in Paris and then three days in Geneva with a spin on the TGV on Wednesday.

Can’t wait. How’s my French…

Enterprise: Dublin-Belfast

Shit. Jammed, standing room only on an international journey. How can that be?

My opinion of the Enterprise has gone even lower….

Still, all is forgiven when I arrive in Belfast Central and waltz across the road into the Waterfront.

The Enterprise

Not the starship, but rather the train. One is an unconvincing plastic model built in the late 1960s that doesn’t work, the other is a fictional space vessel from the TV series “Star Trek”.

Harsh? Yes. I’m just in a bad mood.

For those who don’t know, the Enterprise is the train service between Belfast and Dublin. It’s operated jointly by Iarnroid Eireann and Translink and runs between Connolly Station and Belfast Central approximately every two hours, servicing major towns along the way (Drogheda, Dundalk, Newry and Portadown).

Naturally, since it serves the two major cities of Ireland it’s been something of a flagship service ever since it began in the early 1900s; in fact, nowadays, it’s the only train service remaining between Ireland and Northern Ireland – and the only one for the forseeable future – and its status has remained evident, somewhat, by the fact that until the new Cork trains were launched late last year it had by far the most comfortable and newest (by well over a decade) carraiges of any service in Ireland.

So you could feel a bit smug if you had to travel often from Drogheda or Dundalk to Dublin: the best trains in the country by a country mile. Consequently, a few years ago, the Enterprise is what got me interested in trains: the bus from Drogheda to Dublin often took over two hours (this was the days before the M1 motorway) while the Enterprise just worked: 35 minutes to Dublin, comfortable, cool lighting, tables, etc. etc.

What else were you going to take? Unfortunately, back then, every non-Enterprise service was awful that I rarely took the train for fear of landing a bone-shaker.

Things have changed since then and even non-Enterprise services are tolerable (although very slow) and so these days I take it all the time. It’s every bit as good now as it was then: in fact, it hasn’t changed at all. That’s the problem: it hasn’t changed. It still only runs every two hours, it’s not particularly fast, it’s no longer got the nicest carriages around and – crucially for commuters – it’s the only express service from Drogheda and Dundalk to Dublin.

That last point is crucial (especially for me, right now, today) so I’ll deal with the other two first: like I said earlier, the Cork service now runs at least once an hour; well, Belfast and Dublin are the major cities but they only have a service every two hours, at best. As for the speed, the Enterprise may still be – in fairness – the fastest way to go from Dublin city centre to Belfast city centre, but it still only reaches 80 miles per hour at its fastest, on the long stretch between Drogheda and Dundalk. This is 1950s speeds: contrast with the Cork service, who are talking about a 200kmph service becoming reality in the next year or so.

Back to local services: the Enterprise is the only express service between Dundalk, Drogheda and Dublin. The alternative is the local services, which take 60 minutes from Drogheda to Dundalk – a journey of about 30 miles. Done regularly, that journey is soul destroying: hundreds travel into Dublin every morning on the Enterprise to save the time. However, as it only runs every two hours it is absolutely jammed every single morning. I only take the Enterprise at off-peak times; using it every morning doesn’t bear thinking about.

Finally finally, there is the awful inconsistency of it all: not every Enterprise services service every major intermediate town. For instance, on a Friday the 15.20 service from Dublin to Belfast doesn’t service Drogheda. Why not? It has to slow down to a crawl in order to negotiate the viaduct…..but it won’t stop. I will take the Enterprise to Belfast this afternoon – and I will enjoy the comfort and speed and I know the reasons behind all of the above complaints and I will deal with them in another post when I’ve calmed down – but for this one baffling inconsistency…once and for all, the last bit of straw left in the barn…basically, there’s no straw left is what I’m trying say.

The Enterprise is simply not good enough anymore. Trains in Ireland have improved and one of the problems of doing a good job is that you get to do it again. Let’s hope the Enterprise is next in line for improvement.

Level Crossings

Today I had reason to come home from Ashtown Station – this doesn’t seem to be a very common thing for anybody, let alone myself, as the guys who operate the level crossing exclaimed “it must be a mirage!” when I entered the station. They could have been talking about something else, but it’s fun to speculate.

The train showed up bang on time, but was preceded by one of the two lads stepping out onto the line and dragging the two gates across to operate the crossing.

Brilliant, and just a few miles from the city centre.

Clonsilla is also manually-operated, but at least they have a quaint little house on stilts and the gate is mechanically operated. Ashtown wins, I half expected a big black steam train to pull in four hours late and John Wayne to step off in search of his ancestors!

Lausanne

Saturday was a rest from Geneva, as I headed up to Lausanne to visit a friend currently studying there.

This also afforded me a chance to experience the Swiss trains as Lausanne is only 40 minutes from Geneva by rail. First impressions were fantastic. On a minor note, as with the buses, they don’t bother with checking everybody’s tickets as you board (so there’s no bottlenecks at the gate/doors). And the differences from home continue:

  • double decker carraiges (a first for me)
  • all-electric
  • virtually silent – you’re so far from the ground and there’s no engines
  • punctual, obviously

Now that’s infrastructure!

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Lausanne is hilly. San Francisco-like. Incredibly hilly. Especially when you’re walking up and down it in the baking heat.

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It seems that the International Olympic Committee have their headquarters in Lausanne; was Geneva full? I think Swiss neutrality and a central-European location are only excuses for these international organisations: the real reason they’re here is for the views of Lake Geneva.

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We couldn’t resist Lake Geneva and ended up on a paddle boat out in the middle of it. Not a very good position for somebody who can’t swim, but there you go.

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With Lausanne exhausted (and us), we headed for Montreaux. By an amazing coincidence the 40th Montreaux Jazz Festival was in full swing. Well, they have even better views of Lake Geneva than the IOC, but in the 3 or 4 hours we wandered about we didn’t see any jazz. Great festival, shame about the jazz!

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Killiney Beach

A very brief trip to Killiney Beach yesterday evening; two acquaintances had spent the previous scorching weekend there so it seemed like the place to be.

It’s a very nice beach with impressive foreboding cliffs but it was cold and dark (quite unexpectedly, given the week’s record so far) so we didn’t spend too long there.

The village – unlike the other south-side stops – is quite far from the village and I like to joke that Killiney is so exclusive they don’t even want the DART; well, it’s nice to see how they’ve addressed the signposting issue.

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Castlebar

I have a policy of taking the train whenever possible.

To explain: as a techy I can see how aircraft have trains beat when it comes to technical prowess. However, flying itself is almost too easy: aside from distance and some other factors like proximity to emergency landing sites enroute then if there’s money to be made flying from Dublin to Dubai (or any two other seemingly unrelated cities) then there is essentially nothing stopping an airline from creating a new route.

Contrast this with the effort required to implement a new train line: this involves, at a minimum, years of planning, consultation and, sometimes for really important lines, calls to the public for their opinion on proposed routes. Lastly, just when you think it’s complete, a never-ending cycle of maintenance and upgrades begins.

That’s the distinction for me; the lines are what make trains interesting, not the hardware. The line symbolises trade, energy and, most importantly, a destination. Somewhere important. To me, the train line represents civilisation and a piece of history.

Ireland’s routes are fascinating for all these reasons. Ours are among the oldest in the world and, thanks to a policy of road-building which has lasted decades, virtually all of the lines still operating have a history extending back over well over a hundred years.

Consequently, when I have to travel outside the Pale I always look for a train route but rarely expect to find one. So, when I had to play two gigs in Castlebar this weekend I was delighted to discover that it lay on the Westport line. What are the chances?

There’s only 4 services to Westport each day and they leave from Heuston, which just so happens to be awkward for me to reach. Bearing this in mind I made sure to arrive at the Luas Connolly station precisely 14 minutes before the 12.40 to Castlebar was due to leave. By an amazing coincidence the next connecting tram to Heuston was due to leave in precisely 14 minutes. Fortunately for me, a short taxi ride fixes most planning disasters.

The Westport service looks disappointing at first: it’s a fairly old bone shaker-era train from Platform 6 which is about 3 miles walk from the entrance to Hueston Station. I’d been hoping to take one of the new bullet train (for want of a better description – they do look much cooler than anything else around here but they certainly won’t travel at 300kph), mostly because I couldn’t imagine when I’d ever see myself travelling over to Castlebar again.

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These trains are actually reasonably nice inside, however. The most disappointing part is the restaurant, where I rather shamefully declined to pay €4.25 for a BLT sandwich. A three hour journey needs more than that.

The scenery outside of the train is great though. Like all the Hueston lines it passes through the open countryside of Kildare. Shortly after that it branches off somewhere and ends up in Athlone (I had no idea Athlone had a train service), passes through Roscommon and some other places and eventually reaches Mayo. The gorse is in full swing at the moment so I caught a few blurry pictures.

Upon arriving in Castlebar I was very amused to note that there’s only one track. This might explain the 4 hour gap between services!

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Castlebar itself is a fairly…provincial town. I stayed “downtown” in a bed and breakfast just a few moments’ walk from the concert venue and the local pubs – in other words, just a few moments’ walk from everywhere.

Saturday afternoon was exploring time; a walking tour of the entire town takes almost 30 minutes. Along the way we encountered a brilliant little shop which, although primarily a music shop where we sampled some trombones, also had a pile of metal detectors and sold guns, too. What a combination!

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The nights in Castlebar were spent in a genuinely nice little pub which sold, I am reliably informed, fabulous Guinness. However, it has to be said that there was little else to do in Castlebar town but visit the pubs. Had I a car or simply more time I would have explored the region and probably enjoyed it much more.

The pub session made the chances of rising for a 7.58am train home on Sunday morning seem vanishingly small. However, it was either that or wait until 2.30pm for the next service.
Upon returning to Dublin, the taxi was enthused to hear that I was just back from Mayo. A beautiful part of the country, apparently, but once he heard I’d only been to Castlebar he offered his apologies.

It never stopped raining, either.